When beach season finally arrives, it’s important to have more than one oceanside destination that fulfills the holy trifecta of beach day requirements: easy access, free parking and other attractions for midday and post-beach larks.
For those living in or near beach towns, well, yes, you can just walk or bike out of the house with towel and book in hand. But those of us dwelling in land-locked towns and cities have to seek out our preferred spots where sand and sea meet accompanied by accessible bathrooms, plentiful shade and nearby beach bars peddling cold drinks and icy popsicles.
There are lots of beaches, ranging from the northern Achziv down through Haifa, Caesarea and Michmoret, into Herzliya and then Tel Aviv, and south to Palmahim and Nitzanim. But I was recently reintroduced to Ashkelon, a city on the water that abuts Ashdod and boasts a stretch of undeveloped beach that offers ample sand, surf, and, yes, free parking. It’s a growing burg with a beachtown vibe that is boosted by its longtime mayor, Benny Vaknin.
This week, the top five reasons to head to Ashkelon for a day — or weekend — of fun in the sun.
1) If you’re heading to Ashkelon from Modi’in or Tel Aviv (or Jerusalem, depending on which route) on Route 4, you pass right through the town of Yavne, home to one of the few Ben & Jerry’s ice cream parlors. Customers can choose between ice cream cones, shakes or pints of the rich, creamy hand-packed stuff (open Sunday-Thursday, 10 am – 11 pm; Friday, 9 am – 4:30 pm; Saturday night, 9-11:30 pm). For those traveling along Route 4 and then 40, there are two other stops worth making along the way. The Tom and Tomer Hilltop is a memorial to Tom Kitai’in and Tomer Keidar, two of the 73 soldiers killed in the 1997 helicopter crash up north. The hilltop garden is located to the west of Kibbutz Negba and was created by Yo’av Keidar, Tomer’s father, who planted local flowers, bushes and trees to represent the love that Israel youth have for the land. Back on the road, head to Kibbutz Ein Tzurim and its bottle tree factory, which grows lemons in bottles according to an ancient Persian tradition.
2) Once in Ashkelon, turn on the GPS for directions to Yefe Nof, the beachside street at the northern end of the city that is currently being built up with high-rises for sale to weekend vacationers and Israelis looking for better housing prices. Parking on the street is still free in this part of town, although it may not be for long, as at least one hotel is currently being built along this stretch, joining several others that have long existed here. Besides at least 10 apartment towers, a few small shopping centers featuring mom-and-pop grocery stores and fast food joints, and a recreation resort for vacationing soldiers, there’s also HaAgamim, formerly known as the Dagon, a collection of vacation cabins that used to attract Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion when they wanted to smell the sea breezes, and Ashkeluna Water Park, if you’re settling in for a longer stay. It takes about three minutes to walk down to the beach from Yefe Nof — although it doesn’t take more than 15 minutes to walk to the beach from any location in Ashkelon, according to locals.
3) Not in the mood to sit on the beach? Head to the Ashkelon Marina, built in 1995 with “parking” for 600 boats. Located between two beaches, Delila and Bar Kochba, and at the start of the still-under-construction boardwalk along the Ashkelon coastline, the marina is a far simpler version of its Herzliya cousin farther north, but with all the necessary amenities needed for a prolonged stroll along the beach. There’s a collection of cafes and restaurants where waitresses will happily supply diners with a stale piece of pita to feed to the local fish, and at the center of the marina is the local maritime school, a branch of the Ashkelon education system, that offers sailing lessons as part of the day’s classes. Visitors are also welcome to book a class in sailing or kite-surfing. Call 08-673-3780 for more information.
4) Check out the town of Ashkelon, which, for the moment, is still free of upscale eateries, wineries and cheesemakers. Not that there’s anything wrong with foodie destinations, but there’s something pleasantly low-key about Ashkelon, once home to a sizable South African community in the 1950s and still showing signs of that flavor and culture, most noticeably downtown, at the town square. Over on the northern end of town is the Tzomet Silver shopping center, home to Ashkelon’s sole Aroma as well as an impressively sized Supersol Deal that has its own in-house cafe, take-out food and beach-related paraphernalia. There’s also a shuk featuring produce grown by local farmers, open on Wednesdays and Thursdays, near the Supersol Deal shopping center.
5) It’s said that even Donald Trump is considering buying into Ashkelon. The real estate tycoon has corresponded with Mayor Benny Vaknin about building an 18-hole golf course along the coast, to be watered partially by the city’s desalination plant. While plans haven’t progressed much beyond official correspondence, it’s better to buy now, said David Zwebner, a real estate broker who bought a vacation apartment in Ashkelon and is currently marketing apartments in the Yefe Nof neighborhood. Supposedly banker Shari Arison is also building a villa by the sea, and it’s helpful to know that a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment on the beach runs around NIS 1.2 million ($330,000), while apartments deeper in the town cost around NIS 800,000. “It took a long time for Ashkelon to be considered, especially considering its proximity to Gaza,” said Zwebner. “This November, the whole country woke up. It doesn’t really matter where you live when it comes to rockets, and out here, you’ve got the beach.”