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I feel like I discovered one of the country's best-kept secrets; a random road trip to explore unfamiliar territory in the Negev turned up bastions of secular Zionism and jaw-dropping natural wonders. I'm actually a bit hesitant to share these treasures with the masses...
Our first stop on our westward drive through Ramat Hanegev was at Mitzpe Revivim. Truth be told, we stumbled on this remarkable place entirely by accident. After a long drive, we were desperate for something to eat and a restroom. We saw one of those brown signs with a picture of a coffee cup, and we made the turn.
Mitzpe Revivim was founded by the Jewish National Fund in 1943. At the time, the area was a barren, 38 desert with no sources of water or shade. The settlement was intended as an experiment to investigate whether Jews could live and thrive in the desert.
Visitors to this Zionist site can steer themselves through the maintained structures with the help of a self-guide printout available onsite, and walk through the cave where the original settlers lived when they arrived in the early 1940s. The field hospital from the War of Independence is still visible, as are the living quarters of later settlers.
A 15-minute historical video is also available (Hebrew and English), which explains how difficult it was for the pioneers to make the desert habitable. For groups, a living history presentation can be arranged. The presentation is adapted to its audience by an enthusiastic and capable actor, Nimrod. We stood open-mouthed as he transformed a rowdy group of middle-school pupils from the center of the country into an eager group of pioneers and British soldiers.
If you're looking to reaffirm your attachment to the land or to explain to your children just how brave and idealistic the early Israelis were, Mitzpe Revivim will blow your (and their) minds.
While you're at Mitzpe Revivim, it would be worth your while to stop at the adjoining Kibbutz Revivim, where "Hai Negev" is located. Hai Negev boasts a zoological experience with a petting zoo and interactive reenactments of Exodus from Egypt, with creative desert-related activities available for children and adults.
AFTER OUR intense and inspiring desert encounter, we were ready for a different kind of desert experience: off to the spa! Neve Midbar was built seven years ago and incorporates its unique location in its look and its offerings.
The spa has three indoor pools and a Jacuzzi, with an outdoor pool as well, in graduated temperatures. The pools are filled with mineral desert water that is refreshed every 20 minutes.
The spa offers a variety of treatments and massages, as well as both wet and dry saunas. A new wing of the spa is under construction and nearly completed, and it boasts a true desert feel - but with added luxuries.
If you want to visit the spa, but you're afraid the rest of the family isn't up for it, you're in luck. There are two other tourist options nearby: Beduin experiences at Sfinat Hamidbar (literally next door) and a hike/picnic/park option across the road at Park Golda Meir.
Sfinat Hamidbar offers camel tours, and the whole Beduin-style hospitality thing that is common in the Negev, including a tent and Beduin-style meals. You can visit for the day or stay over.
We decided to skip the Beduin experience and head across the road to the most perfect desert oasis we'd ever seen. On all sides were sandy and rocky vistas, and in front of us were a glassy lake, bright green grass and tall shady palm trees. Park Golda boasts two well-maintained playgrounds with climbing equipment, as well as barbecue spots and picnic tables and restrooms.
The man-made lake is filled with water from the Neve Midbar spa across the road, and is fed through a trickling brook spanned by a little wooden bridge. On the other side of the lake are a bike trail and an overlook.
THE NEXT stop on our drive was at Shivta National Park. We saw the brown tourist sign pointing left and decided to go for it. We turned down the road and started driving. And driving. And driving. We passed an army base or two, traversed a firing range, and after 8.1 kilometers (we measured it on the way back), we arrived at an astounding archeological marvel.
This is the point when your cell phone will start beeping with messages welcoming you to Egypt. Keep calm, you haven't crossed the border yet.
Shivta was a Nabataean agricultural community founded in the first century BCE. It prospered in the Byzantine period (fifth to seventh centuries CE). The remains include three almost intact churches, houses, public squares, streets and doorways. As we wandered through, we could really feel that we were in a town. Wine presses sat out in the open, irrigation ditches showed signs that water still makes its way through at times, and shards of pottery littered the ground. Shivta was most likely abandoned in the eighth or ninth century, and it looks as though no one has really touched it since then.
We continued from Shivta to Kadesh Barnea, which abuts the fence with Egypt. The community was begun by Sinai evacuees around 1986, and its current residents are a mixture of hardcore Zionists and other idealists.
The locals are friendly and happy to see visitors. The neighborhood has a few attractions, including a beekeeper, a winery and greenhouses. Each of the producers had to overcome doubters and figure out ways to raise their crops in the desert.
Edward's bees live off eucalyptus, as well as some other flowers grown nearby. He's very knowledgeable about bees and their habits, and the myriad uses for honey.
Nira and Alon Tzadok are founding members of Kadesh Barnea, and came from the original settlement in Sinai before they were evacuated. About 13 years ago, Alon decided to plant his roots in the community, and began growing grapes. It was an experiment, and at first he failed in the desert climate with its brackish water. After some adjustments, the Tzadoks began to produce grapes. The Kadesh Barnea winery now produces about 30,000 bottles of wine per year.