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Taking a walk on a camel's back in the Judean Desert adjacent to Arad. (Courtesy Kfar Hanokdim)
courtesy Kfra Hanokdim

36 hours in Arad, at the edge of the Judean and Negev deserts

Take a break in this activity-filled southern town, where desert life and civilization meet up perfectly

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Main image by courtesy Kfra Hanokdim

ARAD — A trip down south doesn’t usually take visitors to Arad, the town bordering the Judean and Negev deserts, and a short drive from the Dead Sea. But it should.

The development town founded by a group of former kibbutz and moshav members in the 1960s is surrounded by the hilly planes of the desert, and not far from the back side of Masada (which is how visitors access the popular Light and Sound Show, open from March through October).

The desert is the draw to this quiet town for many of its residents. Renowned writer Amos Oz, who passed away in December last year, lived here for years as the dry, arid climate helped his son’s asthma.

The town is particularly beautiful after a rainy winter like this last one, which covered the undulating hills with a soft furring of sage-green and tiny white flowers — yellow dandelions and dainty purple dwarf irises that only open in the slanting rays of the late afternoon sun.

The non-traditional accommodations and activities are the real draw here, including yoga retreats, a Bedouin-style oasis, meals hosted in people’s homes, nature hikes and bicycle rides in the desert, as well as some art gallery visits and workshops.

The dwarf iris, which only opens in the afternoons. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Here is a possible itinerary for one day spent at this small desert hamlet.

10:00 a.m.: Get a lay of the land with tour guide Allan Levine, who takes visitors around in his 4×4, offering scenic views of the area, as well as a closer examination of the rocks and fossils that litter the ground and a visit to an impressive echo chamber among the rock canyons nearby. Levine enjoys imparting of his many theories about nature’s survival in this arid region and the central role of Dead Sea salt as a valuable resource that drew in ancient conquerors.

12:00 p.m.: Treat yourself to a sumptuous lunch at Annamaja (or breakfast or dinner) with Adva Golan, who hosts guests at her home and serves hearty vegan and vegetarian meals. Enjoy a brunch of spicy shakshuka, creamy spreads of sweet potato and tahini, finely chopped salad and homemade focaccia, all washed down with fresh, tart lemonade. Golan, who grew up in Arad, spent some years living in the US before returning to the desert town with her own family. She loves nothing more than hosting people in her home, serving meals in her dining room or spacious backyard, and telling stories about the region.

Golan can host groups of all sizes, from a couple or family to larger groups of 30 or 40 people, including Shabbat dinners, catering, cooking lessons and breakfast baskets. Call 054-582-1483 to hear about the various options.

Adva Golan preparing focaccia in her Arad kitchen. (Courtesy Rivka Eliyahu)

2:00 p.m.: Have a cup of herbal tea after lunch with Hebrew University-trained biologist Yonat Mordoch, who migrated to Arad from Tel Aviv with her family.

She takes visitors on a walking tour through the lush wadi, identifying and picking herbs including tiny yellow balls of chamomile, sage-green leaves and other greens. These are then steeped in a thermos of hot water for a flavorful cup of tea. (You can also pick some herbs to take home and dry for later.)

Searching for edible herbs in the verdant riverbed of Arad. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Mordoch runs Yonat Midbar and makes natural soaps and cosmetics, and has learned from the Bedouin about the provenance and use of the various local herbs. Now she teaches some of the younger, local Bedouin as well, and leads tours in the wadi during the growing seasons, guiding people among the gullies and trails of the area.

Mosaic artist Heli Cohen runs workshops out of her Arad studio in the Arad Artists Quarter. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

4:00 p.m.: Next it’s an experience in art appreciation at the Arad Artists Quarter, where tours and workshops can be arranged with painters, metalsmiths and sculptors. A glass mosaics workshop with Heli Cohen takes about an hour, and includes learning the rudiments of breaking colored glass into small pieces (done with a pair of running pliers) and then arranging and gluing them into a design on a 20×20 cm piece of wood — a satisfying activity that works well with a wide range of ages.

Other options include the Glass Museum, a permanent home for the artist Gideon Fridman and other Israeli glass artists; a studio and Judaica workshop with Rami Zamir; woodworking and ceramics workshops; and the Midbar Winery, whose drinks are made from desert-grown grapes.

5:30 p.m.: It’s time to start thinking about dinner; a tour of Kfar Hanokdim, the Bedouin-style oasis in the middle of a desert valley, is a good place to start.

The village was founded by Yoram Oded, who wanted to create a link between visitors and the desert lifestyle, in the style of the ample and easy hospitality he’d often found in the Sinai Desert at Bedouin-owned accommodations by the Red Sea. What distinguishes Kfar Hanokdim is its range of accommodations and the small details that make it comfortable for adults and families, and not just the teen groups and young festival crowds who also come here.

The Bedouin-style, rustic tents at Kfar Hanokdim (Courtesy Kfar Hanokdim)

There are expansive Bedouin tents available for groups, comfortable motel-styled rooms with regular beds, private bathrooms and some desert design details, and the highlight of the camp: guest lodges, which are spacious, private tents made from goat’s-hair rugs, with built-in beds that offer the feel of a sheikh lounging in the desert.

Ample outdoor seating areas are located throughout the oasis, with hammocks, rooftop lounges, picnic tables and benches, perfect for hanging out after the kids go to sleep, or gathering together a group of visitors.

One of the many homemade sculptures and water fountains found throughout Kfar Hanokdim. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Settle in and head out for a half-hour camel ride, joined by a friend on the other hump — a leisurely amble in the desert, led by local Bedouin.

7:00 p.m.: Back at the ranch, dinner is served family style at low tables and benches, with wine available for an extra charge. The platters of skewered meat and chicken, rice-stuffed vegetables and fresh salads are generous.

8:00 p.m.: The evening’s entertainment begins with a tent visit with one of the local Bedouin, fluent in English and skilled in telling about the customs and life of the tribe, including the crushing of coffee beans used to make traditional Bedouin coffee (tea is also served), as guests sit on cushions in a circle.

An aerial view of Kfar Hanokdim, nestled in a valley of the Judean Desert. (Courtesy Kfar Hanokdim)

Visitors can follow that with a short hike into the dark, starlit desert, to seek out deadly scorpions hiding under rocks, visible with a UV flashlight, and then a look up at the sky full of stars. Your treat for the nighttime effort? A marshmallow roast and a bottle of wine.

Other accommodations in the area include Zman Midbar Eco Spirit Lodge, a simpler set of tents, meditation and yoga, with unbelievable sunrises and customized vegan meals.

In Arad itself, there is also the 10-room Yehelim Boutique Hotel and the three-star Hotel Inbar. There are also many bed-and-breakfast options in the area, all found at the Travel Arad site.

Tourists relaxing in Kfar Hanokdim (Courtesy Kfar Hanokdim)

9:00 a.m.: After breakfast, take a hike. Kfar Hanokdim has created an extensive Android hiking app for walks, bike rides and longer interactive hikes in the Judean Desert, including trivia questions, quests and facts about the desert.

Staff members from Kfar Hanokdim worked on the trails with the Society for the Protection of Nature, and created an easy way to hike in the desert without a personal guide, on family-friendly trails that include rest stops and well-defined routes that engage visitors with the desert.

It also works offline, allowing use of it while on the hike, without Wi-Fi, as long as it’s downloaded (Google Play only, for Android) before you set out.

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