How Did Tel Aviv’s Norman Hotel Get Named #1 Boutique Hotel in the World?

 The main bar at the Norman Hotel. Photos courtesy of the Norman Hotel.
We told you so, but it’s always nice to have one’s judgment confirmed by discerning professionals, in this case When I stayed there last June, I had the opportunity to have a gin and tonic with the Norman’s (then) general manager Olivier Heuchenne, at the hotel’s beautiful garden terrace.  (Editor’s note: When I ordered the G&T, which Heuchenne joined me in, I’d not realized that I was under Heuchenne’s critical surveillance.  “Double please, with lime, the tonic and ice on the side.”  The hotel did not stock my latest favorite gin, Plymouth, but I was perfectly happy with Tanqueray 10.  Heuchenne nodded approvingly.  “You know you need to muddle the tonic with the ice first, then add the gin?”  “Well yeah,” I rejoined. “I keep our gin in the freezer so it doesn’t melt the ice going in.”  He seemed pleased.)

I’d last stayed at the Norman in February 2015, during the low season.  Even then, the hotel was busy – but nothing like it was in June.  You could sense the hotel’s staff was overstressed —  after all, the Norman only had had its full opening the previous December, with a soft launch in August 2014 – Gaza Missile Season.  It wasn’t hard then to get a reservation in the hotel’s Asian-style restaurant, Dinings. By June if you’d not booked weeks ahead, it was near impossible.

Perhaps the thing I love most about the Norman is its embrace of Tel Aviv for itself, and all its many neighborhoods and attractions beyond the beach.  It’s situated in the heart of Tel Aviv’s White City, the city’s world-famous UNESCO heritage site of historic Bauhaus architecture buildings. The hotel itself is retrofitted into an early Modernist mansion built in the 1920s “Eclectic” Style. It’s a good description of its stunning interiors, with bespoke furniture, decor and tiles that evoke a more glamorous, exotic and dustier Middle Eastern era — without the dust. The hotel offers a beach shuttle – but it also offers bicycles, self-guided walking tours, and guided tours (if you choose) through the markets, restaurants, and neighboring historical districts.  Heuchenne himself is neither Jewish nor had been to Israel before he was tapped to open the Norman. In fact he’d been living a perfectly pleasant existence as GM at the Seychelles’ “Raffles” hotel, with his wife and now 9-year-old daughter.
A corner of the “Eclectic” mansion.

 “I had never stepped foot in the ‘Holy Land’,” he told me, sipping his perfectly muddled gin, “and when my friend told me about this opportunity I said, No way. You must be crazy.”

And yet he ended up signing on, sight unseen, when the hotel was still in construction. “I went to London, met the owner [who wishes to remain anonymous, but he is not a chain], the designer, the food designer …” Heuchenne recalled.  And now he is as big an ambassador to Tel Aviv as any of the early Zionists.

“Before I came, the first thing I thought about was the safety – I just couldn’t believe that it was safe. And then the only thing that popped into my mind were the images of the hotels that existed, which were these blocks of concrete on the beach. It could not be that there was luxury in Tel Aviv…

“Now I love Tel Aviv. It’s a great city full of life and fun. It’s super safe. Great variety of restaurants, culture, the arts and the museums.  It’s the safest city in the world. I’ve never felt so safe. At three in the morning you can walk around. There is a happy vibe. The reason is the sun. It’s a happy place filled with happy people. Everyone works out, they eat vegetables and fruits, and they do love their coffees. Then there’s the proximity to the sea… on any given day it’s packed with people on the beach.”

As for his family’s adaption to this “war-torn, strife-ridden” country?

“My family loves it. My daughter loves it. She’s learned Hebrew and Arabic. She does hip hop, surfing, tennis.  She goes to school in Jaffa.  She’s gained an understanding of religions, languages, and the foods – her palates have opened up.

“I think Tel Aviv has all the potential to be a world class place. There are so many entrepreneurs, everyone is willing to do something crazy.”

Heuchenne elegantly drained off his glass.  Even before the accolades from Jetsetter, the Norman has been received glowing notice from Conde Nast, Travel & Leisure, Wallpaper and The Monocle.