One year on: the spa that healed itself
The 'miracle' that saved the Carmel Forest Spa from a worse fate after the Channucah blaze.
A four-day fire destroyed huge areas of the forest in the Carmel Hills but at the Carmel Forest Spa there is no hint of the devastation
The lawns are preternaturally green, the trees and shrubs luxuriant, the flowers sit prettily, ruffled by a breeze in the borders and beds dotted with artless informality all over the grounds. Everywhere at this tranquil sanctuary in the Carmel Hills, just south of Haifa, is verdant and perfect.
But without a miracle on, appropriately, Chanucah last year, the picture might have been very different at Isrotel's Carmel Forest Spa.
Because at the start of Chanucah, on December 3 last year, the spa resort which first opened in November 1996, came, literally, within inches of being immolated in the terrible forest fires that swept these hills, devastating everything in their path.
"I was in Tel Aviv at meetings when our security manager called me at noon telling me that the fires were heading our way," recalls Aya Grundman, the resort's general manager.
"Forest fires are not new in the area but he told me the police were worried and were sending buses. Guests were having lunch, others were having treatments when they were told and they had to pack up quickly and leave. It was very orderly, very quiet, people understood."
After the guests had left, Grundman and the Isrotel chief executive Lior Raviv, and a few senior staff, stayed on, to ensure no-one had been left behind and that the building was secure. Finally, at 7.30, when the fires were raging, they were forced by the police to leave.
Carmel Forest Spa is a member of the Isrotel Exclusive Collection, +972 4 830 7886. One night, full board, from 917.5 NIS per person, based on two sharing.
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"We didn't leave the police and fire teams alone. We were on them constantly urging them to save the spa. The fire came, literally, to our front door" - from her office, off the lobby, she waves a slim, manicured hand towards the wide glass doors - "burning a mat inside."
There was fire damage to the dining terrace, and the gardens beyond the outdoor pool. Also, the guest rooms smelled of smoke and burning.
But when you stand in the resort today, nostrils assailed only by the scent of flowers and herbs, and look at the hills, with their blackened, skeletal trees and patches of scorched earth, the scale of the miracle that kept this spa virtually unscathed is revealed.
Since December, the spa's UK-based owners have spent 8 million NIS (£1.45m) repairing the damage.
They also took the opportunity presented by the three-month closure to extend the dining terrace and create a wine-bar showcasing fine Israeli wines. The country's wineries, including Golan, Yarden and Dalton, now produce award-winning reds.
The interior of the resort is as beautiful, quiet and calm as it has been since it opened 15 years ago, dotted with sculptures, paintings, witty objects and quiet corners for contemplation.
What a cynic might also describe as another kind of miracle - the separation of Israelis from their mobile phones in all public areas, inside and out - also prevails, The fact that the resort is child-free - no-one under 16 is permitted inside or out - helps to maintain the tranquillity and peace, even around the outdoor pool.
Dining has evolved since my last visit, making it more, how can I put it, fresser friendly. A decade ago, lunch was a buffet of locally-grown, fresh salads, vegetables and cold dishes, in keeping with the spa ethos.
Today, with so many guests using it as a holiday resort, albeit one where they can truly unwind and recharge, there is still a buffet at lunch time, supplemented by a hot main course dish, featuring fresh, local fish, dairy and vegetable produce, all delicious and exquisitely presented by a team led by executive chef, Amir Kalfon.
Dinner is more formal, when bathrobes (lovely Frette waffle cotton ones) - which are permitted at breakfast and lunch, in keeping with the spa atmosphere - are not allowed.
A buffet is followed by a meat or parev, main course, featuring entrecote steak, chicken, salmon and a nightly chef's special.
A popular feature is Tuesday's barbecue night, beneath the vines of the al fresco dining terrace.
In case you hadn't spotted it by now, this is not a spa for ascetics: there are desserts at lunch and dinner, plus cheesecake at breakfast, and wine, spirits and beer are available at lunch and dinner. While spa purists may object to such abundance, there is no compulsion to indulge, and the quality and variety of fruit, salads and vegetables makes it easy, providing you have the will-power, to detox and lose weight, if that's what you want to do.
Treatments remain as sublime as I remember. The spa employs highly trained therapists for the 70-plus massages and treatments for the face and body, ranging from Swedish massage, to complex rituals involving a slew of Eastern therapies.
I sampled the Carmel Forest Spa Balance which was probably one of the finest spa treatments I have ever had, anywhere. Therapist Anat, a delightfully calm woman with magic in her hands, started by kneading my back and shoulders before moving to the "polarity" stage, which involves deep massage of the feet, hands, scalp and face.
Afterwards, I dozed in a chaise longue in the silent, sun-filled solarium, waking to a view of lush fields and blossom-clad orchards stretching all the way to a hazy horizon.
Apart from treatments, or a little retail therapy in the spa shop, selling fitness and sportswear, Israeli-designed fashion, and the new, gorgeous Carmel Forest Spa collection of soaps, fragrance and body products, there are indoor and outdoor pools.
There are also daily classes and activities, with instruction in English usually available, including fitness walks, yoga classes, salsa, tai chi, aquarobics, aerobics, Zomba, pilates, Feldenkrais, back-pain and body-shaping.
Our only regret is that we had time for only four days there. But we plan to return - preferably annually, for a detox and recharge. In the meantime, in December, when we light the chanukiah, we will slip in a little prayer of thanks for that other miracle that took place in the Carmel Hills in 5771.