Travel: An oasis of calm in a stormy city

If you're going to Jerusalem, there's really only one place to stay - a luxury hotel with a unique history.
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The Independent Culture
No city in the world arouses such emotion as Jerusalem. Judaism and Islam reside uneasily with various strains of Christianity, while Israelis and Palestinians jostle for living space. According to the travel advice from the Foreign Office, the location has been too risky for British visitors on at least two recent occasions - hundreds of holiday-makers were brought home early just before Christmas. Currently, however, the advice is that British nationals visiting Israel should simply "keep in touch with developments". Which means, for the time being at least, that Jerusalem is back on the visitor's map. And, of course, it's an intensely rewarding destination - especially if you stay in the city's prime location.

The American Colony is a luxury hotel that has retained the atmosphere of a family home. It is, and always has been, neutral territory, and people on different sides of the religious and political argument have traditionally used it as a place to meet and express their views freely.

The original American colony was the family of Horatio Spafford, a church elder from Chicago. He and his wife were blamed when five of their six children died. Driven out of their community, they went to Jerusalem in search of spiritual peace, accompanied by several other members of the church. The group settled in the Old City in 1881 and kept open house, a tradition their descendants still foster in the hotel. When they were joined by sympathisers from Sweden, they moved out into what was then still countryside, where they bought the house of the local Ottoman governor, or pasha. It was this building, with neighbouring houses added later, that eventually became the American Colony Hotel.

The pasha lived in luxury with his four wives, each of whom had two rooms of her own, one on the ground floor for summer, and another on the warmer first floor for winter. Despite extensive renovations, all the rooms have their original vaulting and arched windows, and other details, including the 19th-century tiles and painted ceilings, have been preserved.

The place now known as the Pasha's Room was where he received visitors. There are arches in the middle, a beautiful painted ceiling and large windows that open out on to a large terrace. In summer this is covered with a bedouin-style tent, and cushions are strewn on the floor. It is a wonderful place to sit and read, or simply to contemplate life.

The pasha's lifestyle was the complete opposite of that led by the Spaffords and their community, who moved in and became self-sufficient, setting up small businesses which served the local area. The community was run along the lines of a modern kibbutz, long before that movement started, and it became known as the American Colony.

A hundred years later, the hotel is a wonderful haven. The food is home- cooked, a considerable attraction in a country not renowned for its culinary charms. The pool is designed to catch the sun for large parts of the day; it has a big terrace area, and the discreet waiters seem to know automatically when you may like a freshly-squeezed orange juice, or something stronger.

Given such pleasant surroundings, it is hard to tear yourself away to visit the city. An office opposite the hotel's main entrance can organise chauffeur-driven cars and taxis, but the hotel is only a short walk from the walls of the Old City and the Damascus Gate. You will pass close to the Garden Tomb, which according to myth was where the body of Christ was buried. Continuing due south down the Nablus Road you will soon reach the bustling area around the Damascus Gate. It is usually possible to walk along part of the ramparts, although, of course, the political situation makes everything in Jerusalem liable to sudden change... except, that is, the American Colony Hotel.

The American Colony Hotel (00 9722 6279777). Prices start at pounds 87 for a single room, and pounds 115 for a double.

El Al (0171-957 4100) flies to Tel Aviv airport scheduled from Heathrow, Stansted and Manchester to Tel Aviv; British Airways (0345 222111) has services from Gatwick and Heathrow. Charter flights from London and Manchester to Tel Aviv are widely available for around pounds 200, through agents such as Pullman Holidays (0171-630 5111). From the airport, take a bus or taxi (journey time of one hour) to Jerusalem. More information: Israel Government Tourist Office, 180 Oxford Street, London W1N 9DJ (0171-299 1111)

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