Just Back From
This article was published on July 31, 2023.
In the latest edition of Indagare Magazine, we asked members of the Indagare team about their favorite travel rituals. Like my colleague Peter Schlesinger, I always go for at least one long run, without consulting any maps, when I arrive somewhere. I find the best way to discover hidden gems—and to get the true feel for a place—is to let my feet carry me wherever my eyes’ interest is piqued. I also love to sample local beer, and I have stained and crinkled coasters scavenged from dives in Dakar, Copenhagen, the Catskills and beyond, stacked neatly in my boxes of travel mementos. And whenever possible, I always watch anything that Anthony Bourdain has filmed in the place I’m visiting, while I’m there.
Bourdain produced only one episode set in Israel, for Parts Unknown in 2013. It is titled “Jerusalem,” but it also includes forays into the surrounding countryside, the West Bank and Gaza. As the episode opens with views of the Dome of the Rock at sunrise, prayers at the Western Wall and soldiers in the souk, Bourdain’s familiar, dry voice-over addresses the veritable minefield that is any discussion of this relatively tiny country: “It’s easily the most contentious piece of real estate in the world. And there’s no hope—none—of ever talking about it without pissing somebody, if not everybody, off…By the end of this episode, I’ll be seen by many as a terrorist sympathizer, a Zionist tool, a self-hating Jew, an apologist for American imperialism, an Orientalist, socialist, fascist, CIA agent, and worse. So here goes nothing."
I just returned from exploring Israel for the first time—10 years after that episode was filmed. I am not Jewish, but the trip was still a pilgrimage of sorts for me, in its own ways: I attended Catholic school, and as a result, I’ve studied the Bible, Old and New Testaments, almost in its entirety; as a lover of food, culture and history, Israel has been on my list since before I entered the travel industry; and I was going to visit my cousin, who made Aliyah nearly three years ago, thanks to Jewish descendancy on his father’s side. Over nine days, we were primarily based in Tel Aviv (where my cousin, one of the city’s many digital nomad expats, has an apartment near Dizengoff Square), but we also took road trips up to the Golan Heights and the Sea of Galilee, and down to Jerusalem and the Dead Sea. And though we did not stop to explore there, we did drive through the West Bank en route.
In the 10 years between Bourdain’s visit to Israel and mine, much has changed. A global pandemic—which kept the country’s borders tightly shut for the greater part of three years—has come and gone. Yotam Ottolenghi is no longer the only name that resonates with an American audience, when you talk about Israeli cuisine (Michael Solomonov’s outpost of Laser Wolf, which opened at the Hoxton Hotel in Williamsburg last year, remains one of the city’s top tables—and I was amused to discover at my first meal in-country, at Tel Aviv hot spot Romano, that I had not strayed far from home: it’s owned by celebri-chef and restaurateur Eyal Shani, who is also behind the Chelsea Market’s Miznon and its famous roasted cauliflower). Just earlier this week, Prime Minister Netanyahu (who was in office when Bourdain visited) succeeded in passing the first stage of legislation to move power from the hands of the Israeli Supreme Court to Parliament’s, which has provoked protests across country, as well as opposition from the United States—a major development that comes on the heels of highly controversial expansions into Palestinian-occupied areas of the West Bank. And, finally, over the last 10 years, tourism to Israel has expanded greatly, ushering in a wave of foreigners both Jewish and Gentile, plush luxury hotels and many secular diversions (more on that, later).
I will spare you any platitudes or attempts to walk the geopolitical tightrope. Israel—and Palestine—present a complicated question, and people with degrees far more advanced than mine haven’t figured out the answer. But I will take the stance, as we often do at Indagare, that you must experience a place for yourself to understand it—even if that understanding is partial, or evolving. I will say that, despite the many changes that have happened over the decade between Anthony Bourdain’s visit and mine, I find much of his assessment of what it’s like to travel there to still be quite accurate (even if it does offend). I will say that I experienced a hardness in Israel that I was not prepared for (mixed in with the deeply moving spirituality and heritage, and bear-hug hospitality, that I was expecting). And I will say that there are only two things I can confidently assert to be categorically, unequivocally true about Israel: the landscapes are beautiful, and the food really is that good (and if you brave the sweltering summer temperatures, as I did, the payoff is that you’ll get a nice tan, which will conceal the pounds you’ve gained).
So what is it like on the ground in Tel Aviv, right now? Even amidst current tensions, the beaches are bustling and bright creatives are working away, in communities that stretch back through the centuries. The rest, you'll have to see for yourself.
Read on for my shortlist from my time in Tel Aviv, including a first look at two new boutique hotels with headliner restaurants, and top shops and bars to know.
LONG WEEKEND: Opened August 2021, the Six Senses Shaharut was built into a cliff in the middle of the Negev Desert, a place steeped in Biblical history. 60 stone suites and pool villas comprise the resort, along with the Six Senses brand’s usual high-caliber wellness and culinary facilities. Here, the overwhelming highlight is the setting of dunes, sun and stars, and to explore the area, top activities include hiking, biking, Jeep rides, and overnight camel camping and dune walking. The resort is accessible by a three-hour drive from Tel Aviv, Jerusalem or Petra—making it the perfect long weekend extension.
ON OUR RADAR: The northern region of Galilee has long been celebrated for its fertile farmland, orchards, vineyards and mountains (alongside the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus was said to have walked on water). Now, it’s gaining the attention of international travelers, thanks to a few sophisticated new boutique hotels. On our radar is Galei Kinneret, which offers a pool, spa and private beach access—as well as Lotte, a restaurant by acclaimed chef Assaf Granit (of Machneyuda in Jerusalem).
Contact your Trip Designer or Indagare, if you are not yet a member, to learn more about planning a trip to Israel. Our team can match you with the itineraries, accommodations, reservations, activities and guides that are right for you.
If Israel is on your list, you can join us for an in-depth exploration in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, led by Melissa Biggs Bradley this fall (our November dates just sold out, but you can join the waitlist in case a spot opens up) and spring (details coming soon). Along the way, you’ll meet political journalists, fashion designers, archaeologists and more, who will share their diverse perspectives on this complex place. Plus, discover other upcoming itineraries in the Middle East and North Africa, including Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Morocco.
Related: Just Back From Istanbul
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