No visit to Israel is complete without exploring Jaffa, Tel Aviv’s luxury hotspot
The historical neighbourhood has gone full-throttle luxe, with a slew of upscale hotels, lush spas and celebrity chef-led restaurants adding to the area’s vibrancy.
Jaffa, the age-old Abbott to youthful Tel Aviv’s Costello, is an ancient port in the midst of a luxury renaissance. This 3,000-year-old harbour is a labyrinth of white stone alleys, hushed mosques and markets brimming with antiques and spices.
But the district, once claimed by King David, the Pharaohs and even Napoleon, has for decades been in the shadow of shiny Tel Aviv. It was absorbed into greater Tel Aviv in 1950 and has long been seen as the humbler, more downtrodden section of the city. Not so anymore: Historical Jaffa, it’s fair to say, has gone full-throttle luxe.
Three new luxury properties — The Setai Tel Aviv (in a former Ottoman prison with Crusader-era origins); The Jaffa (an Aby Rosen recreation of a former hospice for malaria victims) and The Drisco, a revival of Jaffa’s first luxury hotel, shuttered since 1940) — opened last year, within spitting distance of one another. And that’s not all: Add to the mix of this major makeover a new lush Japanese spa, a bustling night life district and a flea market packed with restaurants led by major Israeli chefs.
“Jaffa is the hottest area in Tel Aviv — the energy and authenticity, coupled with the creativity seen in the ancient architecture, the local artists, galleries and not to mention the amazing food and the sea — it’s all part of the appeal,” said Rosen, the New York City-based real estate mogul with a portfolio of more than 70 property investments and developments across the globe. “Jaffa has all the components to be the next big thing.”
The gentrification hasn’t pleased everyone. Jaffa for centuries has been a stronghold of Arab and Muslim life. In 1948, when the State of Israel was founded, most of Jaffa’s Arab residents were forcibly removed from their homes. Today the district is one of the few areas of the country with a mixed Arab and Jewish population, and as luxury projects have moved in, so have accusations that the city’s Muslim history is being erased.
Israeli architect and conservationist Ramy Gil recalled that 20 years ago vacant buildings abounded in Jaffa, and he had become obsessed with one of them: a peeling 19th-century plaza that once housed The School of the Sisterhood St. Joseph’s Convent and Jaffa’s French Hospital, so named because its founder, the Lyon-based Francois Guinet, insisted on using entirely French building methods for its construction. Its walls were rotting, its central terrace was packed with garbage, and creeping weeds covered former malaria wards. Deep beneath its structure, however, Gil was sure there was a buried treasure: an intact stone wall, dating back to the Crusader period, that had once formed the perimeter of a 12th-century fortress.
His hunch was spot on. Today, when guests step into the cool, light-washed lobby of The Jaffa Hotel, a sparkling property that opened last summer, their eyes are drawn to that graceful ribbon of stone, now excavated, shined up and extending through the glass-enclosed seating area and out into the hotel’s lush courtyard.
The five-star property takes its name from the famed Jaffa orange, a citrus with few seeds that is particularly sweet. The hotel, which was purchased by Rosen’s US-based RFR Holding, designed by John Pawson and is now part of the Luxury Collection by Marriott, opened a stone’s throw from Yoko Kitahara, an opulent new Japanese spa; from the handsome St. Peter’s church, with its New Spanish Baroque architecture and towering belfry; and from Jaffa’s elegantly restored Old City, anchored by its Ottoman-era clock tower.
Jaffa’s resurrection began in 2007, when the Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality renovated its ancient port — said to be where Jonah set out to meet his whale — and brought in restaurants, businesses and a food hall. The municipality then invested US$225 million (S$304 million) in its downtrodden flea market, which today is a treasure trove of antiques by day and a bustling hub of twinkling lights, al fresco cafes and impossibly trendy bars by night.
In 2016, OCD, a wild gastronomic experiment from the Tel Aviv prodigy Raz Rahav, raised the culinary bar in Jaffa, and a slew of restaurants led by celebrity chefs followed. Then came Beit Kandinof — a buzzing gathering space that is part artists’ studio and part bar and restaurant, housed in a 17th-century villa. Lately, the pace of new bakeries (like the Instagram-ready Milk Bakery), restaurants like chef Uri Levy’s Raisa Bar and creative spaces like 8 in Jaffa and Yafo Creative, has been dizzying.
A short walk away in Jaffa’s American Colony neighbourhood, where 100-year-old clapboard houses offer a reminder of the Christian pilgrims from New England who settled there in the 1880s, another restored building has been revived as a grand hotel. The Drisco, a 42-room property, breathes life back into a majestic Ottoman building from 1866. Formerly known as the Jerusalem Hotel, the Drisco’s structure was built by two evangelical Christian brothers who wanted a luxury stopover for pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. The building, which was converted into British military headquarters during World War II before sitting abandoned for 50 years, now sports elegant tiling, sophisticated decor and hand-painted recreations of the building’s original murals.
And across the street from the landmark Jaffa Clock Tower, a limestone column built by a Jew 100 years ago to honour the Ottoman reign in Palestine, sits the sprawling Setai Tel Aviv. This resort has layers upon layers of history. The basement-level spa and gym were carved around Crusader-era walls and the upper-level guest rooms have been renovated from a former Turkish prison, which later became a Jewish-run prison after the founding of the State of Israel, and housed notorious criminals including the Nazi Adolf Eichmann.
The Jaffa Hotel opened to guests in August, and shortly after, The Chapel bar — housed in the convent’s original chapel hall — became the site of nightly dance parties. Don Camillo, the on-site restaurant run by the New York-based Major Food Group, is also packed each night.
For Gil, however, the site’s modern renaissance pales next to its ancient history.
“This is the cradle of Judaism and Christianity,” Gil says of the area. “Very few people seem to understand that when you talk about the biblical land of Israel, it’s all right here.”
By Debra Kamin © 2019 The New York Times