News - "from the New York Times"
Ruth Fremson/The New York Times
At the Mitzpe Hayamim spa in northern Israel, Efrat and Udi Sharir relax on a terrace looking out over the Hula Valley.
November 6, 2005
Going to a Spa? Mazel Tov!
By SARAH WILDMAN
DEFYING bans on both smoking and cellphones, two women sat on an expansive terrace with a view stretching from the Sea of Galilee to Mount Hermon, nursing teas brewed with fresh herbs - lemon grass, spearmint, hyssop, chamomile - from the farm of the Galilean spa Mitzpe Hayamim. Leaning back in a wrought-iron chaise, made comfortable by crisp white linen cushions, Irit Heruti twisted her thick, black hair into a knot at the base of her neck. It was evening, and this fourth-floor patio - a secret oasis reached after a short walk through a trellised garden - was cool and lush. The lights of nearby villages glittered below. "There is dangerous Israel and there is normal Israel," said Ms. Heruti, a regular visitor to the spa and a trauma psychologist who recently left 11 years of emergency room work in Tel Aviv for a new, somewhat less crisis-focused, practice. "We live in that split." Two days later, I was reminded of this moment - separate from Israel, but not disconnected from it - as Nediva Kochavi, a massage therapist, began my treatment using oil infused with home-grown myrrh. I told her that I was feeling a little anxious in the days surrounding the end of the Gaza disengagement. "Sarah, this is Israel," she said, without condescension. "Everyone who comes into my room is completely stressed out." She encouraged me to breathe.
At Mitzpe Hayamim, on a hot, dry mid-September day, guests in their terry robes and slippers sat around the pool looking over the Hula Valley, reading newspapers with lurid headlines about the burning of Gaza's synagogues or comparing notes on whether their children served during the disengagement. "My son is in the Army," said Jenny Cole, a British-born Israeli wearing a floral bathing suit and a gold necklace that spelled her first name in Hebrew letters. "He begged not to go to Gaza."
These Israeli spas do not avoid the "situation," but react to it. There is an emphasis on calm, on not doing something as much as doing it. Classes are gentle, exercise not particularly extreme; gyms are tiny or underemphasized. Massage offerings reflect the travel many Israelis do after their time in the Army: ayurveda from India, Thai massage, twina and shiatsu from the "Far East," as Israelis refer to it. Holistic offerings abound. Cultural performance evenings are common, and their informality feels like a distant echo of cultural nights from the heyday of the kibbutzim. This is not a rejection of Israel, it is an antidote.
When I arrived at Mitzpe Hayamim, the first of three spas I would visit on my recent trip, I was hot, dirty and frustrated. The directions friends in the Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya had given me and my partner, Ian, were terrible; what should have been a journey of two hours took four. The road toward the spa, in Rosh Pina, curved through a moonscape of desiccated earth and rock that seemed so unlikely to give way to greenery we doubled back twice, certain we had made a wrong turn. I was saved by a call to an accommodating reservations person who stayed on the phone with me until we found the entrance to Mitzpe Hayamim's 37-acre oasis. A guard checked our name off a security list, and the barrier was lifted on a private, wooded, winding road. The spa-hotel is one of only two Relais & Chateaux hotels in Israel, and it is expensive by Israeli standards, but there is no stuffiness. The luxury here has a light touch.
With an hour before my first treatment, I wandered around the quiet main lobby on stone paths, past the bakery where organic breads are baked daily, into the "galleria," a cavelike studio and shop that houses four artisans - two silversmiths, a sculptor and a painter. Standing behind a jewelry counter, Rivka Alfasi, a small salt-and-pepper-haired woman with striking blue eyes, overheard me speaking English. "Oh!" she said with genuine warmth. "It's so nice to hear English again. For so long we didn't hear it." Rivka may have welcomed me, but it was Alex Aluf, a gentle, Russian-born, hot-stone-massage therapist, who calmed me. Hot stones were part one of my "Indian Steps" package. (Others are more indigenously named, like the "Song of Songs spa series," with therapies named for biblical phrases - among them, "His lips are like lilies, dropping flowing myrrh.") Aluf was the master the spa manager had promised, digging deep but not too deep, loosening tightened muscles with the warmed river rocks. I left his space a little greasy from the almond oil, but revived. He encouraged me to rest in a quiet solarium on wicker divans with white cushions; or to lounge in a comfortable rocking chair (or in the Jacuzzi) on one of the many sheltered terraces perfectly perched to watch the sun fading over the landscape. After a shower, I had my first taste of what Mizpe Hayamim is most famous for: the organic kitchen.
Dinner - like breakfast and lunch, as we were to discover - was like learning a language. Words like "fresh" and "salad" and "bread" took on entirely new meaning. Almost everything is grown on premises, and the field-to-table time is measured in hours. The main dining room serves only vegetarian, dairy and fish meals - what the staff called "nonoffensive" dining. (It is not overseen by a rabbi, and there is a meat restaurant, Muscat, that is explicitly unkosher.) The main chef, Amit Bar, is a tall, blond, bearded man who immigrated to Israel eight years ago from Germany. "Today, we cut vegetables for soup tonight," he explained, by way of illustrating how "we do everything here ourselves" including "our own marmalades, pastas, ice cream."
The list went on and on. "Nothing smells of the refrigerator," he pointed out, because there is no time to refrigerate. Even the olives are theirs, cracked and pickled in a nearby Bedouin village; local kibbutzim provide anything that cannot be grown on site. The next day, we hiked into the fields to see the vegetables as well as the goats, sheep and cows that were producing the varied cheeses, yogurts and ice cream.