ONE of Israel's greatest boons to travelers is its compactness. Novelist Saul Bellow once wrote that all the fighting and thinking devoted to this "sliver of a country" make it seem much bigger than it is. In actuality, it's about the size of New Jersey. Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is a one-hour drive if you hustle, and the hills surrounding Jerusalem offer views of both the Occupied Palestinian Territory and the mountains of Jordan. Real estate here, as anyone will tell you, is tight.
Head into the Negev Desert, on the other hand, and the country seems to open right up. And for many travelers, a few adventure-filled days in this area's wide open spaces are the perfect complement to all the overwhelming, friction-filled history they absorb in the narrow streets of Old Jerusalem. (For more details on the hotels mentioned in the story.)
Day 1: Jerusalem to Ein Avdat
An hour and a half south of Jerusalem is the Negev's main city, Beersheva. This growing desert hub doesn't have a whole lot of interest to the casual visitor, particularly one with adventure in mind, so I zip on by.
A half hour or so farther down Route 40, near Kibbutz Sde Boker, is the humble home and burial place of David Ben-Gurion—Israel's first prime minister—and Geofun (www.geofun.co.il, in Hebrew only), the mountain-bike tour company that is my ticket into the Zin Valley. Agents can e-mail [email protected] or call 011-972-8-656-0479.
Asaf, my guide, leads me away from the kibbutz's greenery and modest houses; it is easy pedaling on a flat path of tightly packed desert scrub. Before I know it, we're at the edge of Ein Avdat National Park, looking down. Below, a dry riverbed winds through the beige valley. With our mechanized rides, we're not allowed to go down there; it's open only to hikers. But 20 miles of new single-track trails will soon be ready, part of the area's mountain-biking mini-boom.
The dust on my shorts has barely settled before I'm back on the highway. This is the busiest day of the trip, after all. I pass the hilltop ruins of Avdat, a city established in the third century B.C. by a prosperous, caravanning people called the Nabateans and later occupied by Romans and Byzantines. It's definitely worth a visit, but I am dead-set on putting my butt in a different saddle before the day is out, so I don't have time to stop.
I pull into Camel Riders, a camel-tour outfit and caravanserai (inn) just down the road. In a colossal tent constructed on palm tree trunks, they serve a generous spread of hummus, baba ghanoush, dill-flecked yogurt and warm bread for lunch. After doing a lap of the dry, scrubby expanse that is the Camel Riders' backyard, I return to the tent for a lesson in the ways of the Bedouins. Between explanations of the hospitality rituals for which his people are known, the resident Bedouin host plucks away at a qanun, the Arab dulcimer, and sings beautifully.
Camel Riders (www.camel-riders.com or e-mail [email protected]) has no-nonsense accommodations onsite for guests who are not on an overnight desert trip, but the quirky hillside cottages at nearby Carmey Avdat are more appealing, with their pebble floors, bright linens and a hammock strung up outside each one. Carmey Avdat is also a farm and winery, and owners Eyal and Hannah Izrael sell their products—including fruit jam and an excellent peach liqueur—in a small gift shop and art gallery onsite.
Day 2: Ein Avdat to Mitzpe Ramon
The small town of Mitzpe Ramon is perched above Makhtesh Ramon, a 28-mile-long desert depression and nature reserve. Makhtesh is often translated as crater, but as my guide Adam Sela (www.adamsela.com) tells me, "A makhtesh is a makhtesh is a makhtesh"—that is, a cliff-walled valley created by erosion, a geological phenomenon particular to this part of the world.
Makhtesh Ramon is a huge desert playground of dramatic ridges and tabletops, with patches of dark base rock "from the beginning of the world," as Sela puts it. The weather—dry heat all day, cool evenings—is virtually the same year-round, making it a popular escape for hiking, canyoning and viewing wildlife such as ibex and lizards. Sela, who knows the makhtesh well and speaks native English (from his upbringing in Kenya), is an excellent resource for anyone wishing to explore this place. The preferred accommodations (again, for anyone not on an overnight tour in the desert) is the Isrotel Ramon Inn, a family-friendly property with a pool that serves surprisingly good buffet-style meals.
Day 3: Mitzpe Ramon to Dead Sea
From the Central Negev Highlands I descend to what seems like the lowest point on Earth, and all it takes is a three-hour drive. (There's that compactness again.) The ride from Mitzpe Ramon northeast to Ein Bokek isn't anything special—until you start winding down switchbacks toward the still, glassy expanse of the Dead Sea. It's like going into an enormous gravel pit, except that the quarry at the bottom purportedly has redemptive powers and is rimmed with resort hotels.
One of the top properties is the Daniel, which diverts Dead Sea water into a heated indoor pool, even though it takes only two minutes to walk to the beach. You can float in the oily, famously buoyant waters, letting the minerals penetrate your every pore, at either beach or pool. But only in the hotel can you get a mud wrap, as I do, and lie sweating (in a good way!) underneath a cellophane sheath of warm squishiness. It's the perfect way to unwind after hiking up nearby Masada, the hilltop fortress where Jewish zealots yielded to the Romans in the first century A.D. The rather steep ascent takes one hour, although it's much shorter and easier if you take the gondola up, and is best done around sunrise—for one thing, it leaves you the rest of the day to luxuriate at the spa. Who knew a trip to a headline-grabbing hotspot could be so relaxing?
WHERE TO STAY ON A NEGEV DESERT EXCURSION
FOR A HOMESPUN BUT STYLISH Negev Desert retreat with lots of character, book your clients at Carmey Avdat (www.carmey-avdat.co.il). Above its winery, a dirt path lined with vine-draped bungalows winds up a hillside. Each cabin has views of the vineyards and the Zin Valley. Crema and Levona are the two largest cottages; Somek has its own hot tub.
Owners Eyal and Hannah Izrael suggest guests hike up to some ancient rock carvings for sunset. Serenity is paramount here: The units are well separated, rooms have no TVs, and there is hardly a neighbor in sight. Wastewater at this eco-friendly property is reused for irrigation. Contact the Izraels at [email protected], 011-972-8-653-5177.
Located on Makhtesh Ramon, Mitzpe Ramon is an adventurer's playground—and the four-story Isrotel Ramon Inn (www.isrotel.co.il/english) is the best-equipped hotel in town. Its 96 rooms and suites have kitchenettes; three-room apartments, the largest accommodations, sleep six comfortably. Two public computers near the check-in desk provide high-speed Internet access. The lounge, which has an open fireplace and is located next to the restaurant, is a popular spot for evening drinks; given the high volume of families staying at the hotel, however, it empties out pretty early.
The hotel also has a sauna and a heated indoor pool. The tiny fitness room is less impressive—but with so many ways to keep fit outside the hotel, this is not much of a concern.
For a little extra, hotel staff will go out of their way for cyclists, putting together a pack of fruit and energy bars for their trip, and arranging a pickup that will allow them to pedal farther afield. Staff also wash and repair guests' bikes.
A former apartment complex, the Ramon Inn is less than luxurious, but for the time being it's the most upscale option in Mitzpe Ramon. A long-awaited luxury hotel is in the works nearby. Reach the Ramon Inn's general manager, David Ben Anat, at 011-972-8-658-8822, [email protected].
There's nothing intimate about the 302-room Daniel Dead Sea Resort & Spa (www.tamareshotels.co.il), formerly the Golden Tulip, but it comes with a mall's range of options—gift shops, a pub, a spacious cocktail lounge, a disco, a basketball court, a video arcade, even a bowling alley.
The spa is run by a brigade of Russian therapists; mud wraps are popular, and Dermalogica products are used. There are 22 treatment rooms, and short-stay guests should make sure to book spa treatments in advance. In addition to a hot tub, Turkish hammam (steam bath), steam sauna, Finnish sauna and standard outdoor pool, there's a heated indoor/outdoor pool filled with the Dead Sea's unique, mineral-rich water. Spa patrons must be 18 years or older. Contact spa director Sophie Oscar at 011-972-8-668-9934 or [email protected].
The Daniel contains only 12 suites. Its top accommodations are the four royal suites, each of which has a large balcony with a Jacuzzi, or rooms on the fully renovated Club Level, which also has an executive lounge. The best choice for families is a suite with a connecting room or a Family Room, which has two double beds. The hotel runs a year-round, specially staffed children's activities program.
Book three or four months ahead for stays in May and October—these are the busiest months, when long-term guests fill the hotel. Reservations during Passover should be made at least half a year in advance; otherwise, two to four weeks is usually sufficient, according to sales manager Rinat Zuckerman (011-972-9-952-0810, office; 011-972-52-489-7089, cell; [email protected].
For information about offsite activities—such as a hot-air balloon ride followed by a picnic breakfast and a couple's massage in the desert—contact concierge Shlomit Lavi (011-972-52-811-7368, [email protected] for VIP arrangements, contact manager Lior Haimovitz (011-972-8-668-9967, [email protected]) .
Tourism Numbers Up, But Israel Wants Them to Go Higher
MORE AMERICANS VISITED Israel in 2007 than in any year since the country was established in 1948, Arie Sommer, Israel's tourism commissioner for North and South America, tells Travel Agent. About one quarter of Israel's tourists come from the United States, with 542,000 Americans making the trip last year. "Our goal is to double the number of U.S. tourists to Israel by 2011: one million American visitors yearly," says Sommer.
The Ministry of Tourism has focused on four goals, according to Sommer. The first is to increase airlift. In March, Delta will add a second daily flight from New York JFK to Tel Aviv. Continental, El Al and Israir also serve the U.S. market.
A second plan is to develop more programs with tour operators. Collette Vacations, Club ABC Tours, Grand Circle Travel, American Express, General Tours, Certified Vacations and Grand European Tours have agreed to add Israel itineraries and many of them will organize agent fam trips.
In addition to its dependable religious market, Israel is now focusing on "sophisticated travelers looking for a cultural experience," says Sommer. Finally, Israel is reaching out to travel agents. "For years we neglected the travel agent community," he concedes, "but we realized over the last few years that travel agents are the backbone of the industry...we invite them to be in touch with us." Israel's Ministry of Tourism (www.goisrael.com) holds seminars around the U.S. and has signed agreements with some agencies and consortia to reach out to its agents. —DAN BUTCHER