Tell your friends that you are traveling to southern Israel to tour some of the
new boutique wineries that have opened in the Negev, and most of them will think
that you have already had too much to drink. The Negev, a semi-arid region that
contains more than 60 percent of Israel’s land mass but less than 10% of its
population, is a vast desert region that most tourists simply ignore. But no
Thanks to Isrotel’s new spa hotel in Mitzpe Ramon, adventurous
travelers are discovering that Israel’s last frontier is well worth a visit. The
Beresheet Hotel, literally “Genesis” or “In the beginning,” is giving the whole
region a new start. Located on a cliff overlooking one of the Negev’s three
spectacular natural erosion craters, the hotel was built as a “destination”
Operating at near capacity since it opened in April, the
Beresheet has proven that if you build it, they will come.
Route 40 south from Beersheba to Mitzpe Ramon, travelers can stop at any of the
more than 20 “ranches” that crisscross the region, including a number of
exceptional small wineries, fine goat cheese farms and historic sites that offer
a glimpse of the great Nabatean cities that once made up the ancient spice
“It is in the Negev that the creativity and the pioneering vigor
of Israel shall be tested,” Israel’s first prime minister David Ben- Gurion
often said, explaining his belief that the biblical wilderness would provide the
key to Israel’s future. Visitors can learn about the early years of Israel’s
founding by touring his modest retirement home on Kibbutz Sde Boker, which
includes a small museum, or stop to pay their respects at his burial site, which
is located about 10 minutes down the road.
Maintained by the Israel
Nature and Parks Authority, the grave site offers the best vantage point for
enjoying the impressive Tzin canyon. Early morning visitors will be thrilled by
the herd of ibex that roam the area, while those who arrive in the late
afternoon will want to stay for the sunset.
And for those who just want
to enjoy a glass of wine, they don’t have to walk farther than the Visitors’
Center at the entrance to the Ben-Gurion Museum, where winemaker Zvi Remak will
happily offer a taste of one of his vintages. A San Francisco native, Remak got
his start while on a year’s sabbatical in northern California.
and studied at all the great wineries in the Napa Valley, learning about the
business of winemaking,” he says.
With less than 200 mm. of annual
rainfall, farmers long thought that the region was too dry to sustain
agriculture. But the altitude of the highlands creates a nearly perfect
situation of hot sunny days and cool dry nights, explains Moshe Zohar of the Nahal Boker winery. “And the inhospitable weather means that the vines don’t
suffer from mold diseases or insects,” he adds.
Like most of the farmers
in the region, he uses state-of-the-art technologies while planting his
vineyards between the ancient terraces that trap runoff water from winter rains.
In addition to his winery, Zohar and his wife, Hilda, operate a
bed-and-breakfast and hope to open a “Negev wine cellar” by
“The wineries in the Negev are all spread out. We want to give
people a chance to taste the different wines in one central location,” he
The Kornmehl farm sits high on a hill with a 360-degree view
across the desert. Located next to the ruins of an ancient farm from the Middle
Bronze Age, the modern goat cheese farm produces a variety of French gourmet
cheeses. The farm was opened by Anat and Daniel Kornmehl in 1997.
couple maintains a herd of some 100 goats to create their gourmet kosher
cheeses. From Wednesday to Sunday, they also operate a small dairy restaurant
(not kosher) that is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
“We were the first
people to answer the call to create cottage industries in the Negev,” explains
Anat as she offers tastings from their eight different cheeses that range from
creamy Camembert to nutty hard cheeses. “We picked this spot because it was
clear that the area once sustained a farm and that is was a thriving
Hannah and Eyal Izrael opened their winery Carmey Avdat in 1998.
It is situated a few miles from the Avdat National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage
site that includes an original Byzantine wine press and remnants of large,
prosperous Nabatean city. They have planted their vineyards along a natural
wadi, a riverbed that is dry for most of the year. The rich green path winds up
to a small complex of rustic buildings that includes the winery, a gift shop
selling a number of products grown in the Negev and six cabins, each with its
own small pool.
“If you take a room full of Israeli wine experts and give
them a blind taste test,” Hannah says, “they will always be able to identify the
wines from the Negev. The wines have a very distinctive, fruity taste that sets
This was the message repeated by almost everyone we met
there. “I was always a farmer, but I had to learn to grow grapes in the desert,”
says Erez Rota of Rota Winery, noting that “the crazy extremes” are what provide
the wine with its own personality. An environmental artist who has exhibited his
works around the country, Rota has turned his farm into a personal
“installation,” juxtaposing eclectic sculptures with native desert plants. “One
reviewer who comes here regularly,” he recounts, “says he ‘can taste the sun in
A pool with a view...
A brilliantly blue infinity pool stands at the heart of the Beresheet Hotel
complex, providing a focal point for the ever-changing desert light. Built in
part using the original Mitzpe stone that was quarried to make room for the
hotel, the 111-room resort blends seamlessly into the desert cliff overlooking
the spectacular Ramon Crater.
The muted colors and natural materials
bring together the most primal elements of earth, water, fire and air, which is
primarily felt in the late afternoon as the cool desert breeze signals the
arrival of the cooler weather that comes with the sunset. The spa includes a
Turkish hot bath and a number of soothing massage and beauty
Chef Assaf Bouzaglo has developed a menu that highlights
local products, including a full range of tangy goat cheeses in the breakfast
buffet and maximizing the aromatic flavors of the Orient at dinner.
concept is that “everything is possible,” from a hot-air balloon ride over the
crater to a jeep tour with a gourmet picnic lunch.
Created as a
destination hotel, the goal of the managers is to create an atmosphere that is
both calming and adventurous.
“We want people to feel that anything is
possible,” explains the public relations director. “You can sit on the same
porch and enjoy the way the light changes over the crater or take a helicopter
up to get a completely different perspective.”
But she could not help but
note, “The truth is that no one seems to really want to do anything other than
enjoy being here.”
David Ben-Gurion grave site and “hut,” www.parks.org.il
Carmey Avdat farm,
Avdat National Park, www.parks.org.il
www.rotawinery.co.il (Hebrew only)
Kornmehl Goat Cheeses, www.kornmehl.co.il
Beresheet Hotel, www.isrotelexclusivecollection.com/beresheet