Michal and I planned a trip south to Israel’s desert region in expectation of our older son and his girlfriend’s February visit. Israel, though a small country, combines desert and Mediterranean terrain. The Negev desert comprises about 60% of Israel’s territory. Its population of 650,000 people, including more than 200,000 in Beersheba, is less than 15% of Israel’s total of 9 million.
With a sizable amount of land and relatively few people, Israel’s south has plenty of wide open spaces. There’s no doubt that the region will experience a population surge over the next few decades, because Israel’s densely populated center cannot accommodate Israel’s high birth rate and immigration (Aliya). Israel’s overall population will expand by a total of 3.5 million in the next 15 years, according to analysts. The center cannot accommodate all of that, so the Negev’s relatively empty expanses will experience population growth (as will Israel’s north). However, the Negev will never be densely populated, if for no other reason than it is a training ground for the IDF, Israel’s armed forces.
On our way to the Dead Sea, we skirted Jerusalem and reached the lowest place on earth in less than two hours. We bypassed Qumran, which is famous as the hiding place of the Dead Sea Scrolls, an archeological treasure which had been hidden since the time of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70CE until the mid-20th century.
We were now traveling along the Great Rift Valley which stretches 3,700 miles from the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon in Asia to Mozambique in Southeast Africa. Our first destination was Ein Gedi, where about 3,000 years ago David hid from King Saul, Israel’s first king. Saul feared David would usurp him, but he later named David his successor. Ein Gedi (“spring of the goat”) is a desert oasis with waterfalls, pools of water and two large streams. It is a hikers’ favorite, with beautiful flora, including nearby date palm plantations, and abundant fauna, especially the ibex, hyrax, and marmot, as well as a variety of birds. Ein Gedi served as a water source during biblical times (Joshua 15:62, I Samuel 24:1-2).
After a beautiful but short hike and a visit to the snack bar, we continued on to the main Dead Sea resort area at En Bokek. Our hotel for two nights was the large Isrotel Dead Sea Hotel Spa. Besides comfortable, modern rooms, the hotel has a private beach, swimming pools, restaurants, a kids club and a fitness center. Since the weather was not hot (it is February!), we especially enjoyed the luxurious spa, which includes an indoor/outdoor Dead Sea Water pool, a sulfur pool, sauna, hot tubs and massage rooms. We had dinner at the hotel’s (expensive) Ranch House.
The next morning Michal, Moshe, and Christina drove the short distance to Masada (fortress). They climbed the steep, winding “Snake Trail” up to the top of the plateau, a gaunt and majestic natural monument that has become one of the Jewish people’s significant symbols; the last Jewish stronghold against Roman invasion after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple in 70 CE. (I relaxed amidst the pools after my usual exercise.)
There, Jewish Zealots and their families held out against the Romans for three years, raiding and harassing the Roman’s 10th Legion. Once it became apparent that the Tenth Legion’s battering rams and catapults would succeed in breaching Masada’s walls, Elazar ben Yair – the Zealots’ leader – decided that all the Jewish defenders should commit suicide; the alternative facing the fortress’s defenders were hardly more attractive than death.
After Jerusalem, Masada is the most popular destination of tourists to Israel. On a regular basis, young soldiers of the IDF are brought to Masada to learn its history and absorb its message of stubborn independence. There is a cable car for those who aren’t up to a rigorous hike, plus a small but very interesting museum.
Back at the hotel, Moshe and Christina did float in the actual Dead Sea – “swimming” is not advised because of the extreme salt content of the water – while Michal and I lounged around and enjoyed the scenery, which includes the reddish Abarim mountains of Jordan, which turn redder as the sun sinks facing them.
The Dead Sea is a great getaway, just a few hours away for most Israelis. There are few treats that can compare to effortlessly floating in the Dead Sea (or a Dead Sea water pool) with mountains as a backdrop on both sides. Of course the hotel’s bounteous breakfast is amazing, which one almost takes for granted in Israeli hotels. Meat lovers should note that there are no meat items served at breakfast.
Michal planned a few stops on the way to Eilat, several hours further south at the northernmost tip of the Red Sea. We were driving through the Negev’s Arava Valley, which is home to date palm plantations, solar farms, and incredible green house farming. We stopped at the Vidor Center, which describes itself as a window to Arava agriculture. Its interactive experience taught us about desertification, Arava flora and fauna, and the development of communities and agriculture in the region.
There were photos, films and special exhibits, plus a guided tour of the green houses, which contain many species and varieties of vegetables and fruit. Our guide informed us that this abundance was not typical of green house farming, which generally dedicates green houses to one specific variety. (kkl-jnf.org/about-kkl-jnf/green-israel-news/february-2014/vidor-center-agriculture-arava/)
On the desolate Rt 90 to Eilat we bypassed a lunch stop at McDonald’s and pulled into a cafe featuring German food at the Zukim junction a bit further on. Forgoing the cafe, we chose was an adjacent deli where we bought delicious sandwiches, enjoyed the recorded music, and sampled some locally brewed beer made on premises. We’ll keep this terrific stop in mind for our next trip to Eilat!
We picked a smaller hotel in Eilat, away from the busy center and next to Coral Beach, where Moshe’s favorite diving shop is located. The Reef Hotel, part of the Herbert Samuel chain (Samuel, a Jew, was the first British High Commissioner of the Mandate for Palestine, As such, he was the first Jew to govern the historic Land of Israel in nearly 2000 years).
Our rooms were spacious and nicely designed, the breakfast was great (with no lines), and the location had a number of nearby restaurants and even a general store and deli right across the street. While the “kids” enjoyed three dives in the Red Sea, Michal and I relaxed near the pool, which only had a few people in it during our stay. We had a great fish dinner practically next door one night, ate at our favorite Italian restaurant in Eilat’s lively center another night, and the last night found a great Indian hole-in-the-wall in Eilat’s industrial district. All in all, three days in Eilat was perfect.
The last day there we went for a short but spectacular hike in Red Canyon, just minutes away from Eilat. The Red Canyon gets its name from the phenomenon which occurs when sunlight hits boulders lining the canyon, producing an intense reddish hue. There are also other boulders with patches of white and yellow. Part of the canyon consists of beautiful slot canyons, reminiscent of ones our son regularly hikes through as a guide in the Grand Canyon region of Arizona.
The Red Canyon trail, which we hiked in about 2.5 hours, was well marked and included some ladders and hand-holds. The trail, for fit hikers only, is located close to the border with Egypt; we saw a few contemporary Egyptian forts looking down on us while driving in and out of the vicinity. Red Canyon trail is only one of several hikes in the vicinity of Eilat and is very popular.
On our way back north we made one unexpected, and two planned stops. While we were driving, we spied an interesting tower structure ahead. At the center of kibbutz Neot Semadar, the Art Center towers above its surroundings. “This unique building houses diverse workshops such as: jewelry, pottery, stained glass, paper, weaving and woodwork. The wide range of materials and artistic endeavors allows for interdisciplinary techniques to emerge, creating a variety of unique products.” While we didn’t have time to explore, the kibbutz has bed-and-breakfast accommodations, a restaurant, a winery, and desert tours. (neot-semadar.com/art-house)
Our next stop was in Mitzpe Ramon, at the edge of the Ramon Crater (makhtesh in Hebrew), one of three unique craters in the world created by erosion, through a natural process over a 200 million years period. The formation is 25 miles long, 1–6 miles wide, and one-third of a mile deep, and it’s shaped like an elongated heart. After driving through the majestic makhtesh, the Ramon Visitor Center overlooking it is a must. It tells the geological story of the Makhtesh Ramon, the largest example of its type in the world. As part of the exhibition, we toured the Ilan Ramon Memorial, which tells the story of Israel’s first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, who died in the 2003 Colombia Disaster. (https://www.touristisrael.com/mitzpe-ramon/11638/)
Finally, we saw the graves of David Ben-Gurion and his wife at kibbutz Sde Boker. The couple retired there after Ben-Gurion’s initial term as Israel’s first prime minister. Many tourists, school kids, and soldiers joined us at the gravesite, located in a peaceful, beautiful park on a secluded overlook of the fabulous Zin Valley.
Two hours later we arrived back home in Kfar Sava. It’s always a treat to venture south in Israel. In an hour and a half you can be on the threshold of the Judean or Negev deserts. Plan a visit there on your next trip to Israel. If you’ve never experienced Israel, there’s no time like the present!