Leaving the noise, pollution and traffic of Tel Aviv behind, it was with great enthusiasm and anticipation that I set off with my girlfriend for a weekday mini-vacation at the world-renowned Efendi Hotel situated in the heart of Acre’s Old City.
Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Old City is an enchanting mix of markets, mosques and vaulted Crusader ruins. As a hub of international trade, this 4,000-year-old port city was once home to the Canaanites, Romans, Crusaders, Turks and the British. Each left their mark. As a result, the city contains many historical structures and sites, such as the Crusaders’ Fortress, the Synagogue of the Ramchal and the Acre Bahá’í Gardens.
After a very comfortable train ride (approximately an hour and a half) from Tel Aviv to the Acre train station, we took a taxi (normally a fixed rate of NIS 14) to the entrance of the Old City. The driver said the Efendi was about a five-minute walk from there.
However, we didn’t realize that the Old City was a maze of small streets and alleyways, so naturally we got hopelessly lost. I phoned the Efendi, described our location, and within a few minutes we were rescued by the amiable front desk manager Merav, who graciously escorted us to the hotel.
THE MOMENT we walked through the doors of the impressive building, we were greeted by Roi, the hotel manager, who emphasized the fact that he wanted us to enjoy ourselves. And that we did.
Opened in 2012, the Efendi Hotel is the pet project of Israeli restaurateur Uri Jeremias, the chef and owner of the famous seafood restaurant Uri Buri. The renovation of the hotel took eight years, conducted under the watchful eye of the local Antiques Authority.
Craftsmen were flown in from Italy to restore the plaster work and frescoes, which date back to the 19th century.
The five-star boutique hotel is composed of two adjacent Ottoman- era palaces. The southern structure is the Afifi House, or WIZO House, while the northern structure is the Hamar, or Shukri House, named for a family of musicians that once resided there.
With just 12 guest rooms in the grand hotel, it feels like you’re staying in your own private residence (rooms range from NIS 1,500 to NIS 3,000 a night.) As our room was not ready yet, Merav offered us some chilled date juice and took us on a short tour of the hotel, highlighting an original 400-year-old Turkish bath/hamman, still used for spa treatments, as well as a 900-year-old Crusader- period cellar stocked with the finest Israeli wines. She also told us about the sunset happy hour on the hotel’s rooftop terrace.
When we entered our room, the Presidential Suite, it simply took our breath away. A striking blend of old world charm and modern luxury, it felt like stepping back in time while enjoying the most modern amenities. Not only did this 38 sq.m. room offer marvelous panoramic views of the Mediterranean Sea, but it was also beautifully decorated with marble floors, leather upholstered chairs, a writing desk, LCD TV and a king-size bed covered with Egyptian cotton sheets and goose down comforters and pillows.
The luxurious bathroom featured a state-of-the art shower and a freestanding claw-footed bathtub. The murals on the suite’s walls and ceiling have been restored to their original colors and designs. All the guest rooms lead off from large, lavishly furnished common areas and balconies, which are ideal for reading, enjoying the sea views or having a game of chess on the coffee table chess set.
After a wonderfully relaxing afternoon that included some excellent spa treatments, we went up to the rooftop terrace, where staff members affably offered us a choice of red or white wine. Cozying up on one of the couches, sipping on some Chardonnay while watching the sun set over the Mediterranean, we were in heavenly bliss.
That evening, we made our way to the Uri Buri restaurant, which is a five-minute walk from the hotel.
It is housed in an Ottoman-era stone building situated by the old lighthouse and port. For almost 20 years, 71-year-old chef Jeremias has been serving the finest quality fish and seafood there. Jeremias became a chef after spending his later youth as a diver and fisherman. In the late 1980s, he opened the original Uri Buri on the beach at Nahariya, eventually moving to the Acre port in 1997.
The 70-seat restaurant has a small bar and two dining rooms with simple decor, blue tablecloths and plaster walls. The simplicity of the interior allows the fresh fish and seafood to shine. Our waitress said that the best way to sample the food was to do a tasting menu, where they bring out half portions of dishes.
And that we did. A highlight was the salmon sashimi in soy sauce with wasabi sorbet. Very simple in execution and bold in complementary flavors, this was a must-order.
Other standout dishes included Thai fish chowder with coconut milk and basil leaves; seared red tuna with hot green peppers and olive oil on yogurt; and sea bream fillet in a yogurt and pickled sauce with majadra rice.
For dessert, we sampled some of the chef’s homemade ice cream (he owns the ice cream parlor next door). Some of the more interesting flavors included mint, date, cinnamon and rose.
After the delightful dinner, we took a short stroll along the shore, listening to the waves crashing against the rocks and watching the shimmering lights of ships illuminate the water. This was the ideal romantic backdrop, as I was planning to propose to my girlfriend that night at the hotel. This was done with the invaluable help of Roi, whom I had called a few weeks earlier in order to set up the room.
Upon returning to our suite, we were met with an array of small glimmering candles, rose petals strewn on the bed and champagne chilling on ice. It made a special night even more special.
Oh, and she said “Yes!”
BREAKFAST THE next morning was laid out on an enormous knight’s table in a room dating back to the early Ottoman Empire. Presented with great attention to flavor and detail, the sumptuous repast included freshly squeezed orange juice and coffee, a selection of breads and cheeses, eggs made to order, yogurt with homemade granola and a host of other local treats.
The Efendi Hotel is arguably one of the most beautiful hotels not only in Israel but in the world. The staff members are cordial, competent and charismatic and really make the guests feel welcome. The history and elegance of the place make it second to none. I am truly grateful to the Efendi for turning a very special occasion into an indelible memory.The writer was a guest of the Efendi Hotel. For more information about the Efendi, visit www.efendi-hotel.com or call 074-729-9799.