Just as I last left Israel, the bodies of three missing young men had turned up. The week before I was to return, there were two young men murdered in front of Old Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate. My mom had just canceled a cruise going there. There were two people murdered at a café in Tel Aviv while we were in the city.
There’s no doubt that I was plenty anxious in heading back, this time with my husband for our 10th anniversary. I notified the U.S. Embassy of our intended whereabouts through their STEP program. Because — of all things — we were going to be driving around by ourselves, heading off the beaten track. But there’s nothing like the Holy Land and we figured we would go while we were still young (enough) to get around nimbly.
On my first visit to Israel, I ate very traditional foods served in traditional ways. This time, I branched out into fusion, chef-driven, innovative cuisine. Israeli restaurants can be vibrant and exciting.
The Intercontinental David Tel Aviv is a large hotel on the Mediterranean, but it has a great layout: no taking tunnels, alternate elevators, stairways to your room. It is a perfect place to start your trip, as it’s got superb amenities and is clearly easy to find. Their suites are quite luxurious, complete with mini fridge, long and deep bathtubs. And for the local touch, Dead Sea bath salts. I had a fantastic view of the sea and a historic mosque’s minaret.
We stayed at a whole range of accommodations in Israel, each of which worked out perfectly for different points in our trip and contracting/expanding need for familiarity vs. adventure.
Can a boutique hotel be both “secret” and a hip place to be seen? Yes, at Hotel Montefiore in Tel Aviv. It’s location in a chic little neighborhood within a bit of a labyrinth of one-way streets, giving the gorgeously restored 1922 building a layer of built-in privacy. The lobby bar is fairly packed at all hours with the city’s Beautiful People. The rooms are like glamorous apartments, with super-high ceilings, built-in bookcases, decks and Oriental rugs.
As far as dining options go, Rothschild Boulevard is Tel Aviv’s happening place. Shulchan has young, foodie owners who attract people of all ages to their restaurant that feels like a glass-enclosed, wooded garden with Edison lights. A long bagel was served with a rich, buttery eggplant cream, garnished with big, crunchy gray sea salt. Gorgeous red tuna sashimi was served on taboule salad with radish. Sea bream was super tender with a nice grilled flavor and mild Jerusalem artichoke, served on spaghetti with garlic chives. Za’atar is an ancient Spice Road blend. They take the normally savory seasoning and infuse mille feuilles pastry and marshmallow cream with it.
The restaurant at the Montefiore is a chic fusion of French and Vietnamese recipes with an Israeli touch... but it’s definitely not kosher. Bacon-wrapped pork chops are decadent. One of their most hauntingly delicious creations is goose liver ravioli with broth: it’s like chicken, but more so. Tender spoon-size pasta, flavored with parsley, mild meat, not gamy, with a touch of salt is a delicate and perfect dish.
Haifa Bay and Akko
As we began to get a feel for the lay of the land, we wanted to explore some places off the tourist track. Airbnb had some interesting options. One was in a real settlement overlooking the hills of the Haifa Bay. It was a little cabin with a jacuzzi and citrus trees. We even got to check out a settlement vote over whether the genders should be separate at their synagogue.
The really cool part, though, was a chance to sit with the property owners and really talk about what day-to-day relations were like between Israelis and Arabs — what that meant on a personal level.
Akko (the Biblical "Acre") has built up its multicultural heritage for thousands of years. It seems perfect then, that a visionary with many life paths himself, Uri Jeremias, would be the man to breathe more fresh life into this ancient port city. Uri bought two adjoining Ottoman-era palaces with Byzantine foundations that were decrepit yet historically protected — a buyer’s nightmare — combined them and created a magnificent Efendi Hotel. It may be the closest you'll come to being transported back in time as a royal dignitary.
You park on the outskirts of the city and bring luggage in through ancient, narrow and dark alleyways heavily populated by stray cats. Born of palaces that were preserved in their layout, the Efendi is not a hotel with hallways of here’s your room, here’s my room, etc. Instead there are grand enclosed courtyards, hidden passages and suites.
In Akko, I also got to experience a highlight in my life: dinner with Uri at his seaside restaurant, Uri Buri. His parents helped kids who were orphaned by the Holocaust and he himself adopted three girls. His employees are of many faiths and backgrounds. Politicians would be well served to learn from his vision and diplomacy by way of cuisine and hospitality. Uri's diving skills and self-taught seafood cooking have made him a world-renowned chef... though he doesn’t believe in “fancy,” but rather, clean and un-tortured presentation. Typical Israeli wines made in the Israeli style are served — not trying to be something else. Raw shrimp, fried sardines, amberjack: all luscious.
Akko is the best natural harbor on their side of the Mediterranean, so the bounty is rich. It's been a place for travelers from Africa and Asia to stop for a good meal for millennia.
There are several museums and historic sites in Akko (you can get passes to cover more than one), including the fascinating underground Knights Kingdom. Its multimedia displays bring you back to the Crusader era. The Old City Market has crafts and local food for sale; Kurdi & Berit (left) is a world-famous spice shop that’s 4th generation family-owned.
When heading to Jerusalem, we were extra circumspect as to where we would stay. We were highly aware that tensions had ratcheted up, we had a rental car and we would be there during the Sabbath – we would need to be able to walk to the Old City. After careful research, I found the Jerusalem Legacy and really, couldn’t have been more relieved. A former YMCA and part of what was the American Consulate, their parking lot was secured like Fort Knox. We were about seven blocks from Damascus (Nablus) Gate, in an Arab section of the city.
I felt that the periods of torrential rains, along with very high levels of heavily armed security in the area, kept any would-be badasses in check. On successive visits back and forth to the gate, I walked more leisurely and confidently.
A terrific surprise was the 5th floor of the Legacy’s restaurant, Cardo. Panorama windows look out onto the Old City. Palestinian-style Cornish game hen was juicy and well spiced, tangy with red onion. The buttery housemade hallavah mousse was an indulgent treat.
The Palms Garden is in front of the hotel — a snack/hookah bar with heat lamps that seems to be the place for young locals to see and be seen.
When we entered the Old City (a world unto itself with the Western Wall, sites important to Islam, and Jesus’ tomb), a little middle-aged Arab man in a worn, dark raincoat approached us for a walking tour as we got money changed at Damascus Gate. I shook my head “no,” but my husband told me to go after him.
It wasn’t easy to catch up with the spry guy! Ibrahim took us all over the different quarters and knew more about the various Biblical sites than most preachers, I reckon. He didn’t have a card, but just wrote his number down on a scrap of paper. I can’t find it for the life of me. But he knows everyone and speaks many languages. If you are there and ask around, no doubt you will be able to get in touch. Indeed, I brought him back out of the rain to our hotel lobby at the Legacy... and the manager was taken aback.
They were long-lost cousins, separated by a family feud between in-laws! They both smilingly agreed that they had put on some pounds in the intervening years.
If you go into the shops, especially now that tourism is down, you’ll learn about bargaining. My dad was of that tradition, so I laughed when Ghazi Abu Mayaleh of Chain Street in the Old City pulled out all of Daddy’s old tricks: having us sit down and relax with coffee, asking how many people we had to get souvenirs for, showing us the priciest gems, etc. Don’t even ask what we spent.
Nazareth (don't drive)
So, maybe don’t drive into Nazareth. Many of the streets date from the Dark Ages, and only locals know how to navigate their narrowest of stone paths on nearly 90-degree blind slopes. We were both crying and I nearly wet myself. I begged a resident who only spoke Arabic with body language to open her gate and let us turn around.
Choir practice at Church of the Annunciation, Nazareth
Instead, take a taxi into the Old City to see The Church of the Annunciation (above) and the whole complex that encompasses what was Joseph and Mary’s home and many other religious wonders. The market is right there; buy even more of Fahoum Coffee’s special blend with cardamom than you can carry — you won’t regret it and the owner is a sweetheart.