Negev, Israel’s Largest Desert, Is a Gastronomic Oasis

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.

Virgin’s New Clubhouse Makes It (Almost) OK to Get to JFK Three Hours Early

Whoever said that hell is other people had clearly never been in an airport. It’s airports that are the real hell, whether they’re filled with other people or not (and they always are, too, crammed with a teeming crush of unwashed masses). Adding insult to injury, we have to spend seemingly ever-expanding amounts of time in these places, required to arrive an hour, then two, and now three before our international flights. And that’s before the invariable delay. No quantity of duty free Champagne and cigarettes will ever make that okay.

We can, however, take both some solace and reasonable refuge in airlines’ top-class lounges, which these days seem to be constantly increasing in quality and quantity.

One of the latest landings in this field is Virgin’s new Upper Class Clubhouse at New York’s JFK, where a fleet of one-of-a-kind amenities make up for the myriad indignities perpetrated against us by rubber-gloved TSA personnel and other huddled airport masses yearning to breathe free. Here, the top five reasons the Clubhouse makes an early airport arrival advisable.

Designer Drinks on the House: Cocktails make everything better, whether you’re a nervous flier, someone who needs to give their Ambien a little extra help or just a social alcoholic. The bar at the Clubhouse does dozens of specialty drinks, many designed just for the JFK location, not least of all the Virgin Redhead—a potable of muddled raspberries, cassis, framboise, fresh lemon juice and Bombay Sapphire Gin topped with prosecco.

Haute Pub Grub: Maybe you missed The Breslin during your time in town or the wait at the Spotted Pig was too long for you to grab some gastropub fare to go. Fear not. Virgin’s spun out some novel takes on elevated Anglo classics that might even make April Bloomfield take notice. (The company’s corporate chef, Mark Murphy, hails from Michelin-starred Ockendon Manor.) The Brooklyn Steak and Ale Pie has proven most popular so far. Traditionally English with a New York twist, it’s made with Brooklyn Ale, baked in an enamel pie dish and, in a nod to the old English nursery rhyme, pierced with a ceramic blackbird that stares up at you from the flakey crust. 

Swoon-Worthy Spa Services: We appreciate that air on planes is pressurized for our breathing pleasure, of course, but does it really have to be so dry? Even Virgin’s new Upper Class cabins haven’t managed to correct this problem, but the therapies created just for the JFK Clubhouse by Virgin and beauty brand Dr. Hauschka go a long way towards protecting your epidermis before you board. The perhaps-too-tweely-named “Radiant You” facial cleans, hydrates and and moisturizes in easy-to-manage express (15 minutes) or long (half hour) increments. You can book a treatment ahead of time, or just show up looking a mess and someone’s bound to take pity on you.

Blow Outs and Trim Ups: Virgin’s brought beloved brand Bumble and bumble to JFK as the only such salon in any Stateside lounge. Treatments here—the most popular combo includes a shampoo, hair treatment application and scalp massage—keep manes looking magnificent through even the most harrowing of transatlantic flights. (Otherwise, that dry plane air sucks the moisture out of your hair just as quickly as it does your skin.) 

Conversation Nooks and Canoodling Corners: The New York-based firm Slade Architecture designed the 10,000-square-foot Clubhouse not just to be a lounge but to encourage lounging everywhere you look. There’s a sunken conversation pit-style seating in one area, more business-friendly booths in others and, perhaps best of all, a sofa in the so-called “Entertainment Zone” that looks like it’s made entirely of Virgin-red leather softballs. To sit (or lie down) here is to receive the DIY back massage of your life. But don’t get too comfortable, or you just might miss your flight. And while Upper Class passengers are entitled to free Virgin-organized ground transportation to the airport, they don’t get it back home just because they dozed off during boarding.

American Invasion: Thompson Hotels Open The Belgraves in London

It doesn’t get much more British than Belgravia, the posher-than-posh London neighborhood where row upon row of cream-colored Georgian townhouses surround lovely green parks locked to anyone not landed-gentry enough to have a key and a double-barreled surname. Everyone seems like they should be called Gemma or Jemima or Jeeves, and they all look like they emerged from the womb in a Burberry trench, clutching a long black brolly instead of a rattle. None of them even has bad teeth.

Within the district, Montcomb Street, a particularly delicious crumpet on the tea trolley of delights that is Belgravia, is the kind of place that makes you (or at least me) wish to be British, achingly so. This petite row of winsome shops and eateries—Rococo Chocolates, nouveau gastropub The Pantechnicon, fashion designer Stewart Parvin (who holds a Royal Warrant from The Queen, herself) and a branch of the food-porn-y veggie-centric cafes from hot-shot chef Yotan Ottolenghi—fills daily with dapper gents in perfectly tailored suits speaking with clipped consonents into ever-present Blackberrys and women dressed so conservatively, they all look primed for their first day of work at Sotheby’s. (And I wonder: Are Londoners more attractive than New Yorkers, or am I just a hopeless Anglophile? Or is it just that the rich are always prettier, and in London, I somehow manage to only ever see the rich?)

Into all this comes The Belgraves, a months-old property from the American hotelier Thompson—you know it for L.A.’s Hollywood Roosevelt and New York’s 60 Thompson, among others—which renovated and moved into a mid-20th-century structure formerly known as Belgravia’s ugliest building. So what’s an American interloper doing in a place like this? Quite nicely, it turns out, quite nicely, indeed.

In large measure, this is due to the slightly irreverent work of bad-girl British decorator Tara Bernerd, a socialite turned designer who streaks her hair pink and here has created a blend of high and low English and American style, mixing uptown with down, punk panache with Savile Row swagger, Soho-style sandblasted brick with Scandinavian antiques and cushy chairs from designer David Linley—who also just happens to be The Queen’s nephew. Bernerd herself calls the look “rough luxury,” which sounds like an entirely paradoxical, and therefore perhaps rather American concept, while Thompson co-founder Jason Pomeranc points out that “our first hotel, 60 Thompson, was always ideologically based on the intimacy of British hotels. That’s something that’s always been an inspiration to our brand.  We wanted an Anglo-American fusion in terms of design, service and atmosphere.” 

For the Anglo element, Pomeranc turned to Bernerd, of course, but also to local starchef Mark Hix, who loaned not only his name and his skills to the hotel’s modern British lobbyside restaurant, but also his collection of canvases by YBAs (that’s Young British Artists) to the hotel’s walls. On the American end of things, there’s the stylized but still in-your-face American flag behind the check-in desk, as well as more subtle and comforting notes, like the bellmen in Levis, plaid shirts and Chelsea boots “rather than the typical top hat and tails you’d normally find in Belgravia,” notes the hotel’s American-born general manager Joseph Kirtley, who spent more than a decade with Morgans hotels in New York, Los Angeles and London before Thompson wooed him away to The Belgraves. “As an American brand, we were able to have a little bit of fun with it all.”

Upstairs, the fun continues, in the hotel’s 85 rooms and suites, all done in shades of platinum and grey, with rich (you might even say royal) aubergine and Bordeaux-colored velvet accents. It’s the ones on the park side of the building, and sitting on the hotel’s upper floors, that you’ll want to book, what with the tufted-velvet banquette alcoves built into their bay windows and the views up and over Belgravia’s mansard roofs. These extend out towards Buckingham Palace, Victoria, Green Park and Picadilly beyond, all of which are lovely places to visit, though you well may find yourself jonesing for the charms of Belgravia when you do. But don’t worry, Gemma and Jeeves will be waiting.