by Ed Wetschler
When last we stood on the slopes of Mount Carmel, which rises from the blue sea to give Haifa a humpback, Ziv Cohen and I were bantering about the slim odds of finding much kosher dining in this Israeli city. (See Part I.)
Does that make you think of Tel Aviv? Think again. Whereas Tel Aviv rocks with all-night clubs and twentysomething beachgoers flaunting washboard abs, Haifa is subtler, more mature in its pleasures.
What I love about Haifa is its sophisticated, open-minded friendliness; this is that rarest of Middle Eastern cities, a burg with bona fide integrated neighborhoods. I also like the honey-colored buildings that overlook the Mediterranean; the accessibility to biblical and historical sights, and to the hills of Galilee. And, of course, the German Colony.
Dining in Haifa
The Second Coming was coming, or so 19th-century Germans in the Templar Society believed. So they migrated to the Holy Land and established the German Colony near the port of Haifa, hoping to be in Elijah's bailiwick on Judgment Day. Turns out the End of Time got delayed, but by then the pilgrims had built their red-roofed stone houses and laid out a stunning main street more than 90 feet wide.
Today many of the historic buildings on that tree-lined street, now called Ben-Gurion Avenue, house restaurants. If you choose one of the outdoor tables, you can gaze up, way up, at the gold-domed, night-lit Baha'i Shrine and its gardens, which seem to tumble right down to the German Colony. Families, friends, and couples sit outside and dine or drink; some of the places have recorded or live music.
Nightlife in the German Colony.
Habustan (43 Ben-Gurion Ave.) serves classic Middle Eastern dishes, Havana Plus (#25) offers Med-meets-Caribbean, Casa di Masia (#39) is Italian, Duzan (#35) is French. The options are neither limited nor surprising; they fit in with Haifa's multicultural ambience. Hasdera-1872, a (#15; 04-855-1872), a fine seafood-plus restaurant, occupies a 19th-century building with stucco walls, wood beams, and antique sconces. There's a fascinating glass floor in the entryway that lets you see the old basement, where you can spot dusty, ancient bottles. It was at Hasdera that I tucked into a splendid linguini with shrimp, calamari, and a vodka tomato sauce, followed by a light, Italian-style cheesecake with raspberry sauce. Not exactly your standard Bar Mitzvah meal.
After dinner, I walked uphill toward the floodlit Baha'i Gardens, passing two middle-aged couples at a table outside Nemo. They were swaying in unison and singing a pop song. Young people at the Waterfall Restaurant smoked sheesha pipes.
Pretty lighthearted for a town whose modern roots lie with end-of-the-world prophecies. But even though the German colonists' are long gone, their homes converted to restaurants, cafes, and bars, they did leave their mark, and not just on the architecture. Stand before 27 Ben-Gurion Avenue, and you'll see an old sign that still pleads, KOMM HERR JESU.
Bab Shrine and the Baha'i Gardens
Siyyid `Al¡-Muhammad paid a substantial penalty for having inspired some people to question Islam in the mid-19th century: The Iranian authorities killed him. But the new Baha'i religion, with its universalist values (world peace, education, Esperanto) caught on in other countries, and its faithful managed to get Ali-Muhammad's body to Haifa. Today this prophet, aka the Bab, is interred in a gold-domed temple atop Mount Carmel.
Bab Shrine, the Baha'i Gardens, and the German Colony
A splendid garden with 19 terraces descends from the shrine toward the Mediterranean with flowers, fountains, birds, banyan and cypress trees, and vistas of the sea. Spectacularly lit at night, it's an eyeful from virtually any cafe seat on Shderot Ben-Gurion (Ben-Gurion Avenue).
But you don't want to just see it from afar; you want to get in there. I took a brief tour through the exquisitely manicured gardens to the shrine, one of the most sacred sites in the Baha'i faith. There I met two Baha'i youngsters, a man from Jamaica and a woman from Australia, who were serving as guides.
"Are you really happy here, living in temporary quarters in a Hebrew-speaking country so far from home?" I asked the Jamaican. "Very happy," he said with a gentle smile.
Inside the shrine, people sat on a carpet in a simply decorated room, reading. Beyond that was an interior chamber with flowers and candles. All very quiet, calm, peaceful.
"That room is where the Bab is resting," the Australian whispered.
One-hour tours of the grounds are free; visit GanBahai.
Hotels in Haifa
Dan Carmel Hotel.
The Dan Carmel Hotel, perched on a high point of Mount Carmel near the Baha'i Shrine, offers modern style, a spa and fitness center (free for guests), a swimming pool, and breathtaking views of Haifa Bay.
A new, 16-room boutique hotel in nearby Acre, Akkotel (1153 Salah al-Din St.), occupies a medieval building. The designer has made excellent use of the old stone walls as well as indigenous textiles and crafts. You're never more than a few hundred feet from the Crusaders' fortress, the sea, and plenty of ridiculously delicious market food. Moreover, rates for a double start about $160, making this handsome hotel one of the best values I've ever encountered.
Haifa's Seven-Day Program
The city's tourist board, tired of playing third fiddle to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, has designed a Stay Put itinerary that features Haifa, the ruins of Herod's sprawling city of Caesarea, Druze villages in the hills of Galilee, Nazareth, a thriving wine center, the Sea of Galilee, etc. Of course, the smart money stayed away July 7-10, when Haifa was jammed with people riding in or watching the European Mountain Bike Championship.
If you're in town during a major international event, head for the hills — the hills of Galilee. Hotel Spa Mizpe Hayamim is a world-class spa and a member of the Relais & Chateaux group. The choice of spa treatments is encyclopedic, and I might add that my room was only a smidgeon smaller than Manhattan's Central Park.
Vered Hagalil calls itself a "guest farm" but is actually a dude ranch. Not only have I enjoyed the riding there (excellent horses and instructors), but this ranch offers guests a bumper sticker you'll actually want to put on your car. It says: SHALOM, Y'ALL.
For more information:
ED WETSCHLER, Associate Editor of Everett Potter's Travel
Report, has written for The New York Times, Delta Sky and Caribbean
Travel & Life. He is the former editor-in-chief of Diversion
magazine and consulting editor for Caribbean Escapes. He is the current
president of the New York Travel Writers Association.