At Your (Room) Service
In a hidden corridor, tucked away between two nondescript buildings on Tel Aviv’s Ben Yehuda Street, is a striking procession of larger-than-life painted aluminum figures. They recall the iconic images of the evolution of man from monkey to Homo sapien but with a twist: Instead of a continuous line of development toward an erect human being, there are clear points of regression, an ironic comment on humanity by acclaimed Israeli artist Zadok Ben-David. While record crowds line up to see Ben-David’s exhibit at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, I walked past his sculpture several times a day during a recent stay at Tel Aviv’s Art+ Hotel.
The 62-room hotel, studded with original creations by prominent Israeli artists—including the Ben-David, which leads up to the main entrance—is an example of the new trend in Israel: boutique, concept and other unique hotels. The wave that began in the United States in the 1980s, with the introduction of distinctive alternatives to the cookie-cutter style accommodations of name brand hotels, has swept Israel in the last few years, with dozens sprouting up, particularly in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa. Ranging from 10 to over 100 rooms, they are invariably smaller than a typical hotel. Some offer highly personalized service. Others are housed in historic buildings. And several are based on a theme. The Cinema Hotel, near Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Square, is a renovated cinema built in the 1930s where silent movies are screened daily. The Dona Gracia Hotel in Tiberias is as much historic museum as hotel, with an elaborate exhibit devoted to the extraordinary life of 16th-century Portuguese-born Crypto-Jew Dona Gracia Mendes. What these hotels share is a certain elusive charm with an emphasis on an eye-popping interiors.
These enterprises tend to target business people, couples and older singles. “We have the occasional baby, but in general guests are advised not to bring children,” says Maya Shavit of the Montefiore Hotel, a Tel Aviv hot spot since it opened in 2008. “Besides children wouldn’t enjoy a stay here since there are no special facilities for them,” she notes, with a sweeping gesture that takes in the chic black- and-white bar and restaurant at the entrance hotel.
Prices vary greatly, from $140 for a double room, with breakfast, at Haifa’s Colony to $375 at the Scots Hotel in Tiberias. These hotels also cater to a sophisticated crowd. Where a typical lakefront hotel in Tiberias promises poolside aerobics and kiddy contests, the Scots offers wine tasting in a century-old cellar, a walk through historic Tiberias or a bagpipe concert in its tranquil gardens.
So if you’re willing to try something new, here are some noteworthy options for your next visit to Israel.
You don’t have to be an art-lover to enjoy Art-Plus, but it helps. Although just a five-minute walk from the beach, the view is distinctly urban (from my room, I gazed at the concrete wall of the next building). But you are unlikely to care since the interior is mesmerizing. The lobby’s small but impressive collection of contemporary Israeli art, mainly video and photography, includes a triptych DVD installation by artist Sigalit Landau. The piece, entitled Dancing for Maya, brings the beach indoors with a 16-minute loop that shows two dancers using their hands to etch patterns into the sand of the beach in a choreographed dance.
“The idea of an art hotel was not merely to hang paintings on the wall…but to create a total art experience,” explains Dana Golan-Miller, artistic director of Art+. Golan-Miller is also the curator of the Doron Sebbag Art Collection, ORS Ltd; most of the art in the lobby, including Dancing for Maya as well as the Ben-David, are taken from the collection.
Sebbag is also one of the owners of the hotel. He, Golan-Miller and curator Aya Luria commissioned installations to run the length of each corridor in the five-story hotel. Every floor features a different artist and all the rooms on that floor showcase work by that artist.I found myself drawn repeatedly to the second floor and Maya Attoun’s eerie journey into blood vessels entitled Metabolism. Executed with colored pencils and lacquer, the tangled forms in pale reds and bluish blacks evoke a maze of veins. The fourth floor is equally enticing, with an enchanted surreal forest created by Swiss-born Israeli Olaf Kuhenemann (Wood).
Among art works on the other floors are Tali Ben-Sassat’s Landscape with Birds, a mythological world of landscapes, animals and human figures, done with illuminated transparencies, vinyl and ink; Ayelet Carmi’s Earth Writing Discipline, depicting meticulously rendered flora and figures of female fighters; and Doron Rabina’s untitled stylized graphic silhouettes—curled smoke, an inverted eyelash and a round panoramic mirror mounted on the wall.
The works were completed on fiberboard in the artists’ studios and later assembled on the wall. The process is documented and displayed in different hotel areas. Kuhenemann, who used layers of acrylic paint and masking tape to achieve the sense of depth in his forest, is shown in photographs surrounded by growing mounds of discarded masking tape.
Art lovers will also delight in the combination dining room-library and its vast collection of art books featuring Israeli and international artists. I browsed gleefully one afternoon until the staff laid out a buffet of wines, cheeses and other hors d’oeuvres, signaling the start of the daily happy hour.
The rooms have a clean, modern design. A nice touch: Each room has a desk equipped with paper, colored pencils and an overhead lamp.
Room 107 has changing art installations. The current one, Simple Messages, is a light installation by Tel Aviv–based Yochai Matos, a heart made of some 20 neon tubes, mounted above the double bed. The guest can illuminate the entire heart or only half. “In this way the guest is involved in the art,” notes Golan-Miller, “and can produce a broken heart. “The idea of Room 107,” she continues, “is to give an artist a place to play every few months.” The hotel is managed by Atlas, an Israeli chain that specializes in transforming rundown properties into boutique hotels. It has acquired nine over the last decade, six in Tel Aviv, including the Cinema. With its exhibit of old movie paraphernalia, popcorn popping behind the front desk and film screenings, it is considered to be the first boutique hotel in Israel.
“We spend a full year just working out the concept of each of our hotels, before we begin work,” adds Lesley Adler, managing director of Atlas, seated in the café-restaurant of Atlas’s Melody Hotel, a “work-play” hotel, located near the beach on HaYarkon Street. For “work,” every room has a desk, equipped with stapler, paper clips and other useful accessories. For play, besides whimsical touches like a rubber-duck soap dish, guests can choose from a variety of complementary kits, such as yoga (which includes a mat and meditative DVD) or beach (a towel, hat and lounge chair). Notes Adler, “We invest a lot in the details.”
Since its opening, the 12-room Montefiore on the eponymous street has quickly acquired a reputation for being the quintessential boutique hotel in Israel. It is stylish, intimate, urban, high-priced and fully booked for the next few months.
Situated in the heart of Tel Aviv, the striking, symmetrical 1920s restored heritage building has a terra cotta façade; black wooden shutters and white wood trim around the windows. On the ground floor is a bar and (non-kosher) brasserie restaurant with Vietnamese influences—both frequented by locals as well as guests.
“Having the restaurant right here enables guests to order anything they want at almost any hour,” notes Shavit. “We can bring a plate of oysters to your room at midnight.”Everything from the tiles on the balcony to the wooden parquet floor is either black or white. Rooms are on the 2nd and 3rd floors; four have balconies overlooking the main street. All have a library stretching across an entire wall with about 400 books in English, Hebrew, French and Russian. (In one room, I spotted tomes on folk art, Culinaria Spain, works by George Eliot and Charles Dickens and the 50 Playmates collection.)
Shavit notes that with a maximum of 24 guests at any time, the hotel can offer truly personalized service. “I know which newspaper each guest prefers,” she says.
There is so much to do inside this uber-stylish new hotel near Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate that it seems absurd to focus on the bathroom. But the hotel’s celebrated Italian designer, Piero Lissoni, did just that: The Jerusalem stone bathroom (with separate shower stall and bath) is set apart from the bedroom by a liquid crystal wall that can be made transparent or opaque at the touch of a button. You can soak in the tub while gazing out the bedroom window, or opt for a more private experience. In keeping with the minimalist look, the bathtub has no faucet to interrupt its seamless form; water cascades from a narrow slit in the wall. With 192 rooms, the one-year-old Mamilla is not a true boutique hotel. But it provides such an unparalleled combination of features that it ranks as a singular offering on the Israeli hotelscape. Lissoni and acclaimed architect Moshe Safdie drew on the classic features of Jerusalem, its stone and arches, reworking them into a contemporary look that pays heed to, but transcends, tradition. There is exposed Jerusalem stone, but also industrial sheet metal.
The hotel is part of the upscale shopping complex on historic Mamilla Street, also developed by Safdie. If Art+ is one of the only hotels to have an art director, Mamilla is the first to have a fulltime sommelier. Yiftach Lustig, an affable young man whose eyes light up when he talks about wine, stocks the hotel’s restaurant and its 300-bottle wine bar, the only one in the city, with high-quality kosher wines from 30 wineries in Israel, as well as a few French champagnes. (The most expensive bottle is a rare $802 three-liter 2002 Yatir Forest wine from the Yatir Winery, so priced because of its rarity.) Lustig also conducts “flights,” in which guests can indulge in tasting and learning about five wines, and coordinates the hotel’s complimentary weekly Saturday morning lecture (and tasting) on winemaking in Israel.
On this particular Saturday afternoon, Lustig, dressed in black, is standing behind the antique Italian wood counter of the wine bar while hotel guest Shai Hordshetz, in jeans, a t-shirt and Adidas, deliberates which wine to buy.
“It depends what you need it for,” counsels Lustig. “It’s like a car: if you’re going for a ride with a friend, you might take a Porsche, but if you’re going somewhere with your wife and kid, you would take a BMW.” Hordshetz, a 38-year-old Tel Avivian in the diamond trade, appreciates the analogy and grins. He is here for the weekend with his wife. While she’s having a spa treatment, he is choosing a wine to bring to an Italian restaurant in Tel Aviv where they will be dining later on. “For a pasta dinner, that includes something acidic like tomato sauce you can’t find anything better than this Gamla,” continues Lustig. “It flies.” Lustig has just finished presiding over the Saturday morning wine lecture, held in the hotel’s Mirror Bar which, as its name implies, has walls covered in mirrors, Vistosi crystal chandeliers hanging over the entire length of the bar and a cigar lounge. It is quiet during the day, as an unusual mix of yuppie couples from Tel Aviv and an elderly Orthodox man, all hotel guests, gather to learn about the history of Israeli vintages. But every night except Friday, the place is buzzing as a D.J. plays a mix ranging from hip (Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance”) to classic (“The Girl from Ipanema”).
Among the amenities are a seasonal rooftop brasserie and a gourmet breakfast, served in the spacious sunny dining room or in the adjacent garden with its Jerusalem stone walls and arches, sleek black fountain, bamboo swings and large pots of rosemary, mint and other herbs.
The ever-attentive guest-relations manager, George Ladaw, is an unusual find in any Israeli hotel. Born and raised in the Philippines, he studied baking in France and hotel management in the United States, worked in Abu Dhabi, as well as New York’s Waldorf Astoria before joining the Mamilla two years ago. Why Israel? His Israeli-born wife—whom he met in the United States—wanted to come home to raise their two children. Fluent in English, French and Philippine languages, the new immigrant says, “I’m now working on Hebrew.”
The Colony Hotel Haifa
Imagine lounging in a garden café of a hotel built by Germans, listening to Hebrew, Arabic and Russian banter, while taking in the terraced garden of the Bahai World Center just up the street. The Colony in Haifa is decidedly cosmopolitan; because of its proximity to the city’s high-tech area, the Bahai center and the port, the hotel’s guests include foreign business people, Bahai disciples from all over the world and a few sea captains, notes hotel general manager Avi Agajany.
Situated in the city’s German Colony, full of boutiques and restaurants, the Colony was originally built as a hotel in 1905 by Templers, a Protestant sect from southern Germany that settled in Palestine in the 19th century. During World War II, they were considered enemy aliens in British-ruled Palestine and deported. But their architectural legacy—two-story stone buildings with red-tiled roofs, and green or white painted wooden shutters—endows the neighborhood with distinctive style and charm.
The hotel was originally called the Appinger Hotel, named for the Templer family who built and ran it until their expulsion. Between 1948 and 1978, it was run by an Israeli Holocaust survivor; it was later rented out as a seniors home, which closed in 2005. Agajany oversaw the two-year renovation of the building, taking pains to preserve its high ceilings, century-old wooden bannister and colored terrazzo floor tiles.
The 40 rooms are tastefully furnished in dark oak; many bathrooms equipped with nostalgic free-standing claw tubs. The sunny dining room, which looks out onto the main avenue, is elegant and inviting.
Shortly after it re-opened as the Colony in 2008, Agajany hosted the German grandsons of one of the original owners, Gotleb Appinger. “They were…delighted to find a framed picture of their mother, Maria, as a 17-year-old, prominently displayed in the lobby,” he recalls. Other historic artifacts on display include a hand-written guest lists from the thirties (members of the famous Peel Commission, set up to decide the fate of Palestine, stayed here during the Biritsh Mandate) and a turn-of-the-century painting of the Colony.
Villa Carmel Boutique Hotel
Built as a hotel in the 1940s, converted into a seniors home and now newly opened and renovated, the15-room Villa Carmel, on a quiet street in the scenic slopes of the Carmel neighborhood, has also been meticulously restored to preserve its historic character. The décor is distinctly Old World romantic, with antique furniture, a gramophone in the hallway and porcelain tea set at the entrance.
This three-storey hotel also boasts an impressive roster of guests from its previous incarnation, among them David and Paula Ben-Gurion. One can linger over a meal in the glass-encased restaurant or in its adjacent tropical garden, lulled by the sound of a flowing fountain and twittering birds. The tranquil atmosphere—the hotel is next to a grove of tall pines—is deceiving: It is only a three-minute walk to the main café-lined street that winds around Haifa’s fashionable Carmel district.
Sitting in the cozy Ceilidh Bar of the Scots, having a wee dram of single-malt Scotch served by an affable kilt-clad barman, it is hard to imagine that a century ago locals came to this spot in Tiberias desperate for real medicine. It was the first hospital in Tiberias, established in the 19th century by a Scottish doctor who headed the Church of Scotland’s mission in the Holy Land. Dr. David Watt Torrance apparently converted few, but saved many in the 40 years he spent here, winning him the respect of the Jewish and Arab population. Later, the mission became a maternity hospital and modest pilgrim’s inn. The hotel is still owned by the Church of Scotland, and a chapel is tucked away in one corner.
There is an annual weeklong festival of Scottish culture each May, which this year included workshops on whiskey making, a performance of MacBeth and a specially commissioned musical performed by Israeli-born and visiting Scottish musicians and dancers. In January, the hotel marks the birthday of Scotland’s revered poet Robert Burns with poetry readings, bagpipe concerts, plenty of whiskey and haggis.
On Friday nights Israelis gather in the cozy Ceilidh and unwind while gesticulating passionately as they watch favorite shows on the bar’s television.
The barman is 28-year-old Russian-born Tiberias resident Mark Shtrafun. When dressed in his black, red and grey kilt, the blond, blue-eyed Shtrafun is often mistaken for a native Scotsman and the trilingual Shtrafun can put on a convincing Scottish accent. But his real qualification is his knowledge of whiskeys. The bar offers some 70 types, ranging from the house whiskey at $10 a glass, to Johnny Walker Blue Label at $42 a glass.
Weekends, when Israelis fill the hotel, Shtrafun is often asked about the “best” whiskey. “That’s like deciding which is the most beautiful woman in the pageant,” he quips. Midweek the bar is frequented by North American and European tourists. “At the moment, we have a group of 40 Texans, and they fill the bar every night. From 7 to 11, I don’t rest for a minute, while they sample different types of whiskey,” he says. At other times of the year, Scottish tourists arrive, usually in tour groups led by their local minister. “One day last week, a Scot [saw] my kilt, and remarked that it looked familiar. I told him it was a MacPherson hunting tartan, and he said: ‘Well, that’s why: I’m MacPherson.’”
Ramon Inn and Beresheet
At first glance, the Ramon Inn, a couple of converted housing blocks in the Negev development town of Mizpe Ramon, does not scream boutique. But for 17 years this deceptively simple structure with 96 rooms offers something unattainable elsewhere—its location.
This desert town, some 53 miles south of Beersheva, overlooks Machtesh Ramon, a crater that is 24 miles long, 5 miles wide and 1,600 feet deep. This raw landscape that stretches on as far as the eye can see is not only arresting, but also contains geological formations not found anywhere else in the world. Visitors can spend days exploring ancient volcanoes, jagged chunks of quartzite, huge blocks of overturned rock, multicolored layers of sand—and encounter Nubian ibex.
After a day roughing it—hiking, biking or climbing—the hotel pampers visitors with a sauna, heated indoor swimming pool, a large but cozy fireplace and Mediterranean cooking. The rooms are uninspired, but large and comfortable. The hotel recently began offering a range of services for cyclists, including trail maps, packed power lunches and bike-repair kits.In September, the inn will be joined by a more luxurious sister-hotel, also owned by the Isrotel Hotel chain. While the Ramon is located in town, the new 12-acre hotel, Beresheet (Genesis) will be perched right at the edge of the Ramon Crater, offering guests a dizzying view of the primordial landscape from which it draws its name. The complex—only two stories high so as not to mar the largely untouched terrain—will include 114 housing units. And the pièce de résistance: an outdoor waterfall pool right at the edge of the cliff. Beresheet is merely the newest in a growing panoply of imaginative hotels that updates the concept of luxury accommodations in Israel. It was only in 2008 that Frommer’s Israel proclaimed in its guidebook: “Israeli hotels in all price categories tend to lack atmosphere and architectural style. Many of the country’s hotels could as easily be in Cleveland, Ohio as in Jerusalem or Tiberias.”Not so anymore. The growing panoply of boutique, concept and lifestyle hotels in Israel presents the tourist with a dizzying array of choices from a waterfall in the desert to silent movies in the lobby. And yet, sometimes, amidst all these extravagant and even quirky touches, the basics are overlooked. In one boutique hotel I sampled there was everything —fine restaurant, rooftop jacuzzi, intriguing history and charming décor—everything, that is, except what I most craved: a plain old bar of soap.
Getting a Room
35 Ben Yehuda St. Tel Aviv
1 Zamenhoff Street, Tel Aviv
28 Ben-Gurion Ave., Haifa
11 King Solomon St., Jerusalem
220 Hayarkon Street, Tel Aviv.
36 Montefiore St., Tel Aviv
972 -3 564-6100; www.hotelmontefiore.co.il
Ein Akev St., Mitzpe Ramon
The Scots Hotel St. Andrew’s Galilee
P.O. Box 104 Tiberias 14100
Heinrich Heine 1, Haifa
Minimum price per room per night double occupancy, including breakfast.
Prices vary according to season and room.