Go south

A surprising array of activities and affordable lodgings make the western Negev an ideal vacation.

hammock in south 248.88 (photo credit: Ricky Ben-David)
hammock in south 248.88
(photo credit: Ricky Ben-David)
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.