The sunny side of Ashkelon

Ignore the threat of rockets and partake in this ancient city's coastal attractions.

ashkelongate22488 (photo credit: Danny Biran/IsraelTG)
(photo credit: Danny Biran/IsraelTG)
In the past few months, Ashkelon has gotten media attention more for its ability to attract rockets from Gaza than for its ability to attract tourists, but the city is determined not to let the rockets rain on its coastal parade of recreational sites. During a recent press tour of Ashkelon, the city's mayor unveiled plans to brand Ashkelon as a city of leisure and sports. "Our greatest assets are our natural resources, which are suited for a resort area," Roni Mehatzri told a group of journalists at the Dan Gardens Hotel. With a population of 125,000, Ashkelon looks like a laid-back beach town. Moving toward the coast, Ashkelon gets prettier and more pastoral, with new residential high-rises and attractive two-story seaside villas. The streets and coast are adorned with palm trees. Understandably, the beach has been the focus of Ashkelon's refurbishing efforts, with NIS 30 million already invested in a well-paved beach promenade. Plans for an 18-hole golf course are ready and await approval. Ashkelon's marina is home to sports and sailing clubs. As one of the oldest cities in the world, Ashkelon would do well to flaunt its archeological resources as well. As a thoroughfare between Egypt and Syria, the city served as an ancient maritime center. Even its name - Ashkelon - comes from the word "shekel," indicating its commercial importance. Since the Bronze Age, rulers who have staked their claim on the Holy Land have left their mark on the city's architecture and archeology. As for the rockets, Mehatzri thinks the press casts a darker picture of the sunny city. "The less we talk about the issue, the better it will be for the city and the country." National Park The Ashkelon National Park is home to one of the country's most remarkable archeological discoveries: a 4,000-year-old gate to the ancient fortified Canaanite city, believed to be the oldest extant arched gate in the world. This gate serves as an apt starting point, though a guide is recommended to compensate for lack of adequate explanatory placards. But the park is upping efforts to maximize its potential as an outdoor museum by creating a visitors' center and restoring its archeological treasures. "We're in the process of rebranding the park from a picnic and barbecue site into a heritage site," said Hanan Levavi, the park's director. "It's important for us to show the archeological side." The park stands on its own as a beautiful nature reserve, shaded by tamarisk and sycamore trees. With birds chirping in the background, picnickers can eat at tables near a Canaanite shrine, an ancient well and a cistern. Or they may choose to lay out a blanket on the grass where the Roman basilica once stood. Rows of heavy marble columns lead to a large ditch where life-sized, beautifully carved statues of Atlas, the goddess Nike and the Egyptian goddess Isis have been placed for visitors' viewing pleasure. (08) 673-6444; The Ashkelon Marina Every boat and yacht that docks at the Ashkelon Marina is sure to get individual attention. "We're fighting for every tourist we get," said Michal Rateir, the marina's secretary. Business has lagged due to security concerns. In August 2006, a rocket fell on the gate separating the Ashkelon Marina from the coast, and last month a rocket fell on a nearby parking lot. But one can't tell the marina was nearly the victim of rocket hits; it looks peaceful and pastoral. Boats of various sizes moor on its harbor, while children learn how to sail and paddle. The locals are doing their share to keep it lively. Every seventh grader in Ashkelon gets a maritime lesson at the marina's educational center. On weekends, locals stream into the pubs and restaurants flanking the boats. Facing the sunset are holiday apartments where Israelis and foreigners have understandably made their vacation homes. For $400 a week, vacationers can rent a two-room apartment. Indeed, on a non-rainy day, the marina looks like an ideal place to relax. (08) 673-3780; Carlsberg Brewery The quality of water running through Ashkelon's aquifers has made the city a prime locale for the industrial plant of Israel's Carlsberg Brewery, a subsidiary of the Coca-Cola Company. The state-of-the-art brewery combines booze, culture, beer education and corporate marketing at its impressive visitors' center. Immediately upon entering, a bar designed like a ship welcomes visitors with glasses of draft beer brewed on the premises. Across from the bar is a professionally curated, informative exhibit tracing the history of beer in the Near East using ancient beer artifacts found throughout Israel: beer jugs, beer straws (used to filter the beer from barley residue) and barley grains from the Bronze Age found in Arad. Unfortunately, placards are in Hebrew only. The auditorium is designed like a saloon. Here, a guide screens a presentation detailing the company's corporate profile followed by a rather corny film tracing the founding of Carlsberg in Denmark to its expansion to Ashkelon. Visitors are taken inside the brewery, where a short film explains the process of beer-making through animated barley grains. From the films alone one might not be able to tell the visitors' center caters to ages 10 and up. (08) 674-0740;; Open: Sun. to Thurs. 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; reservation only. Groups: NIS 20 per person; Seniors NIS 17; Students NIS 15; Soldiers free. Luna Until Luna, Ashkelon's restaurant scene was dominated mostly by the run-of-the-mill meat grills, pizza joints and a McDonald's. Situated in a restored mosque about 700 years old, Luna offers a contemporary menu of salads, appetizers, fish and steaks made with the finest raw materials. In the evening, jazz music and candlelight within the Ottoman arched walls lend to a romantic atmosphere and unique dining experience. The Israeli salad and hot Arabic salads brim with fresh flavor, as do the sautéed mushroom appetizer. The baked sea bream flavored with fresh thyme, served with tempura potato chips, attests to the proficiency of the chef - only the actual fish serving was rather small compared to the generous portions of everything else. Service: sweet, friendly and attentive; prices very reasonable. Kosher. (08) 672-2220; Dan Gardens The exterior of the former Ganei Shulamit hotel retains its 1970s looks, but the funky, colorful sofas in the lobby and well-stocked bar clearly signal its modern, four-star side. Dan Gardens boasts a fully equipped business lounge near the lobby. And there always seems to be activity at the hotel, since it is the base of choice for EU personnel shuttling to and from Gaza for their diplomatic duties. Modernity was carried into my room with its sleek, round lounge chair and LCD TV screen; the amenities were otherwise basic, yet comfortable. The wooden doors and key locks attest to its old-fashioned roots. The windows face the sea, but it takes a nice stroll to get there. The lunch and dinner buffets rate particularly high for a four-star hotel. The large pool and tanning deck, while inviting, generally lack a resort feel. The neat gardens are not exactly lush and tropical, but the hotel has put great care into child safety and entertainment. For example, the unaesthetic bright green padding surrounding the pool is meant to prevent slipping. In the back, a recreation center called Magic Land offers go-karts, rides and a jumping castle - a sure-fire kid-pleaser. An impressive indoor play center is divided into several rooms filled with books, puppets, toys, play sets and a Gymboree. On weekends, the staff keeps kids busy so parents can enjoy the hotel spa around the corner. Converted from a hotel wing, the spa is equipped with large, sleekly designed treatment rooms, each with its own shower and bathroom. n (08) 674-8888; Rates for May-June on B&B basis for a couple and two children: Sat. to Wed.: NIS 540; Thurs.: NIS 390; Fri.: NIS 760 a night.