For those drawn to desert sands, there is nothing like the Negev—Israel’s southern region, which stretches from Be’er Sheva in the north to the Gulf of Aqaba and the resort city of Eilat in the south. Between development towns, small Bedouin cities, and several kibbutzim (including Sde Boker, which became David Ben-Gurion’s retirement home), the Negev is a vast, arid expanse full of surprises.
For much of Israel’s existence, the Negev was seen as a desolate expanse, frozen in time with little to offer. In recent years, however, the region has enjoyed something of a boom and has become a popular vacation destination. In 2013, Lonely Planet put it at No. 2 on its list of regions worth a visit.
Here are a few options for unlocking the best that the Negev has to offer:
The Adventurous Option: Deep Desert Israel
If you are excited by the idea rappelling in the Ramon Crater, Deep Desert Israel is the organization for you. Offering private desert activities with expert local guides, it has plenty of adventurous (and less adventurous) options for you, all surrounded by breathtaking scenery. It also offers jeep tours (beginning from Sde Boker or the Ramon Crater, you can undertake an expedition of several days or return to your hotel for the night), hiking trips (from a few hours’ walk to a week-long trek), outdoor yoga workshops, and stargazing.
The Rejuvenating Option: Fountain of Youth
If tranquility and relaxation are what you’re looking for, the Fountain of Youth ranch in Ramat Negev is the place for you. This family ranch was founded in 2004 by the Klingers, former city dwellers who moved to the desert to get away from it all. You can rent one of two secluded cabins—designed for couples—enjoy a man-made lake, pet the wild horses that roam the property, take a walk in the olive groves, or order a private massage in your cabin. According to the owners, distinguished local celebrities such as writers Meir Shalev and Amos Oz, as well as the late Shimon Peres, have stayed there to soak in the quiet and find inspiration.
The Wildlife Option: The Alpaca Farm
The Negev offers quite a few possibilities for animal lovers, but the most amusing, original, and surprising is perhaps the Alpaca Farm near Mitzpe Ramon. On a trip to the Andes Mountains in South America, the Dvir family fell in love with the charming llamas and alpacas, acquired a whole herd, and brought it home to Israel. They then searched for a suitable place for the animals and happened upon the Negev highlands. In addition to llamas and alpacas, the farm raises horses, donkeys, angora sheep, and other animals. They produce wool and welcome visitors, who can walk around, hand feed the animals, hear about the alpacas’ journey to Israel, take horseback rides, let the kids ride the llamas, and more.
The Connoisseur’s Option: Rota Winery
Grape vines have flourished in the Negev since the days of antiquity. Nowadays, there are vineyards in the northern Negev hills, which use computerized irrigation systems. In 2004, Erez Rota, a winemaker and artist, established his eponymous farm and winery near Kibbutz Revivim. Rota’s winery offers tours and tastings as well as a tour of his sculpture garden. Accommodations include a khan that can sleep up to 30 or a cabin suitable for couples and families.
The Green Option: Nitzana Educational Community
Established with the assistance of the Jewish Agency in 1986, the Nitzana Educational Community is a center for cooperation in fields such as ecology, water conservation, solar energy, and desert agriculture. Dedicated to promoting ecological well-being and sustainability—and a self-described “oasis of life in the desert”—it offers various types of accommodation (guest apartments, a youth hostel, Bedouin tents) and a dining hall. Tourists and visitors can stay at the center and explore the area on their own or avail themselves of one of the many tours the place has to offer.