I’ve been lucky enough to visit Israel several times, each time for a different reason. The first time I visited was in 2003 whilst on a youth program. We travelled the length and breadth of the country for three weeks, seeing every site, museum and two-star hotel that the country had to offer. The trip culminated in Eilat where I stayed on with a group of friends for a few days. It was during this time that I had my first adult gay experience. He was a soldier on leave from the army and our group had adopted him as one of our own. We all hung out together, drinking in our hotel rooms, going out for dinner, swimming in the hotel pool. One night after everyone had gone to bed, he and I decided to go for a late night dip. It was January in Israel, winter, but the pool was warm and the hotel near empty. We were messing around, as teenagers do. Just innocent, general roughhousing at first but the energy changed the more body contact we made. Sensing an opportunity, I dared him to take off his swimming costume. He said that he would if I would, so excitedly, I did. There we were, two guys, totally naked in the middle of the Middle East, not knowing what would happen next. Running into the pool was a man-made waterfall – one of those typical water features one would find in a holiday resort built in the 90’s. I dared him to jump off it. He did. Minus a few side glances in the high school locker rooms, it was the first time that I had properly seen another guy naked in the flesh.
The temperature dropped significantly so we returned to my hotel room which I was sharing with a girl friend. I suggested that we wash the chlorine off our bodies. He jumped into the shower first and then I joined him. We washed our respective bodies and climbed into the queen size bed which was dressed with one of those thick, floral bed covers – another nostalgic feature of resorts from the ’90s. I remembered how he had mentioned the fact that he wanted to study to be a physiotherapist after completing his army service. I recommended that he begin his education by practicing on me. He did. We eventually fell asleep next to one another. My leg occasionally brushed his leg. Once or twice his arm fell onto mine as he rolled over during the night. The four hours from pool to shower to bed felt like an absolute lifetime. My heart was beating feverishly. I had never felt so conscious or aware of the immediate moment as I had during our time together. It was the most errotic experience even without any sexual contact. The next day I left Eilat. Generously he drove me to the airport where we hugged, wished each other the best and parted ways. I don’t remember his name.
My second visit to Israel was the following December and it was far less eventful. I was still deeply in the closet and I was travelling with my family – a combination that very much limits one’s gay escapades. Most of the time was spent touring the country and visiting sites I had seen less than 12-months prior, only this time I was lucky enough to be upgraded from a two-star experience to a five-star experience. Bless my dear mother, she can hardly be described as pretentious, that is until it comes to hotels.
It was just before New Years 2004 as our tour guide pulled up to a hotel in Jerusalem that was far below par according to Mrs van Sant’s strict hotel criteria. Location – poor. Facilities – outdated. Decor – in desperate need of a makeover. Service – non existent. Rooms – dirty. Not wanting to add to the existing tension in the Middle East, my father knew that he had to act fast in order to avert an international incident. We checked-out before we even had a chance to check-in and were swiftly moved to the David Citadel. Now this hotel was much more to mother’s liking. Facilities – modern. Decor – divine. Service – exceptional. Rooms – modern and spacious. I can’t recall much of the rest of the trip but I do remember that I was sporting some sort of a mullet which apparently at the time was the height of fashion.
My next trip to Israel was four years later whilst I was living in Milan. By now I was becoming a fully fledged homosexual. Living in my own apartment in Milan, completely unknown in the gay community and not tied down by expectations or reputation meant that for the first time in my life I felt free to see and do everything that gay life had to offer. I took with me to Israel this excitement when in May 2008 I visited a friend who was studying at Tel Aviv University. He was living in a very cool, up-and-coming hipster area called Florentin. I recall that the apartment buildings were run down and didn’t have front doors meaning that visitors could come and go as they pleased. What they lacked in security they made up in charm, particularly because each building had a communal rooftop which were used by the locals for day drinking, laundry, dinner parties and general socialising. I visited quite a few cafes and bars that were beginning to open in the area but what I really wanted to do was explore the gay side of Tel Aviv. Unfortunately my straight friend, who perhaps was not 100% sure of his own sexuality at the time, was not very supportive of my endeavours. One evening, after passing a gay bar that I had read about during my extensive research online, I suggested that we pop-in for one drink. He was not interested and suggested that I go inside alone while he waited outside. Not wanting to pass up the opportunity to see at least one gay bar in Tel Aviv, I entered alone. It’s not much fun being inside a bar and knowing someone is outside waiting for you. Remember when you were a kid and your mum used to come pick you up from your friend’s house but you weren’t ready to leave? It was reminiscent of that.
Flash forward to eight years later and I was back in Tel Aviv to meet my boyfriend who had already been in the city for a week to perform in a musical. We had had a fight just before he left and the relationship had moved into very rocky territory but I needed a holiday after a manic week working in Paris so decided to go ahead with our holiday which we had been planning for months. Our first few hours together were extremely uncomfortable however after copious amounts of alcohol we managed to settle into each other’s flow. The next day we broke up.
Although I wouldn’t recommend it, we managed to spend the next week together on holiday as ex-boyfriends, enjoying the food and nightlife for which Tel Aviv is famous. We stayed at Brown Beach House which was perfectly located between the bustling Allenby Street and Tel Aviv beach. We ate at Port Said, an incredibly cool and simple dining experience from famous Israeli chef Eyal Shani that is busy every night of the week. We visited the Dead Sea and Jerusalem and spent our last day relaxing on day beds, sipping mojitos in the sun at the ridiculously expensive but very European private beach club, Gazebbo. Our nights were filled with drinking at the now permanently closed gay Tel Aviv institution Evita Bar and Shpagat – a bar and meeting point where gay and straight locals gather before heading out to wilder places. Even though our nights always ended together, in the same bed, my ex and I managed to keep our hands to ourselves. Except for one night. Sun, drinks and the energy of Tel Aviv will have that effect on you.
I’ve now recently returned from my fifth trip to Israel. I was with my family again only this time I was with them in Israel as an out and proud gay man. On this occasion we stayed at a newly opened boutique hotel called Shenkin Hotel which was absolutely charming. Tel Aviv has come a long way in terms of hotels since my first visit in 2003. With tourism taking off and capital flowing into the city, there has been a surge in world-class hotels. Shenkin Hotel was not only modern and well situated behind the boutique shopping street from which it takes its name, but the staff were friendly and invaluable to have to hand when in need of restaurant and bar recommendations. On Tuesday evening the fabulous Israeli guy behind the reception desk (who was sporting beautifully manicured, black polished nails) suggested that I go to VRS at Pasaz. Accompanying me was my sister and her fiance. The party was wild, the boys were gorgeous and the music was the perfect blend of electro-pop, deep house and techno. Tel Aviv is one of those few cities in the world where people still smoke inside clubs and bars. This isn’t to everyone’s liking, particularly my very health conscious sister who had to leave after one-drink due to being overcome by smoke inhalation. Luckily, just before I was about to accompany her and her fiance back to our hotel, a friendly Israeli guy offered to look after me should I decide to stay for one more drink. Not ready to go home, I took him up on his offer and ended up staying at the club with him until closing. In fact, he looked after me so well that he even offered me a bed to rest my weary dancing feet.
The rest of the week was spent sun soaking on the beach and exploring Tel Aviv’s incredible food scene which included breakfast at Benedict, messy Middle Eastern fare at Miznon, two visits to Port Said and a long dinner with many delicious and inventive plates at Ha’Basta. I went back to Shpagat, which I’ve decided is my favourite gay place in Tel Aviv for pre-party drinks and was taken by a local friend to speakeasy bar, Cookies Cream where they played the funkiest disco music this side of 1973. To cap off my best trip to Israel to date, I spent the last four days of my holiday at the Ritz Carlton in Herzliyah which is at the height of luxury and a great place to escape from the craziness of Tel Aviv.
My next trip to Israel will hopefully be for Tel Aviv’s world famous pride in June 2018. While I’ve never been before, I’ve heard from friends that this truly is the best gay pride in the world not only because of the gorgeous men that descend on the city and the wild parties that line the beaches but because of the inclusivity and openness that Tel Aviv residents show towards their LGBTIQ+ visitors – something rather unique for the Middle East.
To come with me on all my travels and adventures, follow me on Instagram and Snapchat @joshvansant.