Go south

Tomato (photo credit: RICKY BEN-DAVID)
(photo credit: RICKY BEN-DAVID)
At Hama’arav Haragua, there are horses for petting and hammocks for lounging. The entrance to Armon Bahol resembles the entrance to a Moroccan market. Kesem Hamaga boasts a Japanese theme. Hanissim Shel Hachef is perfect for a very intimate experience. An armored playground in Sderot. Enjoying Uri Alon’s fruit. Homin pigeons carry people’s notes.
Charming cottages and suites for two (or the whole family), wine tastings, wide arrays of fresh cheeses and homemade jams, bike paths, jeep tours and horseback riding, open roads and vast patches of green.
Sound like a trip to the North? Try the South. The western Negev, to be more specific.
Plagued by years of bad press due to the regular Kassam rocket attacks upon the area, cities and towns in the ’Gaza Periphery,’ as it is more widely known, have experienced very little tourism, if any, and many small business have suffered accordingly.
However, on a recent trip to the Gaza periphery area hosted by ’Buying with love from Sderot and the Gaza Periphery,’ it became clear that despite the hardships, these communities have managed to build an impressive — if modest — tourist infrastructure that rivals the North, a popular spot for Israelis who look for a quick and inexpensive getaway destination.
The man behind the Buying with Love initiative, CEO Yossi Elad, says the aim is to ’drive business to the area. The support is needed after eight years of suffering. This is classic Zionism; Israeli society can do so much, it is capable of anything. Besides, there is so much to do and see here.’
So, really, what is there to do and see in an area too often directly associated with Kassams and mortar shells?
You’d be surprised.
Whether you are looking for an art tour, a two-day music festival, an organic and biological agriculture educational lecture for business or personal outings, lavish spa treatments and yoga sessions and/or Moroccan- style suites and Beduin-inspired tents, the area has it all — and for all ages.
During the day, if weather permits, there are a variety of activities and tours one can take. If you’re feeling outdoorsy, rent a bike from La Medavesh, located in Kibbutz Be’eri, and ride through one of the many bike paths which vary from beginner to professional, through the beautiful simultaneously green and dusty western Negev. Tours are available for two, in groups and even with a guide.
There are also riding ranches in the area where kids and adults alike can go horseback riding with an instructor through the cool desert hills.
If you’re more into agricultural tourism, there are a few farms you can visit for lectures and excellent sampling of the local produce. Dubbed the ’Salad Road,’ these farms are at the forefront of agricultural technology and most of their produce is exported to Europe due to its high quality, and hence higher prices.
At Moshav Yesha, agronome Uri Alon gives four-hour educational tours of the strawberry fields, tomato vines and citrus groves for NIS 45 per person, which includes tastes of the vegetables.
For a grand finale and to the delight of the kiddies, Alon introduces the dozen or so homing pigeons he uses on the farm. Visitors are invited to write their wishes and dreams, a la the Western Wall, on a tiny piece of paper which is then attached to a pigeon’s leg, after which all of the note-bearing pigeons are ceremoniously released. The pigeons eventually make their way home, one by one, with some taking weeks to get back. The only disconcerting part is that this man gets to read the notes, so don’t disclose anything if you’re planning a heist.
If you’re not against being tipsy before sundown, visit the Ben Shushan Winery in Kibbutz Bror Hayil for an excellent wine workshop, free of charge. The award-winning winery makes approximately 10,000 bottles a year which are sold mostly in wine boutiques for NIS 100 retail and NIS 70 wholesale. The winery also organizes events and workshops around the country, its most popular event being bachelor parties — complete with red wine and red meat for only NIS 100 per person. You’re on your own for getting over the hangover.
In the evening, due to the influx of young people from the nearby Sapir College in Sderot, there are a variety of ’old-fashioned’ pubs and bars to hang out in. And by old- fashioned, I mean the ones with cheap beer and bad music — but the intimate ambiance is a seller. These hangouts have become so popular that an annual music and art festival was established by some of these young entrepreneurs. The ’Indie Festival,’ In-D-Negev, is a two-day independent festival in Mitzpe Gvulot which takes place in late October and is a celebration of local art and music.
Sderot was our last stop, and sadly there is not much to do there except perhaps check out the ’war tourism,’ and that’s for the very brave. If you’re so inclined, the security people will take you up on a hill dubbed Givat Kobi after the first name of the head of security, from which you can see the border and the southern Gaza Strip neighborhoods of Beit Lahiya and Beit Hanun, cities from which Kassams rain down on Sderot. One thing is for sure: If you can see them, they can see you. Visitors are regaled with tales of daring infiltrations and dangerous pursuits. You can also be taken to the Kassam warehouse where the thousands of rockets come to rest. It’s shocking to see and rather eye-opening.
No matter what you’re into, the western Negev has a lot more to offer than most people know. As long as there is a cease-fire, and even without one if you are feeling very supportive or particularly daring, go ahead and ditch the crowds up North and head down South, where you’ll find some of the most beautiful scenery Israel has to offer and Israelis living a lifestyle that won’t make you miss the big cities.
Places to stay
Promoted as more affordable, more intimate, closer to the center and with less traffic jams than the North, the western Negev boasts its own version of Israeli hospitality, complete with some of Israel’s most beautiful scenery and quiet, out-of-the-way places. Depending on your budget and aesthetic inclination, there are a variety of tzimmerim (guest houses) to choose from; some accommodate couples only, and some provide room, board and activities for the whole family.
Our first visit was to Kesem Hamaga (The Magic of Touch), a spa and resort in Moshav Talmei Yosef that offers relaxing spa treatments — including facials and a variety of massages (prices range between NIS 220 and NIS 300 per hour, NIS 400 for tandem) — alongside two beautifully decorated cottages. For NIS 400 per couple per night during the week and NIS 500 per couple per night during the weekends (not including breakfast, priced at NIS 100 per person), guests are greeted with wine, coffee and cake in a minimalist and meticulous Japanese-style house. The bathroom includes a Jacuzzi, and there is a dining area and separate bedroom. Breakfast is served on the porch and comes in a basket filled with various cheeses, olives, croissants, fresh bread, fruit, juice and coffee. In the spa, soothing Japanese music plays softly, and the decor is, again, minimal and clean with no overwhelming colors or odors and an emphasis on the use of smooth stones and water.
_ If you prefer the charms of the Middle East over the Far East, Armon Bahol (Castle in the Sand) is a Moroccan heaven. With six suites including one with handicapped facilities, and each with access to a private garden, a large air-conditioned Moroccan tent where guests eat breakfast and a vast courtyard, these grounds would put the hottest villa in Casablanca to shame. Almost all the furniture and decor is imported and the designers and owners, Shlomo and Hiniya Madar, stayed faithful to true Moroccan interior design — right down to the colorful mosaic bathroom and kitchen sinks. Armon Bahol would make a great place for a small henna party. And for NIS 700 per couple per night on weekends and NIS 650 during the week, you can even sleep on Egyptian cotton sheets with a high four-digit thread count.
_ For a more child-friendly stay, Hama’arav Ha’ragua (The Calm West), also in Moshav Talmei Yosef, offers a horse ranch where the horses are not against being petted, a covered outdoor pool and a variety of board games and toys are on hand. There is even a large hammock in the courtyard I imagine many children fight over. The owners, Anat and Ilan Turjeman, former Tel Avivians, built the whole place, including the three cottages, their own house and the horse ranch themselves, which took them six years. The cottages all have a wooden structure and can accommodate up to six people. Dogs are also welcome and facilities to house horses are available, should one choose to arrive by pure horsepower. The Turjemans charge NIS 350 per couple per night during the week and NIS 500 during the weekend and NIS 80 per child. Breakfast is an additional NIS 100 per couple and NIS 30 per child; it is prepared by Anat, who serves homemade cheeses, jams, olives and bread. The grounds also have a Beduin tent, which serves as a sort of lobby where the Turjemans’ guests can hang out and chat.
_ For a much more intimate experience, Hanissim Shel Hachef (The Chef’s Miracles), owned by Nissim and Shosh Magiya, offers just one guest house. It is beautifully laid out, complete with Jacuzzi and decorated with scented candles and soap and where guests are greeted with light refreshments. This place is not for children as the suite’s kitchenette, bed and Jacuzzi are all in a shared area. If the name didn’t tip you off, Nissim is also a chef and in addition to offering a guest house for NIS 500 per night on weekends and NIS 450 per night on weekdays including breakfast, for another NIS 130 guests are treated to a three-course dinner in Nissim and Shosh’s ’restaurant’ — which is basically an extra bedroom inside their house in which they placed three tables and 12 chairs. It is charming, but you would have to be in the mood for company other than your partner; this couple loves to entertain... and talk.
The details
Kesem Hamaga
Moshav Talmei Yosef, (08) 998-5028 or054-666-8882
[email protected]
Hama’arav Haragua
Moshav Talmei Yosef, 050-434-4340
[email protected]
Armon Bahol
Moshav Ein Habesor, Rehov Aguda 6
(08) 998-5039 or 054-313-3840
www.weekend.co.il/ negev/
Hanisim Shel Hachef
(08) 998-2379  or 052-432-9599
[email protected]
La Medavesh
Kibbutz Be’eri
[email protected]
www.la-medavesh.co.il/ menu.htm?page=http://
Ben Shushan Winery
(08) 680-3321
Givat Kobi
Rabin Neighborhood
West Sderot, Adjacent to Route 34