Upon my return from a week's vacation this past summer in Tel Aviv, my friends and family appeared visibly impatient as I bragged about the city's beaches (" ... the sand? Like talcum powder!"), fascinating architecture, great shopping, as well as chic restaurants that serve splendid, fresh Mediterranean cuisine and excellent Israeli wines.
No sooner did I pause for air, then they quickly interrupted, and always with the same two questions. "Did you feel safe there?" Answer: Yes, completely, despite several vivid reminders of Israel's perilous geopolitical status. And, "Don't you have to be religious to enjoy a visit to Israel?" No, but it deepens the experience.
My skittish social circle is not alone in its trepidations, of course, which is why Israel's Ministry of Tourism is launching its biggest-ever advertising campaign (tagline: "You'll love Israel from the first 'Shalom' ") in the United States this fall, totaling an unprecedented $11 million.
One of the print ads features a ballet dancer performing en pointe on Tel Aviv's shore, a phalanx of glittering high-rises arrayed behind her.
"Ever since the time of King David, Israel has been a tourist destination. For many Jews, Christians and Muslims, it is a lifelong dream to come here," says Arie Sommer, Israel's tourism commissioner for North and South America. "We are not going to neglect our religious pilgrims, but today, the country is being marketed as the Holy Land plus fun!"
Ah, but what do you consider fun?
The Dead Sea has glamorous spas such as Ein Gedi Resort Hotel; vineyards such as Tishbi and Golan Heights Winery offer wine-tasting opportunities; and mysteries of the world's three great monotheisms are illuminated by a visit to Jerusalem. For my shekels, however, the best place to begin a tour of Israel is Tel Aviv.
Work and play
For many decades, before El Al airlines began service, most pilgrims to Israel arrived by boat, so the coastal cities of Tel Aviv and Jaffa were the first sight of the Holy Land they saw. Now home to more than 3 million people; 600,000 in the metro area alone, Tel Aviv / Jaffa (the cities were united in 1950) is Israel's largest municipality.
Like other world-class urban areas that are set directly on the sea -- Rio de Janeiro, say, or Nice, France -- Tel Aviv seductively balances work and play. The Israeli Stock Exchange is in Tel Aviv, yet it's not unusual to see people walking around downtown carrying surfboards.
A pedestrian promenade, its stone surface a rippled wave pattern of ochre and beige, hugs the shoreline.
Toward dusk, Tel Avivians gather here to see and be seen. Sunsets are glorious, and restaurants and cafes take advantage of this nightly light show by clustering comfortable sofas and chaise lounges so that they face the water.
The scene is louche, sexy and buzzing into the early-morning hours -- the same time that surfers, beach bums and yoga enthusiasts begin to congregate along the shore.
Think sunbathing isn't kosher? Think again. In Tel Aviv, one stretch of the beach called Nordau is reserved for Orthodox Jews, where women and men swim on alternate days. Other areas are considerably more free-
wheeling, such as Mezizim, which is just slightly north of downtown, and a favorite of young people.
As it gears up for a 100th-anniversary celebration in 2009, Tel Aviv is basking in pride over all it has accomplished in one short century.
From the beginning, Tel Aviv was a place of high culture. Within five years of its founding, there was a theater, and an opera company began shortly thereafter.
Today, of 35 performing-arts centers in all of Israel, 18 are located in Tel Aviv. A magnet for progressive architecture, Tel Aviv was declared a World Heritage Site in 2003 by UNESCO because of its wealth of "international style" buildings constructed in the 1930s and '40s to house refugees fleeing Hitler.
One morning, I rented a bicycle and went for a pleasant spin along Rothschild Boulevard, which is shaded by intertwined ficus trees and boasts some of the city's most intriguing residences.
Some of the architects who created these rectilinear and sharply angled homes trained in Weimar, Germany, at the Bauhaus School of Design, founded in 1919 by Walter Gropius.
With an estimated 5,000 low-rise buildings done in this manner, Tel Aviv has the largest concentration of Bauhaus architecture in the world.
"Tel Aviv was conceived in the spirit of a fresh beginning," says Ilan Pivko, a local architect with whom I shared a cup of caffe afook (Israel's version of cappuccino) one afternoon. "A non-ornamental essence of architecture proved to be the blank canvas on which the 'new Jew' could project himself or herself into the future."
That the city still leads Israel in design trends was evident when I strolled about fashionable neighborhoods such as Neveh Tzedek. Merging restaurants with retail is much in vogue here, such as at Elya on Amzaleg Street.