Between the crater and the lake and under the stars

Yeroham turns to tourism to help turn the town around.

Colorful sand in the Large Crater (photo credit: OR ALEXENBERG)
Colorful sand in the Large Crater
(photo credit: OR ALEXENBERG)
On August 12 every year, Mother Nature puts on an amazing show.
Meteors rain through the sky as our planet’s orbit passes through that of the Swift-Tuttle Comet. As cosmic debris from the comet’s tail falls toward Earth and enters our atmosphere, the tiny particles burn up, creating the brilliant phenomenon we call shooting stars.
For this reason, every summer on this date, thousands of Israelis descend on the Negev Desert, where the lack of city lights and the blackness of the sky create ideal conditions for spotting these falling stars.
Most descend on Mitzpe Ramon, where amateur astronomers set up telescopes on a field adjacent to the Spice Route Quarter and invite visitors to check out our galaxy while awaiting midnight, when the frequency of the descending meteors increases.
Fortunately for English speakers, Ira Machefsky, “the Starman,” is also on hand.
With his powerful telescope and laser pointer trained on celestial bodies, the American immigrant unravels their mysteries to eager listeners. Always entertaining, this year-round “guide to the heavens” is in his element at this annual Perseid’s Meteor Shower Star Party, holding hourly free lotteries with actual meteorite fragments as prizes. The festival atmosphere begins early in the evening and continues throughout the night.
For those who prefer smaller (or no) crowds, the conditions for stargazing are equally favorable at other spots in the Negev as well, such as the Large Crater just outside Yeroham. It was a lot easier to find a hotel room here as well. In fact, it was an opportunity to discover a new star in the Negev highland’s lodging constellation.
A clear indication that Yeroham is serious about capitalizing on its tourism potential is the Desert Iris Hotel, a boutique hotel with four-star aspirations unlike any other you are likely to encounter in what is considered Israel’s “periphery.” An ambitious joint project of the Yeroham Development Authority and private investors, the developers have transformed the former corporate offices of Israel Chemicals into an impressive property comprising mainly garden-terrace suites.
Virtually all the hotel’s guest rooms (40 out of 47) are suites, and each one can sleep up to four. The queen-size bed in the master bedroom is luxuriously comfortable, with a plush duvet. The bathrooms are lavishly designed, with shower stalls featuring multiple shower heads and an array of Dead Sea mineral toiletries. There is a coffee and tea station in the suite plus mini-refrigerator and a work area. And the in-room safe is large enough to accommodate laptops.
Every room has a 32-inch LCD TV with several cable channels. One feature at the Desert Iris that I have not encountered anywhere else in Israel is a closed-circuit channel on the TV set that monitors the hotel’s well-equipped children’s playroom.
Adults have access to a fitness room that boasts the latest Nautilus equipment, while everyone can enjoy the swimming pool (with separate kiddie pool) and poolside lounge chairs.
Free Wi-Fi extends to all units and common areas, and there are two computers available for guest use. The complimentary breakfast buffet is up to big-city standards, with plenty of hot dishes and an omelet station.
For guests who want additional luxury and amenities, there are two Exclusive Suites in an adults-only wing.
The hotel has two dining areas. One serves buffet-style meat meals at lunch and dinner times, and the other is a dairy cafecum- bar in the lobby, with adjacent alfresco tables. The lunch and dinner buffets are not quite up to the standards of breakfast, but even here, Yeroham has you covered.
Another initiative of the town is Hamevashlot. Dubbed the “culinary queens,” they are hostesses who serve delicious home-cooked feasts in their homes (for example, Shula’s delectable cigars are stellar). Authentic ethnic cuisine is on offer, mostly Moroccan and Tunisian, although Indian is in the works, and possibly Persian and Russian. The lavish spreads are accompanied by personal stories of life that harks back to the bleak days of Yeroham’s early history as a ma’abara. (The classic Israeli movie around this theme, Turn Left at the End of the World, has its roots here and in neighboring Dimona.) Now, more than 60 years since its inauspicious founding, Yeroham looks like it might be starting to turn things around. Where soulless, desolate barracks once housed disconsolate immigrants, a new neighborhood of villas is under construction.
“Yeroham has a population of only 10,000,” says Deborah Goldman Golan, co-founder and director of Atid Bamidbar, a local nonprofit organization dedicated to building community cohesiveness, “but 100,000 people have lived here at one time or another. That means that for every one person who lives here, nine have come and gone. But for two years in a row now, Yeroham has seen a net increase in immigration.
For the first time in its history, more people have stayed than left.”
Golan, a Chicago native, credits Amram Mitzna with infusing much of the new energy. The dynamic former mayor of Haifa who was put in charge of Yeroham by the Interior Ministry, Mitzna was also instrumental in forging a productive partnership between Yeroham and the Jewish Federation of Miami.
Atid Bamidbar, which also conducts experiential educational tours for groups from North America, has a full-time director of tourism. Former kibbutznik Shai Ben-Tal is intent on developing the two attractions that are the cornerstones of Yeroham’s tourism infrastructure.
At the city’s eastern entrance lies Lake Yeroham, an artificial lake created from ancient springs that date back to biblical times. According to legend, the remains of a well here was the water source that an angel revealed to Abraham’s concubine Hagar as she and her son Ishmael lay dying of thirst after being evicted by Sarah.
Fast forward four millennia, and the lake, Yeroham’s “green lung,” is a popular recreation area for fishing, hiking, camping and more. The Yerohan is a giant tent that is rented out to visiting groups, some of whom participate in outdoor training (ODT) programs designed to teach cooperation and leadership skills.
In addition, a bicycle center rents all kinds of bicycles – from mountain bikes to tricycles – for individuals and families to use on the miles of bicycle trails. And because the lake is a vital stop for many species of birds on their long migrations between Europe and Africa, an active birding center operates here. The Hoopoe Center for Ecology and Ornithology has also developed some fascinating after-dark nature programs.
There are night safaris using infra-red lights to search out nocturnal animals. And a unique expedition called The Dance of the Scorpions offers an intriguing glimpse into the lives of those venomous creatures.
Just to the west of Yeroham lies the Large Crater, one of a trio (along with the Small Crater and the Ramon Crater) representing this distinctive geological phenomenon in the Negev. The highlight of a visit here is a walk through the Colored Sands, an area distinguished by its multi-colored sands, from mustard yellow to snow white to reddish purple. A popular pastime is creating one’s own sand sculpture in a bottle. ■
The writer was a guest of the Desert Iris Hotel.