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Hotel Paradise: Five Writers’ Stories

Maira Kalman The Heathman Hotel Portland, Oregon.

Photo: Maira Kalman

Mizpe Hayamim

Rosh Pina, Israel

By Daphne Merkin

For a tiny country like Israel, it’s a long, dusty way by car (nearly four hours) from Jerusalem to the eastern slopes of Mount Canaan, and, having gotten lost on the road as my sister, who lives in Jerusalem, squabbled over directions with her daughter, we were all a bit grumpy. That mood wore off almost the minute we stepped through Mizpe Hayamim’s doors and inhaled the smell of jasmine and honeysuckle. Instead of a massive monument to marble and gilt—the more aspirational but less inspired aesthetic of most of the country’s other hotel spas—the lobby was intimate, its tone set by terra-cotta floors, a fireplace, and small vases of wildflowers. From the welcoming receptionist’s “Bruchim habaim,” the usual, somewhat strident Israeli style of communication gave way to serene voices and an unhurried pace.

It has always been hard to associate Israel—a country marked by violence, a nightmare rate of car accidents, and an aggressive, cigarette-smoking population—with the luxe, calme, et volupté of spa life. However, staying at Mizpe Hayamim, Hebrew for “view of the seas,” is a stark departure from daily existence in a part of the world that is always on guard. The difference is underlined by the resort’s setting, near a tiny artists’ colony in the verdant Galilee—an area that has enjoyed good relations between Jewish residents and their Arab neighbors since the 1880’s.

There are dazzling pastoral views everywhere you turn. Nestled high up in the hills 1,870 feet above sea level, Mizpe’s vistas encompass the Mediterranean Sea, the Hula Valley, and the Golan Heights. The views close at hand aren’t bad either. Walking around the resort’s 37 acres, you take in ponds and streams running through small groves of fruit trees and herb and vegetable gardens. Goats and cows populate the pastures, providing the hotel’s yogurt, milk, and cheese; chickens are given free range. The farm is run organically, and among its produce are olives that are cracked and pickled in a nearby bedouin village. Neighboring kibbutzim provide whatever cannot be grown right here.

The room I shared with my sister—like the one my daughter shared with my niece—had an expansive, airy feel, a kind of spartan chic. The wrought-iron bed was a bit crowded for the two of us and, to reiterate my usual beef with hotels the world over, the reading lights might have been stronger. But we had a sofa and comfortable chairs and windows that opened out onto the hotel’s lush green grounds.

The main draw for many of the hotel’s guests is the spa, which features treatments of every variety as well as the unusual opportunity to chat with an aesthetician about the Middle East impasse. I had only two sessions, a facial and a failed attempt at learning Feldenkrais. For me, the spa wasn’t the main draw, in any case; it was the nongimmicky elegance of the hotel, the feeling that you were part of an indigenous culture rather than someone who’d come all the way to Israel to experience a tacked-on American style of glitz.

The second day of our stay, we stopped at the tiny organic bakery so I could study the hand-labeled jars of jams and honeys. I must have spent at least half an hour examining the different varieties, as if everything depended on it; I finally decided on a jar of strawberry jam and one of the honeys that came with the morning’s lavish buffet. My sister and the two cousins headed for the lobby, planning to do nothing more ambitious than watch the guests go by in their white terry robes and help themselves to herbal tea from the tea corner. I took a swim in the large, blessedly under-chlorinated indoor pool and walked out to a terrace above a rocky expanse of dips and rises, undulating into the horizon. And then I did what Mizpe encourages you to do, which is to wrap yourself in its timeless landscape and give yourself up to the elements, to communing with the blue sky and warm sun. I felt as peaceful as I had in years, and managed, for a while, at least, to block out thoughts of the jolting dose of Israeli reality that awaited me back down the mountain.

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