An east-west ambience

... in a superbly designed Jerusalem hotel.

Jerusalem's Orient Hotel  (photo credit: ISROTEL)
Jerusalem's Orient Hotel
(photo credit: ISROTEL)
It’s the old story: There wasn’t much that veterans in the neighborhood could do to prevent changes in the commercial area.
Shops changed hands and assumed different identities. Newcomers infiltrated the area and did away with the quaint concepts of yesteryear, introducing sleek new designs in their stead. As attractive as they were, they didn’t quite fit and looked out of place. But in time, people got used to the intrusion – mainly because they had no option.
When word got out that the luxury Orient Hotel was going to be built in the German Colony area, the locals raised a storm of protest, and the Four Seasons, which was the hotel in question, never saw the light of day there.
The people in the Isrotel chain, however, were not so easily deterred. For the best part of four decades, Isrotel had been making a positive impact on Israel’s tourist industry, improving the economy and quality of life wherever Isrotel facilities exist – and of course creating new job opportunities.
In addition to its reputation, Isrotel had encouragement and support from both the Tourism Ministry and the Jerusalem Municipality. Another plus factor was the location. It wasn’t somewhere in the middle of the neighborhood, but at the beginning on the combined site of the former Fiber Institute and the Templer Council House.
Sensitive to the objections of the population, Isrotel built well off the street on Emek Refaim, with a large plaza leading from the main road to the entrance of the hotel.
In addition, it built around the two Templer houses designated for preservation. The houses are integral to the hotel, marketed as heritage houses that come with private butlers. In fact, one of these houses has been reserved by a nine-member family who wanted to be together during the upcoming Jewish holiday period. The house is built on three levels, accessible by stairs or private elevator, with four bedrooms, complete with bathrooms on the top floor, four in the middle and three in the basement. The family also wants to dine privately, and the large lobby in the middle floor, which is actually the entrance floor to the house, has ample room for a long table around which the family can sit in comfort and even invite a few relatives or friends.
In Jerusalem was invited to the opening of the hotel three weeks ago, but seeing it again at the beginning of this week was an altogether different experience.
Although there had been some guest-room occupancies on the opening night, the huge crowd that had come to see and be seen made it difficult to discern the true flavor of the hotel. There were too many people jostling for space in the plaza, moving up and down serpentine staircases and filling the elevators.
Strangely, few many made it to the 10th floor to look at the rooftop swimming pool or to marvel at the view, which is certainly a major selling point for the hotel in addition to its aesthetic standards and its services. The best time to be there is just before twilight because the view changes dramatically from daytime to nighttime. By day, the horizon is a considerable distance away in all directions, but at night, when residential and commercial buildings throughout the city are lit up at different levels, the distance seems even greater and the whole scene has a fairy-tale aura.
There’s also an indoor pool.
The furniture varies on every floor in the public areas, and each of these floors, whether above or below, is visible from the other floors.
Credit for this belongs to Yehuda Feigin, who specializes in hotel and resort architecture and who always tries to introduce new elements into his creativity. Some of the furniture and furnishings come from England and the US; some were custom-made in Turkey. The rest is local. Olive wood features strongly in the artwork and the fittings.
Wherever one moves in the public areas, one gets the feeling of space. There’s nothing constricting, yet at the same time consideration has been given to groups and individual guests. In the Smadar Restaurant, for instance, there are tables for two, four, six and 10. The restaurant is actually the main dining room, but it’s not referred to as such. It leads on to an open-air enclosed courtyard replete with trees and shrubbery for guests who prefer to dine outside.
In separate conversations with general manager Amit Bahat; executive lounge and guest relations manager Jason Gordon; and public relations manager Ilana Livne, all three enthused about how many people from the neighborhood are coming in for breakfast and are raving about how good it is. Livne said that a couple of women who make it a habit every Friday to get together for breakfast in another five-star hotel ranked the Orient breakfast as the best they’ve had. As far as the local neighborhood community is concerned, some have already returned to sample breakfast multiple times, which, given the number of coffee shops in the area and the fact that breakfast costs around NIS 140 in the hotel – and only NIS 60 or less elsewhere on Emek Refaim – is a great compliment.
A conscious effort has made by the Isrotel management to integrate into the German Colony by using names of local institutions, such as the Smadar Cinema and the Khan Theater for its dining facilities.
For the foreseeable future, the Smadar is serving breakfast only, although an exception is made on weekends, weekend when Friday night dinner and Saturday lunch are also available in the Khan lounge, which is dairy, or in the rooftop meat restaurant.
Adjacent to the managerial suite of offices are showcases featuring artifacts from the Templer period, as well as a mute video of the history of the area with English subtitles. For guests who have neither the time nor the patience to watch the video, there is an illustrated synopsis on a board on the opposite wall.
Many of the 240 guest rooms and suites include deep free-standing bathtubs. Some of the suites have king-size beds and all the beds have zip mattresses so that guests who may be sharing a room but don’t want to share a mattress can separate the mattress into two parts and have that element of privacy. The mattresses, by the way, are very thick and comfortable.
Even though construction is not yet fully complete, the hotel since its opening has had an average booking of 60 rooms a night.
There is no shortage of luxury five-star hotels in Jerusalem, and even some of the new boutique hotels, which may be lacking some of the services and facilities provided by larger hotels, nonetheless ooze luxury.
So what makes the Orient so special?
The question was put to Bahat, a 22-year veteran of the Isrotel chain who has worked in, managed and/or opened more than half a dozen of the 18 Isrotel hotels currently in operation, and most recently was Isrotel district manager in Eilat, where nine of the chain’s hotels are located.
Born and raised in Herzliya, Bahat did not want to spend the rest of his life in Eilat, having spent most of his hotel career there, and two years ago left Isrotel and Eilat and settled with his family in Tel Mond. But when Isrotel was already well advanced in the construction of its first Jerusalem enterprise, Bahat was asked to come back to supervise the rest of the construction, to look at the competition and to pick and train the hotel’s work force.
He had absolutely no hotel experience in Jerusalem, and it was quite an adventure for him, because unlike Eilat, Jerusalem is not a resort city. While in some respects a hotel is a hotel is a hotel, in the high-class hotel business, every hotel must have that something special that enhances its reputation and prompts guests to return.
Usually it starts with the service, because the first person that the guest encounters is the security doorman or woman and after that front-desk personnel.
Unlike other hotels in Jerusalem where the gatekeeper sits right next to the door, at the Orient when this writer arrived, he was standing halfway along the plaza, and did not ask the customary question “Are you a guest at the hotel?”
Instead there was a smiling greeting of “Welcome, how are you today?” then an escort to the door, which he opened with a flourish and bowed.
The entrance lobby was buzzing with luggage coming in and going out and guests sitting around sipping the cool drinks automatically distributed by a smiling waitress, who immediately offered one to yours truly. Such rapid-fire yet understated service is rare.
Bahat explained that the Isrotel management went to every major hotel in Jerusalem and took note in fine detail of what each had to offer and compared its standards with those of Isrotel.
For instance, the group didn’t find a spa that measured up to that of Isrotel’s own Carmel Forest Spa, so CFS was duplicated at the Orient.
Other than an occasional alcove, dining rooms and coffee shops in major Jerusalem hotels have minimal provision for privacy. There is such provision at the Orient.
Most hotels, though supporting various charitable and cultural organizations in the city, don’t do enough to demonstrate that support. The Orient wants to encourage the creativity of Bezalel Students of the arts, and will have a permanent exhibition of works of some dozen students.
And of course there’s always the eternal consideration in residential and tourist projects – location, location, location – and it’s not just a matter of being at the beginning of the street. It’s also its proximity to where tourists want to go.
Tourists often want to get the feel of the local population, but large hotels are not always in residential areas.
Here the tourist walks out into the street, turns left into the commercial area of Emek Refaim and immediately has a community center, a synagogue, pharmacies, coffee shops, restaurants, minimarkets, fashion boutiques, shoe stores, gift shops, beauty salons, a florist and more at his or her disposal.
If the tourist turns to the right, the First Station, the Khan Theater, the Begin Heritage Center, the Cinematheque and Mishkenot Sha’ananim are all within a five- to 10-minute walk, and the Old City is also within easy walking distance. Several bus routes to a variety of tourist attractions pass through Emek Refaim, and additional bus routes are only a corner away just past the First Station.
The only disappointment so far is that the swimming pools are reserved for guests of the hotel and cannot be used by the general public. This could change in the course of time, but meanwhile the locals will have be content with breakfast, or coffee and cake at any time of the day or night.