Are you looking for the next cool place? If so, why? And for God’s sake don’t go looking here.
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.)
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?
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?
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.
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.
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!)
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.
Attention four-star and five-star hotel hoppers: You know you’ve seen it there, lurking in the closet above the logo-emblazoned single-use slippers and plastic laundry bag. Your first reaction is probably something like, “Hey, that’s a really nice looking shopping bag!” to be swiftly followed by something like, “But hey, why did they stick a shopping bag in the hotel room closet? After all, it’s a hotel room, not a shop.” Followed, after a fumble as you reach out to touch it — thick! sturdy! glossy! — by a third wave of reactions: “What am I supposed to do with it? Am I supposed to use it? Am I allowed to keep it?”
Damn you, hotel shopping bag! You come on so innocently but really the angst that follows, sometimes it really is too much. We’ll think about you later, and about how you sit there in the dark night after night branding yourself in silence after we Instagram that room service menu that faux-tantalizes us with the promise of $28 challah French toast plus 15% room service charge, no gratuity included. . .
After all, when in your hotel room you’re supposed to think of other things like the bed or the bathroom or leaving your hotel room to go out and explore, or about things like airports and train stations and taxis and packing and unpacking and packing again and yes, that’s when your mind turns once again to that quixotic creature in your temporary closet, the monogrammed, or sort of monogrammed hotel shopping bag. Could you–I mean what if you—could you seriously even—why yes, I even have, and more than once!–think of it as a complimentary complementary suitcase? YES! YES! YES!
But like most pairings, what at first seems like a natural match can drift into the domain of delusion, and end up as a downright pain in the derriere.
Allow moi to tripsplain: Let’s say you’re in Paris. You arrive at your hotel with your favorite suitcase. After a day in Paris you buy a couple souvenirs. After two days you’ve acquired a bunch of new stuff in a variety of shopping bags, some nice, some just cheap plastic. After three days you’ve accumulated so much crap because you’re such a … that you’re contemplating buying an extra suitcase but–why should you when that sweet hotel shopping bag beckons? Just use it as that extra suitcase! And impress all those losers in the security line (you know, the tightwads who wouldn’t spring for TSA Pre) with the fancypants paper imprint of the Park Hyatt or Ritz or wherever you just had your (hopefully not too woefully scripted) luxe chain hotel experience.*
*Because the hotel shopping bag phenomenon is not widely seen outside the larger luxury hotels, although there are exceptions. Anyway…
Just do it! DOOO IT! Grab that bag! But hold the 420, it smells bad. Do it like so: think stacking.
That’s a hotel shopping bag from the lovely Sofitel Athens Airport Hotel, which made it through round one without a hitch: it’s pictured above, on top of my carry-on, in the lobby of the St. George Lycabettus Hotel in Athens. Shopping bags and cross-town taxi rides make for easy bedfellows.
Making it to round two, i.e. getting through airport security, is another matter altogether.
The problem is this: if like me you have seen the hotel shopping bag as a cost-free substitute for an extra suitcase, you will proceed to pack it up like one. Only it isn’t one, which will became painfully evident as everything falls out of it once you tilt it over to send it through the X-ray machine.
But let’s suppose you didn’t overstuff it and it does make it through the security process intact. It’s surely going to get scuffed between the terminal and the tarmac, so once you finally get home, if you’re going to try to impress your neighbors or fellow grocery shoppers with that hotel brand-emblazoned shopping bag, it’s fine but it will be clear that you are no Kim Kardashian, not even Dubai-dwellin’ LiLo and that you had no limousine or VIP service, that you did all the heavy lifting on this trip yourself, and that despite the glamorous patina momentarily conferred upon you by the ever-flirtatious hotel shopping bag, your dreams are as tattered as it is now, and you are still a loser.
Oh God damn you, hotel shopping bag!
Do you have a Hotel Shopping Bag story of your own? Great! Keep it to yourself.
Crete is an island as unnerving and necessary as love. Tough though it can be come summertime to dodge the heat-seeking hordes from the north, it’s still a worthwhile place to while a way a week or more to get a feel for Greece beyond its wonderful but cramped capital and the by-now cliche Greek islands like Santorini and whatever flavor-of-the-month isle as anointed by the glossy travel mags your Aunt Selma still swears by. Crete doesn’t have time for what’s trending because it is timeless. It’s mountains, sea, kri-kris and gods, and once in a while it’s a great hotel too. One in particular, the five-star Caramel Grecotel Boutique Resort, will make you sweet on Crete, says Anthony Grant.
There are regular flights between Athens and the two Cretan cities of Heraklion and Chania, and they are typically take just a half hour or so. On my most recent visit, I flew to Chania on the island’s north coast, then took a very clean and modern bus forty miles east to the historic seaside town of Rethymno. If you want to rent a car, go with the best, Voyager. Without much luggage, I could have explored Rethymno’s old Venetian harbor and twisting lanes right away but the mood board called for something breezy, beachy and sweet: so I took a short taxi ride to the Caramel Grecotel Boutique Resort. Comfortably ensconced on a curvilinear green velvet canapé, I was offered a Cretan iced tea and caramel pop. More, parakalo!
One of the best places to stay anywhere in Crete, the resort is designed like an island village in characteristic Mediterranean white, with individually decorated rooms, suites and villas, many with mesmerizing sea views.
And some eclectic touches…
Breakfast at Grecotel Caramel is not just a meal, it’s an event. Above, fresh baked cookies and other gourmet Greek nibbles. There’s a hot buffet and other foods stations as well.
Yogurt anyone? Greek yogurt with homemade jams and honey, maximizing your yum.
Regarding those sea views…take a look:
Grecotel pioneered five-star service in Greece. Personalized service is second nature.
Did somebody say raki? Agreco Farms is Grecotel’s premium line of gourmet products from its own farm. Actually my favorite item from the range is the Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
Speaking of stuff that’s intoxicating, did you know that when you book a villa at Caramel you can have it fragranced just for you? I’d suggest the signature Caramel scent.
We’ll get back to the farm in sec. Crete is about emotion, not chronological order. While a room in the main building suited me just fine (it looked similar to what you see in the photo below), note that if you take a villa you can have a beachside gazebo set up for you at no extra charge (otherwise it’s 50 euros extra). Villa guests get comp beach bags too.
I met a lovely donkey, who I called Christos, at Agreco Farm. He looked happier to me than most Democrats I know. I wanted to take him home with me…who wouldn’t? But with these new TSA regulations our rendezvous was destined to be but a fleeting one.
Agreco Farm has animals, fruit trees, open fields with views to the Mediterranean Sea…
Yes, so, unlike any other hotel or resort in Crete (unless you can prove otherwise), this one has its own farm – you can’t get any more locally sourced than that. Agreco Farm, set on 100 ocean-view acres in the lush hills above Rethymno. Up there under the sybaritic Cretan sun, manager Nikos Lyronis showed me how to pick a wild artichoke right from the field and eat it. He also introduced me to a kri-kri, the wild goat of Crete. I fed the goat before sitting down for a six-course organic Cretan feast with Charalabos Gialtakis, the Grecotel Caramel hotel manager. It was the perfect opportunity to sample Agreco’s delicious olive oil, wines and cheeses along with more full-bodied Cretan fare. This kind of farm-to-table dining experience, at the farm itself, is a rarity in travel today and gives you a new perspective on the Greek palate.
Some of that amazing olive oil I mentioned. And it appears that Christos the Donkey’s modeling career is moving ahead at a faster clip than yours truly’s. My #sad!
Delicious olives and artisanal Cretan cheese are even more delicious savored al fresco.
Stuffed peppers, stuffed zucchini and my favourite, stuffed Cretan tomatoes.
Grecotel was one of the pioneers of Greek tourism in the post-war era so it’s no surprise that standards here are high, and nothing feels like formula. With its mix of beachfront villas and family-friendly junior suites, you will get that personalized, five-star feeling whether you are Brad Pitt or a family of four. (Did I mention free kids’ dining in the Tasty Corner?) I could go on but will direct readers instead to the fine website…in a minute.
During my too-brief stay in May, I had as my neighbor Greek pop singer Natasha Theodoridou (pictured above left) – and as usual, the place where the “locals” check in too is most assuredly where you want to be.
I missed Theodoridou’s concert in Rethymno because by the time I had dashed into town to take some photos of the old Venetian architecture (the whole of Crete once belonged to Venice) and savor some chocolate-dipped baklava, I barely had time to make it back to
the property for my revitalizing facial treatment in the excellent spa, the Caramel Wellness Centre (bye bye airport grime!) followed by a swim at the nice, clean beach.
A few parting shots from delightful Rethymno:
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Because it’s my blog, and I’ll turn it into a birthday card if I want to!
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.
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.
This is a view from a hotel and office tower on Rothschild Boulevard, looking east over the Neve Tzedek neighborhood to the sea.
Another skyline view, this time looking south.
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.
Another sunset over the Mediterranean. And if you could momentarily transform yourself into an albatross, the sea might look like this:
…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.
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!!!!!!!!!
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.
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…
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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:
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 🙂
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:
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…
…as do the views from the roof top pool, from the front,
…and the back (restaurant level)
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.
More pictures from Carlton on the Beach, for breakfast:
….the outside deck is elevated, so your view of the blue is unobstructed:
btw who slipped me this note? Were they reading my mind?
Give yourself 24 hours at the Carlton Tel Aviv…it’s just enough time to
…start getting hungry for a little more
More Instagram images @tonytelsit
“A lot of people compare Cyprus to a Greek island, but actually it’s nothing like one,” says Vakis Hadjikyriacou, the enterprising Cypriot architect who, along with his interior designer wife Diana, is responsible for transforming a sizeable chunk of the half-forgotten village of Lofou into a low-key but unerringly gorgeous Mediterranean hideaway. “In Greek islands people have to live off the sea, but in Cyprus they must live off the land – Cyprus was made from villages, not ports.”
Most Cypriot villages are tucked behind mountains, but Lofou is one of a handful whose original residents went right for the summit: “They were unafraid of pirates, so they built their villages up here to command a view of the area,” Hadjikyriacou says. But by non-Cypriot standards, this place – a glorious jumble of low stone buildings and twisting lanes baked to a blond glow by centuries of sun – screams seclusion.
The only traffic noise at Apokryfo comes from the occasional jet fighter taking off from the British Sovereign Base Area at Akrotiri – ISIS is keeping the base humming these days. A courtyard and pool are at the center of an ancient stone ensemble of 13 refurbished rooms and houses. It’s all about giving guests a taste of the island’s arcadian hinterland, but in a modern manner. So once you untangle those mercifully paved upswept curls and find it, you can have your satellite TV and spa treatments along with dreamy cobalt-blue stained wood doors and night skies thick with stars.
The village of Kalopanayiotis in the Troodos Mountain foothills is known for its sulfur springs, proximity to a Byzantine monastery and a hotel property on the Apokryfo model.
Called Casale Panayiotis, it unites six independent ancient stone houses of various shapes and sizes. There’s a modern spa and restaurant, and you can take a guided detour up into the Troodos in a jaunty renovated 1950s Bedford British bus.
Less secret than these pockets of posh is that the island is more or less split across the middle. The legendary stomping ground of Aphrodite is the largest island east of the Aegean, but what it really takes first prize for is historical hot mess. This is the ancient isle that Marc Antony gifted to Cleopatra, where Alexander the Great tweaked his fleet for eastern conquests, where Ottoman Turks trounced the Venetians in 1571, and where modern ones swooped in again in 1974.
Turkey still intransigently (and illegally) occupies roughly the northern third of Cyprus while a UN-monitored buffer zone trails like a sad gash across Nicosia, the inland capital that flourished under Venetian rule (their sturdy ramparts are still standing).
Greek Cypriots tend to be stoic about all this — after all Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, was born here.
There are traces of Neolithic civilizations in Cyprus that stretch back ten thousand years, and in addition to the remains of their cozy round stone houses, archaeologists have unearthed here a fossil of the oldest known housecat. Some 3,500 years ago, Mycenaean Greeks ventured east from Greece and despite the endless ebb and flow of empires, the cultural character of the island remains predominantly Greek. Prior to the Turkish invasion (prompted in part by a coup in Athens) tourism in Cyprus was all about the beach and there’s still ample reason to go coastal here, but if sprawling resorts like Anassa north of Pafos tempt with creature comforts, they don’t exactly fire the imagination either.
So back to those pirates of yore for a moment: one place where people evidently were fearful of them is Kalavasos, which is wedged between an ancient copper mine and a mountain not far from the main highway that leads to the port city of Limassol. The village boasts (quietly) a minaret – this was an ethnically mixed village before the Turkish invasion – improbably decorated with stone crescent moons and Stars of David. Further evidence that little Cyprus is full of surprises…