A Room With a View

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Once upon a time, a weekend at a rustic bed & breakfast was considered the height of romance. Far from the bustle of the city, with a Jacuzzi and candles, "zimmerim" were the ideal for couples. But then the owners of these bed & breakfast operations realized there was a gold mine they'd missed: families. Spacious rooms once designed to warm the cockles of the heart a deux could easily take a couch that folds out into a bed and - poof! - the romantic getaway turns into a family facility. Which, of course, costs extra.

"The rooms are adjusted to the customer's needs," says Shmuel Hazan, head of the Golan Tourism Association. Some want an amorous weekend, chocolates and wine. But if they bring the kids, a mattress can easily be added to the room.

However, not all zimmer operators will be that flexible, he warns. The operator of a site who has taken bookings from cooing couples may refuse to accept bookings from families for that period of time, in order to preserve character. Or the couples may be warned in advance. In any case, the clashes are rare, as couples tend not to book romantic weekends at the height of the season - July and August - which is when families seek escape from the daily routine.

Families also tend to book in advance. The zimmerim up north are about 80% occupied for July, says Hazan. August is another matter: occupancy is at about 50%. People tend to decide on August vacations at the last minute, he says - for one thing, they think they may get a better price. Indeed they might: But the also might not find a place they like, and all they'll save for the effort is maybe NIS 100 a night, he says.

Even if a zimmer is designed with families in mind, it may have a swimming pool but won't have the facilities of a full-board hotel that will offer activities and distractions for the kids. The point of renting a given zimmer is to visit the tourist attractions in the area, says Hazan. "This isn't a hotel where people stay on the site. A family plans a trip of two or three days in which the zimmer isn't the main thing, it's a nice place to wind down and sleep."

"A vacation in northern Israel is a vacation outside the room," says Anat Nissim, head of the Eretz Hagalil tourism association. There are any number of attractions and activities, she says, adding that the association is working to increase awareness among the zimmer operators of marketing the area's attractions.

Of course, zimmers aren't just the preserve of the Galilee and Golan. They also exist in the Arava, says the region's tourism coordinator, Rinat Rosenberg. But it isn't for everyone. Before booking a zimmer in the area, people need to realize it's a desert, she says. This isn't a vacation of green space, but the desert offers a unique vibe, too.

Another thing families need to keep in mind is the desert heat. "I wouldn't advise vacationers to hike about after ten in the morning," Rosenberg says. Hikes in the Arava are best early morning or evening. So in the case of the Arava, people do tend to stay at the zimmer during the day. July is a very weak month for the Arava zimmers: Most of the attractions and activities in the area are agricultural in nature and July is the month farmers take their vacations. Occupancy rises again in August. The zimmers in the area are about 50% to 60% booked for that month, Rosenberg says.

When to book

So should you book a zimmer for the summer now? Should you wait? How can you find an appropriate site?

We obtained a list of the ten most popular zimmers for families in Israel and got in touch (as "secret shoppers" - posing as a family seeking a vacation ) to see if they have room for July or August.

Four of the places we called were fully booked for August: Villa B'Kfar (cottage in the village ); La Siesta; Bar B'Kfar (bar as in "Mother Nature", not "alcoholic watering hole" ); and Shvil Hahalav ("the Milky Way" ). The other six had room. For July almost all still had vacancies, but you don't want to sit back mulling the vacation for too long.

Now that teenagers have begun their summer vacation, family bookings are accelerating, says Anat, who manages Druze hospitality zimmers in the north for the Saad family.

One reason to book in July rather than August is price. In August, the price may jump by as much as NIS 300 a room per night compared with July. For instance, at the Rom 1125 zimmer, a night in July will set you back NIS 1,100. In August that jumps to NIS 1,400 a night, which is about what the place charges for a whole weekend during the rest of the year.

The difference is smaller at Zimmer Habayit B'Tzel Etz Hazayit ("in the shade of olive trees" ). In July, a midweek night costs NIS 590, and in August it's NIS 690.

Not all zimmers jack up prices for the peak August season. Maof Hatzipor and Shvil Hahalav, to name two, and Habustan, keep the price the same throughout the summer.

We checked prices and vacancies of zimmers recommended for families throughout Israel, based on the Mapa website. The rating was done by the website's experts, anonymously. Subscribers to the site post ratings on a daily basis, creating the rankings together with the team of experts. We called as "secret shoppers" on June 21, for the weeks starting July 17 and August 21, seeking to book a place for a couple with two children in midweek and weekend.

Summer retreat Rom 1125Credit: Albert Adoot