It’s a winding, three-kilometer ride over a single-lane road to Six Senses Shaharut, Israel’s latest luxury resort, and with good reason: This oasis was designed to be at one with the serene desert landscape that surrounds it, and it is, with every single pebble and boulder.
The 60 suites and villas, spa, pools and restaurants of the carefully constructed desert retreat were carved out of the mountain overlooking the Arava Valley, with the Edom mountains across the valley and the tiny Shaharut village just over the hill.
Owner Ronny Douek started this project by approaching the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design’s architecture department ten years ago to research the optimal design for this clifftop space, with the aim of creating buildings that look as if they have existed here for centuries, a kind of reclaimed Nabatean village.
There had long been a government plan to build a commercial hotel on the lunar-like landscape, but the original ideas were for a much larger, less luxurious, “Club Hotel-style place that would look like it just landed on the mountain,” said Thomas Fehlbier, Shaharut’s general manager.
Instead, Douek and his partners invested a reported $100 million in designing and constructing the resort, working closely with architect Daniella Plesner to create structures that blended with the surrounding natural elements, excavating the local limestone and flint as building materials, constructing low buildings that blend seamlessly with the surrounding desert and formations.
They wanted the resort to become part of the landscape, both for purposes of sustainability and to avoid the wrath of the resort’s closest neighbors in the nearby village of Shaharut, a 30-year-old community of 164 residents who purposely live as far off the grid as possible in a quiet expanse of desert.
It wasn’t easy building into a mountain. They had to hide pipes and other structural elements from view without creating odor issues from drainage, said Fehlbier.
It’s taken time, said Fehlbier, who lives in the village along with several other resort staff, but the village residents are now more accepting of the resort than they were ten years ago.
Douek and Plesner integrated the craftsmanship of several Shaharut residents into the design and construction of the site, with its carved wooden ceilings, massive teak doors and finely edged ceramics made by artisans from the village. A Pilates instructor and other spa professionals also live in the village, said Fehlbier.
That said, there are just as many Shaharut residents who don’t want to engage with the resort at all, he added.
“They moved out here for a purpose,” he said. “They wanted to live in the middle of nowhere and they don’t need to walk around with a branded bag of Shaharut.”
And there is certainly a branded feel to the luxurious cliffside desert oasis.
How did Six Senses end up in the Negev?
Douek’s collaboration with global wellness resort group Six Senses came about halfway through the decade-long construction process.
“You can say I believe in the universe because he [Ronny Douek] showed up with the project that was just so on brand to us,” said Neil Jacobs, Six Senses CEO, in a recorded interview for The Times of Israel.
Douek owns Six Senses Shaharut, although the resort brand, owned by InterContinental Hotels Group, franchises their hotels.
“Normally we’re involved before there’s a spade in the ground,” said Jacobs, who met Douek in New York, about five years ago. “I kind of stood up and said, ‘You’re a brave man, and there is no other brand for this property because what you have built is a Six Senses.'”
If Jacobs is more involved in Shaharut than in some of the other Six Senses resorts, it’s because of his roots.
He grew up in Jewish north London, and his father had briefly left England to fight in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, instilling in him a lifelong love for Israel and abiding interest in how the country has changed and developed.
He anticipates creating an Israeli circuit of Six Senses accommodations, with several other Six Senses resorts built over time in additional Israeli regions and cities, all completely different from one another.
For now, Six Senses is starting with this Negev resort, where every tasseled cushion, wall hanging and Moroccan lamp was overseen by Duek and Plesner, according to Fehlbier.
Each of the 60 suites at Six Senses Shaharut was designed to feel like a private cottage, entered through a teak door, with dreamy shades of cream and a platform bed positioned in the very center of the room to maximize the view out of the floor-to-ceiling window of undulating lines of the desert and the deep blue sky above.
There isn’t a lot of privacy in the regular suites for guests traveling with a child (ages 12 and up are welcome), who can sleep on the sofa bed situated below the master bed. There’s also little extra space to open a suitcase, but there’s plenty of room in the luxuriously appointed bathroom, where a standalone bathtub offers full views of the desert; shampoo, conditioner and bath gel are found in brass non-disposable dispensers in accordance with Shaharut’s sustainability program.
Outside, a walk along the quiet, smoothed stone walkways of the resort is a meditative experience, overlooking the zen-like raked stone gardens, sitting on occasional benches carved from recycled teakwood and peering over the low, curved walls constructed from local stones, hand-picked and stacked to resemble ancient Nabatean architecture.
Guests can head to the outdoor pool and spa complex, lie on cushioned chaises by the sea foam-tiled pool and dine al fresco from the poolside grill during the warm months.
Inside the spa is a freshwater infinity pool, along with a full array of treatments, separate hammams for men and women, yoga and Pilates classes and an alchemy bar for mixing scrubs to bring home.
For the more adventurous, there are camel rides and desert hikes, strolls through the herb garden and stargazing at night into the broad, starry skies. And for those who prefer to ride to dinner or a massage during the hot months, Shaharut has a fleet of mint green electric Hummer golf carts, driven by staffers.
At mealtime, it’s a short walk along smooth Tadelakt plaster walkways to the teak-ceilinged dining room of the Midian restaurant, with a menu of grass-fed, free-range meats and fresh Mediterranean fish (Shaharut is not kosher; no shellfish is served, and meat and milk are not mixed).
The dinner menu created by former King David Hotel executive chef David Bitton emphasizes seasonal produce and fresh herbs, much of it grown on-site and at local farms, although it doesn’t offer any groundbreaking culinary achievements just yet.
Breakfast, however, is a stellar experience, worth idling over, with shots of fresh-pressed juices and shakes, a buffet of local cheeses, eggs made to order with homemade breads and more fresh salads, which may include an impressive side of roasted pumpkin drizzled with tahini or a platter of minced herbs, studded with roasted nuts.
Over in the Jamillah lounge next door, there’s an easy, cozy clubbiness with deep leather couches and chairs, shelves of travel books and a turntable and vinyl collection of the owner’s favorites.
Guests can have before-dinner drinks and snacks here, sitting on the wide veranda overlooking the twinkling lights from Jordan, or can dine more casually on cocktails, grilled hamburgers and sandwiches.
Service with a little too much familiarity
One of the challenges in providing all this Six Senses luxury, given the level of service expected when rates begin at $1,000 a night (including breakfast), was identifying appropriate staff who would be willing to live all the way down in the desert. Eilat, the closest city, is an hour away by car, and longer by public transportation.
The resort, like many other properties in the south, decided to hire young Israelis just out of the army.
“We took people fresh from the army, who have never been to a five-star hotel, and they make every possible mistake but with a smile,” said Fehlbier, who ran Tel Aviv’s David Intercontinental before coming to Shaharut.
The young Israeli staff members certainly inject a more casual tone, conversing easily with guests — sometimes a little too familiarly — though they may have a harder time describing a dish or suggesting which wine to pair with lamb. They’ve also been known to leave a guest standing outside their room, waiting in the hot sun for a ride.
“The Israeli way of doing things is not especially geared to hospitality at our end of the market,” said Jacobs. “It’s a challenge, and layer that with the location we’re in, which is just not for everybody.”
The luxury resort has done its best to make it work for its youthful staffers, who are housed in a nearby kibbutz and commit to at least six months of work at the hotel. Fehlbier is practical about how long it takes to train hotel staff, and hopes some of them will get hooked by resort work.
In fact, Shaharut is probably the only hotel in Israel with a waiting list for staff, according to Fehlbier. (There was also a waiting list for its first guests last August, with some reserving a room three years prior to the hotel opening.)
He’s proud of his neophyte staff’s accomplishments during these last eight months, as most of the resort’s guests were Israelis since the hotel opened in August 2021. It was only recently that Israel lifted its coronavirus restrictions and welcomed back foreign tourists. (This writer visited as a guest of the hotel during the still quiet winter, when foreign visitors weren’t allowed into Israel.)
“I’m very grateful to the Israeli crowd that we had, because Israelis are the hardest clients you can imagine and it can only get easier from here,” said Fehlier. “That said, I think we’re ready for international guests to come.”
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