Movin' on up to Setai Jaffa

Restored 12th-century Ottoman prison receives Tel Aviv's first 'leading hotels of the world' designation.

By ARIEH O’SULLIVAN
March 25, 2018 01:30
The Setai 120-room hotel combines five structures, including remnants of a Crusader fortress

The Setai 120-room hotel combines five structures, including remnants of a Crusader fortress. (photo credit: ASSAF PINCHUK)

 
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After much anticipation The Setai luxury hotel has finally opened its doors for business. Set in the former Turkish kishle, or prison, and police station, the complex is arguably one of the most prime locations in the country, overlooking Tel Aviv from the heart of the bustling, funky markets of Jaffa.

The 120-room hotel combines five structures, including remnants of a Crusader fortress. But don’t let the bare stone walls fool you, guests are treated not as prisoners, but as royalty. Hotel general manager Bruno de Schuyter believes the hotel will become the new mecca for luxury tourism along this part of the Mediterranean coast.

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“I think it’s going to turn into a hot spot. There has been a shift in tourism and the way people live and see Tel Aviv today,” de Schuyter said. “Twenty years ago the pinnacle of incoming tourism would have been the Hilton. Fifteen years ago it moved to the area of Nave Tzedek.

Now it’s moving more south to Jaffa, because all the action’s here. People today want to live a much more authentic experience.

And the combination of having the sea just across the street and having the old city of Jaffa and the flea market...

all that together puts us into some kind of Soho-ish area on the sea.”

As location goes, he’s right. The hotel faces the historic Jaffa Clock Tower and Square. Once inside you come onto a complex that combines ancient and modern, with lush inner courtyards brimming with olive and citrus trees.

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Staying in this historic site was clearly going to be exciting and my companion and I eagerly set off to explore the compound upon arrival. The hotel features an underground spa, complete with hamam, or Turkish bath, and a top-of-the-line gym, “infinity pool” and numerous decks that feature stunning views of the Mediterranean.

“As a guest, I assume some people will look at the architecture and some will look at the vicinity to the sea. Some people will look at the surroundings. The good thing with this building is that whichever way you look you get your fill,” de Schuyter said.

OUR ROOM was facing one of the inner courtyards and our balcony had a sea view. The huge bed was draped with a magnificent Persian covering and everything was brand new. I felt like saying the Shehehiyanu prayer for thanks every time I touched something. It was the first time anyone had used this bathtub or fluffy white robe and towels, or slept on this mattress. Even the equipment in the gym looked like it was just taken out of the boxes.

The Tel Aviv-Jaffa property is housed within one of Israel’s most important historical buildings known as the kishle, or jail house in Turkish, which was built above a 12th-century Crusader fortress.

Anyone who controlled Gaza did so from here, including Napoleon and Jaffa’s Ottoman-era governor Muhammad Abu-Nabbut. From after the War of Independence in 1948, the complex was used as a police station until 2005. In fact, the iconic scene of the classic Israeli movie The Policeman that starred Shaike Ofir was filmed in the courtyard.

The site then underwent a monolithic excavation and restoration process, spearheaded by the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Israel Preservation Society, Feigin Architects & preservation architect Eyal Ziv. As part of the renovation effort, the architects restored the original structure, added three floors and dug a basement, spurring a series of extensive archeological digs throughout the property and unearthing artifacts that will soon be on display.

“They found bones in the dungeon,” said one of our waiters, “But the place isn’t haunted.” Nevertheless, I had my internal radar on for any paranormal activity and I didn’t detect any ghosts.

With the Mahmoudiya Mosque literally next door, one would expect to be awoken with the muezzin’s call to prayer at untimely hours – especially considering the full Jaffa/Tel Aviv night scene.

However, I heard that an arrangement was reached with the mosque and the prayer-caller, it seems, developed a case of laryngitis.

With its prime location and amenities, the Setai geared toward an upscale clientele, mostly from North America, but also from Europe and Russia.

“The well-off people would come three or four times to Israel. They always look for a new place to stay and for the upcoming places, especially the luxury hotels, I think we are going to be it,” the general manager said as we ate a delicious breakfast of eggs Benedict cooked to perfection.

“THE MENUS that we built are related to the building. The chef was instructed to build a menu which is related to the Turkish heritage, the vicinity and to the sea – to being in Jaffa, while being kosher and keeping it modern and nice-looking.

So good luck to the chef with that, and I think he’s not doing too bad.”

Not bad at all, I’d say. Upon arrival the previous night, my companion and I enjoyed a relaxing sweat in the hamam, followed by drinks in the bar. We then entered the JAYA restaurant for what turned out to be a three-hour meal. With the hotel’s doors just having opened, there were only a few guests and we had the sweet attention of the staff, whose international flair and sole mission at that moment seemed to be to please us.

Chef Erez Medina, of Syrian descent, showed off by serving me and my companion a running 10-course dinner that included artichoke soup, eggplant truffle, fish tartar, salmon with a Turkish-inspired sauce, codfish that was bursting with flavor, lamb chops with an Indian influence, rare entrecôte steak, all served with fine Israeli wines.

“Obviously, we are in our opening stages, so we’re taking our baby steps. But we’re doing quite well,” de Schuyter said.

Jaffa is going through a luxury revival with the Drisco Hotel having recently opened and soon, the Jaffa down the street, all of which will add to turning the area into the place to be. The Setai’s valet parking lowers your vehicle by car elevator to the dudgeon, literally.

Nakash Holdings got the Setai designated among the prestigious collection of independent luxury hotels known as the leading hotels of the world, a consortium of some 375 luxury hotels and resorts in 75 countries. This is the group’s second Setai property in Israel, following the recent opening of the Sea of Galilee property, and its third globally, joining the well-known Setai in Miami Beach.

Room rates at The Setai fluctuate depending on the season and the level of occupancy. They are also still calibrating prices throughout the soft opening. They are currently in the NIS 1,400-1,700 or approximately $400-500 dollar range per night.

If the expense isn’t an issue and you are the kind of person who wants the best location, the best design and the best service, what more could you need? The reporter was a guest of the Setai.

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