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 more.

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” resort.

Operating at near capacity since it opened in April, the Beresheet has proven that if you build it, they will come.

Following 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 route.

“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.

“I worked 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 September.

“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 explains.

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.

The 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 area.”

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 them apart.”

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 my wines.’”

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 treatments.

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.

The 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.”

Helpful links

David Ben-Gurion grave site and “hut,” www.parks.org.il
Carmey Avdat farm, www.carmey-avdat.co.il
Avdat National Park, www.parks.org.il
Rota Winery, www.rotawinery.co.il (Hebrew only)
Kornmehl Goat Cheeses, www.kornmehl.co.il
Beresheet Hotel, www.isrotelexclusivecollection.com/beresheet

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