Once upon a time, there were only a few ways to rest your head during a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. There were kibbutzim — which often required a week or month or year of volunteer work. There were campgrounds, though they required gear. There was the elderly cousin’s couch in central Tel Aviv, but that could put a serious crimp in your social life. And, of course, there were the grand dame hotels run by companies like Dan or Hilton.
Never inexpensive, you knew what you were getting in these five-star, conference-hall-sized lodges. The same couldn’t really be said of the few pensions scattered across the country. Once, during a stay in a youth hostel in Jerusalem, a fellow traveler tried to convince me that breathing in boiled vodka would kill my cold. (Don’t try it.) Another time, I slept at the YMCA on the Galilee, a marvelous early 20th-century building on the banks of the Kinneret. The 13 rooms were peaceful, if spare.
But in recent years, sleek boutique hotels have been sprouting up across Israel in increasing numbers. These crisp, gorgeously designed spaces are not large — some boast just a handful of beds — but they are chock full of the kinds of amenities world travelers have come to demand: Wi-Fi, flat-screen televisions, mid-century, modern-style furniture and fragrant toiletries you’d very much like to poach.
Boutique hotels have long been popular in Europe and the United States. Although they came a bit later to Israel, they are no less in demand. That’s because many of the global travelers who descend on Israel each year are now looking for the same type of top-notch service and intimate setting that has become a hallmark of the boutique hotel trend worldwide. “[Travelers] are looking for hotels that are not big in size, but [that are big] in personal service,” said Etty Gargir, general director of the Association for Tourism Tel Aviv/Jaffa.
The tourists attracted to these spaces are not just foreign — Israelis themselves are using them to get away for mini-breaks, according to Haim Gutin, Israel Tourism Commissioner for North America and Israel. “The Israelis are the first ones that go to taste everything that is new,” he said. The personalized service is also a draw. “In a hotel with 30 rooms, if you are there a week, they know you. They know your name. They know your habits, and they know what you are looking for,” Gutin said.
One of the small, intimate companies leading the boom in Israel is the Leopold Boutique hotel group, run by Leon Avigad, 40, and Nitzan Perry, 35 — partners in life and work. The duo opened Brown TLV (www.Browntlv.com, doubles from $215) in Tel Aviv about a year and a half ago.
The 30-room hotel offers a clubby space a stone’s throw from both the open-air Nahalat Binyamin market and the artists’ barrio of the city, Neve Tzedek. Starchy white-linen sun beds line the roof deck, and 500-thread-count, white-on-white bed linens brighten chocolate-brown and lime-green rooms. A new Israeli brand of soaps and creams, Minus 417, is in every bathroom.