Mary Gostelow enjoys the five-star side of Israel
Well what a surprise, in the nicest possible sense. As of March 2017, the top five floors of the venerable Hilton Tel Aviv have been hived off to make The Vista at Hilton Tel Aviv – think Four Seasons Las Vegas or Nobu Hotel Las Vegas, both tucked into Mandalay Bay – but this is even better. Stay at The Vista at Hilton Tel Aviv and you can use all the facilities of Hilton Tel Aviv, say its gorgeous outdoor pool and big Technogym and possibly even the ongoing 12th-floor Hilton Club Lounge, but not vice versa. The 167 rooms and suites that have been Vista-ised have exclusive access to the 17th-floor Vista Lounge, a superb glass-walled eyrie designed by Turkish top designer, Sinan Kafadar, who has done Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at the Bosphorus, Four Seasons Hotel Istanbul at Sultanahmet, and The Ritz-Carlton Istanbul (yes, he is a versatile creator).
Simply described, the west end of the building’s top floor has been turned into a light-filled box, three sides of which are all glass, giving superb views far out across the Mediterranean and either side along the city’s beaches and back to the city itself. The Club’s fourth wall supports the entertainment area, where from 6.30am on, you have way above-par offerings, with the most international food with a Californian flair (I think everyone from Alain Ducasse to Wolfgang Puck would approve, although since this all comes from the hotel’s dairy kitchen they might miss their foie gras). I could easily live off the local fresh produce and arrays of cheeses and smoked fish, and I did at breakfast and dinner, also included. Shabat coffee does lose its flavour, being kept hot for up to 24 hours, but that is only Friday evening and Saturday morning: seven days a week, the drinks cabinet is opened from tea time on for a good tasting of Israeli wines, or Absolut and other spirits, and glassware is fine-dining style.
The Vista Lounge has big balconies, as do many of the bedrooms. Cleverly, in 1965 when the hotel – originally the idea of Teddy Kollek – opened on 1.8 hectares of absolutely prime land, the architects – Yaakov Rechter and Hilton’s own Osvaldo Turo – had made sure that every single room faced the beach. My room, 1606, looked south along Banana Beach and Charles Clore Park, to Jaffa in the distance. Being a Saturday, and gorgeous weather as is the norm eight months a year, the entire outdoor space was dotted with people lazing on the beach, and sailing, surfing and swimming in the sea and, on dry land, walking, running and cycling or scootering on a variety of wheels (there is no public transport during Shabat). The whole panorama was a blend of LS Lowry meets pointillism.
Talking of art, there is lots to see here, even without leaving this luxury hotel. I admired a couple of 1.8-metre-tall stone and metal sculptures, one at the Vista Lounge entry, by the Winnipeg-born Israeli sculptor, Eli Ilan, 1928-1982. I was also fascinated by the lobby’s art gallery, sadly – like the mammoth H. Stern boutique – closed for Shabat.
Fortunately the staff work nonstop, and Stig-John Ceulemans, who heads Business Development, came in (probably from the beach) specially to explain that since Tel Aviv is unlikely to have a Conrad or Waldorf Astoria in the near future, Hilton and the owners of this property wanted to offer a yet more superior product. I was impressed, right through to my departure, pre-dawn again. The Miss Israel look-alike on front desk down in the lobby – the Vista Lounge was not yet open – had perfectly done sapphire-blue nails. She said my pre-ordered taxi was waiting, and the athletic 40-ish male driver was indeed ready to go, somehow managing two mobile phones as we sped away.
But, just as France is not only Paris, Israel is much more than Tel Aviv, so although time was short I did make one side trip, to see Jerusalem’s luxury hotels. Four Seasons has been talking about coming here for years, but, says the country’s top consultant Yossi Fischer of Tel Aviv-based Vision Hospitality, that seems to have stalled (Isadore Sharp apparently still has faith in the original developer).
The most strategic name in town right now is Waldorf Astoria Jerusalem, which evolved in 2013 from what had previously been The Palace Jerusalem. The 226-room hotel is in a stunning building, which has grown around a core structure dated 1928-9; the front façade of this original is now one wall of the hotel’s glass-roofed triangular inner courtyard.
This is a society hotel, as I realised when I coincided with a wedding couple getting ready for photographs. Jerusalem also attracts a considerable number of bar mitzvahs out of the USA. Especially during August, travel agents plan the entire trip for the young man, or bat mitzvah woman, and a family retinue that can go up to a couple of dozen. On Mondays and Thursdays, the weekly Torah portion is traditionally read during the morning prayer service at the Western Wall (the Wailing Wall), and the bar mitzvah boy is called to read from the Torah for the first time, followed by singing and dancing (some order a certificate engraved with the boy’s name and signed by the official Kotel rabbi from the Western Wall Heritage Foundation).
And then feasting is held back at the hotel, which is run by GM Avner On, who became a hotelier because, as a youngster, he used to look up at the Hilton Tel Aviv. His fascinating Director of Operations, Maria Ghebresselasie, is a Londoner, with an Eritrean father and an Italian mother. She was all set to become a UN translator but instead of doing a university work-experience spell at the Colombian Embassy in London she got diverted to hotels, and the rest is history; she is a hotelier hooked for life. I told her I really wanted to try the smoked salmon confit depicted on the inside of the hotel’s elevator cabins. Sure enough, what was presented in The Palace restaurant was a plausible twin, with smoke swirling out when I took a glass dome off the salmon.
Cleverly, one of the side rooms of The Palace is opened up in the morning to reveal a dedicated breakfast room – I have already extolled the superb quality and variety of Israeli breakfast buffets. Everything from a dozen smoked fish through to sweet buns, was presented here, but then a luxury hotel is, according to Maria Ghebresselasie, a blend of function and purpose. The function here is feeding people before they go to the Wall (20 minutes’ walk through souk alleyways), or the Tower of David (half that time) or exploring other historic landmarks. The purpose is, as now, to exceed expectations.
Mary Gostelow travels over 300 days a year, doing one-night stands in top hotels around the world. Read her daily travelogue, www.girlahead.com