WHO can begin to describe Jerusalem? The religious centre of the Western world and much of the East, it is Tel Aviv’s polar opposite. Tel Aviv has a beach, Jerusalem has mountains. Tel Aviv has a party atmosphere; Jerusalem has a studious one (though you can still stay out to 4AM any night of the week quite happily). Yeshiva students and the ultra orthodox dominate the streets; the Via Dolorosa, Western Wall and Church of the Holy Sepulchre is their stomping ground and that of the Arabs who share the city.
But we’re not here to worship or study. We’re here to stay at Israel’s second design hotel (the first is the beautiful, always-booked Montefiore in Tel Aviv) and Jerusalem’s first – the Mamilla.
It is a remarkable hotel and well worth the flight alone. Built from pale Jerusalem stone, it encroaches on the Mamilla Mall, a long stone passageway with shops and cafes that leads to the walls of the Old City. From many of the rooms – and the hotel’s rooftop bar – you have a perfect view of the Old City. I can report that a martini goes extraordinary well with a night-time view of the Dome of the Rock.
Like almost every hotel, restaurant and café in Jerusalem, the Mamilla is completely, 100 per cent kosher and Orthodox Jewish-approved. We arrived on a Friday night, the beginning of the Sabbath, to be confronted with a programme of religious services, songs and special lifts that stop at every floor to prevent having to press any buttons (this counts as anti-Sabbath exertion).
Meat and dairy cannot be combined in a kosher kitchen, so separate meat and dairy restaurants are the norm in super-religious Jerusalem. The elegant Mamilla Café is dairy and we had some delicious salads and cakes there – overlooking the Mall from a flower-strewn terrace and white-tiled tables. There are a few other restaurants in the hotel too – you can snack at the rooftop and Mirror bars, dine in the Dining Room, and sneak a coffee at the Espresso Bar. In short, you won’t go hungry at the Mamilla (or in Israel).
The intriguing thing about the Mamilla is the way orthodoxy meets world-class boutique elegance. It is a wonderful meeting of old and new. Designed by superstar Israeli architect Moshe Safdie, light and space and stone dominate all the central areas, which are given life and colour with plush, expensive furniture. There’s a swimming pool in the basement, too, which – though dark – is sensually attractive with leaf designs on the dark blue walls and dark wood decks.
Our room was spacious and minimalist, with half-moon shaped windows looking out on the Mamilla Café and, beyond that, the Old City. Israeli sparkling and red wine met us in the room – and the earth-toned bathroom was delicious.
Not that we spent much time there – we had the Old City to see, sheeshas to smoke, the stunningly refurbished Jewish Museum to visit (newcomers to the city should see the definitive Holocaust Museum, Yad Vashem) and bars to hit (there are numerous and busy hangouts on the Mamilla’s doorstep).
One of these bars was the hotel’s own Mirror Bar, with a disco feeling, dark lights, plush seats, lots of glitter, a DJ blasting chart hits and an entertaining mix of orthodox Jews on the pull; businessmen letting their hair down and – well, us.
The spa, Akasha, looked beautiful but had yet to open on our visit. Now open, all the Mamilla needs is for the snooty service at the front desk – we were not met with the efficiency nor the helpfulness suiting a hotel of this calibre – to be sorted out.
Jerusalem can already lay claim to having one of the world’s most stylish and interesting hotels. I hope the rest of Israel follows suit.
From US$390 for a double room, incl breakfast (www.mamillahotel.com). In Tel Aviv, Zoe stayed at the Dan, which has double rooms starting at US$180, incl breakfast (www.danhotels.com). She flew with El Al, which operates twice daily flights from London-Tel Aviv (apart from Fridays) from £265 return. www.elal.co.il