After 10 years away from Jerusalem, it was nice to know that despite the past decade's troubles, some things never change. Like the American Colony Hotel: It is still a legend, an institution and a lovely oasis of calm in the midst of a turbulent region.
Sitting in the Colony's famous garden, it's easy to block out the less pleasant realities -- sometimes unfolding mere metres away. Yet the perennial presence of the international press corps, diplomats and "quiet Americans" means the place is never dull.
There is an undeniable Old World ambiance about the Colony that allows for languid afternoons watching the world go by. Indeed, some of the reporters I ran into a decade ago were still sitting on the same stools at Ibrahim's Bar, seemingly unmoved since 1994.
Much of the hotel's genteel feel exists because it has been owned by the same family for more than a century. In 1881, the Spafford family from Chicago decided to move to the Holy Land after a series of personal tragedies. They soon attracted a group of Swedes and Americans who formed a kind of commune -- complete with a school, hospital, blacksmith shop and bakery -- based on Christian values. Their numbers grew and they soon acquired the home of Pasha Rabbah Daoud Amin Effendi. The local leader had built the elaborate villa for himself and his four wives, but he died in 1895, leaving no heir.
The colony began to shift from commune to hotel when in 1902, Baron Ustinov, grandfather of Peter Ustinov and owner of the Park Hotel in Jaffa, required lodging for some of his visitors in Jerusalem. Guests often shared rooms with colony members.
The spirit of openness -- Jews, Christians, Muslims, locals and foreigners all congregated at the Colony -- remains today, even as the hotel has weathered wars and occupations (it was even a field hospital at various times). Parts of the Oslo Accord were signed in one of the hotel's grand "Pasha" rooms, and former U.S. secretary of state George Shultz held a press conference here. Last month, the hotel celebrates its 120-year anniversary with a celebration attended by former prime minister, Shimon Peres. During the event, Terje Larson, the former UN Special Envoy on the Middle East interred a time capsule in the hotel's grounds that included a signed guest list from the event, the day's daily newspapers, Time Magazine and photographs.
Managed since 1980 by the Swiss Gauer group, the American Colony became a member of the prestigious Relais & Châteaux association in 1996. The Colony fits well with its motto of the "five Cs" -- character, courtesy, calm, charm and cuisine.
You never know who you'll meet at the Colony. Bleary-eyed breakfasters beware -- make sure you look sharp for courtyard croissant and cappuccino. This is where the movers and shakers meet, and you don't want to run into them in your tatty track suit.
Famous past guests include Lawrence of Arabia, the Empress of Ethiopia, painter Marc Chagall and, of course, writer John Le Carré. Actor Richard Gere is a frequent visitor. I spotted several ambassadors, a semi-famous Canadian broadcaster, and Israeli nuclear whistle blower Mordechai Vanunu, recently released from prison and lounging poolside with a gorgeous gal. There is often an interesting mix of Israeli tourists, local East Jerusalem Palestinians, and North American and European guests.
Design and ambiance
The overall feel of the décor is 19th-century Ottoman Jerusalem -- stone floors, plush draperies and carpets -- with some modern touches such as great water pressure and Internet access.
The lobby features some lovely period furniture and oriental rugs, many of which hail from Mounir Barakat's antique shop located across from the main building. It's a great spot for an afternoon Turkish coffee and the perfect vantage point for a quick game of "spot the spy."
The hotel boasts three separate buildings: The Main, the East House and the Palm House, each with its own garden.
The main building also has a new wing, creating a total of 84 rooms. There is an historical theme running through the new wing, with each floor representing a different period, complete with archival photographs and artifacts.
The first floor references the Swedish influence at the Colony, with a vaguely Scandinavian feel; the second floor tells the story of the Spafford family and has a few American flourishes; while the third floor is all about British General Allenby, whose soldiers were nursed at the Colony when he lead the Allied forces into Jerusalem in 1917. The fourth floor -- the most fun and the most "oriental" -- relates to Lawrence of Arabia, who spent many a night here in the 1920s.
The staff at the Colony is like a big extended family, and is friendly, efficient and colourful. The waiters are from central casting, one of the cleaning ladies appears in beautiful Palestinian folkloric dresses, and the night-deskman Fathi is brilliant at arranging everything from taxis to last-minute accommodation changes.
Food and drink
The best bet for dining is the charming courtyard restaurant, complete with sparkling fountains and songbirds. A wide range of meat, seafood and poultry dishes are matched by a decent selection of wines. The ambiance easily overpowers the cuisine; most diners are too busy discreetly checking out the table behind them to really concentrate on eating.
Ibrahim, the legendary bar man, shakes a mean cocktail in the Palm House garden in summer months and at the cozy Cellar Bar in the winter. This is still where most foreign scribes hold court.
Things to do
The hotel is a 10-minute walk from the Old City, so a visit to the holy sites is recommended. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of Jesus's crucifixion and burial (where various Christian factions still battle for control), warrants a visit, as does the Wailing Wall, a remnant of the Second Temple destroyed by the Romans and one of the holiest sites in Judaism. The Dome of the Rock mosque is breathtaking, but access is limited.
For more secular pursuits, check out the trendy German Colony area in West Jerusalem, with its wide array of restaurants and cafés (including the infamous Café Hillel, blown up by a suicide bomber in 2003). For real nightlife, make the hour-long drive to Tel Aviv.
The American Colony Hotel: Nablus Road, Jerusalem; 972 (2) 627 9777; http://www.americancolony.com. Double rooms start at $365 a night, including a buffet breakfast.