Like so much of Israel, two of its most buzzed-about new hotels have not years or decades but centuries of stories to tell.
The Setai Tel Aviv and the Jaffa, a Luxury Collection Hotel, both opened last year in Jaffa, Tel Aviv's oldest neighborhood, one teeming with art galleries, cafes and trendy restaurants built into its labyrinth of ancient stone alleyways. Family-owned hummus and shawarma shops have been there for decades.
The Setai and the Jaffa are among many luxury hotels popping up in Israel. They stand out for their historical locations and painstaking renovations that blend the modern with the ancient, preserving history while offering the latest amenities. And as each property was being renovated, layer upon layer of history unfolded.
During what became a 12-year renovation, a 13th-century stone wall was unearthed and preserved behind glass in the hotel’s otherwise modern lobby. Photo Credit: Amit Geron
The Jaffa was built on the site of the former French Hospital, built along with a convent in 1879.
During what became a 12-year renovation, a 13th-century stone wall was unearthed, and it is now preserved behind glass in an otherwise modern lobby and juxtaposed with two Damien Hirst paintings and midcentury modern furniture.
The structure's original facade has been restored, and the former hospital and convent now house 40 hotel rooms. A modern wing was built adjacently with 80 rooms and also the lobby, spa and penthouse. A pool area set behind the walls offers a calm oasis.
In a somewhat controversial move, the convent's chapel was converted into a bar that pulsed with electronic music on the Friday night I visited, its bar set up in the former sanctuary, where the altar was originally. It is worth a visit if only to see the soaring chapel's meticulously restored stained-glass windows.
The rooms in the original building at the Jaffa have arched ceilings and tall windows and doors. Photo Credit: Amit Geron
The Jaffa is dotted with nods to the area's history. There are backgammon tables next to the lobby bar — anyone who walks through the nearby flea market will see men whiling away days playing the table game — and orange trees, a symbol of Jaffa, provide leafy shade in the courtyard. Throughout the property are modern mashrabiya-style screens, a nod to the area's Arabic influence.
One of the hotel's two restaurants, Golda's Delicatessen, named for former prime minister Golda Meir, is adorned with photos of famous New York Jewish delis. The Italian eatery Don Camillo has an Israeli chef. I was pleased that its extensive breakfast buffet offered local specialties and impressed my Israeli husband. Tip: The onsite hummus is picked up daily from Abu Hasan, a local fixture serving what many in Israel call the country's best hummus.
The Jaffa was developed by Aby Rosen of RFR Holdings, the company behind New York's Gramercy Park Hotel and Miami's W South Beach. Much of the hotel's impressive art collection is his, including a Warhol adorning the private dining room at Don Camillo.
The rooms in the original building have arched ceilings and tall windows and doors. Spacious suites atop the hotel offer views of the sea and the Tel Aviv skyline.
Room balconies overlook the various courtyards within the Setai Tel Aviv’s walls. Photo Credit: Amit Geron
The Setai was built in a former Ottoman prison that was most recently a police station and started off as a 12th-century fortress.
The property's pool deck is already making a name for itself for having what people say is one of the best views in all of Israel, offering a panoramic vista of the Mediterranean coast and Tel Aviv skyline. It is particularly stunning at sunset.
The hotel's Sunset Lounge, set just below the pool, offers VIP and Executive Guests a complimentary, all-day spread of breakfast, appetizers, salads, desserts and wine, offered with those incredible views, indoors or alfresco.
Looking out should not overshadow what's inside. The property's incredible historical architecture was restored over more than a decade, and its touches maintain the many eras of its history: The former prison yard is now a courtyard where guests sip coffee among olive trees. There is an ancient staircase roped off at the back of the wine bar, and guests walk under stone arches throughout. Wrought iron touches serve as a reminder that this was once a prison. Even while in the underground spa's sauna, a glass wall puts an ancient wall on display.
The 120 accommodations range from my ground-level room with dark wood and Arabic design touches and no window but a door leading to a courtyard to ones with balconies overlooking the various outdoor spaces within the hotel's walls as well as the city and sea to modern top-floor suites with floor-to-ceiling windows and unobstructed Mediterranean views. Turkish rugs throughout respect the Ottoman background, and black-and-white photos tell stories of the area's past.
Jaya, the Setai's restaurant, is headed by an Israeli chef of Syrian descent and has a Middle Eastern and Mediterranean bent. I was impressed by its wide selection of Israeli wines.