As yet another COVID variant threatens to keep Israelis from traveling abroad, it is looking more and more like we are heading for yet another winter season of hitting the road by car instead of a plane. And with Europe’s Christmas markets practically closed this year once again, interested locals will be viewing the holiday light displays in the Christian towns of the Galilee instead.
Even if twinkling lights on fir trees is not your idea of sightseeing, the ethnic patchwork of Israel’s north affords other attractions. The culinary scene, in particular, offers something for everyone.
Indeed, a recent foray to the western Galilee yielded some new discoveries. High on the list of recommended places to eat is Noor, a Druze restaurant in the village of Julis. Unlike many Druze eateries, which specialize in dishes built around paper-thin pita, Noor is a full-service restaurant, serving complete meals.
In fact, chef-owner Basma goes a step further, serving a multi-course tasting menu that reveals the rich depth of Druze cuisine. And she does so at remarkably affordable prices.
As in many Levantine cultures, meals start with an array of mezze, which in and of themselves could easily constitute an entire meal. The small plates are very similar to those found in Arabic cuisine, but with nuances in the seasonings to make the tastes very interesting: the baba ganoush enhanced with pomegranate arils, for example, was perhaps the best version of this eggplant salad I ever tasted.
Other outstanding mezze was the tart tahini; tabbouleh with mint, parsley, and coriander; home-cured olives; shoug with an exotic spice mixture; and coarse hummus.
What followed was a series of larger dishes, starting with a distinctive Druze take on mujadara, made with burghul and lentils but no rice; several sambusak (characterized by chewy dough and an unremarkable meat filling); and a skillet of “cigars” consisting of cylinders of pita filled with shredded chicken seasoned with sumac.
The highlights of our meal once we reached the main course stages were the mahshi - assorted vegetables stuffed with a terrific meat filling - and savory chicken muhammara, seasoned with a reddish sauce (hence the name of the dish) that was simply outstanding.
We hardly had room for dessert, but since Basma trained as a pastry chef, she insisted we try a sample. And we were glad we did, since - as we were to learn later - her pistachio ma’amul (cookies) were a big hit on the televised baking competition “The Perfect Dessert.”
Fortunately, we did not have far to drive to our hotel after dinner. Our next destination was also a much-anticipated one: the new Casa Boutique Hotel in Nahariya.
The rather sleepy burgh of Nahariya may be one of Israel's oldest beach resort towns, but its lodging options have been characterized by small, family-owned hostelries and B&B's. One recent entrant, however, has been making a splash: Casa, an unusual combination of a boutique-cum-apartment hotel.
There are a number of other ways Casa is different from competing lodging alternatives in the vicinity: First of all, its guest policy is restricted to adults only — 17 years of age and older.
Secondly, all units are, in effect, small apartments, complete with a living room and kitchenette that includes appliances for cooking as well as a mini-refrigerator. Kitchen cabinets are also stocked with plates, glasses, cutlery, and utensils.
Each of these 59 suites, in three categories, sleeps 3-4 guests. Some bedrooms are furnished with king-sized beds and others with queens, while 10 come with twin beds.
Similarly, some bathrooms have bathtubs rather than shower stalls. The towels, bathrobes, and slippers are hallmarks of a luxury hotel – as are some of the complementary consumable extras: a bottle of wine, mineral water, and cookies.
The entire hotel – suites included – is decorated in retro style, with many items purchased in flea markets and restored. The lobby, in particular, is decorated with noteworthy antique objects.
Casa is particularly convenient to reach, situated right atop the Nahariya train station, and exactly on the intersection of the main interurban highway and the town’s main street. The hotel is accessible in another sense as well: two units are suitable for the handicapped.
One innovation that many guests appreciate is the unique breakfast, which comes in a basket delivered to the room – at any hour you choose – and contains food that may be eaten both right away and/or packed as a picnic for lunch. Of course, there is also the option to have a warm breakfast of some of your delivered items in the hotel dining room, where dinner may be ordered as well.
The beach and boardwalk are only a short, 10-minute walk from the hotel, although it is worth walking north a bit to enjoy cleaner and quieter beaches, border by green lawns. Or, just take the elevator to the roof to enjoy the hotel’s heated salt-water pool – under a retractable roof, no less. The top floor is also where you will find the spa, a fitness room, a sauna, and an open-air bar with panoramic views of the Galilee.
Casa Boutique Hotel is a mellow place in a laid-back town, but the adrenaline-pumping adventure is just a few minutes drive away at Trek Yam Achziv, your one-stop shop for excitement – on both land and sea.
The Trek Yam Achziv coastal and maritime center offers a slew of land activities, including rappelling at the Rainbow cave, 4×4 off-road trips, and ATV tours. The latter option gives you the choice of being a passenger while a skilled driver takes you on a thrilling roller-coaster ride on seaside dunes, or take the wheel yourself alongside a trained professional. In either event, you can be sure that safety is the center’s number-one priority and concern.
The sea packages are no less appealing, as Trek Yam Achziv owns and operates the most advanced Tornado speedboats in the country. Sit securely in your lifejacket while you jet across the water towards the magnificent grottoes of Rosh Hanikra, slowing occasionally while your guide reveals to you some of the mysteries of this corner of northern Israel.
In addition – or alternatively – jump off the boat into the Mediterranean and go snorkeling in some of the nicest waters off our coast, alongside tiny uninhabited islands that are protected by the authorities from the ravages of human beings.
And now for something completely different: a second visit of the weekend to a minority enclave – this time, to the Christian Arab town of M’iliya. This hillside village is known for its many meat restaurants, and – at this time of the year – the hundreds of colorful Christmas lights draped on the myriad evergreen trees.
Here, we visited two boutique establishments on the alcohol spectrum: Julia Winery, and its neighbor down the street, Tabak & Arak.
The former is a small winery wholly owned and operated by the Arian family and headquartered in a residential neighborhood. They produce five types of wine: three reds, one rosé, and one white.
The winery hosts frequent tastings, comprising flights of three or five samples of wine, with or without bites of cheese or larger platters of delicacies, priced accordingly. Enjoy the tastings on the front veranda shaded with vines, or in the cask room redolent of oak barrels.
Another nearby family enterprise is Tabak & Arak, situated on the lower level of a historic local residence. Here you will be hosted by Basil Cassis, who distills fine arak (along with growing and curing tobacco). He screens videos of the skills involved in these processes and offers tastings of his multitude of wares: several types of arak – reflecting different degrees of distillation – wine, and even liqueurs made from locally grown fruits.
Finally, a good place to conclude your weekend with a gourmet meal – kosher l’mehadrin, no less – is 300 grams, a bucolic steak restaurant located in rural Moshav Betzet, between Nahariya and the Lebanese border.
Chef Itai Hasson named his restaurant after the usual weights of cuts of beef served in Israel’s fine dining establishments. The newly updated food menu is built primarily around set meals, which represent excellent value.
Whether you select a fixed-price meal or order a la carte, it is worth starting with the tapas assortment, no fewer than eight mezze (salads) which reflect the real talents of the chef. The most noteworthy small plates here: the coarse hummus (whose pale hue belies its excellence); the vegan labaneh, seasoned with olive oil and zaatar; the startlingly sweet onion cream; and the particularly intriguing melon cubes dappled with skhoug. But don’t overlook another impressive starter – the pullet shawarma, juicy shards of spiced dark-meat poultry, served with homemade amba.
The steak menu runs the gamut, from tender filet mignon to marbled entrecôte to succulent sirloin steak. If not everyone in your party is a carnivore, there is a vegan burger, in addition to the standard beef hamburger.
Finally, there was one dessert worthy of mention: the chocolate creation patterned on Ferrero Rocher.
Most of the places described above are affiliated with one or both of two professional non-profit organizations that curate recommended attractions in western Galilee: Western Galilee Now and Treasures of the Galilee. It is very worthwhile consulting their respective, detailed English-language websites when planning your trip; they also often sponsor seasonal multi-day events and festivals, with activities for the whole family.