American Colony Hotel, a luxurious and ancient Jerusalem landmark

It’s not often that  on a hotel elevator going up or down a few floors, can one get some quotes and also get to know the demography of the guests.

Here’s one example. A beautiful young New York based, Indian born, woman decided to stay at Jerusalem’s landmark hotel, American Colony Hotel, after looking through dozens of on line luxury hotel sites and was now waxing poetically about the comfort level and the hotel’s  unusual beauty.  She too, realized that this always privately owned, sophisticated  hotel is very international and can’t be compared to any other hotel.

Built in the late 19th century by a pasha as his private residence, it became an hotel in 1902. With only 96 rooms, it seems even smaller and certainly charming and exclusive. Two other newer buildings, one with 20 exclusive suites, the other having 17, are on the other side of the private roadway behind the notable English-only book store and an antique shop.

The American Colony Hotel, Jerusalem, Israel, 5 Star Hotels, hotels in israel,

Thomas Brugnatelli, the General Manager of the American Colony Hotel, Jerusalem, Israel

It was eventually purchased by actor, Peter Ustinov’s grandfather who turned the stone facade and surrounding front stone wall, into an hotel, keeping as many of the original details as possible. It has remained such over the decades, now owned by a California resident. With a great return guest list including heads of states, celebrities,  international press corps when there are serious warring incidents in this very politically fragile environment, it has become like a permanent home to many.  While I was there four Canadian government employees were there on a four year commission and are staying until the end of their term.  “It’s easier than having a housekeeper doing the laundry, get meals  prepared and all the rest,” said General Manager Thomas Brugnatelli

Located in the Arab area of this holy city,  this has kept many travelers from staying but I felt as safe as I would anywhere, in any large city.  It is, however, a place which Israelis come to dine in the only non-kosher restaurants in the cozy Val’s restaurant, the exquisitely manicured courtyard or the elegant Arabesque Restaurant.

“It just feels like home,” Art Smith, a Chicago food expert, cookbook author and for 10 years, Oprah Winfrey’s personal chef. So much like home that he brought his mother on the trip along with his partner.”I saw the potted plants, stone building in the gardens, I felt I was in Morocco.  It’s rather charming. We come into this gorgeous garden that we want to sit in and it feels like ours even though we’re thousand of miles away from home.”

The American Colony Hotel, Jerusalem, Israel, 5 Star Hotels, hotels in israel,

The main entrance of the American Colony Hotel, Jerusalem, Israel

My first impression was almost the same.  I was overwhelmed by the Turkish fortress style, the porte cochere and the heavily green areas in this location high on a hill in a residential area.

A good sign that my choice to stay here, was right-on, was when we arrived early, the room not yet made-up. Our luggage was whisked away to be kept safely in one of the off-the-lobby rooms, a cup of coffee and cookie arrived and we were constantly asked if we were “fine”.

My husband and I have been to Jerusalem before but he hadn’t seen the relatively new Mamilla Hotel and shopping arcade. Since we had a few hours before we could occupy our room, we decided to do some sightseeing.  It was when the taxi took us to our request destination, did we realize that the American Colony was certainly off -the-beaten path since most hotels are more central.The open-topped mall, however, was not far from the Arab market and the sacred Jewish wall, both of which we wanted to see are all in the scenic old city.  But it certainly isn’t within in walking distance unless you are extremely fit. But I digress

After this historically thrilling foray, we headed back and were shown to room #4.  It was  huge and where the Pasha’s fourth wife stayed. From the arched windows overlooking the pool and garden plus some of the old city skyline, I would have opted to stay indoors for the rest of our stay.  Extremely spacious with neutral colored walls,  joyfully uncluttered with bad paintings, the color and glamor was all in the ceiling ..a carved small square with blue and gold detailing. This was only one of 3 rooms in this calibre which wasn’t even the top rung. (The Pasha’s quarters were occupied, alas, I couldn’t see them.)

Always a concern for most women, is the bathroom lighting and the facilities and certainly the Pasha’s wife would have commanded, were terrific.  Here was the perfectly sized space with marble flooring.  And I could actually apply makeup and not come away looking like a clown due to bad lights.  The only hitch was that the shower taps were most confusing for Americans/Canadians.  There was the modern overhead shower and also, the hand held type.  Figuring which valve or handle goes with each meant donning a shower cap before turning on the water, not knowing from which direction the water would flow

The American Colony Hotel, Jerusalem, Israel, 5 Star Hotels, hotels in israel,

The garden courtyard at the American Colony Hotel, Jerusalem, Israel

A step over the heavily carved wood threshold , from one of the stoned arches, seen below was the renowned courtyard with flowers about to burst forth, this being spring, and tables for snacks, lunch and  afternoon tea.  One could choose to sit under the giant mulberry tree and listen to the trickling water fountain or off in a quiet corner to read or just be pleasantly pensive.

Walking through the hotel there are vitrines with antiquities and the original polished stone floors and black and white old photos throughout the hotel- constant reminders of the city and its history.

Waking up knowing that I’ll soon be in the Arabesque restaurant for one of the most splendid breakfasts, I looked forward to having Shrak bread with zaatar, (a herb mixture). Shrak is a very large, thin crepe, the dough spread on a very hot metal dome then filled with choices like  zaatar, yogurt, tomatoes and various other fillings. Maneel, wearing traditional embroidered folkloric dress, tossed the ball of dough like a pizza crust, until it was almost see through before placing it on the heated dome.

The American Colony Hotel, Jerusalem, Israel, 5 Star Hotels, hotels in israel,

The Appetizers at Val’s restaurant at the American Colony Hotel, Israel

The American Colony Hotel, Jerusalem, Israel, 5 Star Hotels, hotels in israel,

The delicious Fish Soup at Val’s restaurant at the American Colony Hotel, Israel

The hotel also has a reputation for its fine menus for the two restaurants, Arabesque and Val’s. This duties are over seen by Chef David, a young man who was sous chef for 15 years before being made chef a few years ago.  My site inspection of the kitchen featured an up-to- the- minute, well equipped, very large and quiet but with busy areas. Being the only hotel with a non-kosher kitchen, brings in many secular Jews on Friday evening and Saturday from various cities.

Thomas Brugnatelli, the general manager for the past 18 months (this being 2013), is delighted that he made the move from Lausanne, Switzerland.  “We want to keep the feeling as bohemian as it always was.  You’ll always find poets, writers, and artists hanging out at the bar.”  The demographics tell the story of the sophisticates who are guests.  North Americans are top visitors followed by Germany, Italy, France then with a mix of British and Scandinavians.  This is where Brugnatelli’s four languages (he says 4 1/2) come in handy.  As for Hebrew, he knows only swear words “but  I will continue to try to learn better vocabulary.” He also thinks it’s very funny that guests want to ‘sleep in Tony Blair’s bed”.  The former British Prime Minister was a guest on several occasions.

Not sleek and shiny, the American Colony Hotel is indeed, a well deserved five star hotel with history but modern equipment and a one computer, no cost, business centre plus wifi and flat screen TV.

As one of their press releases says, “it’s an oasis of neutrality”.The bottom line is, yes it’s a pricey hotel, but the staff become your loyal and most helpful friends a few of the reasons why such a deserving hotel sticks around and doesn’t become part of a chain. Valid and good reasons why the American Colony Hotel is always booked.

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