Don’t judge a book by its cover, or a seaside city by its seaside hotels. In the grand old days of travel, back before there was a TSA to incorrectly call your halva a gel and then toss it, and before the French bastardized the glamour of air travel by bad-dreaming up “words” like Airbus, there was the Approach By Sea. Coming from Europe, you knew you were in Gotham when you saw Lady Liberty staring back at you. Coming from America, you knew you were in Casablanca when you saw a chunky minaret sticking up from the horizon beyond the prow.
Fast forward to 2012 and Tel Aviv, a city which if you approach it by sea will probably be because your cruise ship captain had one Bacardi Breezer too many and made some major navigational miscalculation as a consequence; for all intents and purposes this curious, new-old city has no port to speak of. But if it did, you’d almost wish for a six-pack of cheap rum drinks to soften the edges of the hideous Isrotel Tower, of the ugly Hilton and, while we’re at it, of the absolute architectural abomination and national embarrassment (aesthetically speaking) that is the American Embassy.
None of this is to knock Tel Aviv’s beach – I love it, everyone else loves it, and Tel Aviv wouldn’t be Tel Aviv without it. But who couldn’t do without those monstrous hotel blocks with their year-round offers of impersonal breakfasts and views that provide a questionably palliative mix of blue sea and concrete?
Worry not, authenticity-craving neo-nomad that you are, because the gods of hospitality innovation have not left Tel Aviv in the lurch. But in deference to the Mediterranean, which, port or no, is the shimmering glue to which this city is ineluctably stuck, I start my roundup of Tel Aviv’s Top Five Secret Hotels, if you will, with one that doesn’t front it, but almost does.
And that’s part of what I love about the Hotel Savoy: its seductive suggestion of the sea. Cognoscenti of Tel Aviv’s Tayelet promenade know that the stretch of beach in front of Geula Street is one of the best – go there early enough on a weekday morning in July and your lingering lust for the Caribbean will dissolve faster than the grains of Elite instant coffee in a Jacuzzi. You wake up on your comfortable bed in the Savoy, underneath your oversized cushiony headboard with a picture of a giant, slightly erotic flower imprinted on it, you go downstairs for a cappuccino and nice little breakfast in the small lobby, and then dart across the street for a swim. When you’re done, back upstairs for a rinse-off shower in the sleek little bathroom where everything works just as it should, and you’re off to haggle at the Shuk Carmel or meander over to Jaffa. There are not many small city hotels that have a perfect location and get everything else right too, but this one does.
The Townhouse Tel Aviv is a new hotel with just 16 rooms located in the heart of the White City. Specifically, it’s on Yavneh Street just before Ahad Ha’am, meaning the hotel is a whisker away from Rothschild Boulevard, and two whiskers from Tel Aviv’s reliably exuberant nighttime hangout, Evita. But this completely renovated townhouse has more than location going for it. It is the only boutique hotel in Tel Aviv that gives that certain other pioneering boutique hotel on Montefiore Street a run for its money in terms of luxuriousness. Here, all the furnishings come from Israeli design house Kastiel, which has a warehouse in Florentine that seems as vast as the Plain of Sharon, but with better area rugs. Each room in the hotel is custom-curated with Kastiel beds, chairs and more.
But not too much more, because overall the look is comfortably minimalist. Some rooms have small balconies; ask for one of those. The lobby is where a light breakfast from Bakery 29, across the street is deserved. This is one of the best bakeries in Tel Aviv, perhaps the best, with all proceeds going to support the IDF.
The Hotel Diaghilev is really in a category of its own – how else could you describe a large 54-room “Live Art” hotel with no sign? It’s situated in leafy Mazeh Street, just a few minutes’ walk from the most bobo part of Rothschild Blvd. Not only are the lobby, hallways and guestrooms here populated with Israeli art and photography, but there are regular art openings to which both guests and the public are invited. The rooms contain an eclectic mix of furniture, creating an overall vibe that’s more quirky-posh than predictably upscale. Try to snag a room with a balcony overlooking Mazeh and the sea of Bauhaus rooftops. In the distance, from these rooms, you can make out the sea but only see a smidge of it, adding to the overall allure. Castelbajac stayed at the Dan, but I hope he stays here next time.
The unassuming Hotel Berdichevsky will hold the title of newest boutique hotel in Tel Aviv but briefly (see below). Located in a building just south of Rothschild that used to house a senior citizens’ home, this hotel won’t win any awards for design originality but scores high marks for its location, and the 24 rooms though not large (for really impressive room size, it’s the Diaghilev), are suitably stylish, with lots of black and damask patterns. The nabe is already abuzz with talk of the hotel’s restaurant, where apparently a hearty breakfast will be served (though, you’re not far from some good eats on Yehuda Halevy and Lincoln). There’s also a small spa, but I wish they could have thought of something more innovative than a spa, like a clothing-optional conference room. At least in July.
Number Five is the rothschild hotel and yes, I’ve saved the best for last. Confession of a former guidebook writer: Actually all I know is that because of the who and the where, here, the what is going to be great. Hotelier Avi Ifrach and his wife Anat, the enterprising duo behind the Diaghilev, got hold of a charming building that fronts Rothschild Blvd and is set to open later this month. This is the pastel-peach colored edifice at number 96 that has the sculptures of people reading books outside on the balcony. You’ve seen it, you love it and you may have even protested in front of it.
The very location of the rothschild on Rothschild is precedent-setting for modern Tel Aviv, and proof that the antidote to the city’s seashore brutalism is more than provisional. For that reason principally I will be live-tweeting this hotel’s imminent public opening.