The despot concierge

Leesha McKenny visits the independent state of Akhzivland and its eccentric, yet welcoming, head of state.

The weather was perfect and the pasta was free but I did not get married in the small breakaway state of Akhzivland. This is much to the casual regret of the country's barefooted president, Eli Avivi, who pauses before asking if it's cool to share a cab across the border instead. "It is not enough time," he says as he shakes his head sadly.

Cue palm trees swaying in a maritime breeze. The azure sea, mere metres away, is as unreal and alluring as a screensaver. "Not even enough time to make children," he finishes.

Akhzivland is a tiny coastal blip in northern Israel and Avivi is exactly half of its permanent population. About the size of a small hobby farm, it's a few kilometres up the highway from Nahariya, Israel's answer to a concrete holiday beach town and within lazy rocket range of the lush hills of south Lebanon.

Blink and you'll miss it. Look for it in your Middle East travel guide and you won't find it. No one we asked in Jerusalem had heard of the place, two hours north of Tel Aviv by train, where Avivi, a former seaman, has for decades successfully maintained his own independent state inside the Middle East's most sensitive of states.

Indeed, it was news to most that Avivi even existed, let alone that the one-man president, prime minister, mayor, dictator or despot apparently loved visitors.

Not that Avivi was concerned. "Just get in a taxi and ask for me," he told me over the phone. "They all know me."

For those who don't, no worries – there's directions. “Eli Avivi” (not “Akhzivland”) features prominently in English and Hebrew on the brown Israeli tourist signs that dot the road outside Nahariya.

They lead us and our taxi to a beachside lot that looks from the outside like a NSW North Coast caravan park that has seen better days. Well, if it had caravans, perhaps.


But there's a charm here other Israeli seaside resorts lack, even if a magical summer's setting sun can't begin to hide the scruffy edges to Akhzivland. A house, a couple of makeshift cabins and a stray dog or two fall in the shadow of a Palestinian fisherman's house, 120 years old and perched on the edge of the Mediterranean, and stuffed full of recovered artefacts including Venetian glass and the odd photo of a naked, frolicking hippie.

And then there's the man who saved the now-museum from the wreckers' ball, the 76-year-old Avivi, who has for decades played host to everyone from Sophia Loren (who spent two weeks living on his roof, cooking for him), Paul Newman and "that famous artist". "You know," he says, like a slightly bewildered Ernest Hemingway under a plastic Streets ice-cream umbrella. "The fat one."

Avivi considers himself the custodian of this small beachside stretch of land, which the Jewish Iranian discovered while exploring up the coast as the new state of Israel stretched its legs after 1948.

But he only declared himself its legal ruler during the '70s when the local council knocked down some of his cabins. Then, after a few journalists were rounded up to the site, he angrily proclaimed independence.

"I love Israel, the country, but I hate the government," he says. "Then I make my own government. Then they take me to prison and to the court for this."

That would have been that except the judge laughed at the action designed to stop Avivi issuing his own visas and marriage licences. "He said, 'I know Eli Avivi,"' Avivi says.

"He said, 'I give him permission, he can do what he want."'

Avivi gets me to find my own visa from a lounge room drawer while he's flat out – literally – watching Mythbusters on a nearby lounge.

But then, chillaxing, along with tourism, is one of Akhzivland's primary industries.

"I fall in love with the place in one second and I say to myself: 'I stay here, I live here and I die here. It is 58 years I'm here,"' Avivi says.

All guest accommodation – a series of small wooden cabins with concrete floors – were constructed by Avivi, with the help of some of his regular guests.

Ours opens on to the ocean and includes a bed, basic bathroom and not much else.

Although it's easy to relax here, Avivi's predilection for impromptu rock concerts has been the source of tension between him and his neighbouring (local) government for years. And so it is to continue tonight.

A box factory from Haifa is celebrating a middle-manager's birthday with a barbecue and DJ.

They've brought all the boxes anyone could ever need – boxes with food, drink or for the bonfire – and invite us to join in.

By 8pm the music's blaring and the fire's roaring, but Avivi has retired for the night – happy, this time, to let someone else manage the rabble rousing.


WHERE Along the coastal route 4, about four kilometres north of Nahariya, northern Israel.

HOW MUCH 150 NIS, or about $50 a person, a night. Visas are free. Phone +972 4 982 3250 to book.

TOP MARKS Its extreme — and extremely deserted — beachfront.

BLACK MARK The DIY amenities are a tad on the scruffy side.

DON'T MISS Avivi's on-site eclectic museum filled with recovered artefacts and mementoes.