Hotel Review: Ultimate Urban Style at Ultra

More and more boutique hotels are popping up all over Tel Aviv and each one offers something different to its guests. The new Ultra Hotel is in a prime location in central Tel Aviv, for those wanting to experience all that the White City has to offer. A short walk from the beach, the stylish urban hotel is a great option for a modern traveler with a lower budget.

The focus of the hotel is on the guests, captured perfectly in the hotel tagline “Ultra begins with U.” The great service I received certainly reflected this sentiment.

The intimate hotel reception and lounge area offers 24-hour complimentary tea and coffee with refreshments including fresh fruit, cakes, biscuits and an adorable selection of jelly sweets. There is free Wi-Fi throughout the hotel and the option to use an electronic key system via a phone app.

Hotel patio – Credit: Assaf Pinchuk

While many of the urban rooms overlook the street, I was given a room that opened onto one of two beautiful shared patios. Although the rooms are fairly small, they are well equipped with complimentary water, an espresso machine and chocolates, as well as a lovely bathroom with a spacious walk-in shower.

The hotel is already popular with locals, as well as tourists and business travelers. It is not family-friendly, although there was a couple from Europe with a child while I was there.

One of the biggest draws for me was the Scandinavian cocktail bar, Botanika in the entrance to the hotel. The bar offers a great selection of cocktails and bar food at night and serves as a coffee shop during the day. Breakfast for hotel guests is also served in the bar, which is a unique setting for breakfast.

I found the buffet selection was more limited than many Israeli hotel breakfasts, but it included everything I needed for a good breakfast – hot coffee, perfectly cooked eggs and lovely breads that were incredibly tasty and fresh.

The hotel offers reduced-rate parking in the adjacent building and free entrance to the gym across the street. The stylish design of the hotel is all thanks to the general manager, Tomer Peleg, and his mother who sourced the furniture, fixtures and fittings from all over Europe.

Ultra is an ideal choice for those looking for a modern hotel in a central location. For more information: www.ultra-hotels.com and for booking rates, click here.

Ultra: Environmentally friendly, with a Scandinavian cocktail bar to boot. (Assaf Pinchuk)

Click here for the PDF of the article in The Jerusalem Post. The full article on The Jerusalem Post website is for subscribers only but it can be read by non-subscribers on a mobile device with this link.

Here is a full review of Botanka cocktail bar.

Jerusalem in Our Hearts – the Celebrations Continue

The opening ceremony of the Jerusalem at 50 celebrations was probably one of the most uplifting events I have ever been to but luckily some of the magic from that night continues with the “Jerusalem in Our Hearts – Sound and Light Show” that is taking place to celebrate 50 years of United Jerusalem – ending July 25.

Click here for a full post about the Jerusalem at 50 opening show, including my first vlog.

The beautifully choreographed show is projected onto the outside walls of the Old City, between Jaffa Gate and Kikar Tsahal (towards New Gate) and includes spectacular graphics depicting the story of the Old City of Jerusalem over the centuries, interspersed with video clips of some of the music performances from the opening ceremony, including Sarit Hadad, Avraham Tal, Ben Snof, Idan Amedi and Amir Benayoun (the links are to songs by each artist, some from the opening ceremony)

The show starts at 8.15, 9 and 10 pm every weeknight (not Friday or Shabbat) and lasts for about 35 minutes. It is free of charge and does not require tickets, but make sure you get there on time as the beginning is the most impressive part.  Very limited information in Hebrew can be found here, www.unitedjerusalem50.com (ignore the times on the website – the first show is at 8.15 not 8 pm) but you have all the information here and I am happy to answer questions if you comment below.

I highly recommend going to see it sooner rather than later, it was so good, I want to go again!

Here is a video montage of the opening celebrations from the production company.

Brunch and mini hike in Tzuba

With the days getting longer but before it gets too hot, I try to plan some fun Friday day trips outside Jerusalem that include two of my favorite things, good food and exploring the Israeli countryside.

Buffet Brunch at Tzuba Hotel

I had heard about the brunch buffet at the Tzuba Hotel on Kibbutz Tzuba for a long time and kept meaning to go and try it.  They recently re-launched with a new taboon oven, which gave me an extra push to check it out.  The cost for the buffet is 95 NIS per adult or 115 NIS including a wine tasting tour at Tzuba Winery.  I have been to the winery before so just went for the brunch option.  It was not easy to book, I called a few times but there was no answer, I sent an email which went unanswered but eventually I got through by phone.  Even though the brunch runs to 2pm, the lasting booking slot is 12 and by 1pm the omelet and focaccia stations closed so make sure you arrive on time.

The setting was beautiful but we couldn’t sit outside on the balcony as it was in use from a private event for about 60 people – something I think they should have mentioned when I booked.

The buffet was a typical Israeli breakfast buffet, with the addition of more hot food like fish, lasagna other oven-baked dishes.  The focaccia from the taboon on the balcony was fresh and delicious and definitely a great feature but I felt uncomfortable going out to get food there as it was next to the private party.  I also felt that the omelet station was very standard and lacked any exciting fillings.

Most of the food was replenished as it was finished and we particularly liked the cheese selection which was more unique than an average hotel breakfast. The dessert section was also varied and interesting and we enjoyed having unlimited fresh coffees.

Overall the food was very good and it was a pleasant atmosphere for a brunch in the country.  We probably ate our money’s worth and you certainly pay a premium for the section a buffet offers, but I personally prefer less food and higher quality.  We enjoyed the meal but I wouldn’t rush back unless I was in the area.

Brunch at Tzuba Hotel, +972(0)2-5347090, Kosher Rabbinate Mate Yehuda

Foodie score 7/10, FODMAP friendly score 8/10

Belmont Crusader Fortress – Tel Tzuba 

A few minutes’ walk from the main hotel building is the beginning of a hiking trail of Tel Tzuba, which is believed to be the site of an ancient Jewish settlement in the days of King David. In 1170 the Belmont Crusader fortress was built there to guard the route to Jerusalem and it was conquered in 1191 by Saladin. The Arab village of Suba,  built on the site of the ruins, was the scene of fierce fighting during the 1948 War of Independence due to its strategic location overlooking the road to Jerusalem. In July 1948 most of the inhabitants fled before the fighting and moved to Jordan or the nearby village of Ein Rafa. In October 1948 a group of Palmach veterans established Kibbutz Misgav Palmach, 1 km south of Suba, which was later renamed Palmach Tzova (known as Tzuba).

The receptionist at the hotel gave us a helpful map of sites in the Tzuba area (which includes various walking trails around the kibbutz and The Cave of John the Baptist) but the entrance was very badly sign-posted and even though you can access it by car, we advised it would be better by foot.  We followed the road that winds up the hill past some incredible looking cactus plants.

The small path that goes up the castle  and village ruins was not signed and was also closed off by a barrier but we soon realized that this was the only way up and climbed over the barrier to go exploring.  We didn’t make it all the way to the main ruins as the path became a slightly precarious and we were not prepared for a proper hike, but the views from where we reached were incredible and well worth the climb. We could see over to Kiryat Anavim and Maale Hamisha in one direction and to Ein Kerem and Hadassah Hospital in the other. There was not much to see among the ruins we passed but it was still a beautiful mini hike. I believe there was more to discover on the other side of the hill but we didn’t get that far.

Apparently Tel Tzuba is in the process of becoming a national park which will hopefully make it more accessible and clearly signed.

Once again I found very little information online in English about this location even on the Tzuba tourism website, so hopefully this post will be helpful to other people who are planning short day trips from in the Judean Hills surrounding Jerusalem.

Click here for another post about a day trip in near Jerusalem, followed by a delicious lunch.

Celebrating Jerusalem 50

I am asked on a regular basis why I choose to live in Jerusalem, rather than the more cosmopolitan Tel Aviv.  There are many reasons for my love of Jerusalem and living in proximity to the Old City and thousands of years of Jewish history is one of them.  So often I drive past the Old City walls as part of my day-to-day life and I force myself to pause for a moment and appreciate how lucky I am.

So celebrating 50 years of united Jerusalem on “Yom Yerushaliyim” (Jerusalem Day) is particularly meaningful and despite the disruption to the proceedings caused by Trump’s visit to the city, the opening ceremony was truly spectacular and I couldnt resist trying to capture some of the magic in the video and photos below.

I am not a vlogger and this was my first attempt at editing video clips together, so please excuse the poor quality and the top of people’s heads!

The new sound and light show will continue to be shown on the Old City walls between Jaffa Gate and Kikar Tsahal (towards New Gate) until July 17 (50 days to celebrate 50 years).  UPDATE – extended to July 25 Read more about it here.

Shining a Light on the Jerusalem Art Scene

Although Jerusalem is not typically associated with a large art scene, there are numerous galleries around the city, and you have probably passed many of them without even realizing they were there.

Jenna Romano founded Contemporary Art in Jerusalem (CAIJ) to try to bring these hidden art gems to the fore and make the capital’s art scene more accessible, especially to those who do not live in that world.

Click here for the PDF of the full article in The Jerusalem Post.

The full article on The Jerusalem Post website is for subscribers only but it can be read by non-subscribers on a mobile device with this link.

Rosenbach Contemporary by Dor Kedmi`

A trip of remembrance and lunch in the sun

It is always a challenge to find new interesting things to do close to Jerusalem on a Friday and of course every day trip has to include yummy food.

As this week is Yom Hashoah, we decided to head to the Martyrs Forest in the Jerusalem hills. This KKL forest includes six million trees as a memorial to the Jews killed in the Holocaust.

At the heart of the forest is the Scrolls of Fire memorial, created by sculptor Nathan Rapaport, a Holocaust survivor who also designed the monument in the Warsaw Ghetto and several sculptures in Yad Vashem.

The scenery on the drive was beautiful, especially in the spring while everything is still so green. There is a sign post to the Scrolls of Fire from road 395 near Kisalon or here is the link for Waze.  You can park directly next to the memorial and the access road is suitable for all vehicles.

The memorial was not only a beautiful piece of art, it was also thought provoking and you can walk inside the scrolls which was eerily silent.

Our second stop was the Anne Frank Memorial which is also in the Martyrs Forest but about 15-20 minutes’ drive from the first stop, this was less well sign posted so here is the link for Waze. Again the memorial can be accessed by car but it is also a lovely place to take a walk/hike.

This memorial was a gift from KKL-JNF Holland and is a sculpture created by Dutch Holocaust survivor Piet Cohen.  It is in the form of a room made of rusted steel with a stool in one corner, from where the viewer can see an engraved image of the famed chestnut tree which Anne Frank wrote about in her diary.  The memorial is also surrounded by quotes from Anne Frank’s diary.

After a morning of remembrance and exploring, it was time for lunch so we headed to Derech Hagefen, a favorite with all the family.  For those who don’t know it, Derech Hagefen is a picturesque dairy restaurant in Moshav Beit Zayit, which is about 15 minutes outside of Jerusalem.  The restaurant is set in the grounds of a garden nursery and includes tables inside two large conservatories, as well as outside in the gardens.

Luckily they take reservations on a Friday and although the restaurant was busy, it was not overly packed. Breakfast is only served until 12, even on a Friday and we got there later, but the main menu has plenty of delicious options.  We all chose different dishes so I was able to try a bit of everything.  I was in the mood for fish and had a very well cooked and generous portion of Grilled Sea Bass (NIS 105) served with potato gnocchi, carrots, Portobello mushrooms and green beans in a turmeric and caper butter sauce. I loved the gnocchi and the vegetables but I am not sure turmeric sauce worked so well with the delicate taste of the sea bass.

The rest of my family went for pasta dishes and were all very happy with their choices – particularly the Gnocchi with Asparagus and Chestnuts (NIS 65) and the Tortellini Porcini (NIS 66) which were both beautifully presented.

For dessert we shared a large slice of Apple Tart with Vanilla Ice Cream, as well as some very rich and creamy Chocolate Truffles (NIS 15).

Derech Hagefen is a great place to go both during the day and at night and the food and service is always very good. They were also pretty helpful with our requests to have certain dishes to accommodate food intolerances.

Foodie score 8/10, FODMAP friendly score 7.5/10

Travel bloggers of the world descend on Jerusalem

I am thrilled to be attending TBEX International 2017 next week at ICC Jerusalem (Binyanei Hauma).  This is their first international travel blogger conference and it is exciting that it is happening in Jerusalem.

TBEX events are attended by travel bloggers from all over the world and I am particularly interested to meet those who have never been to Israel before and hear their thoughts.

As well as the opportunity to network with other bloggers, photographers and podcasters, the program has lots of interesting talks about content, monetization, sponsorship and driving traffic to your site.

If you plan to attend but still don’t have tickets, you can using the discount code ISRAEL ($95 for whole conference instead of $197) http://tbexcon.com/2017-International/registration/ and please add a comment below if you will be attending so we can meet up!

Here is a video with the interviews from some of the TBEX key bloggers when visited Jerusalem last year in preparation for the conference.

 

Idyllic country café in the Hula Valley

As I have mentioned in other posts, I like to do research before I travel to make sure that I know about all the hidden foodie gems that I would never find otherwise.  This is one time when that research really paid off. Having been in the Hula Valley area before, I knew there were not many exciting options for lunch, especially with my parents who only eat kosher.

We had spent the morning at Agamon Hula (read my post How the Hula valley made me a bird watcher) and had built up quite an appetite. My father was insistent that we try the new Hotel Galilion as who can go wrong in a nice hotel but we were told very rudely that there were no dining options unless we were hotel guests or pre-booked. It turns out that this was very fortunate for us, as otherwise we would never have found my back-up option Beit Ha’ugot. I don’t remember how I heard about Beit Ha’ugot but I am pretty sure it was from a Facebook group.

It was already nearly 2pm so I called to check that they were open and the very nice owner said that she would keep the kitchen open if we arrived in the next 15 minutes.  One of my favorite things about these obscure places is the anticipation of not knowing what you are going to find.  I wasn’t sure if had the right address but the moshav was fairly small and we followed numerous signs, weaving our way through a small residential neighborhood until we eventually found the oasis that is Beit Ha’ugot.  Set in the lovely garden of a family home, I don’t think any description I give will really do it justice.

We were lucky that it was warm enough in late February to sit outside on the wooden decking, surrounded by various citrus trees.  The back of the garden, which backs onto various fruit orchards, is lined with a number of cages filled with chickens, guinea fowl and various brightly colored budgies.  Here is a Facebook live video I shot from the garden – sorry it is a so blurry.

My mother and I both ordered the quinoa salad which was served with finely chopped vegetables and garnished with seeds.  My father opted to the shakshuka which he said was the best he has ever had and we all enjoyed the freshly baked wholegrain bread with tahina and home-made garlic butter.  The cakes all looked amazing but we resisted but I had a lovely jam biscuit with my macchiato and I regret not buying some of the biscuits and cakes to take home with us.

If the café wasn’t closing, we would happily have spent the afternoon relaxing in the sun in such tranquil surroundings. The owner was delightful and was so happy that we had stumbled on her cafe. The couple at the table next to us had come from Tiveria especially for lunch.

Considering the lack of good dairy restaurants in the area, I am not surprised this place is so popular. In case it is not clear, I would highly recommend a visit to Beit Ha’ugot and it is even worth a special trip – next time I plan to order the full Israeli breakfast as it looks great.

Beit Ha’ugot, Kosher Mehadrin, 052-651-0881 – call in advance to check timings.

Foodie score 8.5/10 FODMAP 8/10

Exploring nature with good food along the way

I recently took a 3 day trip in the north of Israel which combined some quality family time, historic sites, beautiful nature and of course some great hidden foodie gems.

When it comes to traveling I am a researcher, especially for restaurants. Although it can be fun to be spontaneous and find somewhere nearby to eat, I have too often been disappointed this way and when you are trying to pack lots of activities into a relatively short time,  I prefer to know in advance what is around and discover new food experiences. However, I will often have a few options to choose from, depending on what we are in the mood for at the time.

We started our trip up north with a quick stop at a Lavido visitor’s center in the agricultural Moshav Nahalal in the Jezreel Valley.  As well as the Lavido factory shop, there is a beautiful herb garden and a peaceful refreshment area where you can make your own tea infusion using the herbs from the garden.

Lavido natural beauty products are now Vegan Friendly and we particularly like the Lavender hand cream and body lotion which is especially nice to put on before bed.  Unfortunately I had an allergic reaction to their award winning eye cream and the sales assistant was not very helpful and tried to blame me for not knowing that I might be allergic to some of the products, but that aside, I recommend a visit.

Time for lunch in nearby Ramat Yishai at a small coffee shop named Eva Batya which was recommended by someone in the Restaurant Club Israel Group.  It is a very simple coffee shop in a strip mall overlooking a parking lot so the setting is very unexciting but I was with people who only eat in kosher places and the choices in that area are very minimal (the products have a hechsher but the coffee shop doesn’t even though everything is dairy and they are closed on Shabbat).  The menu is limited with a few pre-made filled savory croissants, quiches and salads.  The salads were all freshly prepared and the bread that came with it was delicious.  I had the endive salad (NIS 52) with toasted almonds, poached pears, blue cheese and a tangy citrus vinaigrette which I enjoyed. The coffee was also very good and came with a lovely linzer torte cookie. Over all the food was nice, but I would not recommend going unless you only eat kosher as there are much nicer non-kosher places in the area (like Limousine)

Following lunch we drove to Zippori, a national park which contains the remains of an ancient city that was once the capital of the Galilee, the seat of the Sanhedrin, the place where the Mishna was completed and it is also believed to be the home of the parents of Mary and possibly where Mary and Joseph first met.

The park includes Roman, Jewish and Christian buildings and ruins.  It happened to be a beautifully sunny spring day and the site is very spread out so we enjoyed walking around and exploring the various excavations.  We particularly enjoyed the Dionysus House, a Roman villa, containing a mosaic floor describing scenes from the life of Dionysus, god of wine in Greek mythology, as well as several other elaborate and well preserved mosaics.

The city Synagogue dates back to the end of the Byzantine period and also contains an impressive mosaic floor which depicts the Sacrifice of Isaac, the signs of the Zodiac, a description of the Tabernacle in the desert and the Arc of the Covenant in the Jerusalem Temple. The floors have been beautifully restored and the synagogue ruins are housed inside a building to protect the mosaics.

Signs of the Zodiac – Synagogue at Zippori

There are also breathtaking views, especially from the roof of the Crusader Castle that sits on the top of a hill. As the park is large with many interest building, you do need to allow a few hours to see everything, including a very nice introductory video.  As it was still officially winter when we visited the park closed at 4pm (which they failed to mention when we arrived at 2.30pm) so we were rushed at the end to get out before they closed and I could have happily spent more time exploring.

From there we drove to our B&B Nofesh Baharim in Moshav Ramot Naftaly to check in and freshen up, before heading for dinner at Ahuzat Dobrovin.

For those who are interested in visiting wineries, there are several great ones which we passed nearby on our journey but we just didn’t have time on this trip to do everything.  I am mentioning them here as suggestions of alternative itineraries in this area. The Jezreel Valley Winery is close to Zippori and the Netofa Winery is about 30 minutes away, on the road up  to the Hula Valley.

Here is post about the second day of our trip in the Hula Valley – How the Hula Valley made me a bird watcher.

Discovering hidden treasures in Downtown Haifa

I had the honor to be invited on a food tour of Downtown Haifa (The Lower City) by Jessica Halfin, CEO of Haifa Street Food Tours and ambassador of #TheNewHaifa.  Jessica invited a group of 20 journalists, food bloggers and others related to the industry to visit a selection of Haifa’s restaurants and bars to showcase the growing foodie culture in the city. Most of us were not familiar with the Haifa restaurant scene and we were pleasantly surprised at what we discovered.

Whipped Cream of Onion Soup, Hanamal 24 -Photo Credit: Avi Shumacher

Whipped Cream of Onion Soup, Hanamal 24 -Photo Credit: Avi Shumacher

As in many cities around the world, the area surrounding the port of Haifa used to be very industrial but in the past few years it has been renovated and it is now full of bars, cafes and restaurants.  We started the tour at Hanamal 24, one of the first restaurants to open when there was nothing else in the area.  We were hosted by Guy Avital, one of the restaurant owners, who along with his business partner chef Ran Rosh, previously owned Recital Danya for 13 years until the building they were in was sold.  Like many Israeli chefs, Rosh trained in France for many years and at one time owned a Michelin star restaurant near Paris, before moving back to Israel.  The menu is very much a traditional French bistro but the design of the restaurant itself is more rural and although it holds a total of 80 people, the dining area is spread out across a number of small rooms so there is a very intimate feel to the space.

White chocolate liver pate - Hanamal24

White chocolate liver pate – Hanamal24

We sampled the Whipped Cream of Onion Soup (NIS 38) which was rich and creamy and unlike any other onion soup (according to a trusted source, they made me a delicious Jerusalem artichoke soup instead).  Next we were presented with a beautifully plated dish with white chocolate, liver pate and chili – at first it was unclear if it was a starter or a dessert but we all agreed it was decadent and delicious.  It was confirmed that it was a starter and my favorite part of the dish was the perfect tiny chili flavored macaron with just the right amount of warmth.

Our next stop was directly across the street to newly opened Morel Worldwide Tapas and Wine.  Unlike a typical Spanish tapas bar, as the name suggests the dishes are f

Reggiano Eggplant - Morel Tapas

Reggiano Eggplant – Morel Tapas

rom all over world and to cater to Israeli palettes they are medium size sharing dishes rather than the small tapas you find in Spain.  The restaurant itself is bright and airy and has a European bistro feel to it.  We sampled the Tuna Tartar (NIS 39) mini tacos which were tasty but lacked punch and the Reggiano Eggplant which was deliciously rich and comforting.

Lastly the Carpaccio Sinta (NIS 42) was tasty if not slightly predictable.   The chef/owner at Morel was an incredibly friendly generous host and it was clear that his goal is deliver what his customers want.  Morel prides themselves on their vast selection of affordable wine, including several local Israeli wines that are only NIS 20 a glass.

We were fortunate to taste some great wines from Vortman’s Winery and the owner Hai Vortman spoke to us about his critically acclaimed wines.  The Fume Blanc 2015 from the nearby Shfeya Valley is 100% Sauvignon Blanc and was a surprising delight as I don’t normally favor white wines.  It was much fruitier than European Sauvignon Blanc wines, while still being a dry wine. Hai explained that an increasing number of wineries are growing grapes in this area as it produces flavors that differ from the Golan and the Galil.

Down the same street is Chang Ba, a wonderfully authentic Thai street food restaurant. The chef who originates from the party island of Koh Phangan serves his favorite Thai street food dishes at a slightly elevated level.  Some of the Thai herbs that are the base of these dishes are hard to find in Israel but chef Dam simply grows his own.  He did say that some vary slightly in taste due to the difference in climates between Israel and Thailand but he manages to get pretty close to the real deal.

Chang Ba - Photo Credit: Avi Shumacher

Chang Ba – Photo Credit: Avi Shumacher

Chang Ba started in a smaller location with space for just 20 people and recently moved to Rehov Hanamal to bigger premises in the heart of the action.  We started with a deliciously spicy Som Tum (NIS 36) – green papaya salad and we were then presented with bowl of white rice and a buffet of all their most popular dishes.  My clear favorite was the Pla Thot (NIS 94), a whole sea bass which was lightly fried and served with a spicy thai herb sauce.  The green curry was also delicious and the most of the dishes on the menu have the option of tofu, chicken, beef, shrimps or fish so there really is something for everyone.

Our final stop was the Libira BrewPub which serves a selection of dishes that pair well with their own brand craft beers.  There were a number of pork based dishes on offer which I declined to taste like sausages with sauerkraut and a meatloaf, as well as some salads and fresh breads.

Gal's Bakery - Photo Credit: Avi Shumacher

Gal’s Bakery – Photo Credit: Avi Shumacher

The highlight of the night for many of us was a delivery of pastries from Gal Gavrieli of Gal’s Bakery.  At one time Gal’s creations were available up and down the countrGal’s Bakery – Photo Credit: Avi Shuy but now they can only be found at his bakery and café in Merkaz Hacarmel and for delivery within Haifa.  Gal brought us a selection of both his savory and sweet pastries which were all incredibly buttery, flaky and addictive!

Jessica did a great job showcasing the Haifa culinary scene and we have already discussed a return visit to enjoy full meals at Hanamal 24 and Chang Ba and to visit Gal’s Bakery to try more of his incredible delicacies and eat in the café.

Haifa has many boutique hotels to choose from, here is a full list and if you are looking for five star accommodation then it has to be Dan Carmel.