Unexpected Israel: music, wine and spas
Take a wine trail, hear live opera or jazz, or relax at a world-class spa. They’re all on offer across Israel.
Tuscan terrain: vineyards in the Judean Hills resemble Tuscany and produce some of Israel’s finest vintages
While wine, womanly pursuits and song are not the most obvious reasons to visit Israel, the country is nevertheless becoming a fabulous holiday playground for hedonists.
Even those who thought they knew the country well may be surprised to find its vineyards are winning international prizes and opening up to visitors. And where there is wine, centres of well-being are never far away, particularly in the north, close to Israel's most noted spas and retreats offering numerous opportunities for New Age-style spiritual renewal.
Autumn - especially Succot - is a great time to be in Israel, for music lovers as well as grape aficionados, though some of the sounds on offer may be more rousing than the season of mellow fruitfulness suggests; this year will see Ozzy Osbourne's Ozzfest in Israel for the first time at Tel Aviv's Yarkon Park on September 28.
A week later the famous Scorpions will play the city as part of their farewell tour, and on October 5, Britain's great guitar hero, Jeff Beck, will play the atmospheric Roman amphitheatre in Caesarea. This lovely coastal venue is not the only monumental site in Israel where alfresco music can be enjoyed; next year will see a spectacular staging of Aida at Masada, following the huge success of Nabucco this summer.
Top jazz musicians from all over the world will descend on Jerusalem for the annual Globus festival at Harmony Hall in the last week of November, fast becoming an unmissable date for music-lovers. As is the city's International Chamber Music Festival, which has just finished for this year but will be back at the end of August 2011.
Jerusalem is, surprisingly, the best base for exploring Israel's first official wine trail. True, there are far fewer vineyards here than the vast grape-baskets of the Galilee and Carmel Hills. But the maverick growers who defied received wisdom that it would be impossible to work the small plots of the Jerusalem Hills where wine was first grown more than 2000 years ago are now the ones winning top international prizes. Connoisseurs may be aware of Clos de Gat and Castel - both on this trail and happy to receive visitors who call ahead - but less familiar with Kibbutz Tzora and Flam, which also make fine, though less widely exported, wines. Flam, at Rishon Le Zion, is next door to the Spice Farm, the lunch stop of choice in this area that straddles the Judean Hills and the coast. A rustic barn, half is a casual, but really fine, restaurant; the other half a dazzling delight of nuts, grains, tahinis and all kinds of gourmet take-away edibles.
A pretty arcade off the main street of Zichron Yaakov
The Carmel Valley is where wine production - which began 2,000 years ago - almost ceased until Zionists from Europe returned to the Holy Land.
Given a proper kick-start by Baron Jacob Rothschild in 1882, the Carmel Winery is still the country's largest producer, and its plant at Zichron Ya'akov offers good tours and tastings. While there, don't miss the town, which resembles a Napa Valley wine-country village with craft shops, galleries, fashion shops and cafés, running the length of a charming main street,
Lovers of good food and wine will also want to visit nearby Tishbi, which has, as well as a café in Zichron, a wonderfully bucolic restaurant in verdant countryside just outside; there's nothing quite like eating among hills and vines to stimulate the appetite as well as feed the senses.
Before the first boutique wineries sprang up in the Judean Hills, the Golan Heights Winery was making Israel a contender in the field of premium, top-quality wines. There's little romance in its busy modern plant, with its vast stainless steel tanks, but the Yarden and Gamla wines, particularly, are well-worth sampling at the tutored tasting that end the tour.
While the winery is so big and clinical that visiting can be a slightly dispiritng experience for individuals - who often have to fight groups for tour appointments and elbow room at the tasting counter - there is stil a warm, personal welcome on hand down the road at tiny Chateau Golan, whose co-owner and winemaker, Uri Hetz, gets a kick out of meeting wine aficionados
- and his wines are world-class, too.
A good place to stay for a visit to the northern wineries is in the foothills of the Golan - but inside the Green Line - at Kibbutz Kfar Blum, which operates an excellent guest house. Their steam-table dinner cuisine is not exactly appetising, but there are a couple of rustic restaurants in this beautiful rural area beside the Jordan River, one serving locally-caught river trout, the other barbecued meats.
And down at Tiberias, Decks is a famous kosher barbecue restaurant serving meat from its own herds which attracts foodies from all over Israel. Kfar Blum has a very pleasant, if not especially sumptuous spa, and given the link between wine and well-being, it's no surprise that there seem to be spas in Israel wherever there are vineyards.
The country's most famous is the Carmel Forest Spa up in the Carmel Hills, just south of Haifa, and operated by Isrotel, which serves some of those fine Israeli wines to accompany its delicious and (if you are there to lose weight, all too abundant) food.
Visitors love the distant sea views, the cool forest air (a particular treat in high summer), the extensive gardens, the fabulous indoor and outdoor pools and the sublime massages and treatments for which Carmel Forest seeks out the world's finest pairs of healing hands.
The north has other very fine - albeit less high profile - residential spas, notably Mizpe Hayamim in Rosh Pinah, Israel's only Relais & Chateaux property.
But also intriguing are the New Age holidays focusing on yoga, meditation and alternative therapies offered, ad hoc, in the hill villages of the Misgav region of the Western Galilee.
Here, Boaz Gershon co-ordinates a group of B&B - sometimes called zimmerim - owners, who are keen on helping their guests recharge their emotional, physical and spiritual batteries. Infinitely knowledgeable about the area's provision, he will take visitors through the many options on offer.
One centre of note is Hararit, where the many accommodation choices include a self-contained apartment in the spectacular home of charismatic dance therapist Ruth Pardess. Michmanim, where a local architect and his Japanese wife have created six zen-inspired B&B rooms to complement their Japanese restaurant, is another good choice for a base. Their next-door neighbour offers yoga and swimming in a spectacular hilltop setting, and local artist Orna Oren offers painting classes with lunch.
Although spas have not yet arrived close to the vineyards of the Jerusalem Hills, there is a branch of Carmel Forest Spa at Isrotel's Royal Beach Hotel in Eilat, and a number of women return to the Red Sea resort year after year to swim with the dolphins off the beautiful private beach of Dolphin Reef where treatments are available. As befits a good resort, Eilat is also packed with good restaurants, both in and out of the hotels whose extensive wine lists include Israel's finest vintages.
And, of course, fine wine, fine food, massages and music can also be enjoyed year-round in Tel Aviv, which has no shortage of concert halls, jazz clubs, day spas, yoga retreats and truly excellent restaurants, cafés, bars and wine bars.
El Al (020 7121 1500; www.elal.co.uk) has 11 flights per week to Tel Aviv from Heathrow and six a week from Luton, from £349 return. Kfar Blum (00972 4 6836600; www.kfarblum-hotel.co.il) has double rooms from 751 NIS (£128) half board; Carmel Forest Spa (00972-4 8307888; www.isrotel.co. il) has two-night breaks for two people sharing, from $1,385 (£898) full-board. Mitzpe Hayamim (00972 4 6994555; www.mizpe-hayamim.com) has two-night breaks for two sharing, from $760 (£493), half-board. For tailor-made holidays in the Western Galilee/Misgav region contact Boaz Gershon (00972 4999 0106; email@example.com).
El Al's Superstar Holidays is planning to introduce wine tours of Israel from 2011.