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Letters from Israel

Our excellent adventure in the Negev

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Steve Leichman explores the Ein Avdat stream.

With the major exception of Eilat – the Red Sea beach resort at the southern tip of Israel – most people do not consider the Negev Desert a swinging vacation spot.

It’s not just that the summer heat is sweltering and the winter nights are bone-chilling. This vast expanse, covering more than half of Israel, houses less than 10 percent of its population. You can drive for miles without a break in the magnificent rocky landscape.

But there’s good reason why the Lonely Planet tour guide recommended the Negev as the No. 2 worldwide tourism destination for 2013. Scattered from Beersheva in the north to Eilat in the south are rare jewels, from boutique wineries, dairies, and family farms to crunchy eco-lodgings and awesome nature and historical sites.

Recently, my husband and I spent two nights in Mitzpeh Ramon, an hour’s drive south of Beersheva, where the world’s largest natural crater, the centerpiece of Israel’s largest national park, draws tourists from far and wide.

Last year, Conde Nast Traveler singled out the Beresheet resort in Mitzpeh Ramon as one of the world’s best new hotels. Built on the precipice, Beresheet looks like a high-end garden apartment complex. Its best suites have infinity pools that seem to spill into the heart-shaped, 25-mile-long, 1,640-foot-deep crater formed over millions of years by a weird geological process.

You learn all about that process in the recently renovated, impressively high-tech Visitors Center. (The self-guided tour is available in English.) The first part of the center is devoted to a multimedia exhibition on Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, who died in the 2003 Columbia space shuttle disaster.

There is no discernible connection between the crater and the man except for the common name, yet somehow this exhibition works beautifully. After viewing a movie ending with Ramon’s final video chat with his family, the curtains part, and you find yourself looking out a huge picture window over the natural wonder outside.

We did not go rappelling or jeeping in the crater, but since Mitzpeh Ramon is a prime location for stargazing, we took a nighttime sky tour with Ira “Star Man” Machefsky, who used to live in Englewood. (We wrote about him in the November 8 issue; see “From Englewood to the stars.”)

On the way down from our home north of Jerusalem, we stopped for a cup of lemongrass tea with Yoni Sharir, co-owner of Orliyya Farm. The farm’s 400 Moroccan argan trees produce nuts whose oil has exceptional healing and antiseptic qualities, as well as nutritional value. We bought a bottle for our son-in-law, a student of Chinese medicine, to use for massage.

We also hiked around Avdat National Park, one of four Negev UNESCO World Heritage sites. Avdat is situated on the 2,000-year-old Nabatean spice route, and contains the remains of Byzantine churches, Nabatean residences and farms, and one of Israel’s oldest wine presses. It felt strange to explore a site in Israel that has nothing to do with Jewish history.

But then there is Sde Boker, in some ways the cradle of modern Israeli civilization. It was here that first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion cast his lot with a hardy (and much younger) bunch of pioneering kibbutzniks in 1952. We happened to visit just weeks before ceremonies marking the 40th anniversary of his death.

The modest home (“The Hut”) shared by Ben-Gurion and his wife, Paula, is open to visitors, and an excellent animated film tells the story of Ben-Gurion’s dream that someday the Negev would be home to seven million Jews. We’re not quite there yet; today’s 700,000 Negev residents include both Jews and Bedouin Arabs. However, new communities are popping up constantly.

Sde Boker also houses the Ramat Hanegev Birding Center and the Sde Boker Winery, established by a native Californian in 1999. The winery, kosher since 2011, has a new visitors center and vineyards full of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Carignan, and Zinfandel grapes.

We hiked through the Ein Avdat canyon, where three springs feed several small rock pools sustaining numerous flora and fauna. We were lucky enough to see ibexes and convocations of eagles.

One day of our trip was devoted to Eilat. We gawked at brilliantly colored corals and tropical fish at Coral World, watched the daily shark feeding, and sat on the wharf at the Dolphin Reef, one of my favorite places. In a quick detour from nature, we also shopped at a local mall because I couldn’t resist the zero sales tax exclusive to Eilat.

Heading back, we drove through Timna, a national park on the ruins of a copper-mining operation from the time of King Solomon. Olive pits found at Timna were radiocarbon dated to the 10th century B.C.E.

Though the Negev is largely uninhabited, we could have spent many more days sightseeing. Maybe next time we’ll book a room at Zimmer Bus in Ezuz, a B&B near the Egyptian border that offers accommodations in renovated old buses.

Prospective visitors can look for helpful tourist info at Ramat Hanegev Regional Council’s website, http://rng.org.il/en/#.

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