Tel Aviv in style

As Virgin launches its new flight route to Tel Aviv, our food editor enjoys an indulgent city break


With low-cost airline after low-cost airline launching routes to Israel in recent years, we’ve become used to budget flights — and the trade-off of narrowly raked seats and a takeaway sandwich from the terminal.

So the news of Virgin Atlantic’s new service to Tel Aviv from Heathrow was a welcome alternative. But for both the more observant fliers and those who fancy a little more luxury in the air, what’s the new addition really like?

Invited along to help celebrate the new service last month, I got to find out. With 31 Upper Class and 48 Premium Economy seats ahead of the 185 seats in the economy cabin, it’s instantly a step up from the budget offerings.

And while Richard Branson himself was in Premium Economy, I landed a seat in Upper Class, with its fast track check-in and queue-free stroll through a VIP passport check, before relaxing in Virgin’s Club House — where breakfast is available (for Upper Class passengers only) from London’s modern-Israeli restaurant, The Good Egg.

A perfectly spiced Shakshuka bowl; smooth, nutty mini tahini shake and fruit-topped, crunchy grain bowl were just some of the treats. On board, there’s a Good Egg menu in Upper Class too, alongside a pared-down version in Premium Economy.

Kosher sparkling wine is offered before take-off and there are kosher wines with the meal. With a winter cold, I was mostly sipping soothing herbal teas from Virgin’s designer mugs, but did manage The Good Egg labneh, zingy with lemon flavour and fiery with a crunchy, spiced savoury granola topping, and an indulgent babka pudding slathered in date syrup and sprinkled with pistachio brittle.

As if a Jewish mother had been appointed head of catering, there’s also the ‘Wander Wall’, a shelf stocked with hechshered snacks for the Premium Economy and Upper Class fressers.

Kosher meals are from long-term airline kosher meal provider, Hermolis. The airline is working with high-end kosher caterer, Food Story, to trial kosher meals on board although not on the Tel Aviv route.

Economy passengers can get a Hermolis meal plus seat-back entertainment system to play with, while my flatbed seat in Upper Class came with a range of movies.

The crew have been given cultural awareness training too, so are ready for their customers to don tefillin for a mile high daven, and they smilingly accommodate any request.

Flight times are the scuff on this shiny new service. A late-ish 4pm departure arrives in the Holy Land at about 11pm, and an unearthly 6am departure from Israel sets down in London at a spritely 9.55am.

The reason? The airline’s attempt to tie in with its key New York route — a large chunk of passengers flying from London to Tel Aviv route are expected to be connecting from New York, enabling them to make the journey in a day.

For many of us the choice of who to fly with will come down to fares. When quizzed on price at the post-flight press conference, CEO Shai Weiss said the airline’s philosophy was “never to go out with an empty seat”.

Which means travellers could see the route becoming more competitive, with all the usual Virgin pizazz giving the other airlines a run for their money.

It wasn’t just the luxurious journey that made this break rather different to my usual trips to the White City. In the past, I’ve somehow missed taking any tours, choosing to spend time with family, hang out on the white sands and immerse myself in the city’s considerable gastronomic delights.

This time, after a morning strolling Jaffa’s picturesque cobbles, browsing the flea market and feasting on mezze at the breezy Vicky Cristina restaurant in the old station, I took a walking tour down Rothschild Boulevard.

Tour guide Maoz Haviv, former head of Netzer Olami (the Zionist youth movement) provided us with few hours of Tel Avivian history and some understanding of Tel Aviv’s melting pot of building styles.

Our guide was as Israeli as ptitim; his tour, full of authenticity. Born in the pre-independence days, to Eastern European immigrant parents, this life-long kibbutznik is passionately proud of his country.

Starting at artist Nachum Gutman’s colourful three-panelled mosaic monument at the southern end of Rothschild Boulevard, Haviv shed light on the city’s sometime careless attitude to its architectural heritage.

The central of the three panels depicts a now defunct map of Herzl Street. At the top was Gymnasia Herzliya, the first Hebrew high school.

Once a major landmark in the city, it was demolished in 1962 to make way for the Shalom Meir Tower, which was then, and for many years, the tallest skyscraper in the Middle East.

The Israelis later realised the error of their ways in destroying the old to make way for the new. “Oy vey they cried!” said our guide with comic Yiddish drama.

Following the demolition, a Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites was founded in the 1980s. Work is in place to renovate and preserve the historic buildings, and seeing the once decaying Bauhaus beauties being brought back to their crisp white curves and corners is wonderful.

Haviv continued to share nuggets — like how the founding 66 settler families picked shells on the beach to allocate them their plots — as he walked us to the main Rothschild Boulevard, past the former home of architect Akiva Weiss, the first brick building in the city.

As we reached the first of a series of white Art Deco-style kiosks, this one built in 1910, he produced a book to share black and white photographs of how the street had once looked.

A lonely structure on the beach, it remains the same from the exterior, but now functions as an espresso bar, surrounded by traffic and pedestrians.

Walking in the shade of the trees, the various memorials — statues and stones — were brought to life. The fabled Hebrew High School turned up again on the reverse of a stone commemorating those founding families, an adjacent pool marks the first of the city’s wells.

We saw the buildings change from European style to the trademark lines of Bauhaus, following the arrival of German refugees from Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

Heading towards the Habima Theatre, near the top a central section is given over to a grassy area strewn with cushions and a street library. A girl with a baby hugs Haviv; one of his RSY Netzer protegees, her partner is another RSY olim.

After our trot through Israeli history via the buildings and monuments of one of its central streets, it felt like the satisfying closing of a circle — and a reminder that every trip here brings something new.


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