By Avigayil Kadesh
“For decades, the Negev was regarded as nothing but a desolate desert. But today, this region is a giant greenhouse of development. Think eco-villages, spa resorts and even wineries,” Lonely Planet explained. Yet it remains, above all, a sparsely populated desert offering visitors a rare glimpse of landscape and wildlife.
The Negev consists of several distinct regions: the Beersheva-Arad Rift in the north, the mountain ridge in the center, and the Arava Rift Valley and Eilat in the south.
One way to get an overview of this expanse is a helicopter tour. Six different routes are offered by CN Airways leaving from Tel Aviv. But it’s more common to hire a jeep driver-guide to get the lay of the land in each region. The Negev is dotted with hotels, guest lodges, Bedouin-style accommodations, eco-huts and khans (a traditional desert inn).
Hotels in both the budget and luxury range are more plentiful in the resort city of Eilat at the southern tip, but they’re popping up elsewhere, too. The Beresheet leisure resort in Mitzpeh Ramon was named one of the world’s 121 best new hotels by Conde Nast Traveler for 2012.
The new luxury Beresheet Hotel at Mitzpeh Ramon. Photo by Assaf Pinchuk
The Ramon Crater
Beresheet is positioned on the edge of the Ramon crater (“machtesh” in Hebrew), 800 meters above sea level. At 28 miles long and five miles wide, the Ramon crater is the largest of the Negev’s unique canyons formed not from asteroids or earthquakes but from extreme erosion. It is the biggest natural crater on Earth.
Ramon Crater National Park. Photo by Doron Nissim/INPA
Tourists to Mitzpeh Ramon can get guided walking or open-jeep tours of the crater, and can learn about its geology inside the Mitzpeh Ramon Observatory.
Silent Arrow Desert Lodge
, a few steps from the canyon, offers tents and a campsite, as well as astronomy and archery workshops, jeep and camel tours.
Many Mitzpeh Ramon visitors simply prefer to rent gear and spend the night camping in the crater for an after-dark encounter with wildlife, from gazelles to desert hedgehogs.
You can visit many other creatures in the southeast Negev at Hai-Bar Yotvata Nature Reserve
, a few miles north of Eilat. It specializes in breeding animals mentioned in the Bible and other endangered desert species.
Spices and wines
Not far north of Mitzpeh Ramon is Avdat National Park
, which contains reconstructions from the ancient Nabatean city of Avdat (also spelled Ovdat), named after the Nabatean king Oboda (30-9 BCE).
The Nabateans were famous for establishing the “Spice Road” traversed by caravans of camels bearing spices, perfumes and salt from Arabian lands to Mediterranean port cities. Avdat was one of a few rest stops along the way that have been declared UNESCO World Heritage sites in modern times.
Nabatean Spice Route in Avdat
Not only was there a Spice Road but also a Wine Route. Evidence of ancient grape presses in the Negev has encouraged the establishment of several boutique wineries mainly in the north and center of the desert.
Rajum, on the Tzel HaMidbar Ranch at Mitzpeh Ramon, was founded in 2008 and produces wines named for the surrounding Negev mountains from Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz and Pinot Noir grapes.
Carmey Avdat, a family farm whose vineyards are nourished via 1,500-year-old Nabatean water terraces, also has guest cabins and a gallery promoting local artists. You can buy fresh produce here, too.
Nahal Boker Farm
, which has a terraced vineyard and winery, doubles as a bed-and-breakfast offering lodges, cabins, tents and a khan.
Roots in Sde Boker
Israeli settlement of the Negev began about 100 years ago. In 1953, the new country’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, put down stakes at Kibbutz Sde Boker – about 20 minutes north of Mitzpeh Ramon and Avdat – to encourage others to help make the desert bloom. He and his wife, Paula, are buried there.
Visitors to Sde Boker can tour Ben-Gurion’s archives and personal library, as well as early national documents. Midreshet Ben Gurion, a research institute south of the kibbutz, is a major center of desert research attracting educators and researchers from around the world.
The Ramat Hanegev Birding Center
in Sde Boker welcomes thousands of visitors from dozens of countries. Some 72 species pass through the center on their migration routes to and from Africa and Europe.
In 1999, Sde Boker winery
was established to take advantage of the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Carignan and Zinfandel grapes grown at Sde Boker. Run by California native Zvi Remick, the winery opened a visitor’s center several years ago.
To the east of Sde Boker is the site of Shivta, a Nabatean and Christian city preserved by the Israel Nature & Parks Authority. Here you’ll find the modern Shivta Farm, a restaurant and bed & breakfast accommodations.
Eco-accommodations and tourist sites
The Negev has become a world-renowned center for research in desert agriculture and methods for fighting desertification. Because of its vast expanses, it is also a logical place to site wind- and solar-energy fields. Arava Power Company’s Ketura Sun
, built on Kibbutz Ketura in the Arava Rift Valley north of Eilat, is the first commercial solar field in the Middle East.
Ketura Sun, the Middle East’s first commercial solar field
The Solar Energy Park in Nitzana, in the central Negev on the border with Egypt, has a series of exhibits showing how the power of the sun is harnessed in the desert.
Also in the eastern Negev is Khan Be'erotayim
, a desert inn built from local materials, selling desert-grown products and offering camel and bike tours.
Succah in the Desert
, situated near Mitzpeh Ramon, offers biblical-style guest huts with solar-powered lighting. Mackman Dunes, a new eco-farm and recreation resort featuring mud huts in the sand, is in the northeast Negev.
Desert Days eco-lodge
in the Arava Valley consists of a khan plus nine huts built from homemade mud bricks, straw and mud plaster. Each has a composting toilet and private yard for campfires.
Then there is Zimmerbus
, a bed-and-breakfast on a Negev hilltop created from old buses. A French publication named Zimmerbus as one of the 1,001 unique places to stay in the world.
Of an estimated 160,000-170,000 semi-nomadic Bedouin Muslims in Israel, about 110,000 live in the Negev. Many are in the tourism business, offering tent lodgings (such as Ship of the Desert Khan), 4x4 tours, camel rides and desert-sourced products.
in Lakiya, an initiative to help Bedouin women earn a livelihood from traditional crafts, sells handmade jewelry, clothing, wall hangings, purses and other items and also serves traditional Bedouin fare.
, another business founded by Bedouin women from the village of Lakiya, sells carpets and cushions made from spun camel, goat and sheep wool.
Bedouin weavers in Lakiya
New on the scene is Desert Daughter
, on the outskirts of Tel Sheva in the northern Negev, which makes and sells cosmetics and skin-care products based on traditional Bedouin recipes using local plant extracts.
Every Thursday since 1905, a Bedouin market is set up in the northern Negev city of Beersheva. Bedouin tradesmen come from the neighboring villages to sell copper wares, glassware, jewelry, woven rugs, clothing, footwear and foods.
The two largest cities in the Negev sit at its northern and southern edges. Beersheva
, the unofficial capital of the Negev, is the seat of Ben-Gurion University and the Soroka Medical Center.
Once the home of the biblical patriarchs, modern-day Beersheva was built by the Ottomans. The old Governor’s House, constructed in 1906, houses the Negev Museum of Art. Other tourist sites are a 1906-era mosque, the Turkish railway station built during the First World War, a public garden and a zoo.
New projects in Beersheva include the unique urban Round Be’er Sheva Trail for hiking and biking, and the Beersheba River Walk, a 900-acre riverfront district with green spaces, hiking trails, boating lake filled with recycled waste water, promenades, restaurants, galleries, playgrounds and performance spaces.
The city is soon to get four new shopping malls. The largest is ecologically designed with pools for collecting rainwater and solar panels to power the lighting. An enclosed Farmers Market, surrounded by parks, is also planned as is a new glass-enclosed central bus station.
Eilat is a major resort on the banks of the Red Sea. Tourists have their pick of more than 50 hotels, from super-luxury to youth hostels. The most popular activities in Eilat are snorkeling and scuba diving, and its main tourist attractions include the Dolphin Reef and the Coral World Underwater Observatory.
A view of Eilat. Photo courtesy of Eilat Tourist Bureau
Already popular with Israeli and European vacationers, Eilat will soon become easier to access when a new international airport
is completed at Timna 15 miles to the north. Timna is a destination unto itself, with a national park where tourists can explore the world’s oldest copper mines in a stunning natural setting.