May 28, 2010
Masada National Park Destination: Desert
Israel’s Negev boasts a full itinerary of cool spots, unique experiences for adventurous travelers
Photos of grinning tourists covered from head to toe with thick, dark mud from the Dead Sea are a common sight. But the famously therapeutic body of saltwater is not the only reason to venture south of Tel Aviv on a trip to Israel. The vast Negev region, which accounts for more than half of Israel’s land mass and stretches from Kiryat Gat to Eilat, contains an abundance of treasures: magnificent views, canyons, archaeological sites, biblical remains, natural hot springs, flourishing agricultural farms and opportunities to explore the terrain by bicycle, jeep, all-terrain vehicle and, of course, camel.
David Ben-Gurion Graveand Home
The iconic first prime minister of Israel and champion of the Negev is buried next to his wife, Paula, on a site with a breathtaking view of the Tzin Canyon and the Avdat highlands. Nearby, in Kibbutz Sde Boker, where the couple spent the last years of their lives promoting the development of the desert, is their modest home, preserved to show David’s simple lifestyle, extensive library collection and varied fields of interest.
Mitzpe Ramon Route 40, near Ben-Gurion University’s Midreshet Sde Boker campus. (08) 6555684.
Believe it or not, vineyards bloom from the seemingly inhospitable sands of the Negev Desert. The so-called Wine Road is a string of recently founded family agricultural farms in the Negev highlands where you can sample a variety of wines and cheeses, and meet pioneers who have chosen to bring back a crop — the grape — which once flourished in the region, using cutting-edge Israeli agricultural technology. The Wine Road includes the Boker Valley Vineyards, Carmei Avdat Farm, Kornmehl Farm, Rota Farm, Zait Hamidbar Farm and others along Route 40, south of Beersheva.
Pamper yourself at this desert oasis health center and spa, located 20 minutes south of Beersheva, which contains four thermo-mineral pools filled with naturally heated water that comes from a depth of almost 3,000 feet below ground. The therapeutic waters are rich in calcium, magnesium, potassium and sulfur, which make for a relaxing and rejuvenating experience. There are also steam and dry saunas, as well as a host of massage treatments.
The seminomadic Arab Bedouins are natives of Israel’s Negev region and are believed to have been living in the desert for more than 7,000 years. The vibrant Bedouin market in Beersheva, which takes place every Thursday, offers a glimpse into this desert culture — handmade products, souvenirs and even a livestock section where sheep and camels are sold. Be sure to get there by sunrise. By the time the desert sun reaches its highest point, the experienced desert dwellers retreat into their cool, shaded homes.
Considered Israel’s Grand Canyon, the Makhtesh Ramon is the world’s largest crater formed by erosion — rather than by a meteor strike or volcanic eruption — a geological feature unique to the Negev. Ramon is one of five makhtesh in the Negev. Its length is approximately 25 miles and its width reaches about 5.5 miles. The highest peak in the Negev can be found near the crater — the Ramon Mount, which rises 3,402 above sea level. (08) 6588691.
A beautiful oasis on the western edge of the Dead Sea, this nature reserve boasts rivers that flow all year long and natural hot springs that form waterfalls and pools carved into the rocks. Tropical vegetation and an abundance of animal species such as ibexes, hyraxes and leopards make this park a national treasure.(08) 6584285.
The Negev region was once a thriving highway of international trade, and Avdat was one of the most important Nabatean cities along the Incense Route, the road over which incense, perfumes and spices were transported out of Arabia to Mediterranean ports from the third century B.C.E. until the second century C.E. The ruins at Avdat, from the Roman-Byzantine period, show a bustling ancient city with public buildings, a ceramics workshop, a large fortress, public bath houses, two churches, cave tombs, cisterns and storerooms.
Founded by young Israeli soldiers in the early 1950s who were laughed at for wanting to breed milk cows in the desert, this kibbutz is now one of Israel’s most successful and well-known dairy farms, controlling more than 60 percent of Israel’s entire dairy products market. Yotvata is also known for its chain of high-quality dairy restaurants dotting the country. The kibbutz is also lauded for its 3,000-acre Hai Bar Nature Reserve, which is dedicated to reviving extinct species mentioned in the Bible and reintroducing them into their native desert habitats.
One of the most breathtaking sites in Israel is this mountainous plateau at sunrise — the beauty of the surrounding desert landscape and Dead Sea, the awe-inspiring tale of rebellion and the remnants of ancient frescos, mosaics and mikvehs make Masada (Hebrew for fortress) a must-see. After the Second Temple was destroyed, a group of rebels and their families fled to this elevated plateau at the edge of the Judean Desert and fought a bitter battle against the Romans before finally committing collective suicide to avoid being captured, leaving behind magnificent ruins. To Israelis, Masada is the ultimate symbol of the determination of the Jewish people to be free in their own land.(08) 6584207.
Israel Air Force Museum
Israel’s elite air force has a fascinating history, which was kept under wraps until the Israel Air Force Museum was opened to the public in 1991. Located on the Hatzerim Israeli Air Force base, on the western outskirts of Beersheva, the museum features an outdoor exhibition of more than 140 aircraft, including Phantoms, Skyhawks and combat helicopters, as well as enemy aircraft Israel captured during battles. The Boeing 707 used in the famous Entebbe mission, during which the IAF rescued Israelis being held captive in Uganda, has been converted into a theater where rare, archived films documenting the development of Israeli aviation are screened. Just don’t ask too many questions. The famously attractive tour guides — all young women currently serving in the air force — don’t appreciate cheeky inquiries into Israel’s “secret” arsenal of weapons.Military Post 02832, Hatzerim, Beersheva.
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