March 19, 2001

At Home Abroad

By URIEL HEILMAN
HAIFA, ISRAEL

When Israel's Ministry of Tourism first phoned me a few weeks ago to invite me on a tour they were putting together for a group of American journalists, I wondered what tourist-related news I would be able to find in a country whose attractions were as familiar to me as the interior of my own home. After all, the land of the Bible can change only so much between frequent visits, and I had been to most of the sites on the trip's itinerary at least once before.

But when I came to Israel I was surprised by a tourist experience quite unlike any I had ever had before, thanks to the current political climate: Israel with luxury and style.

Because tourism has fallen so precipitously in the wake of the renewed Palestinian uprising-causing a crisis of sorts in Israel's tourism industry that is affecting everyone from hoteliers and rental-car companies to tour bus drivers and restaurateurs-prices for tourist-related services have dropped to their lowest levels in years. This bad news for Israel is great news for tourists, who can fly to Israel, stay in the country's best hotels, eat in its finest restaurants, and visit its innumerable sites at a fraction of what it would normally cost. Israel's new affordability-in ways that were unimaginable just a few months ago-presents a unique opportunity to Israelis and visitors who want to see the country at a level of comfort and luxury they otherwise could never (or would never) afford themselves.

And the Israel of cramped Jerusalem apartments, hand-held showerheads, ice cold stone floors, and hard narrow beds is quite different from the Israel of opulent hotels, fine dining, and sophisticated sensibilities. Suddenly, Israeli hotels that once were the domain of the rich and famous have become affordable-along with the tastefully decorated rooms, stunning views, and impeccable service that have earned them a place among the world's best. Combine a stay at Jerusalem's King David Hotel, the Tel Aviv Hilton, or Haifa's Dan Carmel with a well-planned trip and you're in for a real treat. You can tour Tel Aviv's newest skyscrapers and high-tech districts in the morning, stop by the Galilee's Carmel-Mizrachi vineyards in the afternoon for a wine tasting, and end the day in a seaside fish restaurant in the coastal town of Atlit, where half a century ago Jewish refugees risked their lives and their freedom to swim ashore under the cover of darkness, unbeknownst to the British authorities. At night you can fall asleep amid the twinkling lights of the cities that line the Mediterranean coast.

Of course, Israeli tourism officials say, this is all possible because of the big secret CNN would never have you know: Israel is as safe as always.

The vast majority of Israelis witness Middle East violence the same way most Americans do-through television sets in the comfort of their living rooms. There are some places in Israel that have become quite dangerous since the outbreak of renewed Palestinian violence last October, but these troubled areas have always been sufficiently hazardous to keep the bulk of tourists away. Visitors to Israel generally do not go to the refugee camps of Gaza, the coffee shops of Ramallah, the Israeli settlements in the hilltops of the contested West Bank, or the border zone near Lebanon. Now would not be a good time to start.

Across Israel, however, the violence is contained, limited to the places where zones of Palestinian control meet Israeli areas. Practically all of these zones of conflict are in the Territories-the West Bank and Gaza Strip-where Israeli settlements abut sprawling Palestinian cities and where Israeli army checkpoints at the pre-1967 border keep potentially dangerous Palestinians far away from Israel proper. The Israel that the vast majority of Americans know-Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the Golan, the Galilee, the Kinneret, Eilat, Haifa-remain as they always have been. Jerusalem, the epicenter of the Middle East conflict, has been relatively quiet since the first week of violence at the end of last September, thanks in part to beefed up security around the city. Just to keep things exciting, the nightly sniper fire in the remote Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo persists, but the shooting there is no more dangerous than the nightly gunfire in Manhattan neighborhoods just a subway ride away from my New York home.

Nothing could feel farther from my Manhattan apartment, however, than sitting in a room on the sixth floor of the King David Hotel, gazing out at the ancient Jerusalem walls that have sat here for four centuries, witness to the rise and fall of empires and emperors, kings and generals, nation after nation. The distinctive vantage point from the King David Hotel, which offers a view of these walls devoid of almost any of the modern trappings around them, transports the viewer back in time to an era when Jerusalem stood as an imposing fortress on a hill, alone in the Judean mountains. One need no longer imagine how hundreds of years ago visitors and would-be conquerors felt as they approached the city from the Judean wilderness. One can feel it.

The road that today runs the length of the wadi between the walls built by Ottoman conqueror Suleyman the Magnificent and the hill on which the hotel sits fades away as Jerusalem's golden moon rises over the turrets amid the ancient stones. Inside these walls stood the Holy Temple, where thousands of Jews would flock thrice a year to offer goats and cattle and rams as burnt offerings before God. Some of these walls have stood here for more than 2,000 years, and huge stones that were cast down in the heat of battle a thousand years ago to repel Christian Crusaders still rest in the places that they were first thrown. Here the destruction of the Temple is not something that resides in the pages of yellowing history books; here history is the present.

The King David Hotel even has its own history channel, complete with documentaries that mirror the history of the Jewish State. This storied hotel often serves as a temporary home for prime ministers and presidents, kings and queens, and the King David has the dubious honor of being the only hotel in the world ever blown up by a future prime minister (Menachem Begin, 1946). Guests as varied as Bill Clinton and Madonna have stayed here (okay, perhaps not that varied), and the hotel is used to service with style. For example, rather than maintaining ice machines, which today are ubiquitous in American facilities, the King David uses tuxedoed bellhops to bring guests buckets of ice upon demand.

Today more than ever, Israel is a study in contrasts, a place where high-speed Internet access is installed in millennia-old stone walls, where elderly Arab men clad in jalabiyyes sip their Turkish coffee a hillside away from young, T-shirted Israelis toiling away at developing the latest wireless application protocol devices. The booming Israeli economy of the end of the twentieth century-which since has faltered in step with that of the United States-has transformed Tel Aviv and the cities that surround it. A new skyscraper seems to rise in the country's financial capital, just miles away from the West Bank city of Modi'in, which in a decade has transformed a few barren hills into a sprawling metropolis of 140,000.

There is no better place than the Tel Aviv Hilton to get a perspective on this new Israel. Long a hallmark of Tel Aviv's beachfront hotel row, the Hilton is the place where new-economy Israelis meet the world that has come to greet them. The hotel's coffee shop, lobby, and restaurants are filled with Israeli businessmen looking remarkably comfortable in jackets and ties chatting away with the foreign visitors who have come to court them. Many a business deal has been sealed in this hotel over plates of foie gras and glasses of Golan wine, and almost as many Israeli guests come to stay and do business at the hotel as do foreigners.

The hotel itself rises 17 stories in the air, has 528 guest rooms, and plenty of private rooms and lounges for business meetings. The hotel is right on the beach, so even if you've come to Tel Aviv on business you can relax in the Tel Aviv surf during lunch, or go for a swim in the hotel's salt-water pool. If you need a little help unwinding, the Hilton has a full service spa and fitness center.

Tel Aviv's cosmopolitan cousin to the north, Haifa, is an ideal destination for a vacation in the late winter or early spring. Built on the mountains between the Mediterranean and the Carmel Forest, this port city and the fields around it are in full bloom this time of year. Many American Jews never see Israel in its late winter and early spring bloom, when the country is colored in shades of green instead of brown; when the air is cool enough for comfortable hikes through the deserts that blossom with a hundred kinds of wildflowers; when the peaks of the Hermon are covered in a coat of white.

Haifa is a gateway to the country's north and a great place from which to take day trips to such places as the ancient port city of Acre, the water caves of Rosh Hanikra, the beaches of Tiberias on Israel's only sizeable lake and primary water source, and the rolling green hills of the Galilee, Israel's most fertile agricultural region and home to some if its best hiking trails.

There's also plenty to do in and around Haifa itself, from visiting the city's artist colony to walking through the surrounding Carmel forest to relaxing on Haifa's beaches to visiting the National Museum of Science, Design, and Technology, which is adjacent to the Technion Institute of Technology, Israel's MIT. Spring is also a prefect time to visit the spectacular Bahai gardens, home to the faith's world headquarters and executive council. These elaborate and wondrous gardens will open in their entirety to the public for the first time this May.

Haifa's Dan Carmel hotel, part of Israel's luxury chain of Dan hotels, overlooks these gardens from a precipice atop Mount Carmel. The rooms in the hotel offer sweeping views of the entire city, from its gardens to its ports, from the heavily wooded areas just south of the city to the smaller cities that line the Mediterranean coast north of Haifa. I couldn't help sleeping with my shades open at night, watching the twinkling lights of the Mediterranean cities that climb the coastal mountain range meet with the sudden darkness of the sea, broken only by distant vessels anchored off the coast.

If you want to get away from Israel's densely populated center, the Dead Sea is a perfect place for a day-long escape. It's only a 30-mile drive from the hills of Jerusalem to the lowest place on earth, and only slightly more than an hour from the capital city to the quiet hotels and beaches in this desert oasis. The air here is warm every day of the year, though in the summer it can be excruciatingly hot. The mineral-rich mud in this fertile valley between Israel and Jordan is renowned for its healing qualities, and nary a visitor to the area leaves without applying a coat of the mud and then rinsing it off in the salty waters of the lifeless sea.

Spas abound at the Dead Sea, and many hotels have day packages for people who come just for a few hours. The Crowne Plaza resort at Ein Boqeq has a reasonable $18 package for day visitors, though you'll have to pay more for a massage or mud wrap. The Crowne Plaza is also a delightful place to spend a quiet night; aside from full resort facilities, the hotel has reasonably priced rooms and a few luxury suites.

If you're looking to get away for a little longer, take off a weekend or a few days and head for the resort city of Eilat, Israel's southernmost city. Eilat is about four or five hours by car from central Israel, and flights from Tel Aviv run as low as $120 round trip and take less than an hour.

Aside from snorkeling, scuba diving, boating and other water sports, Eilat is home to some of the Middle East's most spectacular coral reefs. If you're not the underwater type, you can tour the veritable museum of coral at Eilat's underwater sea observatory or take a ride on a glass-bottom boat. The mountains around the city are filled with great hiking trails, both for the more ambitious and the less ambitious, and Eilat is an excellent point of departure for day trips to Jordan or Egypt, both of which border the city. The distant lights of Saudi Arabia are viewable at night from Eilat's beaches, but that's about as close as you'll get to them from Israel, which has hostile relations with the Arab kingdom.

There are plenty of luxury hotels in Eilat, and as Israel's primary domestic vacation destination, new ones are being built all the time. One of the city's newest, the Queen of Sheba, is designed to look like the palace such a queen would have built here. The hotel looks very much like a movie set, complete with hand-painted floor mosaics, towering stone pillars, and majestic domes. The rooms blend this fantastical architecture with modern amenities, and each offers views either of the Red Sea or the desert mountains around the city. If you're feeling a little homesick, the hotel's Buffalo Steak House at the very least will make your taste buds feel at home.

For a real culinary treat, however, nothing can beat a hearty Israeli breakfast. Here Israel's finest hotels do not fail, serving Israeli breakfasts that themselves are sufficient cause for a trip to the Jewish State. Endless cheeses, pastries, smoked fish, vegetables, fruit, yogurts, omelets, and fresh fruit juices of every kind will await you every morning at Israel's upscale hotels. With these kinds of breakfasts, you can forget about lunch.

Dinner is another matter entirely, however. If you're determined to see Israel in style-and now is the time when it actually is affordable-there are a few restaurants you won't want to miss. At the intersection of three continents, Israel is home to world-class chefs that have borrowed from the traditions of each while giving their cuisine a distinctive Israeli flavor. And if you're used to the limitations and monotony of American kosher cuisine, you're in for a real treat in the country with the world's best and most varied kosher food.

Eating is about more than just the food, of course. In Jerusalem, the Biblically themed Eucalyptus restaurant, in the city municipality complex, shows that the Bible is not just for studying, it's for tasting. Working with recipes lifted from the Bible, the resident chef provides running Biblical commentary to a culinary experience that includes an array of delicious lentil soups, chicken-stuffed figs, grape leaves filled with spicy beef, and a variety of other Biblical delicacies. On the other side of the city, hidden among the trees at an elevated point that offers spectacular view of the Old City walls and the City of David, the Taverna restaurant provides diners both with some of the best food in Jerusalem and some of the best views to boot. Some of the very best places to eat in Israel don't appear in any brochures or maps; little-known unassuming restaurants all over the country house its best-kept culinary secrets. One such restaurant, Ben-Ezra Hadayag, in the city of Atlit just south of Haifa, has fish so fresh that the fisherman who runs the restaurant can practically tell you what time of day he caught the fish on your plate and exactly how much of a fight it put up.

Wherever you go in Israel you'll find sweet surprises like these, and now is the time to go. Some establishments in Israel are suffering so badly from the drop in tourism that prices have been slashed in half. Israel already has lost an estimated $1 billion because of the drop in tourism, and further losses are projected with little relief on the horizon. Israel is desperate for American tourists and the much-needed economic boost they can bring to Israelis who have lost their jobs because Americans have stopped coming. Some, like Benjamin Ninnayi, a branch director at the Ministry of Tourism's hosting operations division, are wondering why American Jews do not back up their expressions of solidarity with meaningful action. "Tourism is the antidote to politics," Ninnayi says. "But where's the Jewish solidarity? Where are our Jewish brothers?"

Contact Information

The website of Israel's Ministry of Tourism is one of the best resources for planning a visit to Israel and can be reached at 1-888-77-ISRAEL or online at www.infotour.co.il or www.goisrael.com. All numbers in Israel can be reached from the United States by dialing 011-972, eliminating the 0 at the start of the Israeli area code, and dialing the rest of the area code and number. The King David Hotel can be reached at 02 620-8888, or online at www.danhotels.com. The Tel Aviv Hilton is at 03 520-2222 or online at www.hilton.com. The Dan Carmel in Haifa is at 04 830-3030 and online at www.danhotels.com. The Crowne Plaza at the Dead Sea is at 07 659-1919 (www.crowneplaza.com). The Eilat Queen of Sheba is at 07 630-6666 and at www.hilton.com. Almost all of these hotels have reservations agents and offices in the U.S. whose numbers are available online. Prices vary by season, but almost all of the hotels are currently offering heavy discounts-some exceeding 50%-to lure visitors during this lull in tourism. El Al, Israel's national air carrier, currently has fares as low as $599 from JFK and Newark, among other American cities. Fares vary by date and season. El Al can be reached at 800 223-6700.