Postscript: On the beach

You feel the nervousness in Greece, and the gratitude from everyone for coming to support their country in hard times.

Greek islands 311 (photo credit: Sharon Udasin)
Greek islands 311
(photo credit: Sharon Udasin)
It was not without trepidation that we booked our last-minute holiday to Greece this year. You read the headlines of wild-cat strikes and volatile demonstrations, see the pictures of burning banks and make assumptions that going to Greece to relax from here would be a bit like jumping from the frying pan into the fire.
After considering the alternatives – a four-day package that includes a war for breakfast and having to get up at 5 in the morning to grab a chair near the pool, or a mere $1,000 a night, excluding breakfast, for four in Herzliya – it was off to Greece we went.
There is this little island I love, the name of which I will not reveal for fear of ruining its uniqueness as a place where its inhabitants are more interested in their neighbors’ goats than the Israeli-Palestinian problem, Israel means a basketball team and one of the few places left where Israelis do not have to sign a commitment not to steal the taps and towels before being given the key to the room.
It was totally on the off chance we phoned the hotel, a two star operation where the husband cooks, the rooms are spotless and modest, the vines are heavy with grapes and the beach just meters away. August in Greece, as in the rest of this part of the world, is the busiest tourist season, and we did not hold out much hope for our chances.
But, yes, there were two ground-floor rooms. This had never happened before. Things were not what they used to be. The main source of tourism to this island is Greeks from the mainland, and this year they are not coming. If they do, they are not spending. One friend said her business on the main shopping street was 50 percent down from last year and in the hotel industry they said 30%.
There was a gust of life-saving French tourism, I was told, the result of a campaign in France making it almost a national mission to save the Greek economy through tourism this summer. But things were bad and the forecasts worse: an additional 8% dip in the GDP this year and another 17% drop in realestate prices.
The point I want to make, however, has little to do with our specific island or the Greek economy, and everything to do with Israel.
It was not until totally frustrated by trying to find a palatable solution to an affordable family vacation in Israel that we turned abroad.
Greece was not first in our minds given the negative publicity, but I dug my heels in against a four-day bummer to Barcelona, or the very kind offer by friends of a holiday home in the Caribbean, more than $12,000 in air fares away for the four of us on the cheapest tickets available and enveloped in over 100% humidity at this time of year.
Last year we thought we’d take our chances and booked into what looked to be a great and affordable place in Sinai, but then they hauled former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak into court in a cage with an infusion dangling from his arm and we canceled.
So we settled on Eilat, a big mistake. It was expensive, crowded beyond capacity and very uneven in clientele. The city is ugly, the tourist area horribly planned and, in general, it is best described as an aberration of a spectacular piece of nature entrusted to Israel, and subsequently raped, abused and turned into a stylistic Sodom without any of the fun.
Israel has its wonderful hotels, some world recognized. But those are generally for foreign guests, not the type of place a middle-class family of four could afford to go to. I was not joking when I wrote earlier on that we were quoted the pre-tax equivalent of $1,000 a night for two rooms at a Herzliya hotel as part of a special deal because we were considering staying for four nights.
Just take your minds for a ride along Israel’s supposedly greatest natural tourist asset, its Mediterranean coastline. Connect the dots of hideous unbridled construction, aborted promenades, coastlinewrecking marinas, eroding cliffs, massive tracts expropriated by the military for bases easily moved elsewhere. Drive through Bat Yam and the worst parts of Piraeus come to mind, and on to south Jaffa and Neveh Tzedek where monsters are rising like giants trampling the neighborhood’s attempts at gentrification and renewal into the ground.
Where to go here in Israel? Lake Kinneret, where huge chunks of the coastline have been grabbed by private hotels and clubs and a national resource turned into a noisy, over-boated, over-polluted, and frankly disgusting, bathtub, best viewed from afar, or from the deck of a seafood restaurant, not an ideal venue for a four-day family holiday.
We tried to think of a resort, a Club Med, the one near Rosh Hanikra long dead or maybe Nahariya, where the fact that it has not emerged from the ’70s is about the best thing one could say about the place. We have done the Golan and the Galilee is beautiful, but we just wanted a place with a clean beach, good food, nice people, value for money, for a four-day holiday for an average family of four, two adults who work all year and two teenagers, one about to toddle off to the army.
So we phoned our little hotel and we thankfully got rooms. You feel the nervousness in Greece, and the gratitude from everyone for coming to support their country in hard times.
“Thank you for supporting our economy,” said the woman selling us cold drinks from her booth close to the Temple of Zeus in central Athens.
As the sun sets on the sparkling seas of the many bays around the island, there is usually not a shred of garbage to be seen on the beach, despite the fact the island’s population grows more than twenty-fold in the summer. The streets of the picturesque villages around the island are spotless, the houses glittering white, the food monotonous but varied enough to be tolerable and always fresh. Service comes with a smile.
There are no McDonald’s and no Starbucks, building is carefully controlled and there is love and respect for the land. The people who come to enjoy this island are primarily Greek. If only we could find the same in Israel.
I was horrified not so long ago when I heard that Jamaicans have access to less than 10% of their island’s beaches, the rest having been taken over by developers.
And then I went to Bat Yam.