A few days chilling in Israel’s lush north is a good plan, especially for frequent visitors
You’ve done the whole tourist thing, and now you’re looking for something different and special. Something off the beaten track, a base in Israel’s countryside that gives you all the pampering touches of a five-star city hotel.
In recent years, boutique hotels of the highest standards have been sprouting in the Galilee hillsides like wild mushrooms after the spring rains. But, rather like the wild mushrooms themselves, if you don’t know where to look for them, you might miss them completely.
Even when you are headed for the charming, Jerusalem-stone-clad Bayit Bagalil, hidden deep in the Biriya Forest above Rosh Pinah, you can get lost along the winding track before you reach the impressive gated entrance.
With just 26 suites in this quasi-European chateau, Bayit Bagalil is the ultimate boutique hotel: small, intimate and elegant. All the country-house clichés are here — a roaring fire in the hearth in winter; a diverse selection of books and games spread out on the coffee tables; bikes and picnic hampers for forest forays — but the overall effect is enchanting, making you feel as if you are a guest in someone’s country home. An eclectic mix of furniture styles casually arranged and an interesting collection of “souvenirs” garnered from around the world all add to the home-rather-than-hotel feeling. In fact, it is perfectly usual to chat with other guests over a pre-dinner drink in the lounge.
But however inviting the European-styled interior is, this is Israel, with blue, sun-filled skies beckoning you to enjoy the many terraces and cosy corners, lavishly furnished with top-notch wrought iron and rattan furniture and stunning views across Rosh Pinah to Lake Kinneret. The outdoor pool, with its large Jacuzzi and padded sunloungers, is a far cry from the frenetic poolside scene at most Israeli hotels — no aerobics (or even kids) to disturb the tranquility. And everywhere, the sight and scent of pine trees.
Set in the heart of the forest and built into the hillside, the hotel is surrounded by nature, with easy walking trails and guided forest walks at the weekends. Just the thing to work up an appetite for the gourmet kosher cuisine prepared by chef Dror Marko in the hotel’s intimate dining room. Only half-board accommodation is offered — probably just as well given its rather remote location.
Both dinner and breakfast — featuring local Galilee produce and wines — are all white linen and sparkling silverware, with not a buffet table in sight. The high employee-to-guest ratio is particularly in evidence here, with waiters serving art-on-a-plate, a la carte dinners. The attractive presentation does not come at the expense of quality or quantity, with the choicest steaks and finest fish on offer. And if, like me, you cannot make a selection from the dessert menu, then fear not, they just bring you one of everything!
As in every self-respecting boutique hotel, guests receive white embroidered robes and slippers to wear to the (small) spa, though the treatment was, for this massage afficionado, a touch disappointing.
If Bayit BaGalil sounds, well, a little too quiet, then you might prefer Mitzpe Hayamim Hotel, on the eastern slopes of Mount Canaan between Rosh Pinah and Safed. This sprawling 100 room spa hotel — the only Relais & Chateaux property in Israel and proud winner of this year’s R&C Environment Trophy — is charming, quirky, luxurious and organic.
Virtually all the meat, fish, fruit, herbs, grains, dairy produce and vegetables used in the hotel’s kitchens and bakery are raised or grown in the organic enterprise located in its vast grounds, making the hotel’s dairy restaurant the real attraction for organic and veggie-freaks, as well as those who appreciate that a fish fillet can be every bit as gourmet as a fillet steak.
The breakfast, lunch and dinner buffets groan under the weight of organic options, all freshly-prepared from the in-house farm (and thoughtfully labelled in English as well as Hebrew). Salads, soups, breads, cheeses, home made jams, vegetarian dishes, fish options, desserts. Sadly, the waiters replenishing buffet supplies and clearing the linen-covered tables appeared unable at times to match the pace of their guests. Word has it that both service and cuisine are better at Muscat, the hotel’s gourmet, stand-alone (but non-kosher) meat restaurant, which attracts diners from far and wide, as well as hotel guests willing to pay a $35 supplement to dine there.
Originally a health farm and sanitorium built by homeopath Dr Eric Yaros, Mitzpe Hayamim has developed from an austere, 12-room guest house with a strict food regimen into a luxurious, pampering resort that offers the same clear country air and tranquillity that attracted Yaros, mixed with today’s comforts and must-haves.
The original buildings remain, but extensions and floors have been added, giving the hotel a rambling charm. Plant-filled courtyards, complete with the soothing sounds of fountains and waterfalls, serve as atriums to the guestrooms and suites. The entrance to the hotel leads into a spacious lounge area with many seating corners, roaring fireplaces in winter and a 24-hour, complimentary (organic) herb, tea and (non-organic) coffee corner.
Unusually, there are more suites than regular guestrooms, with 55 suites of varying size and luxury. I was given a vast superior deluxe suite, its polished wood floors dotted with antique rugs and a massive lounge with 37-inch plasma TV, help-yourself mini bar, espresso machine and antique closet.
The equally vast, pristine white bathroom featured a walk-in rain shower, double Jacuzzi, and all the pampering amenities you would expect, plus some you wouldn’t, like a switch that opens the floor to ceiling curtains which cover two sides of the suite to reveal a wrap-around terrace and stunning views down to the Kinneret.
Pampering continues in the extensive spa (the hot stones massage is a must), with its semi-Olympic swimming pool, indoor and outdoor Jacuzzis, saunas and special stone outhouses in the grounds for romantic treatments for two. Workshops, lectures, events and exercise classes are all included.
If you really cannot spend the entire time relaxing in the hotel of your choice, then there is plenty to do in the immediate vicinity. Roam the quaint, cobble-stoned alleys of Rosh Pinah or explore the artist’s colony and ancient synagogues in Safed (local tour guides can be booked from the hotels). Or spend some time bird-watching at the Hula Lake or visit the various boutique wineries in the region, many with fabulous restaurants attached. Or travel back in time through layer after layer of exposed civilizations at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Tel Hazor, Israel’s largest biblical-era archeological site and yet so often missed by tourists as they travel north.