Even in the specialized world of kosher travel, dedicated kosher hotels are likely to remain something of a niche, especially in the age of Airbnb and the like. But for those who want three hot, prepared meals a day, an on-site mashgiach to oversee kashrut, even a minyan right downstairs — many kosher resorts have on-premise synagogues — there are options in more destinations than ever.
From Cuba to Africa, Rome to the Maldives, kosher establishments cater to travelers willing to pay hefty tabs for a strictly observant, highly personalized luxury experience. They range from boutique bed-and-breakfasts to big-city hotels and tropical, all-inclusive resorts. And as often as not, they’re selling experiences along with the kosher hechsher.
“Overseas, we’re seeing more interesting opportunities — more kosher bed-and-breakfasts, on a smaller scale,” noted Dani Klein, who covers kosher travel exhaustively on his website, “Yeah That’s Kosher,” and has been featured in Jewish Week’s “36 Under 36” for his Israel advocacy work. “In Europe, kosher hotels are typically in resort areas — ski resorts or the Riviera — as opposed to big cities,” where Jewish amenities are at hand. “Israel, of course, is the mecca. They’re basically all kosher.”
Klein observed that kosher hotels cater to a particularly affluent, observant demographic, given that today’s kosher travelers have plenty of alternatives, such as economical kosher food, drink and eating establishments outside of their hotels. But hotels will always have the edge when it comes to both catering and luxurious, personalized experiences, especially for family groups.
Here are a few of the newest, most intriguing offerings.
Chateau Blanc, Havana
Consider the Chateau Blanc in Cuba, a new, boutique bed-and-breakfast run by a multigenerational Cuban-Jewish family, with a kosher-dairy kitchen and spectacular rooftop views of downtown Havana. Cindy White, her brother or her dad, Saul, help Americans navigate current license requirements regarding Cuba travel, offer a personal welcome and can arrange visits to the family’s two longtime shuls, the Ashkenazi Beth Shalom (“El Patronato”) and the Orthodox Adath Israel. They’ll also coordinate visits to the beaches around Varadero as well as visits to Vinales and Cienfuego, scenic mountain regions.
Chateau Blanc hosts frequent guest lecturers on Cuban Jewish history. “As native Cuban Jews we have a unique perspective,” White reflected. “We partner with Pack for a Purpose, an NGO that coordinates much-needed medical and first aid donations from travelers to aid the local Jewish pharmacy. We also work with our clients to help restore the Jewish cemetery, where many of our family members are buried.”
Pricing varies based on services; a basic package without optional on-site mashgiach, but including accommodations, meals, itinerary to visit various religious and secular sites and transportation costs about $350 per person per day.
Kosher in the islands…
Many kosher resorts are unapologetically lavish, with kashrut just one of a long list of optional services and amenities catering to an affluent, international clientele.
In this category are the Soneva Resorts, ultra-luxury tropical retreats. Soneva Kiri, on Thailand’s rainforest-covered Ko Kud Island, and Soneva Fushi, within the Baa Atoll UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in the Maldives, both recently announced dedicated kosher kitchens, with kosher meat shipped in from Bangkok and Holland, respectively.
At both resorts, guests stay in private villas and enjoy activities such as tree pod dining, with dinner delivered via zipline; outdoor cinema in the jungle; or a dinner cruise featuring stargazing with the resident astronomer. Immersive, expert-guided experiences are a hallmark of Soneva, like snorkeling with a marine biologist or learning how to blow glass in the art studio. Prices vary widely, depending on villa and services; expect a baseline of $2,000-4,000 per villa per night.
For ultimate privacy…
“Togethering” is the term Ira Bloom likes to use for the style of travel he offers at ÀNI Private Resorts, which rents entire resorts — kosher kitchen and all — in Anguilla, Dominican Republic, Thailand and Sri Lanka to one party at a time. Groups of eight to 30 guests — often a multigenerational family, or several families, sometimes with additional friends — enjoy private use of all of the facilities, from pools to lounges. The dedicated staff customizes itineraries and kosher menus and caters to individual preferences, blending the privacy of a villa with the service of a luxury hotel.
“Whenever they learn something new, like how a certain person likes their coffee, even another staff member who did not serve them last time can deliver what they like without the guest having to ask,” said Bloom. “It’s actually a great value considering all we offer. When you divide the nightly rate per person it can be as low as $400, including all food, drinks, massage treatments, cooking classes and much more.”
A home in Rome?
On the budget end of the spectrum are two sunny, kosher bed-and-breakfasts in Rome, The Home in Rome and La Casa di Eva. Run by a friendly local Italian Jewish family, the two comfortably appointed properties are in renovated elevator buildings in the Jewish Piazza Bologna district, close to kosher supermarkets, bakeries, restaurants and synagogues.
With an always stocked 24/7 dining room, a convivial kosher morning breakfast scene and optional tours or Jewish cooking classes, the B&Bs are an excellent value, starting at $100 per night.
Kosher properties are sprouting in Africa’s safari belt.
The history of Zambia’s small yet significant Jewish community is a personal passion for Peter Jones, resident owner of The River Club, a kosher lodge on the banks of the Zambezi River in Livingstone, Zambia (direct flights from Cape Town). Jones makes sure his Jewish guests not only eat well, but also get to explore the region’s unique Jewish heritage.
The River Club arranges tours of the Railway/Jewish Gateway Museum, the Livingstone Museum and Livingstone Town, where guests learn about Russian Jews who fled the Baltics to become some of the earliest European settlers, forming a community in the new town of Livingstone, established 1905. Later came German Jews fleeing Nazism, as Northern Rhodesia (as Zambia was then known) was the rare country to issue wartime visas to Jews.
Just 10 miles upstream from the renowned Victoria Falls, The River Club offers kosher cuisine prepared by trained staff; for a higher rate, food service is supervised by a mashgiach. Beef and lamb are imported from a South Africa butchery, while Zambezi bream comes from a fish farm nearby, and all dairy products are locally sourced.
Rates start at $565 per night; kosher add-on charges range from $40 for a kosher kitchen to several hundred dollars per day for a mashgiach and kosher chef, with multi-day minimums.
High above the Maasai Mara, a large game reserve in Kenya where some of the most romantic scenes from Out of Africa were filmed, the Angama Mara resort boasts tented guest suites, and a kosher kitchen, on the edge of the Great Rift Valley.
It is a labor of love for Nicky Fitzgerald, who with her late husband Steve built and operated more than 60 luxury lodges across Africa and India before the beauty of the Maasai Mara site drew them out of retirement.
Every morning, hot air balloons sail past the suites’ floor-to-ceiling glass windows. Guests also enjoy walking safaris, edit their game shots at the photographic studio, and tour the gallery of African art and a studio where local Maasai women craft with beads.
Angama Mara, named the No. 1 Safari Lodge in the World by Condé Nast Traveler’s Readers’ Choice Awards 2018, has various kosher options.
The stand-alone kosher kitchen can prepare meals for up to 12 guests, and is stocked with pantry ingredients from South Africa. The kitchen will be stocked with basic kosher pantry ingredients, along with kosher wines, at no surcharge; kosher meat and dairy products can be ordered from South Africa for $75 per guest, per night. Guests can also pre-order sealed kosher meals from the Beth Din in Johannesburg, or Angama Mara can arrange to hire an on-site mashgiach.
Packages start at $2,450 for three nights per person, based on group travel.