Travel + Leisure

June 2009, Travel + Leisure

Jerusalem with Reservations

A pair of storied hotels epitomize the polarities of life in the Holy City

The setting sun cast golden light on the ancient city walls behind Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, where I sat having drinks with an Israeli friend. The transcendent scene prompted her to quote the Talmud: “Ten measures of beauty were bestowed on the world; nine of these were given to Jerusalem,” she recited in Hebrew, neglecting to mention the separate claim in rabbinic literature that the city was also endowed with 90 percent of the world’s suffering.

The description of splendor rang true in the encroaching twilight, and the King David’s terrace was an idyllic spot to take it in. Yet despite its beauty, few-if any-cities in the world are as bitterly divided as Jerusalem, fought over for centuries by the three religions that deem it holy. The neighborhoods are Balkanized into realms for Christians, Muslims, and Jews, with the Jews themselves settling in distinct areas depending on their degree of religious observance.

At one end of the spectrum is the King David, an icon of Jewish politics and culture. At the other is a second legendary retreat, the American Colony Hotel, which attracts a very different clientele-and is equally imbued with the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Each has provided a stage for major players seeking to resolve or inflame Mideast tensions. And both provide undeniably luxurious accommodations whose serenity has periodically been shattered by violence.

A plaque near the King David’s entry recalls the notorious attack that gave it the dubious distinction of being the only hotel in the world to have been bombed by a future prime minister. In 1946, when the hotel housed offices of the British Mandate rulers, the Irgun resistance movement, led by Menachem Begin, detonated explosives that demolished one wing and killed 91 people in a bid to hasten Britain’s withdrawal. Decades later, as Israel’s leader, Begin met with Egyptian president Anwar el-Sadat in a landmark summit at the hotel.

U.S. secretaries of state from Henry Kissinger to Hillary Clinton have used the King David as their base, and countless foreign leaders have stayed the night. This can spell periodic inconvenience for less august visitors, as when hundreds of them had their reservations abruptly canceled when President Bush and his entourage took over the premises in 2007 (the hotel, which tried to find alternate lodgings for the uprooted guests, stresses that this is an infrequent occurrence).

The King David’s cavernous lobby has been compared to a set for a Cecil B. DeMille-style biblical epic. The majestic pink limestone building, completed in 1931, was meant to recall a palace from ancient times; the owners, who were the same Egyptian-Jewish family that financed the Shepheard Hotel in Cairo and the Mena House hotel at the foot of the Pyramids, wanted the interiors to evoke “ancient Semitic style and the ambience of the glorious period of King David.” An ardent Zionist family purchased the property in 1957 to be the flagship of the Dan Hotels chain.

With so much history and diplomatic comings and goings, the King David sets a gold standard in the minds of many Jewish travelers, as well as with the cosmopolitan crowd typically found on the grounds. At the vast swimming pool, surrounded by a manicured lawn, swaying palms, and towering cedars, I watched two women in string bikinis chatting in French while young American Orthodox Jewish mothers swam–fully dressed for modesty and with hair covered by sequined snoods–with their children.

To avoid violating religious law, nothing is cooked on the Sabbath. And because the food is kosher, the room service menu asks that guests refrain from ordering dairy and meat together. “Most guests are aware of these laws, and if they aren’t, the room service waiter will tell them,” said Haim Spiegel, Dan Hotels–director of food and beverage. As we talked, the murmur of French speakers around us grew louder. French President Nicolas Sarkozy was arriving shortly on an official visit, and it was time to check out, as I had been warned when I initially made my reservation.

Only a 10-minute cab ride away from the King David, the American Colony is just north of the Damascus Gate, next to the so-called seam between East and West Jerusalem. When Jordan controlled the eastern sector, from 1948 until 1967, a wall dividing the city ran in front of the hotel’s driveway. “The American Colony is located much deeper in the Middle East than the King David,” Spiegel had told me in West Jerusalem. This was made apparent as I entered my room. “Allah-u-akbar,” blared a muezzin’s call from a mosque a mere 60 yards away. (It woke me again each morning at four.)

Built around a 19th-century Ottoman pasha’s mansion, the American Colony is the more intimate of the two properties (86 rooms versus 237). Its lobby, with stone archways and vaulted ceilings, is furnished with damascene inlaid tables and turquoise tiles. Oriental carpets cover polished stone floors. The interior courtyard is a tranquil oasis, with no hint of the turbulent times when shells and sniper fire rained down on it during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. The hotel was caught in the crossfire again during the 1967 Six-Day War.

In the courtyard, I spotted Mordechai Vanunu, Israel’s Benedict Arnold, who spends most afternoons here in the cool shade of an orange tree. In 1986, Vanunu revealed details of the Jewish state’s top-secret nuclear-weapons facility; he served 18 years in prison for treason and is now legally barred from leaving the country. “I feel comfortable and safe here,” he said, sipping Turkish coffee next to a burbling fountain.

The American Colony is popular with Christian pilgrims and secular Israelis, who crowd the Saturday buffet lunch. But the patronage of figures like Vanunu and Palestinian representatives of varying stripes causes some Israelis to regard the hotel with apprehension. “I always wanted to stay there, but I was too afraid,” Israeli author Alon Hilu told me. The hotel got its name from a group of strictly religious Christians who emigrated from Chicago in 1881 and purchased the pasha’s mansion, transforming it into a commune devoted to charitable work. They began taking paying guests in the early 1900’s. The hotel expanded and grew posh after the community disbanded in the 1940’s; today, it belongs to 35 descendants of the founders. A matriarch named Valentine Vester oversaw several renovations, and in 2007 the American Colony joined the King David as a member of the Leading Hotels of the World.

A few days after I arrived at the hotel I talked with Valentine’s son Paul Vester, a primary shareholder, who stressed that the hotel is politically neutral. “We’re not Palestinian and we’re not Israeli,” he said. “We see the hotel as an important meeting place for both sides.”

Vester’s position is more than just talk. Palestinian and Israeli officials met covertly in Room 16 to draft the 1993 Oslo Accords. Today, former British prime minister Tony Blair maintains offices at the hotel for his role as Mideast envoy of the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations. UN and aid agency workers are often on the guest registry, as are American military officers. Such a contingent–speculation runs rampant as to which guests are actually spies–requires discretion. “We do’t always ask what’s going on,” said general manager Paolo Fetz.

Observing it all are the journalists who have been haunting the American Colony since Lowell Thomas arrived around 1918 to meet T. E. Lawrence, whom he helped make famous as Lawrence of Arabia. Correspondents from CNN, Al Jazeera, and the BBC regularly stay at the hotel, which Jeffrey Goldberg–who has covered the Mideast for The New Yorker and the Atlantic–called “perfectly calibrated to appeal to the fantasy life of a Western reporter in search of Eastern exoticism” with a “whiff of danger in the air.”

Some Israelis worry that coverage of the Mideast conflict is distorted by having such a large media contingent at the hotel, because its Arab staff arranges for Palestinian translators and “fixers” who assist journalists and may influence their perspective. “There is a competition for the narrative here,” said Uri Dromi, who was once Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s spokesman and now directs the Mishkenot Sha’ananim conference center in West Jerusalem; to challenge the American Colony’s status as a journalistic hub, he is working to open an International Press Club next year.

The King David and the American Colony also face stiff competition from deluxe establishments being built or planned in Jerusalem, including the Mamilla Hotel, the Palace Hotel, and the Four Seasons. But if this renowned pair maintains preeminence with the powers that be, the question of whether beauty will trump suffering in Jerusalem could ultimately be decided within their history-steeped walls.