Like over three million others this year, I decided to return to Israel. An influx of additional airlines to Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport has meant lower airfares all round (the Israeli Government gives a grant of €250,000 for each new route, which has allowed low-cost carriers like Wizz Air to be creative, and Hainan Airlines to add Guangzhou to Beijing, now daily, and Shanghai). Incoming tourism is already up 26% January-June 2017 over 2016. All this is, of course, is good news for luxury hotels and HVS is anticipating last year’s figure of 67% average occupancy to be bettered this year.
On Tuesday 5 September 2017, the Mayor of Tel Aviv, Ron Huldai, hosted the eighth Tel Aviv Cities Summit at the stunning Tel Aviv Museum of Art, currently showing a Louise Bourgeois exhibition. On Monday, he had thrown a memorable cocktail reception outside on the boardwalk at Reading Park, next to the Reading Power Station, on the north bank of the Yarkon River. We gathered before sunset, in sweltering heat and joining long lines at the main drinks station. I have never drunk so much grapefruit juice in my life – who wants wine in this temperature? Cyclists, on a variety of two-, three- and even one-wheeled machines, continued their obviously regular exercise along the circuit next to the boardwalk. Soloists from Tel Aviv Opera sang, from half-way up the lighthouse, and the Mayor explained its history.
The lighthouse was built by Brits 1934-1935, and operated until 1965. It was on a stamp issued November 2009 and has appeared in many film, including Late Summer Blues. The Mayor handed the lectern over to the charismatic Major General (Ret.) Noam Tibon, who said he hoped innovation would help pave the way for cooperation in the Middle East. I later checked Tibon online, found his military service stretched over three decades, half of which was in combat in Lebanon or the West Bank. He is an ardent campaigner for cooperation: he posted on matzavblog.com on 20 May 2017, a plea to the President of the USA: “The pragmatic Arab world is our partner, the Arab Peace Initiative needs to be adjusted but it should be made the basis for negotiations.”
And then, the following day, the eighth Tel Aviv Cities Summit started a quarter of an hour after its scheduled 10am kick-off. The main session, morning-long, concentrated on cities as beacons of democracy, and among the thousand or so delegates were representatives from over 150 cities, including such speakers as the mayors of Tirana and Warsaw, both highly articulate and fluent English speakers. Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz spoke of mobilising her city, Warsaw, so far successfully, against ‘reforms’ proposed by the current national government. And then the brilliantly witty mayor of Tirana, Erion Veliaj, was so spell-binding that for the first time in my life I actually want to visit Albania. Next came keynote speaker George Papandreou, who relayed the power of Ancient Greece, where everyone took part in politics and held public office at least twice in their lifetime, but today globalisation has broken traditional mores and money has overtaken the role of politics, thus undermining democracy. After a somewhat fragmented lunch break, the event then split into niches. These included healthy eating, led by Prof Jacob Seidell of Amsterdam’s VU University, and tourism. One of the most fascinating tourism panels was Rom Hendler’s presentation of startups, with Michal Hybschmanm (VDroom), Orit Strauss (GivingWay), Michael Weiss (bitemojo) and Deddi Zucker (BooksOnMap).
During the Summit I stayed at InterContinental David Tel Aviv, which has one of the most enviable locations in the world. Look out from any of its Mediterranean-facing rooms, and the view is sensational. Immediately below is the coastal Kaufman Street. Across this is a stretch of grass, with inset cycling and walking lanes, and then you have the sea. The dilapidated structure opposite will undoubtedly be removed sometime soon: I was told that it was bought by a German who wanted to replace it with a luxury hotel, but it would not fit in with planning laws that say no building within a certain distance from the water (goodness, it would be on top of the water) so, in compensation he has been given a large parking area immediately adjacent to the InterCon.
Of the 555 rooms in the hotel, I recommend not only something with a superb view, but also with access to the Club InterContinental lounge. I found end suite 2232 really guest-friendly. The space ‘worked’ and the windows opened, which not only Germans really appreciate. This hotel caters for tourists from a myriad of nations, with China growing, though to get Indian visitors an India-based carrier is needed. People staying here will find everything they expect from an InterCon. I had a driver one evening who owns his brand-new Mercedes S-Class and says he considers it his home – he even has a mini fridge in the boot. When he and his wife of 34 years go on holiday they always stay in an InterCon. Wherever. It is the best, he says with a big smile.
Hotel GM, David Cohen, does clever things to maximise productivity, by the way. Labour is difficult to find and it is expensive. By displaying bathrobes rolled up in a bathroom space, it is obvious when robes have not been used, and therefore unused robes do not need laundering, which helps the planet, helps labour costs and saves time. Other interesting features: the 24/7 Technogym is superb, with constantly-changing DayGlo colours, and all the machines I tested had visuals and sudoku games that worked without having to repeat-punch (for me, a jolly good reason to choose one hotel over another). The pool looks lovely, and is extensively used.
Yes, the hotel is kosher, which means having two kitchens, plus a banquet kitchen, but, honestly, kosher food has improved so dramatically since I first tasted something absolutely flavourless at a restaurant called Bloom in London. Now it is world class, honestly, and the wines are too. Take Gamla 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, from Golan Heights Winery, supervised by University of California, Davis grad Victor Schoenfeld. Or think of Arza Winery, owned by the Shor family, whose winemaker Philippe Lichtenstein has been commissioned to help Hubey Pengdun develop an $8 million project in China’s Hubei Province. Israel produces excellent reds, whites – and sparklings. The 24th-floor Club lounge has extensive buffets for all meals. Breakfast includes all the main international items, plus hommus, lebaneh and shakshuka (eggs baked in tomato purée or sauce)… and salmon with bagels and sour cream.
Main eating is on the third floor, leading off the lobby. We dined in Aubergine, the hotel’s intimate fine dining venue led by the extremely talented and creative Alon Hirtenstien. He has just finished a Colorfood promotion, inspired by photographs of colour by food photographer Dan Lev. There is an exhibition of typical photographs outside the restaurant. Within, to complement the ‘usual’ menu, Hirtenstien’s set menu featured Black&white (Italian sourdough with garlic dill cream and black olive tapenade), Red (tuna tartare, lemon and watermelon bulgar, seared tuna with scorched Maggi tomato cream, tuna sashimi with roasted red pepper salad and spiced tomatoes), Yellow (seabass in yellow coconut curry sauce, grilled pineapple, yellow carrot and saffron risotto, spicy tapioca tuille), Green (pistachio-crusted goose breast, creamed spinach, zucchini, peas, truffle-scented Portobello mushrooms, roasted chicken jus) and Blue (banana pecan panna cotta with praline hazelnuts).
David Cohen is fully supportive of what he calls his ‘home-grown talent’. Part of his support includes bringing in such guest chefs as, planned for January 2018, Daniel Corey, chef of Luce in InterContinental San Francisco, for which he has held a Michelin star since 2011. David Cohen knows that inspiration is vital. With only 3.3% unemployment in Tel Aviv it is essential to do as much as possible to attract talented youngsters, especially in the face of competition from tech startups (for which this is one of the world’s megacities, he says). One blessing is that when they leave compulsory army service, men and women are given a considerable Government bonus if they stay in certain professions, which fortunately include hotels, for six months: the challenge then is that many want to rush off, to travel the globe, before going on to study at university.
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