Motti Verses

Luxury blends with the wilderness in Israel’s Negev

Israelis have mixed feelings about the southern part of their country – the Negev. Names of places like Tze’elim, Shizafon, Shivta or Mashabim are sensitive. They are associated with memories with army uniforms – sand, dust and orders of military commanders. Army drills, or navigating wearing the olive-green clothing that match the scrubby bushes underfoot, the only vegetation that survives under the Negev extreme sunlight, remain fresh in the minds of many.

Traveling has to do with the Negev mostly as a transit zone, driving to the red sea beaches of Eilat and the Sinai peninsula. Enjoying nature in this remote wilderness has always been extremely challenging for decades. Generations that slept there under the sky in sleeping bags or army tents, looked for green landscapes for a vacation. No wonder there are almost no lodging options between the town of Mitzpe Ramon and Eilat. A luxury retreat was until recently part of the science fiction department.

The Negev’s magnificent crater – almost no lodging options between the town of Mitzpe Ramon and Eilat (Photo by Motti Verses)

This past scenario changed dramatically with a vision of one Israeli. A person that was not deterred by prejudiced opinions, extreme weather conditions, distance, logistics and fund allocations. He decided to redress reality from scratch. To turn the improbable into the possible.

A dozen years ago Entrepreneur Ronny Douek approached young Israeli architecture students. He asked them to research a design for cliff structures that resembles an ancient village of the people who once dominated the desert – the Nabateans. They created a first spark.

Sometimes luxury is about making a splash and getting noticed, but the architects of Tel Aviv practice Plesner Architects – selected for the project – opted to go the opposite route. They created a resort that blends seamlessly into the natural scenery and beauty around, harnessing local materials and regional craft like limestone walls, ceramics and pergolas. These drawing board dreams became reality two years ago. A luxury hotel on isolated empty hills next to a small hidden community settlement called Shaharut, located 40 kilometers north of Eilat. The Nabateans most famous capital city of Raqmu is known today as Jordan’s Petra. Definitely associated with stylish architecture. Who would be the most polished chic brand to manage such a dream? Douek initiated a partnership with Six Senses Resorts & Spas, a relatively young brand that declares a commitment to community, sustainability, emotional hospitality, wellness and design, infused with a touch of quirkiness.

No doubt that ever since it opened, Six Senses Shaharut is still the most intriguing captivating hotel in Israel. Curious to decipher this ambiguity of a remote dusty wilderness blended with expensive luxury,  I found myself driving the southern Negev empty road. Encouraged by the fact the hotel surely overcame the soft opening difficulties. A new chief and a reputed new chef took over from the opening team. We are into the smooth operation of a running successful hotel. Deep inside, my mind heard voices of disbelief about luxury on a Negev hill. After a 4 hour drive from central Israel we stopped at the hotel’s main gate.

The ultimate sanctuary, blending with nature for a romantic vacation (Photo by Motti Verses)
Built in a hidden invisible way to cope with the environment, guest rooms are hardly seen (Photo by Motti Verses)

Surrounded by young welcoming team members dressed in desert colors, Liat the woman I love and myself were asked to hand over our vehicle keys. After a welcome drink and a quick explanation we mounted an electric buggy car climbing up-hill for a tour of the hotel. A hotel? Not really. Guest rooms are hardly seen. They were built in a hidden invisible way to keep the environment almost as it was. This unique architecture must have cost a fortune. But at Six Senses Shaharut the mindset is different from what we are all accustomed to. In this temple of sustainability reality is less familiar. As slow thinkers we needed time to adjust. From the main structure at the top of the hill, the sprawling Negev surroundings look stunning. Perched on a cliff, guests are witnessing the almost supernatural panorama view of the Arava plateau and Jordan’s magical Edom red mountains. No blue sea or lake relaxing scenery. No green meadows with cows in sight. No forests and hummingbirds singing. It is a desert backdrop. A truly jaw-dropping wonder, especially at sunset.

“We are a phenomenal property that is located directly in the Negev desert with 60 bedrooms that consist of many villas and suites across 46 acres”, says the smiling outgoing native Australian General Manager, Alicia Graham. “If you are looking for a place to relax, disconnect and enjoy wellness, this is the place to be. Six Senses Shaharut prides itself among other things for its disconnection from the world. Our wellness facilities are offering bespoke opportunities for all of our guests to relax,” she says.

With outgoing native Australian General Manager, Alicia Graham, next to the jaw-dropping view (Photo by Motti Verses)
Our pampering guest room with almost a remote desserted planet view (Photo by Motti Verses)

The buggy drops us by our stylish well equipped room with a panoramic view of light brown colored desolated hills. For a moment I imagined we are staying in a luxurious capsule on a remote planet with a non oxygen environment on the outside. This emptiness view turned out to be bewitching. Especially in the morning, waking up in the most comfortable bed I have experienced, that was surprisingly made of stone. Staying in the wilderness in style, with pampering air condition, a state of the art bathroom, the softest towels on earth, cool amenities and an outdoor terrace is apparently heaven.

Relaxing by the pool, bewitched by the mountain views, was our daily activity. We didn’t skip this desert temple of rejuvenation – the Spa. In most hotels in Israel the spa is located underground with no natural light. A solution of architects in order to cut costs and maximize revenue. The six treatment rooms, saunas, steam rooms, hammams, a yoga hall together with a magical relaxation area here are all above ground, making the landscape top priority. This desert luxurious spa is one of the most impressive ones I have seen. We truly enjoyed our holistic classy treatments. Above all stand the pampering beautifully designed indoor pool – a true masterpiece. Surly it is the leading facility here in winter.

The outdoor pool is pampering and relaxing (Photo by Motti Verses)
A desert temple of rejuvenation – the Spa (Photo by Motti Verses)
The pampering beautifully designed indoor pool – a true masterpiece (Photo by Motti Verses)

Gastronomy stands out in Six Senses Shaharut. Creative homey furniture compositions are reflected in the magnificent food outlets of this resort. The beautifully designed Jamillah bar and Midian classic restaurant are impressive. We enjoyed our magnificent breakfasts there with indoor and outdoor seating that will be cherished.

For Dinner, reputed Chef David Biton, the former executive chef of the King David hotel Jerusalem, combines the best of Israeli and Mediterranean influences. He skillfully embraces the Eat With Six Senses philosophy of local fresh and seasonal produce. Some ingredients are even harvested from the resort’s organic gardens. Not kosher certified, ingredients such as pork and seafood are not served here. “I am fortunate to operate first class restaurants and not food outlets of a traditional hotel,” says Chef Biton. “The number of dinners is small and no banquets are on the agenda here. All the ingredients are fresh and nothing comes from freezers. We use only fresh spices. We guarantee state of the art gastronomy which is hard to find in conservative hotels. Six Senses Shaharut is a green hotel with endless recycling procedures in use as well, which make my professional  journey here amazingly exceptional,” he says.

The beautifully designed Jamillah bar (Photo by Motti Verses)
Midian, a classic restaurant offering magnificent gastronomy in indoor and outdoor seating (Photo by Motti Verses)
Chef David Biton with his amazing all natural Turkish Spinach Cannelloni, made of homemade pasta filled with spinach, Neot Samdar feta cheese, roasted Maggi tomatoes, Parmesan Reggiano and Local yogurt (Photo by Motti Verses)

But for my money what really differentiate Six Senses Shaharut from any other hotel in Israel are the management and the employees. This is the only hospitality estate that is almost fully operationally managed by non Israelis. These professional foreigners are transmitting the Six Senses philosophy after experiencing it before in other properties around the globe. None of them, excluding Chef Biton, worked in a hotel in Israel before. Their professional mindset is just different. It reflects directly on the employees, most of them young optimistic Israelis, saving money to conquer the world, or foreigners eager to develop a career within the brand. General Manager Graham is no less than a conductor holding a baton, representing a one of a kind orchestra in this isolated temple of sustainability. A place with not a single nylon’s bag flying in the air or plastic utensils thrown in some places and revealed to the eye when the wind is blowing. Apparently it is possible in Israel after all. A clean part of Negev is guaranteed under Graham’s leadership.

Staying here is not cheap. It is very expensive. The hotel is far and it’s a challenge to make a decision to stay for 2-3 nights in Six Senses Shaharut. Seeing beyond, there is one major side effect to consider after checking out. Staying in another resort in the future may cause disappointments and setbacks. Especially after experiencing this ultimate sanctuary, blending with nature and truly relaxing.

Just for quick glances while driving:

The Negev offers great opportunities to enjoy geological wonders and unexpected animals.

From upper left clockwise: Makhtesh Ramon – the world’s largest erosion crater, Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon(far right)with the crew of the space shuttle Columbia, Mitzpe Ramon Alpaca Farm and ibexes enjoying its local park (Photos by Motti Verses)
  • Makhtesh Ramon is the world’s largest erosion crater and boasts spectacular views. Exciting rappelling activities and magical rim hikes are truly phenomenal.
  • Its Visitor Center is also a museum dedicated to Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon that perished aboard the space shuttle Columbia. Guests can also learn about the geological formation of the crater.
  • On the northern rim lies the town of Mitzpe Ramon, hosting friendly ibexes in its local green park. Additional surprises await in the Alpaca Farm hosting alpacas and llamas, the only place outside of South America where one will find a herd of alpacas
  • Deep south the desert formations never cease to surprise. Solomon’s sandstone Pillars of Timna Park are perfectly formed, so is its famous mushroom rock .
About the Author
The author is a hotel expert, traveler, writer, videographer and the former Head of Public Relations of Hilton Hotels and Resorts in Israel
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