Beyond the headlines, a surprisingly eclectic Israel awaits.
SANDSTONE CLIFFS rise dramatically beside us, their naked faces streaked with a colorful palette ranging from gold to plum. Like Israel itself, the Negev is full of enticing surprises, including the Makhtesh Ramon, a spectacular erosion crater formed some 65 million years ago and which we’re crossing. Silence accompanies us as we bike this desolate and expansive valley floor, where spectacular vistas of 2,700-foot-tall Mount Ardon compete for attention with an oasis graced by palm trees and jade-hued waters.
My guide, Dani, and I continue pedaling along a wadi, or streambed, where ancient history is ever present. After all, we’re cycling along the old Nabataean-run spice route that once connected the Mediterranean with Arabia. Dani suggests it’s time for a rest, and we stop beside the stone ruins of a caravansary, an ancient motel that once offered traders food, water, shelter, and fresh camels. But instead of dispensing Gatorade, Dani fires up his camp stove and brews mint tea, which he prepares with a secret spice. The Israelis are certainly a high-octane people, but they always have time for tea -- even if they’re smack in the middle of the Negev.
EVEN THE SAVVIEST traveler may have a number of misimpressions of Israel, where security concerns and visits to religious sites seem to capture everyone’s attention. But perceptions clearly don’t jibe with reality when you consider the vibrant nightlife in Tel Aviv, which not only matches New York as a city that never sleeps but also as one that hardly rests during the day. This capital city is laced with bike paths, attracting veteran cyclists as well as those who have a newfound interest in the sport. And with its increasingly green boulevards, Tel Aviv is experiencing a dynamic building boom; the likes of I.M. Pei, Richard Meier, and other star architects are putting their signature stamps on luxurious towers. And in Jerusalem, the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava recently completed one of his poetic bridges.
Unless you’ve visited Israel lately, your visions of the country may not include sipping an award-winning Cabernet Sauvignon, sampling tapas and creative fusion cuisine, luxuriating in a seaside spa, and resting your head in a stylish Parisian-style boutique hotel. But they should.
The Negev, a vast, enchanting, triangular-shaped swath of arid land, is a playground for adventure seekers. With Adam Sela’s Challenging Experience, you can try hiking ($649 per small group, per day), mountain biking ($649 per small group, plus $23 per bike), rappelling ($231 per small group), and canyoning ($750 per small group). 011-972-505-308-272, www.adamsela.com
Food & Wine
Defying expectations that Israeli wines are synonymous with sickly sweet, Israeli viticulture has become quite urbane, with certain wines now earning high marks from noted wine critic Robert Parker. In the summer, thousands of oenophiles from Israel and around the world flock to the Israeli Wine-Tasting Festival, held at Jerusalem’s Israel Museum in the magical Isamu Noguchi–designed sculpture garden that showcases the works of Henry Moore, Auguste Rodin, and other luminaries. During the festival, wine lovers can sample offerings from about 40 local wineries while they enjoy live jazz music and nibble on sushi and artisanal cheeses ($16 for entry to the festival, a wineglass, and admission to the museum). 011-972-2-670-8811,www.imj.org.il
One of Israel’s 250-plus wine producers, the Golan Heights Winery, features a 1,500-acre vineyard that is seen as key to Israel’s wine revolution. Producing 20 grape varieties, it offers regular tastings ($5 to $7), which may even include their gold-medal- winning Yarden Katzrin Chardonnay 2004. 011-972-4-696-8420, www.golanwines.co.il. On a much smaller but no less noteworthy scale is the boutique Ramot Naftaly Winery. Located in Upper Galilee, this family-run winery is celebrated for its Cabernet Sauvignon and other French oak–aged reds. 011-972-54-798-3100, firstname.lastname@example.org
As for Israeli cuisine, it’s hardly all about falafel, pita bread, and hummus. Instead, exotic flavors abound, as does a sophisticated focus on locally sourced and seasonal ingredients, with top chefs rivaling those in New York. The epicenter of this culinary scene is Tel Aviv. Walk into La Champa, an intimate standing bar with dried hams and sausages hanging from the ceiling, and you’ll be transported to Barcelona. Patrons can sip any of eight varieties of the only beverage offered, Cava, a sparkling Spanish wine from an exclusive Catalonia winery ($18 to $37 per bottle, $4 to $5 by the glass). Manchego cheese, chorizo, and jamón are a few of the temptations on the tapas-only menu ($2 to $7). 011-972-77-200-8636
At the opposite end of the decor spectrum is Messa, designed in luxurious white-on-white: Egyptian-cotton curtains, exotic veneered communal tables, and Turkish marble floors. Chef Aviv Moshe produces bold dishes that infuse recipes from his Kurdish ancestry with Middle Eastern notes and a little creative molecular gastronomy. One of his signature favorites, beef cheeks and onions in sweet-potato cream with ginger ($30), comes from a family recipe. 011-972-3-685-6859, www.messa.co.il
Eran Zino, the new chef at the helm of Barcarola Bistro Bar, brings a modern Italian slant to his creations; oxtail ravioli ($9 or $16), for example, is served with a hazelnut-and-apple salad. Instead of offering tried-and-true large individual entrées, the menu allows for the sharing of smaller, colorful dishes with a touch of whimsy, like the strawberry ravioli, constructed with a thin muscat skin. 011-972-9-766-9606, www.2eat.co.il/barcarola
Hotels & Spas
Going way beyond Dead Sea mud wraps, Israel’s burgeoning day-spa and resort-spa scene clearly appeals to those who have an obsession with wellness and body image. Located along Tel Aviv’s seaside promenade, in the recently gentrified Old Port, Coola Spa, a women-only retreat , provides healing sessions that target everything from a flagging immune system (try the antioxidant green-tea massage with hot stones, $114) to tight muscles and achy joints (hot citrus-oil body rub, $114). 011-972-3-544-4462, www.comme-il-faut.com/coola
Villa Galilee, an antiques-laden spa resort in northern Israel with views of Mount Meron, offers couples their own private treatment room that comes complete with a warm, moisturizing bath for two, fresh fruit, and Israeli white wine. 011-972-4-699-9563, www.villa-galilee.com
Set on the slopes of Mount Canaan and overlooking the Sea of Galilee, the Mizpe Hayamim Hotel and Spa is renowned for its expansive organic property, which is dotted with fruit trees, vegetable and herb gardens, and an animal farm. (When possible, the spa’s products and the foods served in its restaurants are sourced here.) Relax with a cup of tea made from homegrown lavender buds before enjoying a purifying pomegranate scrub or a rejuvenating massage using handcarved olive branches. 011-972-4-699-4555, www.mizpehayamim.com
In the heart of Mount Carmel National Park, the Carmel Forest Spa Resort delights nature lovers with a network of hiking trails that lace the 14-acre landscape of pine woodland, grassy lawns, and blooming gardens. Overnight guests have to make difficult choices about how to spend their time: Swim in the glass-walled 65-foot-long pool, relax in a Turkish Hamam (a type of Turkish bath), or relax with a body wrap of locally made honey and cinnamon. 011-972-4-830-7888, www.isrotel.co.il
Pampering is also a given in Tel Aviv’s boutique hotels. The five-room Nina Cafe Suites Hotel offers a wee bit of Paris in the middle of Neve Tzedek, a neighborhood that radiates a New York SoHo air. All the suites, including those with private garden access, come with indulgences galore, including minibars stocked with French chocolates and Champagne, in-room acupressure massages, fresh flowers, and DVDs from the owner’s private collection. Suites start at $220. 011-972-52-508-4141, www.ninacafehotel.com
Film and architecture buffs revel in Cinema Hotel , an art-deco boutique accommodation housed in a restored Bauhaus-style movie theater from the 1930s. Spotlights and director’s chairs in the guest rooms tie in with the pervasive film theme, as do the bags of popcorn dispensed at the screenings of silent movies. But guests also enjoy inspecting the original film projectors as well as the display of old movie tickets and other cinema paraphernalia in the hotel lobby. Rooms start at $165. 011-972-3-520-7100, <a data-cke-saved-href="http://www.cinemahotel.com" href="http://www.cinemahotel.com" style="" _blank"="">www.cinemahotel.com