Despite routine mayhem in the Middle East, as well as stalemate in talks with the Palestinians, on my recent trip, Israel did not feel like a country in crisis. As one Israeli explained, “Here, the abnormal is quite normal, so people just try to get on with daily life.” Tel Aviv sprouts skyscrapers; the high-tech and financial industries continue to boom; and, as I discovered, a dynamic economy has created an accelerating demand for new hotels, resorts and restaurants of an international standard.
About 265 miles from north to south, Israel lends itself to a two-week itinerary by chauffeur-driven car. Of course, you can drive yourself — the roads are marked in English, as well as in Hebrew and Arabic — but some cities, such as Nazareth, are extremely congested, and if you want to cross into the Palestinian-controlled West Bank, to Bethlehem, for instance, assistance is essential.
The first hurdle to be negotiated on trips to Israel is airport and airline security. I had been advised to sign up for a concierge service to facilitate my passage through Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. There, I was met at the door of the airplane by a smartly suited representative; less than 30 minutes later, I was leaving the airport in the company of my guide. On my return, I was also whisked through in less time than would normally be required at an American domestic terminal. In short, the money for the concierge service is worth every cent, so do not even consider denying yourself this small luxury.
I had decided to tour Tel Aviv at the end of my trip, so we set off to the north, along a highway running beside the sea. Our first encounter with the past came at Caesarea, 35 miles north of Tel Aviv, where we stopped to wander among the ruins of a grandiose city built by Herod the Great at the end of the first century B.C. A half-hour farther on, we paused atop Mount Carmel to admire the view over the major port of Haifa before descending to the ancient city of Acre.
Acre (or Akko, as it is known in modern Israel) has been a place of significance for 2,500 years. Today, it comprises a new Jewish town and an old walled city, whose inhabitants are almost exclusively Arab. (Within internationally recognized borders, Israel has a population of about 8.15 million people, of whom nearly 21 percent are Arabs.) For most of the 13th century, after the loss of Jerusalem, Acre was the chief Crusader stronghold in the Holy Land. It was the last bastion to fall when Arab armies finally sacked it in 1291.
Without a guide, it might have been difficult to find The Efendi Hotel, the unassuming entrance to which is hidden in a pedestrian alleyway. Housed within two Ottoman mansions, the property has been a labor of love for Uri Jeremias, one of Israel’s best-known chefs. (His renowned seafood restaurant, Uri Buri, is a five-minute walk from the hotel.) The old houses were dilapidated, and their reconstruction took eight years. The final part of the project was a seven-month restoration of the exquisite painted walls and ceilings by a team of young art graduates from Venice.
From the dignified stone-floored reception area, guests ascend via a modern elevator to 12 rooms spread out on three levels. We were escorted to Room #2, from which there is a view over a small square and the flat roofs of Acre to the green dome and minaret of the al-Jezzar mosque. (Although the outlook is appealing, the muezzin’s 5 a.m. prayer call is a considerable drawback.) Some Grand Deluxe Rooms, and both the Royal and the Presidential suites, have sea views and should be requested. Still, we were very comfortable in Room #2, which came with a marble floor, Turkish carpets, a chandelier suspended from a stenciled ceiling, a glass-fronted armoire and a modern bath with an effective glass-enclosed rainfall shower.
Although The Efendi has no formal restaurant, a lavish breakfast is served in a stone-walled dining room off the lobby (a choice of eggs is accompanied by delicious local bread, cheese, yogurt, honey, fruit, olives and salad). A short flight of steps leads into a cellar with sixth-century Byzantine columns and 12th-century Crusader walls. There, wine and cheese are offered each evening. Most guests stroll to Uri Buri for dinner, which is located in a 400-year-old Ottoman house next to the Acre lighthouse. The fish and seafood are the best that the Mediterranean can provide, and Uri Jeremias is a talented chef, as well as a hospitable and articulate host.
The chief pleasures of a stay at The Efendi are provided by the magnificent salons and terraces, which are idyllic places to relax with a book or just to sip a glass of wine while gazing at the sea. Overall, the atmosphere of the property is calm, civilized and aesthetically refined.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: Spectacular salons and seaview terraces; friendly staff; the atmospheric small spa; the delicious Israeli breakfast.
DISLIKE: The lack of an on-site restaurant; the absence of evening turndown service during our stay.
GOOD TO KNOW: The narrow streets of this walled city may seem intimidating at first, but Acre is a friendly place through which it is a pleasure to stroll.
The Efendi Hotel 93 Grand Double Room, from $400; Suite, from $605. Louis IX Street, Acre. Tel. (972) 74-729-9799.
The Old City of Acre is a delightful place through which to stroll. Despite its being a UNESCO World Heritage site, many of its grand Ottoman buildings are in a poor state of repair — notably the magnificent Khan al-Umdan caravanserai — but recent restoration work has revealed the remains of the 13th-century Crusader city lying 25 feet below today’s street level. Grand Gothic knights’ halls have been unearthed, and are so atmospheric that you sometimes fancy you can hear the clank of armor.
From Acre, it is only 50 miles to the northeastern frontier with Syria. So, using The Efendi as a base, you can get anywhere in northern Israel in little more than an hour. Our first excursion from Acre took us north along the coast to the city of Nahariya, just six miles south of the Lebanese border. From there, we headed east, ascending into a green and hilly landscape punctuated by the occasional kibbutz. At times, we glimpsed the serpentine security fence that separates Israel from territory controlled by Hezbollah.
To explore northern Galilee requires a minimum of three full days. The lake itself is 13 miles long, surrounded by hills and serenely beautiful. Mandatory stops on any itinerary include Safed, one of four holy cities of Israel, today an artists’ colony and the principal center for the study of Kabbalah; Tel Dan, where the ruins of an ancient Canaanite city include mud-brick walls and a gateway dating from the time of Abraham (circa 1750 B.C.); and Capernaum, where remains believed to be part of St. Peter’s simple house are now covered by a Roman Catholic church. It is also possible to ascend the Golan Heights, where trenches, gun emplacements and uncleared (but clearly marked) minefields are all reminders of fighting in the wars of 1967 and 1973. Nowadays, the western flanks of the Golan, below 9,232-foot Mount Hermon, are one of the chief wine-producing areas of Israel. We stopped in at the Visitors Center of Golan Heights Winery and tasted the excellent 2009 Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon.
"As regulations require all modern buildings to be constructed from, or faced with, the distinctive pale gold Jerusalem limestone, the city still has a remarkably homogenous appearance."
Heading south from Galilee, you pass through Nazareth, today a city with a predominantly Arab population. From there, it is a drive of a little less than two hours (92 miles) to Jerusalem, located at an elevation of 2,577 feet in the Judean Hills. As regulations require all modern buildings to be constructed from, or faced with, the distinctive pale gold Jerusalem limestone, the city still has a remarkably homogenous appearance.
At the time of our visit, the new Waldorf Astoria Jerusalem hotel had yet to open, so we opted to spend our first two nights at the 194-room Mamilla Hotel, which debuted in 2009. Located next to the fashionable Mamilla shopping mall, the property is an elegant modern building designed by Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie, whose distinguished resume also includes Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.
After a cordial and efficient welcome, we were escorted to our Mamilla Suite. This comprised a large bedroom with a sitting area that could be closed off with a sliding panel to form a separate room. The aesthetic could perhaps be described as “refined minimalism,” while the color palette was confined to white, black, brown and a rusty orange-red. Wooden floors lent warmth to a design that might otherwise have seemed excessively austere. The stylish modern bath was separated from the bedroom by an ingenious glass wall that could be rendered opaque at the flick of a switch. Overall, accommodations at the Mamilla will appeal to those with a taste for chic, uncluttered contemporary design. Their big drawback — aside from the absence of historical atmosphere — is that they lack views of the Old City. (At the nearby King David Hotel, in contrast, many of the rooms have uninterrupted views of the walls, towers and minarets.)
At the Mamilla, the Old City panorama can be enjoyed only from the Rooftop restaurant and outdoor lounge. The menu here offers a fairly unadventurous selection of international dishes, but the quality of the cooking is excellent, the service is obliging, and the view is unforgettable. Other amenities include a large spa with an indoor pool and a fitness center. In general, I liked the Mamilla, but it will probably appeal most to a younger generation of travelers.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: The refined contemporary design; the stunning view from the rooftop restaurant.
DISLIKE: The lack of an Old City view from the accommodations; absence of historic atmosphere.
GOOD TO KNOW: The Akasha Wellbeing Center is inconveniently located across a small bridge, but it contains a fine spa and striking indoor pool.
Mamilla Hotel 92 Executive Room, from $520; Mamilla Suite, from $610. 11 King Solomon Street, Jerusalem. Tel. (972) 2-548-2222.
The King David Hotel opened in 1930, and over the past 84 years, the palatial six-story structure has functioned as a state guesthouse and a home-away-from-home for presidents and distinguished diplomats, as well as for the usual roster of international celebrities. The interior is a strange mix of Semitic, Egyptian, Assyrian, Greek and art deco motifs. But the public spaces are undeniably grand, the service is polished, there is a choice of restaurants, and the rooms are comfortable and well-appointed. (I particularly recommend the “Garden Old City” rooms, which have expansive views from large private patios.) The King David is an institution and Israel’s preeminent grand hotel. However, I suspect that investment will be required to maintain its hegemony. During my stay, the Wi-Fi did not function reliably on the terrace of the King’s Garden Restaurant. And the spa and fitness center are adequate, but some measure below the highest contemporary standards.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: Exceptionally polite and efficient front desk staff; compelling Old City views; spacious gardens and huge swimming pool.
DISLIKE: The small spa and fitness facilities; the unreliable Wi-Fi in some areas.
GOOD TO KNOW: It is worth coming down for breakfast: The dining room may be crowded, but the buffet is peerless.
King David Hotel 94 Deluxe Old City Room, from $730; Garden Old City Room, from $1,040; Junior Suite, from $1,150. 23 King David Street, Jerusalem. Tel. (972) 2-620-8888.
My other recommended property inspires undying affection and baffled indifference in almost equal measure. The American Colony Hotel is located in East Jerusalem, on the other side of the Old City, an area that was the front line between Israel and Jordan from 1948 until 1967, when it was captured by Israeli forces in the Six-Day War. The history of the hotel, however, began much earlier. The principal building, the Main House, was built in 1860 by an Ottoman pasha for his four wives. In 1895, it was purchased by the so-called “American Colony,” a group of Christian devotees from Chicago led by Horatio and Anna Spafford, who had come to live a communal existence in the Holy Land. The Spaffords had been motivated to exchange the Midwest for the Middle East by the tragic deaths of their four daughters in an Atlantic shipwreck. It was in Jerusalem that they hoped to find spiritual consolation and to rebuild their lives. Before long, the American Colony had become a lodging for Western travelers and pilgrims. In 1917, one of the hotel’s white bedsheets was used to surrender Jerusalem to a British Army led by General Edmund Allenby, thereby ending 400 years of Ottoman Turkish rule.
On the evening of my recent arrival, an American general was holding court in the hotel’s exceptionally atmospheric bar. The American Colony has long been the hotel of choice for writers, journalists and military men. Its 96 accommodations are dispersed among the Main House, East House, Palm House and Cow Byre. No two are the same, but they are all traditionally furnished and provide comfortable, well-equipped baths. The center of the hotel is a serene courtyard, bright with flowering plants in terra-cotta tubs. The Arabesque restaurant serves Middle Eastern as well as international cuisine, and is notable for being one of relatively few places where you can eat non-kosher meals throughout the Sabbath. Amenities at the hotel include a fitness center (massage is also available) and a new, exceptionally pretty swimming pool, constructed from Jerusalem stone and lined with Italian glass tiles.
Today, The American Colony is still owned by descendants of the founding community, and there is a strong feeling of tradition. The hotel’s detractors maintain that it does not operate at the highest levels of contemporary luxury and that the service can be lackadaisical at times. Personally, I have never found any substance to these complaints.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: Historic atmosphere and sense of continuity; the exquisite garden courtyard; the obliging staff.
DISLIKE: Nothing, really.
GOOD TO KNOW: The Arabesque restaurant serves a full non-kosher menu on the Sabbath.
The American Colony Hotel 95 Deluxe Pasha Room, from $640; Junior Suite, from $715. 1 Louis Vincent Street, Jerusalem. Tel. (972) 2-627-9777.
It would be possible to spend years in Jerusalem without running out of places to visit and to explore. For contemporary travelers with limited time, I suggest that a four-night stay is the minimum. Mandatory sights include the Jewish Quarter and the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and the Shrine of the Book, a wing of the Israel Museum that houses the Dead Sea Scrolls. Many visitors will also wish to take a half-day trip to Bethlehem, which lies just six miles to the south but is separated from the neighborhood of Har Homa by the controversial West Bank barrier. Bethlehem is under the control of the Palestinian Authority, and a visit to the Church of the Nativity requires a Palestinian guide.