For such a tiny country, Israel has more than its share of must-see tourist attractions. From the sacred sites of Jerusalem to the pulsing White City of Tel Aviv, from floating in the Dead Sea and exploring Masada to snorkeling in Eilat – and so much more in between – the vacationer is overwhelmed with options.
With a superabundance of things to experience, travelers from overseas as well as Israeli tourists can be forgiven if they overlook (or save for a later trip) some of the loveliest spots in our diminutive yet richly endowed nation.
One of those is Nahariya. My wife and I have been proud Israelis for more than three decades, yet we, like most people we know, had never spent any time in what we recently discovered is one of Israel’s most under-visited and under-appreciated gems: Nahariya.
Getting to Israel’s northernmost coastal city by train was quick and pleasurable, and what greeted us when we disembarked was a city of unexpected cleanliness and charm. The walk through the train station is like a time-travel experience, with unpretentious utilitarian stalls that call to mind the down-to-earth innocence of our country in decades past. Then you emerge onto the main shopping streets, which exude a nostalgic, small-town flavor that draws you to begin exploring.
We indulged in a bit of window shopping and then hailed a taxi. During the short and inexpensive (NIS 18) ride, the taxi driver was expressing pride in his city and extolling its gleaming cleanliness when suddenly, as if on cue, a street-cleaning machine appeared to our right, scrubbing what already looked like a spotlessly clean road.
A moment later, we found ourselves at the inviting entrance to a Nahariya landmark – the Shtarkman Erna Hotel. Odds are that you have never heard of this hotel; it is not a property of a major chain. Like the city itself, the Shtarkman Erna Hotel grew organically through the decades and today is a stunning one-of-a-kind boutique facility – a premium hotel in the classic European style with 30 rooms, stunning grounds and boundless charm. It is integral to the city’s history. If you want to immerse yourself in a true Nahariya experience, this is an excellent starting point.
Nahariya has been a cultural and commercial center for millennia, as attested to by the ruins of a 3,400-year-old Bronze Age citadel that was part of a complex serving Mediterranean mariners. The Byzantines, Ottomans and others took turns occupying the city. In the early 20th century, European (mostly German) Jews fleeing persecution bought vast tracts of land for agricultural endeavors. As many of them were terribly incompetent farmers, a tourism industry developed, leveraging the natural beauty of the area. Nahariya’s first tzimmer (guest house) opened in the 1930s, and the two homes built side-by-side in that decade by the Shtarkman family for their own use opened their doors to guests in the 1950s.
Today it is managed by the daughter of the original proprietors and the four young women who are her daughters – two of whom we had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with. Underscoring how integral the hotel is to the city is the fact that a local party convinced one of these four daughters, Orna Shtarkman, to run in their list and she was elected vice mayor. (By all accounts she is doing an excellent job in city hall. With a hotel magnate in the US now serving as president, perhaps her political future is brighter than she realizes.) In contrast to the sterility or artificial ambiance of many chain hotels, the Shtarkman Erna exudes the kind of genuine warmth that can only be generated by a family enterprise. The refined classical decor provides an apt venue for exhibiting family and regional pride through the display of fascinating photographs and artifacts spanning a period of almost a century.
One can examine the grandmother’s suitcases and glasses, for example, and take books from the hotel’s library that were printed long before any of us were born (there are newer books there, too). You can admire antique typewriters and play a parlor piano that was entertaining guests there generations ago. Every item tells a story – and if you ask anyone on the staff, they will share those stories with you.
History notwithstanding, the premises is spotless and modern. It is evident that the most recent round of extensive renovations, completed not long ago, used the finest quality materials and paid meticulous attention to every detail in the guest rooms, lobby and dining room – but it also has character, and is well worth a visit on its own merit. Moreover, the hotel features a spacious, manicured garden so beautifully maintained and furnished that guests spent more than a little time out there snacking and mingling.
The room we stayed in was large for a hotel room, pristine and well-appointed.
Everything appeared to be new and shiny – the kitchenette (with partially stocked refrigerator); the large-screen cable TV; the new, yet intriguingly classical-looking bathroom fixtures; rainforest shower, etc.
There was also a large bed, a private outdoor garden, complementary chocolates, wine and more. The fluffy white bathrobes and slippers came in handy for the therapeutic massages we were treated to. Everyone on the staff was uncompromisingly friendly, solicitous and helpful.
As pleasant and comfortable as the hotel and grounds are, we were curious to explore and experience Nahariya, so my wife and I took the short stroll from our temporary residence to the waterfront. As it was early December, we were wearing zipped-up hoodies. It was far too chilly to swim, so of course we counted no fewer than two dozen people (evidently from a colder climate, or perhaps from a colder planet) in the water – swimming, windsurfing, etc. My wife, a photographer, found much to capture on film (do we still use that expression?), including waves crashing spectacularly on a daring spur of the promenade that we ventured out on that thrusts surprisingly far into the sea.
After watching the setting sun suffuse the sky and surf with multifarious show-stopping colors, we strolled back to our home base. The Shtarkman Erna offers bicycles for guests to use. Like everything else at the hotel, the bicycles are gleaming and in excellent operational condition and if you are someone who likes biking, I highly recommend taking one for a spin. In the early evening, I pedaled the length of the promenade to its very end (where the lights of Acre beckon on the horizon). The long Mediterranean beach was mesmerizing on my right, and to my left I enjoyed surveying the city’s impressive array of floral artwork, well-lit colorful playgrounds, immaculate parks and exercise areas with glistening workout equipment. There was even a sturdy outdoor digital scale there – something I had never seen before – for public use, so that people can monitor precisely how much weight they lose as they stroll or bike along the scenic route.
As Nahariya is flat, biking is easy. I biked back to the hotel through Nahariya itself, struck by the beauty of the city, the number of parks, the loveliness of the low-slung white architecture with rounded balconies.
The city’s attention to detail manifests itself in many ways – for example, the beauty of the paving, with extraordinary variety of interesting brick patterns. Many of the traffic circles are ringed by glowing red-and-white curbs illuminated from the inside – another thing I had never seen before. A biker I spoke with told me the area is known for excellent bike paths that stretch on for kilometers to the north, east and south.
In the evening, the wife and I indulged in a leisurely dinner in one of the nearby kosher restaurants, observing the pulsing nightlife in the lively downtown area just a few blocks away from the hotel. By the time we got back to the hotel room, it was late.
We glanced briefly at the inviting largescreen TV with a broad range of channels to choose from, but with so much else that we did and enjoyed all day, we were tired and had little interest in sitting in front of a TV screen, no matter how advanced the technology When we woke up and made our way to the breakfast spread, we were overwhelmed at the freshness, variety and abundance of choices. Anyone who gives in to the temptation to taste more than a small fraction of the pastries, soufflés, shakshukas, fruits, vegetables, cheeses and other gourmet dairy offerings and desserts will want to avoid weighing themselves on all scales – public and private – for days, unless they go biking, hiking and swimming. Although the Shtarkman Erna Hotel does not have its own pool, guests enjoy unlimited free entry to the swimming pool (in season) a block away as a pleasant alternative to the beach nearby.
The location of Shtarkman Erna is perfect – a short stroll to the beach, the pool and the pulsing downtown area. Moreover, it is ideally located for popular tourist attractions around Nahariya: a short ride to Acre and Haifa to the south, Achziv and Rosh Hanikra to the north and forays to key sites in the Western Galilee.
So when you are ready for a diversion from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and are looking for a special experience in a romantically beautiful setting, consider booking a room at the Shtarkman Erna in Nahariya.
The price is reasonable and you get extraordinary value for the money. In 2015, it was chosen as one of the 10 best hotels in Israel; in 2016, it was named one of the leading hotels in Israel by Forbes Magazine; and in 2017 it was awarded “Traveler’s Choice” on TripAdvisor.
Room prices: From NIS 750; discounts available for longer stays, repeat guests, etc. Kosher.
Includes breakfast; lobby menu available for lunch and dinner.
The writer was a guest in the hotel.