All-in-one cultured vacation

The Elma Hotel in Zichron Ya’acov offers more amenities than most.

April 22, 2015 17:13
The Elma Hotel

The Elma Hotel in Zichron Ya’acov. (photo credit: PR)


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Elements of a dream vacation? Do you insist on a posh hotel room, spa and stunning views of nature? Or do you want to concentrate on gourmet food, art and music? No need to choose.

You can have it all at an easy distance from the center of Israel at the Elma Arts Complex Luxury Hotel, the new hotel in Zichron Ya’acov. Kosher, too.

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In the second half of the 1970s I lived with my husband and children in the town of Zichron Ya’acov, near the picturesque fishponds where my husband was doing scientific experiments. Every weekday, I took my then toddlers to swim in a pool at the Mivtahim convalescent home. You can see the serpentine modular building crowning the wooded hillside as you drive past Zichron. Celebrated and celebrity architect Ya’acov Rechter won the 1972 Israel Prize for its modernist design, which complements the landscape. It managed to be beautiful despite the unpretentious, functional design that reflected a socialist ethic. The convalescent home offered what was de rigueur back then: a sea breeze, small rooms with firm foam-rubber mattresses and elder exercise on the lawn. In those days, there was no café in Zichron. For a cappuccino or hot chocolate with whipped cream, I drove to the metropolis of Hadera.

Times have changed and expectations have grown greater. Zichron Ya’acov is now trendy, with boutique shopping and winery visits. Mivtahim was slated for demolition, and on its 120 dunams (30 acres), 160 semidetached homes would rise.

Enter Lily Elstein and her magic wand.

The Tel Aviv art patron and activist on behalf of immigrants hails on both sides from founding families of Zichron Ya’acov. She spent her vacations with her grandparents and extended family amidst the vineyards and country homes. At 17, she served as a Palmah medic in the War of Independence, and afterwards studied art at the Hebrew University. Her parents were industrialists, as was her husband, the late Yoel Moshe Elstein, one of the founders of Teva.

She was in Zichron Ya’acov for a meeting at the First Aliya Museum, where a number of her relatives sit on the board, when she had an epiphany. She wanted to create an arts center hotel that would pay tribute to her husband’s memory, save the town’s architectural landmark and serve the community. She reportedly sold her Teva stocks and paid $20 million for the abandoned Mivtahim property. She hired Ya’acov Rechter’s son Amnon Rechter to carry out a renovation that would preserve the building’s heritage while bringing it up to international standards. And she would offer as much as or more culture than any other hotel in the country to make Zichron Ya’acov a draw for tourists from Israel and abroad. After eight years of renovation, the hotel opened for business in February.


The drive from Jerusalem takes an hour and a half. When we arrived, the first of the many courteous employees directed us to the cool underground parking lot. Another raced forward when we emerged to take our overnight bags. Some 200 employees work at Elma, which stands for Elstein music and art. Most of them live in Zichron Ya’acov and the surrounding area. Like those who greeted us, they all seemed to be well trained in the profession of service and were enthusiastic about the hotel.

The entrance is dominated by a first glimpse of the colossal stone sculpture Thirst – 26 tons of marble by artist Sigalit Landau. Long halls with black floor tiles and white walls display eclectic art, much from the Elsteins’ personal collection.

The rooms: Each is composed of two Mivtahim rooms, so that you get a sitting room and bedroom, each with its own balcony overlooking the kibbutz fishponds and the Mediterranean Sea. The beds have comfortable inner-spring mattresses. A large flatscreen TV gives you a welcome message and an Internet code, as well as cable TV and the possibility of hooking up your laptop.

The large bathroom offers rain-forest showers with benches for sitting, and aromatic amenities by Israeli company Laline. Touch lighting and a private espresso machine make these into five-star suites.

One floor down is an indoor pool, with a view of the sea, and a full-service spa and Turkish hamam.

For all the contemporary touches, the hotel maintains a feeling of hominess and nostalgia. As you enter the large dining area, bookshelves with once-upon-a time Israeli art books are displayed on widely spaced bookshelves from an earlier era in Israel.

We had been phoned before our arrival to ask where we wanted to sit for dinner in the Oratorio restaurant. You get to choose from among the bar where you face the bartender, a bar where you face your dining partner or a more conventional wooden table. We chose the last, with a view of the grounds, and proximity to the refrigerated wine racks where 70 different wines are displayed. The least expensive glass of wine is NIS 32. The most expensive bottles, from the area and from the Golan Heights, cost just over NIS 1,000. We ordered a modest but flavorful Eyal Merlot. The young sommelier poured with expertise.

The cuisine is what I’d call creative Middle Eastern. The short menu isn’t organized into appetizers and main dishes.

Nonetheless, we started with the first offerings “From the Farm” of artichoke Barigoule and grilled asparagus. Daily fresh fish includes “whole fish from Dalal in Furadis,” the nearby village. We ordered cheek Bourguignon (a dish we’d never heard of) with root vegetables and drum fish roasted with potato ravioli. Vegetarians can choose salads and pasta dishes. The restaurant was full, with mostly Hebrew-speaking customers, some of whom had come from afar for this gourmet dining experience.

We’d made dinner reservations for 7:30, figuring we’d have plenty of time for a 9:30 concert. We were having such a relaxed and enjoyable time dining, that in the end we had to rush through our delicious dessert of sorbet and fruit. The concert was just downstairs.

Elma is famous for its 450-seat concert hall with a pipe organ and for hosting orchestras and master performers. The evening we were there, that hall wasn’t in use, so we reserved tickets for the duo of blues guitarists Lazer Lloyd and Ronnie Peterson in the Cube hall—a venue similar to the Zappa jazz and popular entertainment nightclubs. Had we wanted, we could have had dinner there together with the performance.

The audience was made up of a mix of fans aged 20s to 70s that you get in serious jazz concerts around the country. How good and pleasant it is at the end of a superb concert to meander through art-filled halls to your hotel room instead of getting into a car and encountering traffic.

The hotel is also a venue for weddings, bar and bat mitzvas and retreats.

Who could have guessed that the famous Israeli breakfast could be improved upon? Instead of the jostling to fill your plate and juggling to bring it back to your table without spilling the olives, you get a sit-down breakfast (this time we chose the bar, with seats facing each other across the counter). Everything there was aesthetic, even the breakfast food. Two colors of grapes were waiting, followed by a basket of breads and pastries, a box of cheeses and yogurts.

I ordered a fatayer, a Middle Eastern bread baked with spinach and cheese, and my husband took shakshuka.

There’s cheesecake and Turkish malabi for dessert. Just so you shouldn’t forget where you are, the house salad includes radishes, scallions and kohlrabi, the food of the pioneering farmers who have cultivated the fields there for more than 100 years.

I like to try the house salad when I’m at a place for the first time, so I ordered the house massage at the spa. In this home of music and art, it included the use of musical instruments, chimes and gongs as part of a deep-tissue massage to ease sore muscles and renew energy. Just what I needed for the last stretch of Passover preparation.

We were there for a single night, but felt as if we’d had a full vacation.

■ The writer was a guest of the Elma Hotel.

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