05 DEC 2018: True confessions: I am an agnostic and my knowledge of the Holy Land is meagre. I lived for years in a part of Toronto with a large Jewish community. Bagel shops and kosher restaurants I know. And as much as I like a good chewy bagel with lox and cream cheese, I never got excited about what I thought was Jewish cuisine. A trip to Israel was not at the top of my bucket list. I was confused and overwhelmed by the wars, politics and religious conflicts. Israel, however, was number one on my husband’s bucket list and that’s why we found ourselves at the Ben Gurion Airport looking for our guide.

Enter Motti Saar, the man whose infectious enthusiasm for his country turned me into a “believer.”

Saar introduced himself as a true sabra. That’s Hebrew for prickly pear cactus. Think tough and feisty on the outside and really sweet inside. I met a lot of sabras in Israel and I must say that the moniker suits. The national tendency to be somewhat brash is tempered with a healthy dose of warmth and kindness.

First a brief history lesson: Jaffa is one of the world’s most ancient port cities, dating back to the Bronze Age. At the beginning of the 20th century a large number of Jewish immigrants landed there. Many came from Europe and were looking to build lives similar to what they had left behind.  In the spring of 1909 a group of these immigrants, fed up with Jaffa’s noisy and unsanitary neighbourhoods, bought some uninhabited sand dunes north of Jaffa, divided the property into parcels of land using a numbered seashell lottery and voilà, Tel Aviv, nicknamed “The Big Orange” (a variation on New York’s Big Apple and the Jaffa orange), was born.

The “You Only Live Once” Splurge List

Brown Style
Centrally located minutes from the beach, bohemian Neve Tzadek quarter and trendy Rothschild Boulevard, the Brown TLV Urban Hotel epitomizes the Tel Aviv spirit. It’s brash, innovative and fun. The receptionist popped opened a bottle of bubbly and offered us a flute as we checked in at the retro-style lobby. “I hope you enjoy your stay, but mainly I hope you have fun,” she said.

Up on the rooftop sundeck I found a Jacuzzi and countered jetlag with an open-air massage.  Guests are given a choice of five nearby restaurants that partner with Brown to provide breakfast. Other perks included free use of a nearby gym, complimentary bicycles and yoga classes. www.brownhotels.com/tlv 

Jaffa Shopping Spree
Jaffa combines Old-World charm and avant-garde chic. The Old City perched high on a hill overlooking the sea is a marvellous hodgepodge of twisting lanes full of art galleries, boutiques and restaurants. Don’t miss the Ilana Goor Museum, an 18th century house where the Israeli sculpture artist resides and works. You might find anything from antiques to hookah pipes at the Jaffa Flea market that sprawls around the landmark clock tower. The vibe here changes during the evening when many of these stalls become informal bars.

For more upscale retail therapy, head to the Old Tel Aviv Railway Station where Tel Aviv and Jaffa connect. Unique fashion and decorative accessories, jewellery and more, all by Israeli designers fill the shelves at Made in TlV. Stock up on skin care products made from minerals in the Dead Sea.

Savour Sarona
Foodies should pay a visit to the Sarona Market, a mall where the Fauchon Paris store at the entrance is your first clue that this is Tel Aviv’s upscale eating emporium. Craft beer from the Golan Heights, popsicles made with ouzo and grapefruit, halvah spiked with chillies, cheese soused with truffle oil, celebrity chef restaurants and so much more vie for your shekels at Sarona, also the only place in Tel Aviv where I spotted bagels.

The “Cheap Thrills” Save List

Market Days
In a country that is mainly desert, the Israelis have created a remarkable irrigation system so that the once barren patches of sand are now producing mangos, pomegranates, prickly pears and more. Did you know that cherry tomatoes were invented in Israel? Thanks to an investment by Baron Edmund de Rothschild who kick-started Israel’s modern wine industry, there are more than 200 wineries in this land of more than milk and honey.

Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market’s stalls overflow with gorgeous locally grown produce—glistening fat dates, pyramids of multi-colour olives, aromatic spice blends. Could I resist a glass of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice?

Eggs Israeli-Style
On Jaffa’s Beit Eshel street, stop in at Dr. Shakshuka for a kosher Israeli staple. A shakshuka is a sizzling mix of eggs poached in a tomato sauce with North African spices served in a wrought iron pan.
 
Walk on the White Side
Tel Aviv is also known at The “White City” because many of the Jewish immigrants during the 1930s brought with them the architectural aesthetic of the German Bauhaus movement. You’ll spot many examples of such Bauhaus edifices typified by their rounded balconies, lack of ornamentation, white walls and clean lines. UNESCO named the collection of about 4000 buildings a World Cultural Heritage Site. Bauhaus buffs can take an English-speaking tour every Friday starting at 10 a.m. at the Bauhaus Center Tel Aviv. www.bauhaus-center.com 

A Meal in a Pita
Join locals at communal sidewalk tables at Sabich Frishman for a pita sandwich of the same name that’s filled with hummus, tomatoes, peppers, hard-boiled eggs and spices. Avoid clothing stains by leaning well over your sabich and arm yourself with plenty of napkins.

Pick Your Beach
For all of its urban glitz, there’s another side of Tel Aviv—an idyllic stretch of golden beaches and promenade. Mezizim Beach attracts the party crowd. Beside Hilton Beach where you can surf, there is Nordau, a religious beach where men and women swim on alternate days. Alma Beach in Jaffa is home to Manta Ray restaurant, famous for its Middle Eastern mezze.

Eat With Israel
The restaurant scene in Tel Aviv and Jaffa is fantastic, but for some home cooking, book a table through a program called EatWith Israel. We booked a dinner under the title “Secrets of My Magical Arabic Cuisine.”  Muslim Israelis Mahmoud and his wife Alia greeted us in their lush garden and escorted us to the dining room where the table was set with a groaning board of Middle Eastern dishes: moussaka, pastries stuffed with cheese and spinach, meatballs in tahini, baba ganoush, salads galore, homemade pickles, a casserole of roasted eggplant and basmati rice…to name a few. We washed this down with rose water and sage tea.

Alia and Mahmoud produce such feasts several times a week in a kitchen the size of my desk. Despite what we hear in the news, EatWith is a terrific example of how many Arabs and Jews live peacefully side-by-side. And to that I can only add salaam/shalom (peace). www.eatwith.com 

THE BIG ORANGE

author

Anita Draycott

Quite aside from being an award winning writer, whose travel articles and photography regularly appear in golf and lifestyle publications and websites, Anita Draycott is a self confessed golf fanatic, who has chased dimpled white balls over five continents.  

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