There’s only 273 kilometers of shoreline in Israel, and several kilometers of it stretch the length of Caesarea, the seaside town purchased 60 years ago by the wealthy Rothschild family. It became known as the vacation paradise for Israeli celebrities and politicians despite its unusual leasing agreement — the Rothschilds leased 35,000 dunams of land in and around Caesarea back to the government in 1952 through their charitable foundation — and is still regarded as a prime destination given its pristine beaches, historical port complex and Israel’s only 18-hole golf course.
Named in honor of Roman emperor Caesar Augustus by Herod the Great, the town has more recently become a well-to-do exurb for commuters in and around Tel Aviv, but still retains a healthy dose of the vacation vibe. Enter off the main coastal highway that reaches from Tel Aviv to Haifa, and there’s an immediate sense of space amid the sand dunes. Settle in to your temporary abode of choice, and then set out to discover the laid-back aura of this ancient town. Besides the obvious tourist stops at the slightly kitschy port site, there are boats to rent, sandy beaches to explore, some offbeat museums and a selection of restaurants that offer solid eating options.
DAY ONE, 10:30 am, check in: There’s a good choice of hotel, rental and B&B options, ranging from low-end but prime beachfront property at Kibbutz Sdot Yam, with simple but clean and comfortable cabins; Neot Golf, a slightly more upscale option with indoor pools, playgrounds and miniature golf; rooms at one of several Caesarea B&Bs or tzimmers, as they’re known locally or the traditional Caesarea choice, the well-run Dan Caesarea hotel. There are also entire villas available for rent for larger family groups, and one B&B worth considering is Casa Caesarea, a private home set on the golf course with several rooms available. This comes with detailed attention from owner Anne Kleinberg, who offers very crisp, high thread-count white sheets, plush towels, and lemon curd and raspberry jam for spreading on the morning croissants. It’s not inexpensive, but the private pool overlooking the golf course makes it very worthwhile.
1:00 pm, lunchtime: Get yourself set up for some beach time in your temporary town. Head over to Polisar, the one and only grocery store in the Caesarea shopping center along Rothschild Boulevard. It is well-stocked with all the necessities, as well as some more luxe options, whether you’re looking for creme fraiche made from goat’s milk or a full selection of local and imported wines, as well as made-to-order sandwiches at the deli counter. Pack it up and drive to Sdot Yam, the Caesarea kibbutz that settled the area before the founding of the state, and was briefly home to Hannah Szenes, the renowned parachutist who wrote haunting poems about her wartime experiences. The kibbutz houses two small, but worthwhile museums. The Hannah Szenes House is in memory of Szenes, who was captured and tortured by the Nazis during a rescue mission. The audiovisual display and short lecture are engrossing and worthwhile. Across the grass is the similarly small but well-kept Antiquity Museum of finds from the sea bottom, including ancient fragments of sculptures, columns, coins and pottery. Both will probably take up a total of an hour.
3:00 pm, tanning time: Once your intellectual appetite is sated, walk down to the Sdot Yam beachfront, and settle in for the afternoon. With views of the turquoise waters, windsurfers — gold medal Olympian Gal Fridman lives here — and kibbutz kids heading for some afternoon surfing, it’s a far cry from the crowded shores of Tel Aviv. The shorefront feels private, and the kibbutz is protective of its beach, but it isn’t technically owned by the kibbutz, and there have been battles with environmental protection groups over the kibbutz’s residential development along the shores. For now, the beach remains relatively quiet and peaceful, and open to visitors.
6:30 pm, feed the beast: Depending on your hunger level, it could be time for some dinner. Visitors to Caesarea tend to rely on the restaurants at the port for lunch and dinner (Helena and the Crusader restaurants are both generally well-reviewed), but there are excellent options for those willing to venture further afield. Make your way to the Caesarea business park, where Koya, a casual bistro with a lively atmosphere and attentive waitstaff, offers easy dining. The view isn’t much to look at — we tried to face away from the parking lot — but ordering the summertime cocktails, deliciously thin, crispy onion rings and tapas-style meat platter for two that they recommend eating by hand only (they charge less if you don’t take silverware) ratcheted up the fun factor.
9:00 pm, breathing in the sea air: Remind yourself why life is better by the beach, and swing by the harbor for some evening strolling. There was a crafts fair at the Caesarea Harbor while we were in town, and it was fun to check out the wares — which were unfortunately fairly kitschy, not the usual high-quality pieces found at Israeli crafts venues — while strolling down toward the water. But there’s no equivalent to leaning over the fence, looking into the crashing waves and deep blue skies. When you’re ready for dessert, head over to Bella Gelato for ice cream or sorbet — the chocolate sorbet is deep and dark, and they offer a good bargain if you want to try two flavors instead of just one.
DAY TWO, 10:30 am, cultural appetites: Walk along the path that parallels Rothschild Boulevard, the internal road in Caesarea that runs the length of the town and between the clusters, as the town’s neighborhoods are known. Head in the direction of the nearby Ralli Museum, a private museum owned by the Recanati family that focuses on South American art including an unexpectedly large collection of Salvador Dali. The buildings are gracious and well-designed, and there is a also an impressive collection of findings from the nearby harbor.
1:00 pm, roll it up: It’s an unfortunate truth that some of Israel’s best restaurants are located in gas stations and industrial zones, and Minato, a small but excellent kosher sushi bar, is one such, located next to the town’s Paz gas station. Consider choosing a selection of the inventive combination rolls and starters and if you like, have it packed up for a picnic at Aqueduct Beach, Caesarea’s public beach named for the ancient Roman water conduit. There are no bathrooms or cafes here, just plenty of open sand, and rocks that are good for perching on, with waters that are clear and calm most of the time. If you’re lucky, there will be at least one person selling ice pops out of a cooler set on the sand, when it’s time for dessert.
4:00 pm, move the muscles: Keep your bathing suit on, and take a walk back to Sdot Yam and the Freegull surfing club run by Mati Fridman, Gal Fridman’s uncle, who was also a world champion windsurfer. Consider a one-hour course in kitesurfing, windsurfing, catamaran boat or regular old surfing, or rent a kayak or paddle board for an hour on the water, where you can see outlines of ancient ruins in the sea’s depths. Alternatively, drive over to the Caesarea Golf Club and take a 50-minute golfing lesson that includes a guided tour of the course, which was refurbished in 2009 by designer Pete Dye. If you want to play a full 18 holes, be warned: the club closes at 7 pm, and there are no caddies.
7 pm, dinner’s on: Having exhausted the body and soul with the day’s adventures, there’s the easy option of heading back to the Caesarea port and dining at one of the standbys, including the Port Cafe or Aresto Cafe (kosher) for easy pastas, salads and sandwiches. The Beach Bar, at the far end of the port, serves breakfast until 2 pm, and kid favorites such as bite-size chicken shnitzel, Yemenite jachnun and pizza, in a beachside setting. But if you want to continue the trend of trying out gas station and commercial park eateries, drive over to Ben Chamo in neighboring Or Akiva (04-610-0463), where the extremely simple setting belies the excellent grilled meats prepared by this family of butchers. Do not miss the merguez sausages or spicy Moroccan meatballs. And if you’re lucky, you’ll get to eat outside, as we did, watching a festive hina pre-wedding party that was taking place inside the restaurant. There should be some benefits to missing the sunset over the Caesarea coast.