JAFFA, Israel—Jaffa, an ancient port city on the Mediterranean Sea, has had many visitors come and go during its 9,000-year history. As a gateway to the Holy Land, Alexander the Great, Saladin, Richard the Lionheart, and Napoleon all conquered the place at various points. Over the past decade, Jaffa—now part of Tel Aviv just up the coast but still predominantly Arab—has been rapidly gentrifying while still trying to maintain a connection to this unique cultural and historical identity. Nowhere is this more evident than with the city’s newest attraction, The Setai Tel Aviv, a five-star luxury hotel built into a meticulously restored 13th-century Crusader fortress.
The Setai, to be sure, is simply the latest occupant of the iconic site, located at Jaffa’s entrance between the bustling Clock Tower Square and white-stone seaside promenade, and sitting in the shadow of the Old City just up the hill. After the Crusaders came the Mamluks, Ottomans, and British, who all used the foreboding thick-walled, sheer-faced structure—once part of the ancient city walls—as a prison. So too did the Israeli police, who had a station there until fairly recently. Indeed, the site is known colloquially by locals as the Kishle, “prison” in Turkish.
After the police decamped, private developers swooped in, spending an estimated $100 million and 12 years to turn the property into what they hope will be Tel Aviv’s preeminent high-end hotel. One can understand why all the work and time was necessary. The Israel Antiquities Authority closely monitored the excavations deep underground, with ancient instruments, artifacts and even skeletons of bygone soldiers and inmates requiring careful attention. Next came the restoration work of the original structure, including undoing years of damage by occupants (like the Israeli police) more interested in functionality than heritage.
In the low-slung, chandeliered Setai Bar off the lobby, Bruno de Schuyter, the manager brought in to shepherd the hotel’s opening, recently pointed out the exposed stone walls and arches all around, as well as a staircase at the far end of the room. “Every stone had to be restored one by one, individually,” he observed. “And that staircase is an original, centuries-old and preserved—it leads nowhere, because it doesn’t meet modern code.”
In a real sense, this was the purpose of The Setai: melding the old with the new, and luxury with authenticity; there were ample examples of each to be found in the new property.
At the hotel’s main entrance, visitors are welcomed by a stone archway inlaid above by a replica calligraphic seal of Sultan Abdul Hamid II, 34th ruler of the Ottoman Empire. Across this threshold, however, sparkling marble floors give way to faded oriental rugs. In the rooms, outfitted with all modern amenities and comforts, guests can sometimes gaze out the windows through replica bars meant to invoke the property’s past purpose. Multiple courtyards, decks, and balconies stacked on top of each other bring to mind the Arab/Mediterranean penchant for building up (instead of horizontally) and, of course, al fresco living in the temperate climate; one such deck culminates at a sleek infinity pool, replete with sunbathing loungers and sweeping views of the (mythological) Andromeda Rock in the sea below and the Tel Aviv skyline beyond. At the hotel’s lower level, part of the original foundation (later used as cells), a contemporary gym and spa with exposed-stone arches sit next to a traditional Turkish hamam. Lounging at the bar over a cocktail, one can take in the soft stylings of the Rolling Stones’ Tattoo You album playing on the sound system, when the muezzin from the nearby Al-Bahr (Sea) Mosque rings out the midday call to prayer (attenuated in all places, staff point out, by The Setai’s double-paned glass).
A project this ambitious requires, as de Schuyter put it, “imagination,” but also, it seems, a personal connection to the place. The owners and operators of The Setai are the Israeli-American Nakash brothers, known originally for their Jordache line of jeans and, more recently, a slew of international ventures including multiple hotel properties. In his youth Joseph Nakash had spent a few nights in the old police station after running afoul of the law (horse thievery was the suspicion). “When the Kishle compound was put up for sale in an auction, he said he wanted it no matter what,” Eyal Ziv, a prominent Israeli architect responsible for designing The Setai, told a local paper.
The Nakashs’ are also, it has to be said, the proprietors of the popular Setai mothership property in Miami Beach. As one former employee of that hotel told The Daily Beast, “I assume all new Setai hotels [like the original] are trying to combine the Asian luxury aspect of design and the Asian ‘reverence’ style of service with some of the local cultural aspects like unique architecture or a strategic location connected to the local place in order to stand out from other brands.”
Change the word “Asian” for “Middle Eastern” and this is arguably the exact goal of the Jaffa property. At 110 rooms, plus 10 suites (including the striking Presidential Suite), The Setai is smaller than the other established high-end hotels in town, yet it’s the only one that is already part of the exclusive Leading Hotels of the World listing. The only others in Israel are the three iconic hotels in Jerusalem—the King David, Mamilla, and American Colony—which combine exacting service and technical standards with landmark properties. The listing is both a strong marketing tool and a high bar—especially for a hotel that just opened. “We need to live up to these standards,” de Schuyter put it matter-of-factly. “We’re supposed to be good.”
Almost as important, the hotel keeps kosher—in line with the owners’ vision of poaching top clientele from the other hotels, primarily wealthy Jewish visitors from abroad. “These are people who may visit Israel three to four times a year, for family reasons or work. And they may be frustrated with these other hotels and the level of service they’ve gotten in the past,” de Schuyter pitched, not without reason given the informality that often passes for Israeli customer service and professionalism.
While it’s yet to be determined if The Setai can catch—let alone surpass—its competitors, what isn’t up for debate is the property’s special location in Jaffa. De Schuyter argued that Tel Aviv’s center-of-gravity has shifted southward down the coast in recent years: from the old north, next to the venerable Hilton, down south to the Neve Tzedek neighborhood next to the imposing David Intercontinental. The logical extension, geographically and culturally, was rapidly gentrifying Jaffa. “There is a shift in how people travel—they want a more authentic experience, and to be able to mingle with the crowds,” de Schuyter said.
Hearing the Muslim call-to-prayer right next door likely qualifies as authentic, as does the warren of alleyways known as the Flea Market across the street. Still a bustling antique, clothing, and art market during the day, hip restaurants and bars open (especially) after the sun goes down, turning it into one of the city’s newest, and favorite, entertainment quarters. Up the hill, in Jaffa’s Old City, tourists can take in more traditional sites—St. Peter’s Church, the astrological “Wishing Bridge,” a replica Napoleon statue, Ottoman cannons—while also getting lost among its many hidden art galleries. A short walk away, the re-developed Jaffa Port now hosts many seafood restaurants and a food market, along with small fishing and tourist barges. Most afternoons, on the street, the fruity smell of nargile water pipe smoke combines with that of charcoal-grilled meat; locals drink strong Arab coffee on sidewalk stools while flocks of foreigners hunt for mementos and sweet pastries (in particular from the local Aboulafia family’s bakery empire).
“This is the ‘new Jaffa,’” one long-time Arab resident told The Daily Beast, “and the hotel is part of it.” Locals view this rapid gentrification with a mix of hope—for a better and more modern future, given Jaffa’s years of neglect—as well as alarm. The possibility of half-naked sunbathers at The Setai pool looking out over the mosque was, initially, a cause for concern (the pool in fact faces the opposite way). At base, though, the locals seem to understand that they can’t fight the future. “It happens in every place [this kind of gentrification]—we’re not sure where it’s all heading, but there’s nothing we can really do,” the Arab resident pondered.
This is, for The Setai, all part of its selling point: maintaining a foot in the past, in the heart of an ancient city, while providing a wholly modern experience for their guests. The site’s centuries-old history is an interesting—and dare we say, authentic—story, in a property carefully outfitted for the future. “Crusaders, Mamluks, Turks, Brits, Israelis—no one took my feelings into account,” de Schuyter joked, noting the challenge of turning a former prison into a five-star hotel. Known in Arabic as “the bride of the sea” (aarus al-bahar), Jaffa has had many temporary suitors over the years. The Setai is simply the latest and, arguably, the most luxurious.