You don’t need to cross an ocean, land in the Middle East, and spend over a week in the holiest place on earth to have a spiritual experience in a bathhouse. I think spas are temples, whether they’re housed in ancient castles in Akko, Israel, or not. The fanciest ones tempt with candles, potions, elixirs. Some promote worship. Once, an ayurvedic practitioner muttered devotional incantations over my prone form, like a purification. (Who knows what it achieved, but I did feel quite #blessed when it was over.) And even the sparsest spa—the Chinese herb emporium on Mott Street that I’ve been known to frequent, for example—deals in ritual. If it’s transcendence you seek, you’ll find it on a good masseuse’s table.
But the fact is, I did cross an ocean and I did land in Israel and I did drive north, to one of the oldest cities in the region and one of too few in which Jews, Christians, and Muslims all live in overlapping, peaceful neighborhoods. By then, I’d been to Israel over a dozen times. I knew its charms and its dire complexities. I craved its spices and its hummus, so much silkier and sweeter than it’s made here. I’d been in love with its stone for over a decade. But I’d never traveled to Israel for luxurious skin treatments, and if you’d wanted my advice just a few months prior, I’d have recommended you not, either. Days and days of travel cannot be made up for in even the most luxurious of locales, if you ask me.
But I’d been invited to a spa—in Akko, a teensy, stone-paved town that hugs the Mediterranean Sea. And because, in all my many trips to the region, I’d never been, and because it’s a spa, fergodsakes, how bad could it be? I crossed my fingers and booked my tickets. Israel is far, and I needed a vacation (I promised myself I'd do something extravagant after the 2016 election, no matter who won).
And lo and behold, on this trip, the place surprised me. In Tel Aviv, I submitted to a deep-tissue massage at the Brown Beach House, an experience I deeply recommend, if only to do as I did and pretend to be the kind of goddess who spends her mornings at the beach and her afternoons in what looks like an enormous and very plush hotel suite, having her sore muscles tended to. In Zikhron Ya’akov, a town that smells like lemons and overlooks acres of vineyards in northern Israel, I booked “the Five Elements” at the spa at the Elma, a treatment that included “gentle body tapping” and “percussion with bamboo sticks.”
And once I checked into the Efendi Hotel, a four-hundred-year-old stone palace; I swear, I did have a divine experience. Like so much of what’s new and tantalizing in Akko, the Efendi is the brainchild of cultural ambassador, cook, and overall impresario Uri Jerimias. His restaurant, Uri Buri, which is just down the street, serves up some of the most transcendent food I’ve eaten anywhere: salmon sashimi with a scoop of wasabi ice cream; fish stew simmered in a coconut broth; and, my favorite, chunks of seared tuna crusted in chilis and nestled in fresh, strained yogurt. Jerimias has been at the helm there for over two decades, but just under 10 years ago, he decided to expand his empire, snapping up two Ottoman-era mansions at an auction and transforming them, over roughly six years, into one five-star escape. The rooms all have their charms; frescoes restored, sweeping views framed by picture windows.
The 400-year-old marble-floored spa is just one room, oriented around a giant, stone slab. When I’d arrived at the Efendi, I’d tried to book a simple massage, but the receptionist insisted; “You want the full treatment,” she said. “Believe me.” And I did, so I nodded. The next afternoon, I found a plush bathrobe in my literal The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe-style armoire and padded downstairs for my “full treatment.” My masseuse—though, in fairness, spiritual guide is probably a more precise word, given what happened next—instructed me to strip down and lie down. And then, the marvel began.
For the next hour and 20 minutes, she: lit incense, scrubbed my feet, bathed me with what felt like enormous soapy balloon, washed me off with basins full of, alternately, scalding hot and freezing cold water, administered some kind of acupressure massage, focused, oddly but pleasantly, on my ankles and wrists, swathed me in fresh-steamed towels, stretched my shoulders, hips, and calves, placed a series of Tibetan singing bowls on my chest, and advised me at several points in the process that I was and am “a miracle.”
By the time it was over, my entire body had been turned to jelly and I had come as close as I probably ever will to psychedelic-induced euphoria. Even now, I can’t think of a time I’ve ever experienced my limbs and organs with such total wonder, ever sunk deeper into such utter meditative bliss, ever let a person I hadn’t met at least once prod, push, and twist me into such insane positions. Not to commit myself to sacrilege, but the truth is it was kind of holy. I’m a believer.
Next up in bookmarked spas: Montreal's Bota Bota. Read all about it here.