Now that Tel Aviv has become a required stop on every in-the-know urbaniste’s globe- spanning itinerary, the question arises: What to do after you’ve had your fill of the city’s ever-evolving (and easily exhausting) all-day and all-night social scene? Here’s what: You make like Israel’s founder and first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and head for the Negev, the nearly 5,000-square-mile desert that comprises the country’s southern half.
When Ben-Gurion first left office, he decamped for this arid, largely undeveloped but compellingly beautiful expanse, dreaming of an agrarian future in which the people of Israel would “make the desert bloom,” a wish he wrote about in a famous 1954 New York Times Magazine essay. Now, more than half a century later, his vision has increasingly become a reality, with intrepid Israelis finding new ways to develop thriving desert oases, not only of agriculture but of adventure and hospitality, too.
The biggest news in the Negev is the Isrotel hotel group’s Beresheet, which opened in April on the edge of the Ramon Crater—Israel’s Grand Canyon—about a two–hour drive from Tel Aviv. Something of an Israeli version of the new Aman resorts in Utah and Turkey, the 111-room Beresheet perches on a 12-acre expanse of scorched earth, a series of rustic-chic local-stone bungalows, all smartly appointed and many with their own plunge pools, arranged around a central courtyard, pool, restaurant, and spa. The restaurant proves a garden of Middle Eastern delights; its daily buffet is a cornucopia of chickpea-dotted humus, smokey baba ghanoush, creamy labneh, in-season vegetable salads, fresh breads and more. The spa, meanwhile, Moroccan- tinged in design and with a white-marble Hammam, takes its menu from Isrotel’s beloved Carmel Forest Spa Resort in the country’s north. Service kinks and growing pains aside, there’s no more luxurious place to use as a base for explorations of the region.
These explorations can be myriad, and the hotel should be able to help you arrange many of them—from bike, horse, and Jeep rides through the crater, to hot air balloon rides over it, and rappelling routes down its sides. For culinary adventure, there’s Chez Eugene, another recently opened spot, this one a restaurant with six mod suites in a former industrial hanger. Started by a French expat who fell in love with the region and decided to open a European-style auberge, Eugene boasts a chef trained at Copenhagen’s Noma, one of modern gastronomy’s holy grails, who spins out seasonal Mediterranean fare from the desert’s surprising bounty.
And there is much produced on this seemingly barren land: barramundi from fish ponds at local kibbutzes; cheeses hard and soft from dairies like the Kornmehl Goat Cheese Farm, which can be visited for tours and tastings; wines and fresh-fruit preserves from wineries like Carmey Avdat Farm, whose grapes grow in Byzantine vineyards originally planted 1,500 years ago. (The property also has a few haute camping-style cabins for those looking for an agrotourism experience.)
One of the best ways to explore the area is by bike, and several touring outfits have sprung up over the last few years as cycling has grown more popular and trails have expanded. Among the best is Geofun, based in Sde Boker (where Ben-Gurion lived out his retirement) and with a new satellite shop at Beresheet. Owner Asaf Amichai and his team lead jaunts that very in length and skill level, from four-day trips that take you on a regional wine tour, to seven-day treks through the mountains. There are shorter day-and hours-long rides, too, many of them on single-lane trails that were once camel paths, a boon to novice cyclists since those beasts of burden can only walk on relatively gentle slopes.
From camels to entrepreneurs to tourism—it’s a progression that would have made Ben-Gurion proud.