With its floor-to-ceiling views of the Mediterranean and decor in tones of sand and sea, the lounge at the new Ritz-Carlton in Herzliya exudes a breezy civility that shirks most perceptions of Israel. Yachts bob in the marina just metres away. Missoni pillows add pops of colour to the restrained nautical theme. Pomegranates and dates, two biblical ingredients that have flourished across Israel since ancient times, feature prominently on the bar menu in house-made syrups and fresh-squeezed juices. My favourite cocktail – the Seeds of Fruitfulness, which sees pomegranate giving Don Julio Reposado and Drambuie a tart punch – could serve as a metaphor for Herzliya itself: a modern reinvention of ancient ingredients.
Though unfamiliar to most people outside of Israel, Herzliya is one of the country's oldest communities, founded as an agricultural settlement nearly a quarter century before Israel became a state. Today, the area is often called "Silicon Wadi" (the Arabic term for valley) because of the city's high-tech park that is home to companies such as Waze, a navigation app Google picked up last year for a reported $1.1-billion (U.S.).
Herzliya is not in-your-face hip Tel Aviv, nor is it Jerusalem, the most visited city in Israel and a place whose holy sites drew more than 2.6 million religious pilgrims and other tourists last year. The beauty of Herzliya is that while it's close enough to be a base for most of Israel's trademark attractions, it's also a balm for them. It boasts seven straight kilometres of beach, and some of the country's best restaurants are tucked into the office lobbies here, packed at lunchtime with tech types wearing jeans, sneakers and company lanyards and badges, dining on distinctly unkosher dishes (Herzliya's population is largely secular) such as calamari with squid ink and fava risotto and pork schnitzel.
When I lived in Jerusalem in the late 1990s, I travelled every weekend, traversing Israel from Rosh Hanikra on the northern Lebanese border to the southernmost city of Eilat. Though the country is just two-thirds the size of Vancouver Island, it was 10 months before I made it to Herzliya – and when I did, it was a revelation. It was a Friday morning, the time of week when the frenetic chaos in Israel's major cities peaks in preparation for the Sabbath. Friends of my parents had invited us to a seaside café for brunch. By that point in my year, the once exhilarating thrills of haggling over tomatoes in the shuk and pushing my way onto packed city buses had lost some of their charm. I was, quite frankly, exhausted. Sipping fresh watermelon juice on a wooden deck perched over the beach, gulls swooping overhead and the faint drum of paddle balls games providing a gentle background beat, I enjoyed a rare moment of bliss.
Which was exactly the feeling I hoped to relive when I checked into the Ritz on the fourth night of a recent trip to Israel, having already explored parts of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and a wide swath of the Negev desert – an energy-sapping, but not-atypical, tourist's pace.
And yet, when I expressed an interest to revisit Herzliya, I was met with a dismissive "why?" from our Israeli guide, an expert (after 570 hours of mandated training) in the textbook attractions. Barely 90 years old, Herzliya falls millenniums short of many of those, making it a confounding choice for anyone schooled in Israel's traditional tourism "product." My group was heading up to Caesarea, a grandiose Herodian amphitheatre and harbour that fit her agenda perfectly – and while it is indeed a spectacular relic, it's one I'd visited at least a handful of times. So the next morning, I sat on my balcony and watched a lone paddleboarder ease off the sand into the Mediterranean. It was a sharp contrast to the first day of the trip in Tel Aviv, when jet lag compelled me out of bed for a pre-7 a.m. run: By then, the boardwalk was already full of walkers and joggers, motorcycles backfiring and garbage trucks thundering along the adjacent roadway.
In Herzliya, I had some of the country's most beautiful beaches almost to myself. I met up with a friend and we strolled for hours along the coastline, past a handful of shellers and modish lifeguard towers, the sea licking at the hems of our jeans.
That a heat wave had just broken played a role in keeping the crowds at home; on summer Saturdays the shore is packed with people soaking up sun and live music. But keep walking north and even on the most beautiful day the throngs thin as the span between the sea and dunes narrows and the sand turns rocky. It's a short climb to Apollonia National Park, where you can explore the excavated remains of a Roman villa and a Crusader fortress, and enjoy views that stretch 50 kilometres along the coast in either direction. If you meander down the beach in the other direction, you can stroll all the way to Tel Aviv in an hour and a half.
Instead, my friend and I ventured through the sand toward Apollonia, and happened upon a curious site: walls and caves made of salvaged tiles and stones, built directly into the cliff. Something of a local legend, the "hermit house" is a four-storey wonder of vernacular architecture, full of intricate sea-glass mosaics and recycled sculpture. Apparently its owner – who lives within – will grant the occasional tour to passersby (I would have happily paid for entry, though even from the beach, it's a site to behold).
Last year, a pair of documentary filmmakers tracked the owner down and made a movie about him. Turns out he just wanted to get away from city crowds and enjoy the beach. After a day in Herzliya, I found that completely understandable.
Both Air Canada and El Al offer non-stop flights to Tel Aviv from Toronto and Montreal. From Ben Gurion Airport it's about a 30-minute drive to Herzliya.
IF YOU GO
WHERE TO STAY
The new Ritz-Carlton, which opened in December, is a game changer to an area with plenty of convenient hotels. The hotel spent 10,000 hours on staff recruitment and brought in 75 trainers from its international properties to escalate the levels of service. Rooms are sleek and nautical-hued with views of the beach and marina. Rooms from $375 (U.S.). ritzcarlton.com/Herzliya
WHAT TO DO
Sea and sand are obviously high on the agenda. A number of outlets in the marina and on Accadia and Hasharon beaches rent surf gear and provide lessons.
Herzliya is also a great place to enjoy the works of up-and-coming Israeli art stars. Check out the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art (herzliyamuseum.co.il), dedicated to exploring Israel's social and political discourse.
WHERE TO EAT
The marina is crowded with fun, casual options but the city's best restaurants are located in the high-tech district, about five minutes away by car. Sebastian is a high-ceilinged, brasserie-style spot best known for schnitzel the size of dinner plates. sebastian.co.il
Herbert Samuel in the Ritz-Carlton can likely claim bragging rights to being the best kosher restaurant in the world. A spinoff of the Tel Aviv hot spot with the same name, the Herzliya outpost adopts Israeli Master Chef judge and executive chef Jonathan Roshfeld's signature dishes while adhering to Jewish dietary laws. herbertsamuel.co.il
The writer travelled courtesy of the Israeli Ministry of Tourism. It did not review or approve this article.