Above: The pool at The Norman in Tel Aviv, Israel

Tel Aviv's Stylish New Boutique Hotels

The 4,000-year-old Israeli city of Jaffa has suddenly acquired a new and youthful persona. Built up the side of a low hill overlooking the Mediterranean, the city and its natural harbor have been of strategic and commercial importance for millennia. In the 10th century B.C., King Solomon imported the cedars of Lebanon for the construction of Jerusalem’s First Temple through the port of Jaffa, while in the 1920s and ’30s the famous Jaffa oranges exported by Zionist pioneers provided the primary economic foundation for their expanding settlements. With the birth of the state of Israel in 1948, Jaffa was largely depopulated and the old Arab city, with its narrow alleys and closely packed houses, became an extension of southern Tel Aviv, or Tel Aviv-Yafo, as the conurbation is known. But today, after decades of comparative decline, Jaffa is suddenly buzzing and fashionable, with a rapidly expanding roster of restaurants, cafés, galleries, boutiques and hotels.

April 2018 saw the debut of The Setai Tel Aviv, a sibling to the nexus of fashion and celebrity in Miami Beach. And then in August, it was joined by The Jaffa, a hotel designed in part by British architect John Pawson, known internationally for his refined minimalist aesthetic. I say “in part” because the core of The Jaffa is a 19th-century French hospital and monastery, to which Pawson (aided by Israeli architect Ramy Gill) has added a modern extension. The complex and ambitious project, which lasted more than a decade, was financed by New York real estate tycoon Aby Rosen, owner of (among numerous other things) the Seagram Building, Lever House and Gramercy Park Hotel in Manhattan.

The Jaffa

The Jaffa in Tel Aviv, Israel - Amit-Geron

With 120 rooms and suites, The Jaffa is quite a sizable property, but it doesn’t feel like a big hotel. While it would be a stretch to describe it as a hideaway, it is tucked in the middle of the Old City, surrounded by traditional houses constructed during the centuries of Ottoman rule. And its exterior is relatively self-effacing and does not dominate the surrounding district.

I arrived one afternoon to find myself greeted by a pair of cheerful bellmen, who seized my belongings with gusto and led me down a long entryway, screened by arabesque trellises, to the lobby. A large open-plan area, with a pale travertine floor, modern furniture by Japanese designer Shiro Kuramata and paintings by Damien Hirst — Rosen is an avid collector of contemporary art — its most surprising feature is a stretch of a 13th-century wall, part of a Crusader bastion that was uncovered during the construction. This extends into an adjoining courtyard and is visible through a large glass wall.

Part of the Crusader wall that bisects the lobby at The Jaffa - Amit-Geron

Rooms at The Jaffa are divided between the historic and contemporary wings. My Deluxe Sea View room was part of the Pawson extension and came with a small balcony from which I could gaze over the rooftops to the Mediterranean. At 334 square feet, I found it slightly cramped, but the ingenious use of substantial mirrored cupboards made it look bigger than it actually was. Light travertine floors, excellent bedside lighting, a large work desk, ample hanging space, inspired color photography by Israeli artist Tal Shochat and a complimentary plate of dates, apricots and figs all contributed to a congenial environment. The bath was well-lit and came with a single rectangular sink and a sizable walk-in shower but lacked a tub and natural light. In general, I was content, but if I were making my reservation again, I would opt for a larger accommodation, probably a Deluxe Junior Suite (474 to 538 square feet) in the historic wing, where the rooms are more atmospheric and have high ceilings.