A relaxing retreat with a slice of history on Mount Carmel

The Elma Hotel’s origins have roots in an early law that mandated time off for Israeli workers, creating one of the country's first socialist spas

Elma Arts Complex and Hotel is perched at the top of Mount Carmel

ZICHRON YAAKOV, Israel – Guests arriving at the Elma Arts Complex and Luxury Hotel in this hilltop town nestled into the side of Mount Carmel will likely be struck by the light-filled lobby or the striking array of artwork that fills every wall and every corner. They’ll also be taken by the sweeping views of Israel’s majestic coastline, its sharp blue skies dotted with graceful paragliders, its lush green edged with pink bougainvillea.

Yet it is the story behind the building and of how it became one of Israel’s most exquisite lodgings that is perhaps most enthralling.

And it is all those elements pulled together that make Elma such a special place.

While every building might have its own unique back story, few have a history like the Elma. Tucked up high on the side of Mount Carmel, gazing over the fisheries of Kibbutz Maayan Tzvi and the picturesque stretch of beach known as Dor, the stacked whitewashed structure not only tells the story of Israel’s socialist origins, it also spotlights the inevitable clash as the country began embracing its capitalist present.

Add to that mix an indomitable scion of a notable Zionist family and a family of prize-winning Israeli architects, and Elma captures not only hearts but also minds of hotel-goers even during the shortest of stays.

Its story begins in 1951 with Israel’s passing of a national law requiring that all workers receive a weeklong vacation once a year. Based on that law, the Histadrut Labor Federation, the General Federation of Workers in Israel, opened wellness retreats around the country affording its members a short respite from work and daily life. One of those places was the Mivtachim Sanitarium, which was dedicated in 1968 and today forms the main body of the Elma hotel.  

Designed by renowned Israeli architect Yaakov Rechter, who received the Israel Prize in architecture in 1972 for the flowing design that blends with the rolling mountaintop, the complex reflects the 1960s Brutalist style, as well as many of his other iconic structures in Israel – the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the Cameri Theater and the Atarim Square.

Throughout the 1970s and through the 1980s, the complex housed workers for short breaks, hosting some of the country’s most iconic leaders such as former Prime Ministers David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir. By the mid-’80s, however, Israelis had begun to seek family-style vacations and preferred resorts in more exotic places such as Eilat or Tiberias. The complex was frequently used as a convention center for large company events during the 1990s, until it was shuttered completely in the early 2000s.

In 2004, Lily Elstein, a then 75-year-old patron of Israeli arts and culture who hails from one of the country’s founding families, outbid and outmaneuvered fierce real estate developers vying for one of the country’s most picturesque spots to replace the historic compound with a luxury residential neighborhood. Incredibly, the Mivtachim Sanitarium, which had stood as an icon of Israel’s socialist days on the side of Mount Carmel, was not listed as a historical building or protected by the state.  

Determined to see the complex preserved in all its glory, Elstein, whose late husband Moshe Elstein (grandson of Yoel Moshe Solomon) founded Teva Pharmaceuticals, hired Rechter’s son Amnon Rechter, and hotel architect Rani Ziss to ensure the building was renovated to its original grandeur.

The upgrade took more than 10 years to complete, with the architects working to preserve the original design, including the floors and airy interior, while adding modern touches such as high-tech infrastructure, creating larger rooms and building a new, more accessible, wing. The team also replaced the old entertainment hall – where patrons sent by the worker’s union enjoyed watching movies – with a state-of-the-art acoustic theater replete with a 1,414-tube organ and two grand pianos.

When the new Elma hotel finally opened in 2015, Elstein, now 91, relocated to the site, bringing her personal art collection, including specially commissioned works, to the hotel.

The bright, sun-filled lobby that first greets visitors is dominated by a huge marble sculpture depicting a man and a woman pushing a rock. Created by Israeli sculptor Sigalit Landau, one of Elstein’s patrons, the artwork is a rendering of Sisyphus, the figure from Greek mythology who cheated death twice but was eventually cursed with the eternal punishment of pushing a boulder up a hill. 

More of Landau’s work, as well as installations by multiple other artists, create a vibrant art exhibition that heightens the senses and inspires. Inside, the hallways leading to the modern and well-designed rooms are filled with engaging abstract paintings and photography. Outside, the extensive gardens and terraces are also dotted with sculptures and offer glorious panoramic views of the coastal plain.

The original outdoor swimming pool has been refurbished and an adjacent café offers a range of cocktails, foods and other beverages. Beside it is a newly built indoor pool and spa facility with a variety of pampering and wellness services on offer.

And just a word about the food: Breakfast is included and, like with many other aspects of this hotel, is a carefully thought-out affair going above and beyond the standard Israeli hotel buffet – extensive salads line the counter and nearby chef stations offer cooked dishes. The kosher kitchen also caters dinner options for an additional price.

While it is the modern touches that make a stay at Elma both comfortable and luxurious, it is the unique history still lingering in the air that makes it a special experience. 

The writer was a guest of the Elma Arts Complex and Luxury Hotel. 

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