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Sunday, October 30, 2011

Israel! Ancient Akko & Uri Buri for an AMAZING gourmet lunch!

After our three fab resort days in Eilat, we fortified ourselves at the truly amazing breakfast buffet (literally 101 dishes including Insalata Caprese, + a chef making smoked salmon roulades!) at the Leonardo Plaza Eilat, drove back to Beersheva, and caught the Israel Railways train north- all the way north, to Nahariyya! When I last took the train in Israel (ca. 1986, when I was serving in the Israeli Army) there was still only the Haifa-Tel Aviv-Jerusalem route, and it was so poky and slow that the running joke was that you could hop off, pick flowers, and hop back on! But it was free if you were a soldier in uniform, and so I took it- but only when I didn't need to be anywhere in a hurry! Now there's a fabulous network of ultra-modern trains with world-class commuter stations all over Israel! And it takes only 3 1/4 hours to go all the way from Beersheva in the Negev to Nahariyya just south of the Golan Heights! Railfans that we are, taking the train across Israel was something we Had to do!

Israel Railways map

Beersheva Station

We picked up our rental car in Nahariyya and drove to Akko, also known as Acre, a beautiful, historic city of ancient stone walls on the Mediterranean, home of the famous Crusader fortress, halls built by the Knights Templar, Jewish synagogues, Christian churches, and fascinating underground tunnels- and one of many UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Israel. Dan and I had a delicious, simple kebab lunch at the Ptolemy Restaurant (the garlic-cilantro-olive oil tapenade was SO good!), sitting outside in the sunshine at the fishing port, and I had a wonderful "deja vu all over again" moment, having eaten there, just like this, back in the mid-1970s, when I was a kibbutz volunteer on holiday, backpacking around Israel!
Horse & Buggy Ride through Akko!
Ptolomy Restaurant, Akko Seaport
We stayed at the Akkotel, a romantic boutique hotel in a wonderfully restored building built originally as an Ottoman Army Customs Check Point in the late 18th century. I chose the guest room that had a lovely soaking tub in an arched alcove! Because of the restoration Dan did on our historic home, which we opened as the Elkhorn Inn & Theatre, we like to stay in historic buildings that have been lovingly restored wherever we can!

Our Guest Room at Akkotel
Beautiful restoration!

Jonah in the whale!

Wandering around Akko, which is a delightful "walking city", we got to see the huge mosque built by Ahmad Pasha al-Jazzer "The Butcher", have a Turkish coffee in a nearby cafe, and then meander thru the nearby art galleries. We took the excellent self-guided audio tour thru the subterranean Crusader fortress, walking down through the many different levels, where you can see how the Turks built literally on top of the old city, and through the Crypt and Knights' Halls, which the Hospitallers, the Order of the Knights of St. John, used as a fortress more than 700 years ago. (Do take the audio tour- otherwise, as with many historic sites, you're just looking at an "old pile of rocks"!) We saw the Clock Tower, and stopped for fresh squeezed pomegranate juice in one of the inner courtyards; we took the fascinating A/V tour of the Turkish "hammam" baths, too!

Fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice!

Ahmad Pasha al-Jazzer ("The Butcher") Mosque

Turkish coffee break!

Crusader Fortress, Akko

In the subterranean Crusader Fortress, Akko

Modern Art & Ancient Stones...

The Turkish "Hamam" Baths

Dan in the Turkish Bath!

Underground in the
Crusader Fortress, Akko

Akko at Twilight...

Clock Tower, Akko



Akko's legacy of strength, stability, & coexistence
between Jewish and Arab Seafarers...

Fishermen, Akko

In the Templar Tunnel!

In the Templar Tunnel!

Modern waterworks
in the Ancient Templar Tunnel!

Akko's Orange Man!
A fabulous sculpture house on the sea...

Akko is truly ancient: it's one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, dating back to the time of Egyptian Pharaoh Thutmose III (1504-1450 BCE). A part of the Kingdom of Israel, Akko was incorporated into the empire of Alexander the Great after his conquest in 332 B.C.E. The city was subsequently seized by the Egyptian king Ptolemy II, who renamed the city Ptolemais in the 2nd century B.C.E., which it remained until the Muslim conquest in 7th century CE, when its ancient name was restored. The Crusader's conquest in 1104 resulted in it being renamed St. Jean d'Acre. In 1291, the Mamluks invaded and destroyed the city, killing every remaining Crusader and putting an end to the Latin Kingdom, and Akko ceased to be a major city for almost 500 years. When the Bedouin sheik Daher el-Omar carved a small fiefdom out of the Ottoman Empire in the mid-18th century, he made Akko his capital and built a large fortress, which was subsequently fortified by the Turkish governor, Ahmad Pasha al-Jazzer, "The Butcher", 1775-1804. The mosque al-Jazzer built is one of the most distinctive buildings in the old city.Napoleon tried to take Akko in 1799, but was unable to, his Middle Eastern campaign collapsed, and he returned to France, frankly, with his tail between his legs. Akko then fell under Ottoman control until the Turks were defeated in 1918 by the British, at which point it became part of the British Mandate for Palestine. The British used the ancient fortress, which had never been breached, as a high-security prison to hold and execute members of the various Jewish underground groups fighting for the creation of the State of Israel. On May 4, 1947, members of the Irgun (of which Israeli Prime Minister Menahem Begin was a member) staged a dramatic rescue; this was later dramatized in the film "Exodus". Though few Jews escaped, the audacity of the raid was a serious blow to British prestige and a tremendous boost for the morale of the Jews. Today, the fort is the site of the Underground Prisoners Memorial Museum, which depicts the history of Akko and the prison. You can go into the death cell where the condemned Jews were kept and see the gallows, where a noose still hangs above an open trap door.

In the evening, Dan and I strolled along the sea walls of this beautiful ancient city, and had a romantic dinner at Doniana, an elegant fish restaurant overlooking the marina and fishing port.

Fresh local fish with a glass of Israeli white!


Our best meal in Akko, however, was a spectacular gourmet lunch at Uri Buri the next day, where Chef Dan got to shmooze Chef Uri himself!
Chef Dan & Chef Uri!

Spectacular desert of Kiwi
Soup w/Pernod-Grapefruit Sorbet!
Amazing lunch!

The restaurant itself is "shabby chic" lovely, housed in an old Arab house on the seaside, and the food was amazing! We had a "tasting menu" with a selection of courses, complimented by excellent Israeli wines: a dry Dalton Viognier and a semi-sweet Gewurztraminer from Gush Etsion. The dishes:
  • A delectable Local St. Peter's Fish with Caramel Sauce, served over beet cubes and chives
  • Spicy & delicious Coconut Milk Seafood Soup
  • Truly yummy Shrimp and Artichokes with a lemon olive oil sauce, served on mai fun noodles
  • Fresh, delicate Jordan River Trout with a wonderful cream sauce and green onions on rice 
  • Luscious Almond Sorbet with Arak
  • And a spectacular Salmon Sashimi with Wasabi Sorbet!
  • Deserts were an amazing Kiwi-Strawberry Soup with Pernod-Grapefruit Sorbet, and Rose Ice Cream! 
I am transported to "foodie heaven" just Thinking about that lunch! Before we left, we bought Uri's cookbook and he signed it to Chef Dan!

After lunch Dan and I walked along the ramparts and through the old city again, and finally got on the road and headed for the Golan... 

Next: Mt. Hermon and the Golan Heights!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Eilat, Israel: SeaDooing, Snorkling, & Camel Trekking!

View from the balcony of
our room (656) at the Leonardo Plaza Eilat!

11 days into our amazing month in Israel, made possible by the American Associates of Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Dan and I arrived in Eilat in the early evening before my birthday, and checked into our truly spectacular guest room at the Leonardo Plaza Eilat on the North Shore. I had booked it via as that's where I found the best deal, but it was the first time I had used that site and I was Very nervous! It was a paid-in-full, non-refundable reservation, and I had visions of arriving and having the desk staff say "Reservation? What reservation?", but it all went perfectly, the desk staff was charming, AND they gave us a gorgeous, high-floor room with a huge, wrap-around balcony overlooking the sea and the city- truly The best hotel room ever! (Room 656. Trust me: You Want This Room!)
Happy Dan, chillin' in Eilat!
Happy Elisse, at home in Israel!

Gold Beach Bar, Eilat
The first things we did were: find a cute, elegant cafe bar on Gold Beach, and then have a lovely fish dinner on the promenade overlooking the Red Sea...

A yummy dinner on the Red Sea...

Things that make me laugh...
The next morning, to celebrate my 52nd birthday, we went Camel Trekking into the Negev!
I'd done a full-day camel trek into the desert when I was on leave in Eilat while in the Israeli Army in 1985, and it was such fun that I wanted to share the experience with Dan! Camel Ranch only had a two-hour trek available on the day we could go, so that's what we did, but it was still a lot of fun (I felt 26 again! LOL), and we got to enjoy a "desert feast" of Bedouin bread with lebane yogurt and olives, and sweet nana (mint) tea, sitting on carpets in a Bedouin-style tent, surrounded by peacocks, just like I'd done "back in the day"! (If the foodie pix below don't make you drool, there's something wrong! I can still smell the delicious aroma of the bread on the hot pan over the fire...) You see the Negev from a whole new perspective when riding a camel, as your "ship of the desert" sways gently from side to side- it's truly one of THE coolest things!
Our "ships of the desert"- ready to ride!

Elisse & her Birthday Camel!

My Sheikh of Arabee!

Trekking into the desert...

The Negev- view from camel-top!

Mr. Peacock, ready for his close-up!

Making Bedouin Bread...

Bedouin Bread, ready for the fire...


Bedouin Bread "al ha aish" (on the fire)

Bedouin Bread: Ready!

Our desert feast:
Bedouin Bread, Lebaneh Yogurt,
Olives & Nana Mint Tea!

My Sheikh of Arabee!

Elisse: at home in the desert!

Dan and I decided to walk from Camel Ranch to the main highway, and it was quite a hike! We found another Very cool tourist attraction on the way: Roman Chariot Rides! MUST do this next trip!

Centurion Dan in a Roman Chariot!

Chillin' in the desert!
When we stumbled into "The Last Refuge" (Hamiflat HaAharon) for a cold drink, we were blown away by their fabulous local fish menu, including delectable things like grouper carpacchio!!! Woo-hoo! We not only had a delicious little gourmet lunch there, we went back for a fabulous dinner, outside on their dock-side patio!
Desert trek to The Last Refuge!

Grouper Carpaccio!

at the Last refuge!

Finger bowls! Woo-Hoo!

One of the things I Had to do was to take Dan snorkeling; Eilat not only has the great undersea museum, but Coral Beach Nature Preserve is still one of THE most fabulous places to snorkel in the world! We saw clownfish and other fabulous fish truly up close- the pinks and greens and blues and yellows of the tropical fish are amazing!
Snorkel Dan!

Snorkel Goldstein!

Undersea Museum, Eilat
 And then we found what was definitely the highlight of Adrenaline Junkie Dan's days in Eilat: SeaDooing! We found the "unofficial" SeaDoo beach (message me if you want to know where it is, as I will not be responsible for ruining everyone's fun), and we each took a fabulous ride all the way out to Dolphin Reef! I'm more a slowpoke than Dan, and he got to really "gun it" and fly on the waves across the Red Sea- he had THE best time and came back as happy as a die-hard adrenaline junkie can be!!!! Then we treated ourselves to G&Ts, seafood, and burgers at one of the great Eilat beach bars!

Next: Taking the train north to the Golan and Galilee!