There’s the Galilee, and then there’s the Western Galilee. For decades, Israelis and tourists have flocked to the towns, villages and cities surrounding the Sea of Galilee, to the tzimmer guest cabins and hotels of that northern region.
But then the Western Galilee beckoned. Bordered by the Mediterranean Sea, it’s anchored by the port city of Acre and the seaside town of Nahariya, with a host of small towns and moshav villages scattered around them. Like the eastern portion of the Galilee region, there are some alternative communities, like Klil, a village of ecologically-minded residents, or Mitzpe Abirim, another community of families living remote, rural lifestyles.
There are wineries and cheesemakers to visit and horseback rides to take, small cabins and luxurious boutique hotel rooms for accommodation, and divine seafood meals to eat with ice cream cone palate cleansers.
What’s more, there’s an air of fresh perspectives and coexistence initiatives in the Western Galilee, and that is always worth discovering.
Day One, head to Acre
Start in Acre, the ancient port city that’s made a name for itself for its gentrification efforts over the last few years. Acre hosts annual opera and fringe theater festivals, but it’s probably better to head there during its low seasons. That’s when there’s more parking available at its seaside lots and tables aren’t hard to find at the city’s best restaurants.
For archaeology and history buffs, it’s worth spending time in the underground Crusader fortress and British Mandate-period prison, but be sure to come up for air and walk around the Old City, where the revamped Turkish market has crab falafel and Israeli beer on tap at Kukushka (not kosher). Hummus connoisseurs will also want to swipe a plate of Hummus Said’s famed chickpea spread, for which Acre is renowned, with a few falafel balls on the side, or check out Turkish on Yehoshafat Street. For dessert, there’s Endomela (not kosher), the artisanal ice cream parlor owned by Uri Jeremias, the proprietor of seafood eatery Uri Buri.
When it’s time to check in, there are more than a few options in and around the city. The most luxurious is boutique hotel Efendi, a stupendously restored former Ottoman palace renovated by restauranteur Jeremias, with a Byzantine-era wine cellar, Crusader period stone floors in the lobby, exquisitely restored Ottoman-era painted ceilings in the upper floor rooms and salons overlooking the sea, and a warren of winding streets and alleys of the ancient neighborhood. Rooms begin at $400 and if you do stay at the Efendi (not kosher), be sure to consider a treatment in the original, Ottoman-era hammam, where you’ll be treated to a massage on a hot, marble slab.
There are other accommodation options in Acre, including a list of family-owned B&Bs, such as the Lighthouse Suite in the Old City, which has one suite with two bedrooms, a kitchenette and one bathroom. Cost per night per couple is NIS 850, including breakfast. Call 052-590-8410 for more information.
There’s also Akkotel, a small family Old City hotel with rooms suitable for four people, at $290 per suite, or $200 per couple. Call 04-987-7100.
For dinner, there’s always Uri Buri (not kosher), which was established by Jeremias in his hometown of Nahariya and moved to Acre’s harbor 22 years ago, helping to change the face of tourism in this ancient part of the city. Known for its unique preparation of seafood, with a focus on traditional, butter-rich dishes, it’s a dining experience that includes fresh sashimi side by side with rich seafood stews.
There’s also El Babur (not kosher), owned by local chefs and brothers Husam and Nashat Abbas and located right on the water, with ancient city views. The dishes are Galilean-Arabic in flavor and style, melding locally grown greens and vegetables, with specialties like okra with sea bream or calamari-mashawshe, a local version of msabbaha hummus, and served with calamari heads on top, rather than chickpeas, in a nod to the seaside town.
Day 2, Nahariya-bound
When staying at the Efendi, breakfast is a must, and it’s worth choosing the Middle Eastern option, which includes fresh Swiss chard bourekas, delicate strands of halva, creamy tahini for spreading on the fresh bread and an individual omelet. That’ll hold you for the less-than-hour-long ride to Nahariya, the next destination.
Best known for its location on the sea, there are two new accommodations options in Nahariya: Sea Life is a relatively new (kosher) hotel situated on the water with a full spa for adults only and an outdoor pool during the warm months. The hotel suites and private, individual cabins are well-suited to small family groups, with inner bedrooms and open-up couches that’ll work for kids in the living room. For access to the beach, however, you’ll have to walk down the street, as the beachfront just outside the hotel is part of a nature reserve and can’t be used for swimming or playing in the sand.
A few blocks away from Sea Life is the family-owned Erna Shtarkman Hotel (kosher), with the feel of a quaint historical inn now owned by Orna Shtarkman, granddaughter of the original owner. The 32-year-old Shtarkman is also the deputy mayor of Nahariya, and is determined to bring younger families and a more contemporary feel to the seaside city. Be sure to try the hotel’s homemade apple strudel with a heavy side of whipped cream, perhaps after a swim in the nearby public pool or a spin around town on one of the hotel’s complimentary bikes.
If you take kids on this trip, it could be fun to pay a visit at the Strauss Dairy in nearby Achihud, where there are one-and-a-half hour tours in Hebrew and English, upon request. It’s more of a watching experience than an interactive tour, with high-tech games, a film and a tour of the factory floor. There are also complimentary chocolate and other goodies during the tour. (Tours are available on Sunday 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday to Wednesday 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Thursday 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Call 1-800-777-777 for reservations to the tour, which costs NIS 18 per person, and is appropriate for ages six and up.)
For lunch, head out to Nahariya’s Brioche (kosher), owned by the Belgium-trained pastry chef Hagit Stern, who turns out savory and sweet brioches, as well as salads and delicious vegetable pies. Your best bet, however, is to pick up a picnic basket loaded with Stern’s homemade goodies, as well as a bottle of local Kishor wine (kosher), made nearby at Kishorit, a community of special needs adults.
Michal Shiloach, the director and guide of Western Galilee Now — one of three Western Galilee tourist initiatives, although hers operates an informative tourism center in a restored space constructed by the Jewish National Fund in Acre’s Old City — likes to direct visitors to Park Goren, a quiet, forested area with picnic tables, and with a flowered Brioche-supplied tablecloth on the table, you’re set.
Afternoon rides in Abirim
Head back to the car and up Route 899 for a winding country road that will feel a bit like Switzerland or the Poconos than northern Israel. Route 899 is dotted with bucolic villages and communities, some Arab and some Jewish, and it’s a setting that has fostered coexistence for years, said residents Eyal and Edna Hefer, who moved to Mitzpe Abirim 20 years ago.
The Hefers were pioneers of a different stripe, looking for a rural place to live where they could raise horses and goats. Eyal Hefer commuted for 10 years to Tel Aviv, working in a national youth movement while Edna tended their herd of 100 goats. She learned how to make cheese but mostly supplied the milk to nearby dairy Strauss.
More than a decade ago, Eyal Hefer quit his job in Tel Aviv and they both now work full-time on their spread, which now includes two tzimmer cabins for rent (breakfast included), tending their forested campsite that can fit up to 200, with separate areas for showers, cooking, eating and sitting around a campfire. They also offer regular and therapeutic horseback riding, and an outside corner of the house is devoted to the goat cheese selection where customers can choose a hunk of Edna’s salty, black-seeded tzafatit or mild Camembert (not certified kosher) and leave the money in the box on the table.
Back to Nahariya
Head back to Nahariya for the night, with dinner and dessert on the way. The town of Maalot-Tarshiha has always been an easy place to see coexistence at work, as Jews and Arabs live in side-by-side villages, mostly peacefully and without rancor. That state of affairs is perhaps best viewed at the flagship shop of Buza, the ice cream parlor opened by entrepreneurs Adam Ziv and Alaa Sweetat.
Ziv, a kibbutznik from the region, had apprenticed in several gelato shops while traveling around Europe and came home seeking a partner. He found it in Sweetat, who learned the food and restaurant business while working his way up at bistro Aluma, the gourmet Galilean restaurant (not kosher) in Tarshiha that he now owns.
The two created Buza (not kosher), which means ice cream in Arabic. The gelato flavors are decidedly Galilean in taste, with an emphasis on nuts and fresh fruits. More than that, it’s an experience in coexistence, where staff and customers are mixed, particularly in the Tarshiha branch, although there are four total, including one in Tel Aviv and another in Ziv’s hometown of Kibbutz Sasa, where customers can sign up for ice cream workshops.
It’s a sweet ending to a northern adventure.