History’s Holy Land Shine

Downtown Tel Aviv

Somewhere past the blue dome and beyond the minaret, but within these ancient Crusader walls, there must be a church, because though I slept through the muezzin’s morning call to prayers, it is the peal of bells that wakes me up.

I did not journey to this coastal cusp of the Holy Land to plug into religion, however; I came to eat fish. The night prior, I played quartermaster to a piscine feast of the ilk that not just nourishes a weary traveler but colors his dreams. It came to me not more than two breaths away from the Mediterranean Sea, deftly choreographed by a kind of latter-day knight of mixed Parisian and Arab parentage and named, naturally enough, Nur Schnitzer. Welcome to Israel’s Akko — the going name for ancient Acre — where mixing things up is what you do because that’s how it’s always been done.

Before plunging into Tel Aviv’s whirling social scene, I wanted to get some Galilee green and reward myself for not getting lost with a meal at one of the world’s best seafood restaurants, Uri Buri.

This restaurant makes its home within the walls of a 400-year-old Ottoman house, and owner Uri Jeremias is perhaps even fussier when it comes to seafood than myself. If classic grilled fish floats your boat, you will do fine here, but what truly shines is the tasty twists on all things marine. Here, your sea bass may come in a cauldron with coconut milk, chili and apples; sea wolf (in season) is tamed by a rosemary balsamic reduction with perhaps a chestnut pumpkin puree on the side. 

Like shrimp? Here, the little fellows are decked out in olive oil, garlic, chili peppers, lemon and coriander. The menu changes frequently, but the one constant is creativity; that, combined with the inexhaustible patience of the wait staff and artisanal ice cream from Jeremias’ adjacent ice cream parlor, elevates this dining experience from scrumptious to cinematic. 

Also fit for the silver screen and, presumably, a swashbuckler, is the town of Akko itself, with an urban history stretching back more than 4,000 years — perhaps twice as old as Rome. 

Among Akko’s myriad historical sites, the sine qua non is the underground Crusader City (the Hospitalers’ Fortress), situated by the Mosque of Ahmed al Jezzar Pasha and one of the most spectacular Gothic ruins in existence.

If you give yourself a full day to explore Akko’s secrets (the absolute minimum), the best way to amplify the experience is to overnight at The Efendi Hotel, which, like Uri Buri, is owned by Jeremias, and is more petite Med palazzo than hotel. It’s composed of two Ottoman-era mansions that were meticulously reconstructed, joined into one building and completely refurbished. There are marble floors, traditionally hand-painted ornamental Ottoman-style ceilings, a fanciful restored 1878 fresco of Istanbul, sweeping views of the Mediterranean from the roof deck and below that, a chic balcony area. There are just 12 rooms, which exude ambience and offer modern conveniences like Nespresso machines and free WiFi. 

You can also check into a hotel in Jaffa more newish than Jewish called Market House, located in the middle of the boisterous flea market, which is like T.J. Maxx on steroids. An oasis of chic, the floor in the lobby is made of glass, the better to peer down at the remnants of a Byzantine chapel. There, you savor what is, along with those at the hotels Carlton and Montefiore, the best breakfast in town.

Tel Aviv is, of course, a foodie town: That’s why a three-month pop-up restaurant at the Brown TLV, one of Tel Aviv’s trendiest hotels, caught my attention. It’s called Salva Vida, and here Israeli chef Yuval Fachler brings his California-meets-Mediterranean cuisine centered on urban gardening techniques and the freshest ingredients to appreciative hotel guests and locals alike.

You can tuck into salmon sashimi with grapefruit, avocado and pistachio or smoked trout with artichoke, parmesan and quail egg in an urban garden lounge setting. This city also get its Malibu going at the beach, and the Brown’s sister hotel, Brown Beach House, brings a retro tropical beach resort vibe to Tel Aviv’s sometimes scruffy seaside scene. A pit stop here puts the beach within a minute’s reach, but once you sink into one of the plush cabana style divans on your oversized balcony with glass paneling and sea view, it’s not assured you’ll get that far.

 For more information, follow the writer on Instagram.