Desert getaway

A breath of fresh air in Mitzpe Ramon.

buggy horse 88 298 (photo credit: Ofer Zemach)
buggy horse 88 298
(photo credit: Ofer Zemach)
On a trip to the Negev Highlands we explored a magnificent area rich in history, ancient cultures, deep canyons and attractions for the whole family. But just make sure to bring your sunscreen. Driving along road #40 south of Beersheba toward Eilat, the traffic dramatically lightens and you might find yourself alone on the road. The stunning beauty of the desert gradually envelops you in a calmness fitting the silence and rhythm of the area. After we passed Nitzana Junction, we followed the signs to Ezuz, a small village in the western Negev close to the Egyptian border, and on a dirt path we continued to Khan Be'erotayim, where we spent the night. We arrived at this desert-style guest house just before dusk, something that enabled us to get acquainted with this lantern-lit oasis. Be'erotayim is clean and comfortable, offering cozy evenings around the fire sipping Beduin-style tea and coffee under the clear skies. But don't expect a Jacuzzi or sauna; guests sleep on mattresses in rustic rooms made of mud and share communal bathrooms with hot water. An authentic Beduin meal including pita bread, salads and rice awaited us in the central hut where we dined while lounging on mattresses and straw mats. For those with more refined tastes, other types of accommodation including private bathrooms, air-conditioning and other facilities are available in surrounding areas. The next morning, after a healthy breakfast, we met with Eyal Hirshfeld, a local guide from Ezuz, who took us in his jeep on a fascinating tour through the wide open spaces around the foothills of the Negev Highlands. Eyal has an excellent knowledge of biblical archeology and the history of the area, which is full of wildlife such as gazelles, porcupines and foxes and boasts special medicinal and useful plants. From the Khan in Be'erotayim (which is named after two ancient wells), we drove along the Egyptian border to Nitzana Hillocks, where the formations of the rocks are evidence of the ocean that covered the Negev millions of years ago. We continued our trail by crossing the blazing dunes of Nitzana and Halutza, then stopped for a short break at the Bar-Lev lookout in Kadesh Barnea. From there we drove through the dry riverbed of Nahal Lavan to a gigantic natural water reservoir revealed at the end of the river. Back on the road to Ezuz, we stopped for lunch at the agricultural settlement of Kmehin. Dutch-born Jennifer runs The Mill, a lovely little restaurant where she serves traditional Dutch-style dishes with Mediterranean accents. The eatery is decorated like a typical Dutch home, and reproductions of Rembrandt and Van Gogh paintings and blue Delft tiles adorn the walls. We didn't spot any other eateries in the area, but the food dished up at The Mill can easily compete with the menu offered at many Tel Aviv restaurants. After an hour's drive, we arrived at Mitzpe Ramon, which is literally and figuratively a breath of fresh air. Located 900 meters above sea level on the rim of the Ramon Crater, Mitzpe Ramon is the center for desert tourism in Israel and an ideal starting point for desert trails. From horseback riding to jeep tours, bike trails to family walks, many outdoor activities await visitors in this lesser known region. As far as accommodation is concerned, there are numerous facilities available, such as hotels, guest houses and self-service units. We chose to stay at the Ramon Inn hotel, part of the Isrotel chain. From the outside, it looked similar to any of the apartment buildings in the neighborhood, but when we walked in we found a charming place where guests were relaxing by the swimming pool, savoring excellent cooking and enjoying unconditional hospitality. Soon, we found that one of the biggest treasures of the area is the people, who are naturally warm and friendly and offer visitors everything from accommodations to tours. As if we didn't have enough motor activity during the day, we tried an exceptional ride in all-terrain buggy vehicles to get rid of any extra adrenalin. French-born Stephan from Guide Horizon took us on a challenging adventure where we explored the beautiful area of the Ramon Crater and discovered the magic of the desert riding these monster cars. For those who wish to try new attractions and a two-day tour including meals and camping in the Ramon Crater, this is a great option to enjoy the desert. It is also possible to enjoy high-standard fully-equipped cabins at the headquarters of the Guide Horizon. The next day we visited the town's spice route quarter, where a group of young local artists have taken over the old industrial hangars and offer their original handicraft. This is not to be missed: From fashion design to pottery, jewelry, furniture and even cosmetics and aromatic soaps, the place is very unique and worth a visit. A few minutes' drive from the spice route quarter, the Alpaca Farm is located in the heart of an unspoiled section of the Negev Highland. This is one of the only alpaca farms in the world. Over 600 exotic alpacas and llamas are raised here, and the entire process of raising them and spinning their wool can be observed. A variety of activities are offered at the farm, and as we experienced, feeding an alpaca or riding a llama can be an exciting adventure for children. For the grown-ups, horseback riding in the beautiful desert along the Ramon Crater's rim is an experience to be remembered. A number of high-level B&B cabins overlooking the farm are also available. Another unique experience awaits in the Desert Archery Park where the equipment has been modified to fit desert terrain. The challenging game is suitable for all ages - and is safe. On a 1-4 km. course (depends how hot the weather is), this is the only place in the world where you can enjoy a game of archery while hiking in natural desert terrain. On the road back, after spending a peaceful yet exciting weekend surrounded by marvelous open spaces, the only thing we were thinking was that we need to go again. Soon.