4 Ways to Travel in Israel Free

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For almost as long as I’ve been traveling to Israel, and certainly when I lived there, prospective visitors have asked me the same question: where should I go? The answer to that question depends of course on what your chief interests are, but is often followed by whether you should travel independently or book a tour. To which I respond, Would you book a tour to New York City? If you crave structure and the patina of supervision, or are easily daunted by tall buildings or whatever or have another acceptable excuse, well fine. Otherwise, come on: If you’re old enough to swallow a craft beer, you’re old enough to take on pretty much any place on your own (except Florida, of course.)

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Israel is a small country, it’s a friendly country, it’s an expensive country. But between flying a low-cost airline into Tel Aviv, doing hotel research in advance and perhaps using AirBnb, you will do just fine and you will also take off from Ben Gurion International Airport with a fatter wallet. Forking over a small fortune to a tour company to take you places you can just as easily get to yourself, and on your own terms and pace, is just silly. Beyond that, travel is about stories and discoveries, not scripted experiences. Right?

With the above in mind, here are four ways and reasons to travel in Israel if not for free, then at least pretty freely.

1. Are you some kind of Heeb? Can ‘ya prove it?

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If you are kind of young and demonstrably Jewish, it’s likely you are eligible to travel to Israel for free on a so-called Birthright Israel trip. These free 10-day trips are brought to you by the selectively munificent and devilishly handsome casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. So if you meet the basic qualifications, yay! You’re in! And yes, I realize it’s an organized tour, but it really is free so like, hey now.

2. Are you Kim Kardashian, Conan O’Brien or some dumbass basketball player with a Coke endorsement?

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If you are Kim Kardashian, Conan O’Brien or some dumbass basketball player with a Coke endorsement, you may actually be able to travel to and in Israel mainly for free because Israelis, not unlike the French, are impressed by culturally bankrupt American celebrities with small IQs and large Twitter followings. They tend to believe having them peck the Western Wall and pose by the beach in Tel Aviv is tantamount to free advertising (forget that it costs Israel’s taxpayers a bundle) and it’s well-known that the richer and dumber you are in America, the more free stuff you get.

3. Are you L/G/B/T/Q?

If you are a member of the LGBTQ community, you have probably read about gay friendly Tel Aviv somewhere–maybe even the failing New York Times! The Middle East as a whole is hostile to homosexuality and there are sizeable pockets of Jerusalem where all things gay are still largely taboo, but Tel Aviv is one big badass rainbow exception.

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Now, that brings me back to the question of New York City. I don’t know of many LGBTs who would trade a week of galavanting around the Big Apple for the rigidity of an organized tour. Between online guides and apps and social media anybody can put together a fly itinerary of their own within hours, if not seconds. Tel Aviv is the Middle Eastern answer to New York City. Easy to get around. The gay beach? Smack in front of the Hilton hotel, easy to find. You can book a day trip to the Dead Sea or Jerusalem from virtually any hotel reception desk and frankly why wouldn’t you? So easy and cheap, too.

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Friends, unless you have a very specialized interest in archaeology or the Bible a day in the religiously overcooked Israeli capital is enough. In fact, the Jaffa section of Tel Aviv is older than Jerusalem, and it comes with a sea breeze, too. Just like most guidebooks get Israel wrong (even one I wrote, though it’s otherwise almost perfect, I cannot philosophically recommend because the publisher predictably refused to put Tel Aviv, the commercial capital of Israel, on the cover. Sad!)

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In other words people of the pink, you don’t need no guidebook and y’all don’t need no organized tour neither: Tel Aviv should be the locus and focus of your Israel trip. After you book your flights and hotel there, the rest is just hocus-pocus. Save your money.

4. Volunteer, bitch.

There may be ways to travel and stay in Israel for less by volunteering. For example, you could work at an archaeological dig. Or spend a week volunteering for the IDF.

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Now you can either kneel before Zod, or get lost.

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4 Ways to “Ruin” Your Weekend in Greece’s Second City

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Admit it: you thought all the ruins were in Athens. You thought that Thessaloniki — if you thought about it at all — was a place where there was a lot of good stuff but not much in the way of ancient relics, right? Wrong!

Much as you might like to party like Paris Hilton on a Greek island all summer, you know that there is more to see in Greece than Mykonos. Athens has cultural wealth and sun to spare, but the pull of Thessaloniki is something different. The Greek capital sometimes succumbs to a touristy vibe that is altogether absent in Greece’s second city, just 190 miles to the north. That makes Thessaloniki, which is the capital of Greek Macedonia and named for the half-sister of Alexander the Great, something of a secret.

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Coke? Jesus? OK! Image: AG

INVISIBLE RUINS

The city’s past is denser and more layered than a flourless dark chocolate cake and sometimes as bittersweet: Students of Second World War history will recall Thessaloniki as a place whose large Jewish population was decimated by the Nazis. Did you know that this city was home to the largest Jewish cemetery in the Mediterranean until the Nazis destroyed it? It may not seem easy to destroy 300,000 tombstones, but the Germans made quick work of that — and that was the “nice” part. In 1943, virtually the entire Jewish population of Thessaloniki, numbering 46,091, was hauled off to Auschwitz in cattle cars — a couple of which are preserved on the periphery of the city’s train station. There were 19 meticulously organized transfers. Only 1,950 Jews would return to the city of whose fabric their community had been a vital part for more than 21 centuries. 

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In certain periods in time, it was the one of the highest populations in the city, especially after 1492. The first Jews came around 140 B.C. from Alexandria, the so-called Romaniote Jews. The arrival of almost 20,000 Jewish newcomers deported from Spain, though, was what altered the face of the city. Through their skills and abilities, the (‘Sephardites’) revived the wounded Thessaloniki after its conquest by the Ottomans and contributed to its commercial ascent. In 1870, the 50,000 Jewish residents constituted 56 percent of the Thessalonian population, while in 1941, 36 synagogues were fully functioning. The city’s oldest synagogue burned in the 1917 fire that leveled much of the historic center. The Nazis destroyed all the others save one, the Monastirioton Synagogue, which was built in 1927 and has been beautifully restored. I went inside to take a peek: very light and bright.

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Inside the Temple. Image: Anthony Grant

Postcards from Israel For My Father on His Early Spring Birthday, with no mention of numbers or dates

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Because it’s my blog, and I’ll turn it into a birthday card if I want to!

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This is an old building in Jaffa, probably built during Turkish times i.e. a really long time ago. But wait, this is more about my Dad, who in comparison to this edifice is pretty dang young.

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Jumping a few centuries forward, here’s a partial view of Tel Aviv from the balcony of a fancy new hotel called The Brown Beach House. The Mediterranean (not pictured) is on the right.

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This is a view from a hotel and office tower on Rothschild Boulevard, looking east over the Neve Tzedek neighborhood to the sea.

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Another skyline view, this time looking south.

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I took a picture of this cat from the window of my pied-a-terre in Tel Aviv. Then I dropped my new camera on the parquet floor and broke it. But because Dad had insisted on filling out the warranty card, the camera will be fixed and I’ll have money for more shakshukas (see below). Always thinking ahead, while my head’s in my shakshuka–another thing I love about Dad.

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Another sunset over the Mediterranean. And if you could momentarily transform yourself into an albatross, the sea might look like this: 

…moving on,

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…that’s from the balcony of a great hotel in Akko (ancient Acre) called The Efendi. It’s two renovated Ottoman-era mansions joined together.

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I had this shakshuka for breakfast in Jaffa the other day. It was good, but the eggs were a bit too runny for my taste.

And now, time for a little video from a place where the breakfasts are always good. As in REALLY good. With that in mind, eat something! And

HAPPY BIRTHDAY DAD!!!!!!!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is what might happen if you spend 24 Hours at the Carlton Hotel in Tel Aviv

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TEL AVIV, Israel—Do you know what makes a great hotel? I know what doesn’t: high thread count Frette linens, a Jeff Koons knock-off in the lobby or the fact that George Washington once slept there, maybe. In other words yes, the devil is in the details but what you want is character. The more character there is in your hotel, the freer you will be to act like the person you really are, but who the predations of routine and inertia may have obscured.  This is the reason you travel. Every city has but a handful of hotels that can truly be said to exemplify what that place is really about and it’s a quixotic list of ingredients indeed which, in terms of a hotel’s authenticity of character, of sense of place chops if you will, makes it or breaks it.

The Carlton Tel Aviv Hotel

Both sides now: The iconic Carlton Tel Aviv Hotel seen from two directions of the seaside promenade.

From the outside, the Carlton Tel Aviv Hotel looks almost indestructible, a concrete chunk that would appear to be at odds with the blue of the Mediterranean Sea which laps at the shore across the seaside promenade in front of it. Of course, we all know that nothing in life is indestructible except for Cher’s hair, but what I love about this block of concrete, which I’m guessing dates from the 1970s or ’80s, is that it so reflects the Israeli character: hard on the outside, to the point of impenetrable. Certainly unknowable. But what’s inside, ah — this is another matter altogether.  Be careful because you might find something sweeter than you had bargained for and then you’ll have to figure out what to do with it. You might become like a hummingbird to nectar, wanting to take in more, hovering, knowing that ultimately you just can’t stay. But in the meantime, there you are…

Blue is beautiful: the view of Tel Aviv’s sea promenade from Room 1301, a Royal Executive room.

The Carlton has 268 rooms and suites, which kicks it out of the boutique hotel category however, there is a definite small-hotel feel here and this is due in part to structure. In most instances I would be the last person to sing the praises of concrete, but what you have here is essentially a concrete capsule, narrow at the base and pushing up into a voluminous square 15 stories high, and chock full of delicious surprises. Starting with breakfast. By the beach. Do I really have to keep typing? I said BREAKFAST BY THE BEACH, PEOPLE.

Carlton on the Beach for your breakfast. Haaretz optional

Carlton on the Beach for your breakfast. Cappucino and sunglasses essential. Copy of Haaretz, optional.

I loved the service at Carlton on the Beach, which is actually the one part of the hotel that’s not part of aforementioned capsule. (It’s a tiny one-minute walk across the beachfront sidewalk). Friendly, solicitous, not overbearing. You know that yours truly is one happy breakfast camper when he finds himself seated next to small children and doesn’t even care: when you are in a fine setting with professional service, not even a wayward bird dropping its calling card on your copy of Haaretz gets you down (some of the newspaper’s left-wing drift might, but this is Israel, and that’s another story). By the way, did I mention that  this beachside breakfast experience includes a halvah bar? Well, at risk of repeating myself, this beachside breakfast experience includes a halvah bar. We’re talking chocolate and vanilla. We’re talking pistachio. Here’s the proof:

Breakfast at Carlton on the Beach is served until 11AM...nice, nice, nice.

Left: Chocolate halvah. Carlton on the Beach serves breakfast until 11AM…sweet!

But I digress because though in Hebrew you read from right to left, you do not typically start a hotel stay in Israel with breakfast. You start with check-in and here at the Carlton it’s a pretty easy process. The lobby is contemporary/cozy, with a sort of New Israeli hygge going for it: light that’s reflecting off the sea streams in to the front, with blue back-lit reception counters. Ten randomly selected guests a day receive a little welcome snack, which consists of glass of refreshing sweet tea, fresh bread sticks, organic cheese and honey dipping sauce. It looks like this:

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But if don’t get that welcome snack don’t worry, because apart from things like beds and rainbath showers and surprising sea views, the Carlton Tel Aviv is like one big grazing station.

Fancy a fruit platter?

Fancy a fruit platter?

The hotel’s signature restaurant is called Blue Sky and is situated appropriately enough on the roof, with sweeping views of the Tel Aviv skyline (Bauhaus in the foreground, skyscrapers beyond). It’s run by Meir Adoni, an Israeli celebrity chef whose other renowned restaurants in Tel Aviv are called Catit, in the Neve Tzedek neighborhood, and Mizlala. It’s a kosher gourmet restaurant the menu focuses on fish and vegetarian items.

Fancy fish at Blue Sky

A fancy fish dish at Blue Sky by Meir Adoni, atop the Carlton Tel Aviv hotel

Not cheap but very, very delicious. My dinner started with a chestnut soup made with root vegetables, chestnuts (natch), grouper in butter, roasted macadamia foam milk and vanilla oil, with a mini cinammon butter brioche on the side. My dining companion, Y, was utterly verklempt, although with Adoni behind the menu I was less surprised by the innovation manifested by this particular potage. Moving on to mains, Y opted for  the Spaghetti “Carbonara” with homemade linguini, red tuna “pancetta”, lime aioli and mini parmesan pops. Tempted though I was by the Southern Tortellini, involving as it does seared Arava tomatoes, goat cheese, roasted zucchini, basil and lime zest, I stuck to my piscine priorities and the “Scents from Casablanca” did not disappoint: a well-proportioned grouper fillet in herb butter, pepper marmalade, chard, leek-lemon yogurt, cardamom and saffron crème, fava beans (and mind you, all this was plated on three different areas of the dish), coriander, hummus cream, light tomato sauce and Moroccan-style couscous.

That’s a pretty filling dish, but still I had to leave room for one of Adoni’s signature celestial desserts. Actually, there had to be two: “Winter in Florence”, a coffee-esque concoction of amaretto tiramisu, mascarpone and coffee crème, coffee crumble, candied almonds, biscotti bits, porcini sugar (!), brandy zabaglione and basil. If that seems slightly more complicated than the Middle East peace process that’s because it probably is, but also a lot tastier. Y tucked into it with aplomb whilst my thoughts, and fork, were deep into the Caribbean Sunset, which looked something like this:

Exotic dessert by Meir Adoni

 

Frankly, this is the kind of food you dream about. So thank heavens the guestrooms at the Carlton are perfectly proportioned and comfortable. I can’t tell you how many hotel rooms in Tel Aviv have disappointed me for the same reason they do in New York: they are often just way too petite. I am not saying each and every room here is enormous, but the size is ample and there are frequently sea views that would be the envy of most other hotels. I also like the fact that the balconies with said sea views are small: you’re not meant to lounge there and this, mercifully, is not a party hotel, but maybe to pause and meditate for a moment, perhaps over an espresso (and the rooms have electric kettles with coffee and tea if you need a quick caffeine fix). Room enough to hang a swimsuit out to dry 🙂

A typical Royal Executive category room at the Carlton

A typical Royal Executive category room at the Carlton. Bathrooms are white with rainbath showers.

I recommend booking the Bianco Suite, if you can afford it (Santa can you hear me? I promise to be nice..) A Royal Executive room on floors 11-14 will get you complimentary access to the Royal Executive Lounge on the 14th floor, which is open daily from 9AM to 11PM. It offers a solid buffet with drinks and snacks, computer stations and a selection of international newspapers. It’s very quiet up here, and come sunset you might see something out the windows that looks like this:

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The sunset view over Tel Aviv Marina from the 14th floor Royal Executive Lounge.

Sometimes the sunsets like Day-Glo candy pink over the Mediterranean, Like the pink petit-fours I tried not to monopolize at the lounge buffet, pictured here. Not pictured, a very nice kosher vegetable soup. The offerings change daily…

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…as do the views from the roof top pool, from the front,

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…and the back (restaurant level)

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Here’s another:

 

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Stellar views, groovy cuisine, a range of really great rooms…I almost forgot to mention the gym! It’s on the fifth floor and features the latest Technogym equipment, sea views and a live beach cam. There’s also a nifty little dry sauna as well as a tiled hammam-style steam room and two rooms for spa treatments or massages.

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More pictures from Carlton on the Beach, for breakfast:

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….the outside deck is elevated, so your view of the blue is unobstructed:

 

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btw who slipped me this note? Were they reading my mind?

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Give yourself 24 hours at the Carlton Tel Aviv…it’s just enough time to

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…start getting hungry for a little more

*

 

More Instagram images @tonytelsit

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Five Places Where You Need To Be Kissed

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Five places where you need to be kissed now — and why not? Perhaps you didn’t think of Israel as a romantic destination, and maybe it isn’t. But were the likes of Paris and Venice ever elected capitals of love by free and democratic election? No. And my vote’s on Israel for places that will surprise you with the power to wow you, and if that isn’t a recipe for romance, then good God I don’t know what is. So from the towers of Tel Aviv to the desert sands of the Negev, here are some choice spots in Israel where, for your own good, you need to be kissed now.
 - Photo: Scots Hotel Tiberias
Scots Hotel Tiberias. Photo: Scots Hotel Tiberias

1.  Scots Hotel, Tiberias

The luxurious Scots Hotel in Tiberias was built by the Church of Scotland in the refurbished historical buildings of the Scottish Hospital. Here, you’ll find a supremely restful atmosphere, amid a fusion of 19th-century basalt stone buildings with 18 guestrooms and a more modern wing with 50 more. Access to theswimming pool is by elevated walkway over exquisite, luxuriant gardens straight out of the bible. From the glorious pool, you can look out over the Sea of Galilee all the way to the Golan Heights.

This is an upscale hotel where bacon is readily available (yum!) and is that rare place that’s perfect for families and couples alike. Sources say the aforementioned gardens are quite conducive to a kiss, stolen or otherwise. More »

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 - Photo: Anthony Grant
Tel Aviv Port. Photo: Anthony Grant

2.  Tel Aviv Port

Malls aren’t generally romantic places, but what about un-malls? The Tel Aviv Port complex, called Namal in Hebrew, would qualify as one of those: lots of great shops and restaurants, and no roof. Located in north Tel Aviv and right alongside the sea, this is perhaps — with the clear exception of the Carmel Market — the most iconic of Tel Aviv’s shopping places.The long, vast decks are made of bleached gray wood and in places are fashioned to look like sand dunes, their gentle curves forming a foreground to an aquatic orchestra of white-blue waves that lap the railing. Serenaded by sea spray, it’s also the perfect staging ground for a sun-kissed you-know-what. More »

 - Photo: Anthony Grant
Beresheet. Photo: Anthony Grant

3.  Beresheet, Negev

Beresheet is a new resort located in the dusty Negev Desert town of Mitzpe Ramon, about two hours south of the Dead Sea. The name in Hebrew means means “genesis.”

Beresheet aspires to eco-sensitivity – after you park and arrive, the only way to get around is by electric golf cart or on foot. There are 111 rooms and suites located in different areas throughout the property. Forty-two suites have their own swimming pools. The restaurant features organic cuisine and a décor that, thanks to floor-to-ceiling glass walls, opens up to the desert views.

Beresheet is located literally on top of the Makhtesh Ramon, the world’s biggest crater formed from natural erosion, and a spectacular highlight of the Negev. Sources say there is already a tradition of kissing on the balcony that hovers spectacularly over the crater.More »

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city center hostel and hotel familial and cosy ,colonial house
 - Photo: Anthony Grant
Pina Barosh in Rosh Pina. Photo: Anthony Grant

4.  Rosh Pina

Israel has plenty of pretty hill towns like Safed, Zichron Yaakov and Rosh Pina. Safed may be better known outside Israel than Rosh Pina — it is, after all, the home of Jewish mysticism and a known haunt of Madonna when the Kabbalah Girl visits Israel — but it’s Rosh Pina that wins over more Israelis on account of its great restaurants and small inns with a rustic yet upmarket ambience.

Located in the Galilee, in Israel’s north, Rosh Pina overlooks the Hula Valley and edge of the Golan Heights. Leafy and artsy, its history is similar to that of Zichron Yaakov to the south. Today it has a large assortment of very charming inns and restaurants – some, like Pina Barosh, are both.

Pina Barosh is reminiscent of some of the wonderfully refurbished old farmhouse (agrotourism) properties you’ll find in places like Cyprus and Italy. The guestrooms are resplendent with exposed stone walls and comfy furnishings, but it’s the view from the restaurant that’s the more ravishing backdrop to a kiss…and to be frank, a cluckingamazing chicken salad. More »

 - Photo: Anthony Grant
Bat Yam. Photo: Anthony Grant

5.  Bat Yam

Let’s face it, you really don’t need to be kissed on the beach in Tel Aviv, because it would be a bit like locking lips on a crowded subway platform — you might be footloose, fancy free and sunbaked, but chances are slim you’ll be anything close to alone.

What makes Bat Yam‘s beach prime get-kissed country is its off-the-radar feel even though it’s literally just footsteps south of Jaffa. This is where you go when you have a free afternoon in Tel Aviv but can’t handle the city’s boardwalk bustle. Bat Yam isn’t glamorous, but the beach is actually wider (and I’d guess, cleaner) than Tel Aviv’s long stretch of sand. So revel in this insider sexy secret, slather on the sunblock and pucker up! More »

To Hebron for the Weekend?

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Travel magazines and newspaper travel sections, not to mention blogs, regularly run stories about Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and lots of other places in the Holy Land. Not many go very deep on West Bank coverage, politically freighted as it is. I myself think it would be very interesting to visit places like Hebron, but it does take some logistics and I just haven’t gotten around to it. However, this guy did.