It wasn’t long after the dusty desert town of Mitzpe Ramon was established in 1951 as a camp for workers building the highway to Eilat that the city in the sticks was somewhat forgotten, bypassed by the very road that its residents had labored on.
It took another 40 or so years for the rejuvenation of this Negev hamlet, which sits on the edge of a 38-kilometer-long crater or makhtesh – as the geological landform that forms one edge of Mitzpe Ramon is called.
Its popularity is not surprising given the astounding magnificence of the red-rimmed crater, as well as the nearby artisanal cheese makers, boutique wineries and historical sites nearby, elsewhere in the Negev Desert (think forefather Abraham and founding father David Ben-Gurion), and a thriving arts scene in the town itself.
There’s still a strong sense of being in the middle of nowhere, particularly when highway signs warn drivers about firing zones and camel crossings. But in the case of Mitzpe and its neighbors in the Ramat HaNegev region, an unusual cast of characters has propelled the area into a standout destination for visiting Israelis and tourists. Now that all those details are in place, it’s time to plan a trip to Mitzpe.
10 a.m., time to imbibe: After an easy 2-2.5 hour drive from the center of the country, enter into vacation mode with a first stop at the Rota Winery (just north of Kibbutz Revivim on Road 222, off Route 40, kosher). Erez Rota belongs to the aforementioned cast of Negev characters, albeit as a relative newcomer after years spent working and living as an artist in Tel Aviv. A short ride on an unpaved road and then a left at one of Rota’s iconic statues brings visitors to the farm where he makes his organic wines (the Yael — a Cabernet and Merlot blend — is a delightfully light red available right now), served with cheeses from surrounding farms. Rota readily offers tours of his farm and his unusual art installations of metal sculptures and deserted television sets, and there’s also room and board available, either in a simply decorated trailer/cabin (which includes his considerable collection of 60s-era albums and a family-size bathtub), or in the larger tent for groups.
12 p.m., soak it up: It could be time to stop at Neve Midbar, a mineral water health spa featuring several adjoining pools of natural thermal bath waters (located on Route 222 off Route 40). Popular with tour groups, spa-loving Russians and army platoons on a day off, it’s a fun way to spend an afternoon, whether or not you choose to spend another couple of hundred shekels on one of the spa treatments that are not included in the entry fee (NIS 70 per adult on weekdays, NIS 80 on weekends). There’s a coffee bar and cafeteria as well (kosher), and private groups can request a separate dining room upstairs, where a catered meal can be ordered ahead of time.
1 p.m., lunchtime: We didn’t lunch at Neve Midbar, knowing our options on the road ahead. One choice was the Neot Smadar goat farm (Route 40), where you can pick up an impromptu picnic from the wide variety of cheeses and yogurts made from the milk of its herd of 150-plus goats, or dine at Pundak Neot Smadar, a café and shop (kosher) that serves and carries all the organic products grown and made on the kibbutz. We opted to continue on to the Kornmehl Farm (Route 40), a more rustic outpost located on a windblown hill. It was established 18 years ago by Daniel and Anat Kornmehl, two agriculturalists currently on a yearlong sabbatical with their four kids in Australia, where they’re educating Aussies on the wonders of hard goat’s cheeses. In the meantime, a kibbutznik friend is taking care of the 650-dunam spread, which includes the Kornmehl restaurant, a completely charming café perched below their house and goat pen, housed in a former railroad car with ample outside space overlooking the nearby hills. The Kornmehls don’t offer a huge selection of their cheeses, which are interpretations of French varieties; we tasted a four-month Edna, a seven-month Tom and a two-year Adi, as well as an achingly fresh, salty feta, but the menu is considerable (prices range from NIS 18 for a bowl of yogurt soup to NIS 64 for a cheese platter, kosher), with goat’s cheese savory pies, pizza, crostini and salads, as well as a lovely cheesecake served with an apple-wine sauce that was well worth the calories.
3 p.m., a temporary home in the desert: We were headed for the still-new Beresheet Hotel in Mitzpe for the night, but there are many hotel and tzimmer (guesthouse) options in the area, ranging from high-end to comfortably clean and mid-range to eco-tourism or camping. One great possibility in the area is Mashabim in Kibbutz Mashabei Sade, where there is a large cluster of spacious, clean, well-priced rooms that are great for families and groups (they recommend checking the website for updated prices, although a family room for three with breakfast currently runs at NIS 650). There are both newer and older rooms, all spotless if simple in design. One important detail to note is the fresh white cotton linens and downy white duvet covers; none of those scratchy sheets and blankets that can ruin a night’s rest. There are both indoor and outdoor pools, meals available at the kibbutz dining hall (kosher), and a wonderfully meandering garden of odds-and-ends sculptures created by the resident kibbutz artist and gardener.
4:30 p.m., home for the night: The sun was starting to set when we pulled into Mitzpe, and began looking around for the entrance to Beresheet, the famed Isrotel outlet that opened nearly two years ago. There’s no grand entrance to this luxe hotel, which sits above the crater and just below a gas station. Once you’re past the security guard, however, parked and waiting for your golf cart ride up to the lobby, it’s clear they built this place in the right location. Each of the 111 rooms at Beresheet has a view of the deep crater, some with private pools that are probably perfect for family frolicking during the warmer spring, summer and early fall months. The hotel has changed tourism in the area, according to locals, both bringing new tourists to the region, as well as siphoning some business away from the smaller hotels (Isrotel’s Ramon Inn and the Ramon Suites Hotel are still great options, particularly for families, and the Inn has an indoor pool) and tzimmers in the area. On this particular week in January, the place was full, mostly with Israeli tourists, many wandering around the hotel grounds in their terrycloth robes and slippers on their way to and from treatments at the in-house spa.
5:30 p.m., starting to relax: Disappointingly, there is no hot tub or Jacuzzi available except for those who pay extra for a spa treatment. Still, there is a hamam and sauna, as well as indoor and outdoor pools, available to all guests, and we enjoyed sitting out on the deck overlooking the crater, relaxing on plush, round daybeds that are perfect for sunbathers basking in the warm daytime sun. Dinner was good, not outstanding, and it’s a plus to have full wait service rather than lining up at the buffet to check out the beef and chicken options. Still, it felt like a hotel dining room, not necessarily a must-visit destination for visitors to Mitzpe.
DAY TWO, 8:30 a.m., mornin’ sunshine: After waking up to watch the sun burn off the mist hanging over the crater, with a cup of coffee made in the room Nespresso machine (not available in all rooms), it was time for breakfast, and this is a worthwhile meal to have at Beresheet. With shots of arak, fresh omelettes ordered from a waiter rather than queuing up, and a wonderful array of local cheeses, jams and breads from Lasha, a wonderful bakery in town (open all night on Thursdays), there’s enough food to keep you full into the mid-afternoon.
9:30 a.m., into the crater: We were planning to spend several hours jeeping in the crater, guided by biologist (and wolf expert) Haim Berger, who runs Negevjeep with his nomadic partner, known as Moshiko. There are many options for seeing the crater: you can focus on the striated rocks shaded in turquoise and burnt umber, or take some time, as we did, to examine the Nabatean ruins of an ancient khan — an ancient roadside motel that boasted a wine cellar and mud-bricked cooling area in order to better serve the salesmen who frequently traveled the spice route. Spending time with Moshiko (who spends much of his year leading groups in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco) can also include a mid-afternoon slug of fresh-brewed Turkish coffee with some medjool dates and the accompanying notes of his reed flute, picked from the banks of the Jordan River.
3 pm, touring the town: We dusted ourselves off and took some time to explore “northern” Mitzpe, as it’s jokingly called by the locals, the industrial zone that is formally known as the Spice Quarter. This is the area of town where much of the new development is taking place, from a smattering of boutique hotels (Chez Eugene, with a decidedly French flavor, and Active Hotel, geared for bicycle enthusiasts but with a friendly B&B bent); Lasher, a bread bakery (open to individual customers only on weekends); the Mitzpe Ramon Jazz Club (it’s worth checking the website to see if there’s something going on during the week); Adama, a dance school; Hadasa’ar, a semi-cooperative coffee house, organic grocery and gift shop (open 8 a.m.-8 p.m. most days); and Faran, a local factory that makes organic makeup and organic goat’s and camel’s milk soaps (open 8 a.m.-7 p.m., Sunday-Thursday) where you can take a tour while the kids spend some time in their staffed playroom.
5 p.m., winding down: Time to check in at Chez Eugene, the chicly elegant boutique hotel that makes the most of its industrial space. With just six rooms and a restaurant that has been called “extraordinary in every way,” Chez Eugene is owned by hotelier Arnaud Rodrigue, who wanted to create something that is “an act of Zionism.” The rooms are lovely; spacious with lofty ceilings, wood-burning stoves, modern, handcrafted furniture and in some, an outdoor Jacuzzi housed in a fenced-off, furnished private garden behind the room. It’s pleasant to sit at the cozy bar connected to the restaurant (kosher food, but open on Shabbat) and have some bitters or a scotch before dinner, or to take it back to your room and cozy up on the roomy couch across from the warming fire. But we weren’t quite done for the day.
7 p.m., star light, star bright: Ira Machefsky and his wife, Pam, made aliya to Mitzpe three years ago to join their married daughter and son-in-law who had also immigrated to Israel’s south. A lifetime amateur astronomer, Machefsky packed up his telescopes and schlepped them to Mitzpe, where he now guides visitors on a tour of the skies called Astronomy Israel. He sets up shop in a quiet, dark field on the rim of the crater (near the alpaca farm), just below Tel Aviv University’s Wise Observatory, and for nearly two hours, wrapped in fleece blankets (be sure to wear warm clothing), we kept our eyes glued to the sky, as Ira guided us around the galaxy, offering a magical, whimsical way to view what he calls “the darkest skies in Israel.” (NIS 150 per person, 052-544-9789.)
9 p.m., warming the soul: We needed warm comfort food after a long day, and there are several dining options in Mitzpe, including the gourmet offerings at Chez Eugene (not open every night), homestyle food at HeKatze, and our choice, HaHavit, a hopping, busy pub that was full of locals, visitors and soldiers on the night we were there. The tomato-red pepper soup (NIS 27) was warming and flavorful, while the burgers (NIS 60) were thick, juicy slabs, perfectly accompanied by a side of crispy fries. Choose from a well-stocked bar that includes a full array of beers, including those from the Negev Brewery, and if you wish, hang around to dance on the tables, but that’s not until later in the evening. (Not kosher.)
DAY THREE, 8 a.m., vacation exhaustion: We could have eaten breakfast at Chez Eugene or headed to Cafeneto, the local cappuccino joint right next to HaHavit, but we didn’t need to venture that far, as Hadasa’ar, a funky, hippyish community business (open Sunday-Wednesday, 8-8; Thursday, 8-11) run by the extremely sharp Hadas and Sa’ar Badash beckoned, with its perfectly brewed coffee and carefully prepared sandwiches made on Lasha rolls (whole wheat and spelt), layered with local cheeses and organic vegetables (kosher). The Badashes are refugees of a sort from the north, where they both worked as therapists but were seeking better salaries and a like-minded community, which they seem to have found in Mitzpe. They’re aiming to help develop the town (there’s a tourist desk at Hadasa’ar) and it wouldn’t be surprising to hear that Sa’ar Badash is running for mayor one of these days.
9 a.m., hit the road: We were joined again by Haim Berger, who wanted to show us several highlights on the road out of Mitzpe. The first stop was with Salman, a Bedouin from the region who’s working hard to lead a more ecological life with his hamula in the desert, and offers visits in his tent that are somewhat different from the average Bedouin tent experience. Salman and his family take visitors to forage for edible and medicinal plants traditionally used by the nomadic Bedouin, after treating them to chewy, fresh pita baked deep in a ground pit, served with strong, sweet tea and some hard goat’s cheese grated on top, but only if you ask for it. Next stop was across from Avdat National Park to take a quick look at the Ramalia cisterns, massive wells dug out by the Nabateans to ensure a steady water supply, followed by a look at ancient rock art up the road, part of a tour that Berger is currently developing as part of his work with the local authority.
12 p.m., time to head home: If we’d had time, it would have been fun to stop at Avdat National Park, and perhaps save some time to sip wine at Karmei Avdat. But we only had time for a quick pit stop at Aroma (not kosher) to fill up on coffee and sandwiches before heading back to real life, up in the center, far from the delights of the south. Until next time.