Israel: A shining spa in the north
JC editor Stephen Pollard finds perfection in a pine forest near Haifa
The tranquil terraces of the Carmel Forest Spa, with loungers overlooking the Carmel mountains
I’ve never really understood the phrase “You can have too much of a good thing”. Why? Sure, you can have too little. Most of us usually do. The right amount of a good thing? Of course. Without doing a Wittgenstein on you, clearly if it’s the right amount then you can have it. But too much? Nah.
My mother gives me four matzoh balls but then comes over all health conscious when I ask for a fifth. Why? Would that 25 per cent increase in my matzoh ball consumption really make the critical difference to my Body Mass Index?
You might wonder why I am sharing these thoughts with you, but stick with me. They are central to the Carmel Forest Spa Resort experience. Partly because — its clientele being predominantly Jewish — these are surely the sorts of questions being hotly debated in the restaurant; and partly because the central issue raised by this spa, perfectly located in the heart of a dense pine forest north of Haifa, is whether or not one can have too much of a good thing.
And the answer — as my week there proved — is that you can. And then again, you can’t.
Mrs P and I needed a week’s break. Me, I needed to get away from the 24/6 world of the JC; and Mrs P to wind down from work stress and prepare for the final trimester of her pregnancy.
Talk about doing the trick. I’ve been to some good places before. But I’ve never been anywhere as utterly perfect as the Carmel Forest Resort. Seriously. After the first couple of days, which seemed too good to be true, we went out of our way to find flaws. We made it our week’s work. We are Jewish, after all.
And we failed, utterly. The staff, from the manager to the reception clerks to the maids were unfailingly polite. Everything works. It runs like clockwork. And, like all the best places, they go the extra mile.
Take check-in. We arrived far too early — at 2pm, rather than the agreed 4pm. But instead of the familiar check-in moan, we were told to head off to the buffet and enjoy ourselves. Such hospitality is a hallmark of the place.
Our room wasn’t huge, but that only goes to show that size, indeed, doesn’t matter. The bed was gorgeously comfortable with more than enough pillows — an inadequate supply being my my own regular bugbear. And proper pillows, too, not those pointless, fluffy things that wouldn’t support a pea.
The bathroom was full of the requisite toiletries — it is a spa, after all — and clean and spacious. And the room had a sofa and two armchairs, with a terrace overlooking the gardens and two sunloungers.
Every morning and evening the maids brought bottled water, with a jug of water with sliced lemon and mint leaves left outside early morning. Ah, the maids. This is what I mean by clockwork. They have a system here so that when you go down for breakfast, the maids are alerted and rush in to the rooms to clean it. Can you imagine a better start to the day than coming back from breakfast to a freshly made up room? They do the same thing at dinner. The day’s clutter and mess disappears while you’re away eating.
Eating. Eating. Eating. I’ll return later to… eating.
Carmel Forest is near Haifa, and it was our firm intention to spend a day in the city. But we spent seven nights at the spa. And we didn’t step out of the grounds once.
We meant to. We wanted to. But when it came to it, every morning, we just wanted to savour the place even more. Because, as I might have mentioned, it’s simply perfect.
What did we do for a week? Nothing. And that’s the joy of it. We did nothing with the purpose and intensity appropriate to such an opportunity.
Not that doing nothing involves no activity, of course.
We interrupted each day with a treatment in the spa. I tried half a dozen. I started with — and this is not a sentence I have ever conceived of writing before — a pedicure.
It was Mrs P’s idea. I guess she’d tired of gnarled toes and ragged nails attacking her at night. And I have to confess to enjoying it.
And, as you’ll have to take on trust, I now have beautiful, dainty tootsies. I had a Thai massage, a facial (again, being a bloke, a new experience), a head-and-shoulders massage and quite the best deep tissue massage I’ve ever had. Sensationally good. I was spaced out for days after.
The spa is particularly good for pregnant women — this being Israel, there were lots there — and has specially designed treatments. Mrs P said her “Pregnant Shiatsu” was astonishingly good.
But although the treatments punctuate the days, they don’t feel central to the experience. It would be a mistake, but you could spend a week there without any and still be in heaven.
Pre- and post- treatments, the real relaxation (apart from the tranquil, post-treatment relaxation area) is sitting by, and swimming in, the huge, naturally warm and beautifully kept outdoor pool. (There’s a big indoor pool, too.)
There are sunloungers, rocking chairs, swinging chairs and, on the sloping lawns surrounding the pool, mattresses with pillows. There’s even a four-poster wooden bed, draped in linen, on the lawns.
One of the most attractive aspects of Carmel Forest is the mix of guests. From fully Orthodox to secular Jews, everyone does everything. Clothed women swim alongside those in almost skimpy bikinis, the very elderly eat next to twentysomethings. Everyone, that is, except children — there’s a minimum age of 16, which helps (along with a strict ban on mobile phones in public areas) explain the pervasive atmosphere of calm.
And almost everyone spends the day in the spa uniform — white bathrobe. For the first day it looks and feels a bit odd, but take it from me that there’s something rather liberating about getting up, putting trunks on, going for a swim, putting dry trunks on, swimming again…you get the picture. And you never have to worry whether your shorts match your tee-shirt; you just reach for the bathrobe.
But I’ve left the best to last: Eating. Eating. Eating. And more Eating.
Only a Jewish spa would have a buffet bigger than its gym. And quite right too. Because although this is a health spa — if you want it to be — and has a full range of healthy meals, labelled with all the nutritional details you might need, it also has everything else, too. (The labels, gloriously, inform you that if you add the various lentils and mung beans to your meals it will improve the nutritional value. It was good to know that when I had my fried cheese gnocchi.)
The salads. Oh, the salads! Carmel Forest is full board. And full is the word. Breakfast, which is from seven until three (they change the selection at 12.30), is a sumptuous buffet of gloriously inventive and flavoursome fresh salads, fruit, breads, desserts, and everything else you can imagine being available. And then, when you’re full from that, there’s waiter service for hot food from a large menu.
The same procedure for dinner, too, with finer food. It’s the opposite of Woody Allen’s “The food in this place is really terrible. Yes, and such small portions.”
The food is fabulous, and in huge portions. One night I had fillet steak. Rather, three fillet steaks. I wasn’t (especially) greedy — that was what arrived. Mrs P had a veal casserole she said she’d remember for ever.
So here’s my conclusion. Yes, you can have too much of a good thing, and I did. I went to a health spa and put on four pounds.
But can you really have too much of this good thing? Come off it.
Carmel Forest Spa Resort, Haifa 31900 (00972 4 830 7888; www.isrotel.co.il/English) has double rooms from 1,570 NIS (£245) per night, which includes all meals and use of all spa facilities for two, though not additional treatments. bmi (www.flybmi.com; 0870 6070 555) flies twice daily to Tel Aviv from Heathrow. Return flights from £293, economy; £557 premium economy and £793, business-class.