When Israelis think of a summer holiday, they almost immediately consider the southern resort city of Eilat. Occasionally, if they are looking for a beachfront hotel, they might also look at the Dead Sea or Tiberias. But beyond these big three, Israel is full of family-friendly options for a quality coastal vacation. A number of four- or five-star hotels boast pools, meals, kid-friendly activities, and of course, beaches.
In cities like Netanya, Haifa, Nahariya and Ashkelon, there are plenty of hotels offering special menus in their dining rooms, special attractions for the tots and, if there isn't a swimming pool, access to nearby country clubs so guests can take a dip.
At the Madison Hotel in Nahariya, for example, guests get free tickets to Rosh Hanikra, the stunning white chalk cliff and grottos near the Lebanese border. Hotel guests also have access to the country club two minutes from the hotel.
At the Palm Beach Hotel in Acre, families can enjoy special suites, a swimming pool, and a kid's club where the little ones can play while the grown-ups relax.
Naor Chen, general manager of the Seasons Hotel in Netanya and deputy president of the Israel Hotel Association, says his boutique hotel is transformed in the summer, morphing from a business center to a full-fledged holiday resort.
"The food and drink menus change, and there are special menus for kids at the pool," he says. "We have a deal with a chair vendor at the beach, so our customers can enjoy free beach chairs. We also give discounts on beach restaurants and on massages."
Yet when the weather gets cooler, Chen says, these special perks begin to disappear. Netanya, unlike the Dead Sea or Eilat, is a seasonal city and its appeal generally disappears when visitors can no longer enjoy the sea or the pool. "We're like Greece in the type of activities we offer," Naor says.
Israelis would hardly consider Ashkelon, a city in southern Israel not far from the Gaza Strip, a tourist destination. But it is home to two big-name hotels – a Holiday Inn (Crowne Plaza hotels) and a Dan Gardens, part of the ubiquitous Israeli chain of Dan Hotels. The grounds of the Ashkelon Holiday Inn spread over 7.5 acres, and include tennis courts, a soccer field, a tanning salon and a stage for entertainment and performances. The entire complex is situated on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.
"This hotel is bigger than other city hotels, even much bigger than some of the hotels in Eilat," says Shai Asia, VP of marketing at Crowne Plaza. "It was designed as a holiday hotel with wide open spaces, but because of business in the area, during the week it becomes more of a business hotel. Still, it's basically a holiday hotel."
The hotel was built 13 years ago, but only in the past two years has it been marketed to Israelis as an alternative destination to an Eilat resort.
"The idea was to bring Eilat to the center," says Asia. "During peak season, Eilat is extremely expensive. It's also far away and not always easy to get to. Two years ago, we increased our entertainment selections, and we also expanded the menu. Someone who is here on business is fine with a small meal to go, but when there are families coming with children, they need variety and choice."
Other hotels around the country are also trying to lure vacationing Israelis away from Eilat. At the Dan Carmel and Dan Panorama hotels in Haifa, shuttles run to the beach every hour so guests are spared the 15-minute walk to the shore.
And Haifa has other attractions, says Adi Maor, chairman of both hotels. "The city's appeal is what it has to offer. It's easy to get from here to Acre and the Druze villages, to Nazareth or the Carmel forest. There's a lot to see in the area. Haifa has become a hub, and from here people take all sorts of trips to the north."
In addition, a family that stays in one of the Haifa hotels for two nights can choose from one of the city's attractions: the zoo, the Mediatheque, beach surfing workshops, go-kart racing, museums or a four-hour city bus tour. Add a third night, and get another free activity.
Israel's Mediterranean coast is filled with summer family destinations, but according to Simcha Alfassi of the Issta group, Israel's largest travel group, when there aren't families involved, Eilat is the undisputed victor of the holiday season.
"At the end of the day, 60 percent of singles will book their holidays in Eilat," she says. "Another 20 percent will go to the Dead Sea, and that final 20 percent book other destinations around the country."
Outside of Eilat, prices at Israeli hotels cover a broad spectrum. Even though demand is much lower, some of them cost just as much as Eilat. But by looking past Israel's number one resort city, it's possible to save thousands on a vacation.
We compared the average prices that a couple with two children would have to pay for a family holiday along the Mediterranean coast, and found them to be between NIS 4,900 in Nahariya, up to NIS 5,600 in Haifa and reaching NIS 8,000 at the Ramada Hotel in Netanya.
In Eilat, on the other hand, a five-star hotel for the same family will only start at NIS 8,000 – at the Leonardo Plaza, for example. Book a room at the Agamim Hotel instead, and expect to pay NIS 12,000.
Part of the reason might be entertainment options. "Eilat is a different type of vacation," says Alfassi. "It has a more hotels and a higher concentration of the big chains, which means that better-known artists can be brought there. It is more worthwhile for big artists to perform in an area with many hotels than where there is only one hotel."
Chen agrees. "The consumer who chooses Netanya over Eilat doesn't base his choice on the price. If you choose to go to Eilat, you do it for other reasons. In Eilat, Israelis feel that they are, to a certain extent, abroad, like they're far away from home."
He says that hotels in Netanya are competing against other hotels on the coastline, not with bona-fide holiday resort hubs like Eilat, the Dead Sea and Tiberias.
Another perk for families who choose to book at less popular destinations is flexibility. Unlike hotels in Eilat, those in cities like Haifa, Netanya or Ashkelon are less rigid when it comes to booking reservations – mostly because demand is different.
"In Eilat, from July through August you can usually only book according to certain criteria: In the middle of the week, for four nights from Sunday to Thursday, and at the end of the week for three nights, from Thursday to Sunday," says Rafi Beeri, the VP of marketing and sales for Dan Hotels.
In cities like Haifa and Ashkelon, he adds, it's easier for guests to book a shorter holiday, and hotels are more willing to offer two-night stays. This allows families to get away for significantly less money. Hotels in Eilat, meanwhile, sometimes demand that clients book longer stays.
"In Netanya we try to sell at least two nights as a package," Chen says. "Still, we can't demand three or four nights."
Even without demanding longer stays, hotel occupancy in Netanya from July through August tends to run 86 percent, just shy of the 90 percent enjoyed by Eilat's leading hotels.