MITZPE RAMON, Israel (JTA) — Israel’s Negev Desert is at once intimate and vast.
In a country where space is at a premium, it’s easy to forget that nearly half the land is empty and rocky, unencumbered by houses, office buildings or people pushing past you. The only lights are the stars that crowd the sky.
But that emptiness can also be comforting, reminding urban visitors that the land is there, waiting to envelop them, to be explored.
Nowhere is this duality better exemplified than at Makhtesh Ramon, Israel’s answer to the Grand Canyon, a crater roughly 25 miles long and nearly a third of a mile deep located about an hour south of Beersheva. Visitors can easily get lost in the endless views from its lip or become absorbed by its hiking paths, steep walls and rock formations.
The Beresheet Hotel, a luxury getaway overlooking the crater, also captures the simultaneous intimacy and vastness of the desert. Guests can enjoy the limitless views of the crater from the calming waters of the pool, or from the toasty lobby bar, or even from bed. Or they can escape the arid surroundings altogether with a day at the spa.
Located in the small overlook city of Mitzpe Ramon, Beresheet, one of just five hotels in the Isrotel chain’s Exclusive Collection, is itself a retreat from the country’s more popular tourist spots. That’s why it attracts Israelis as well as international tourists.
To get there from Israel’s central region is a two-hour trek from Tel Aviv and two-and-a-half from Jerusalem. And unless you’re willing to pay a hefty taxi fare, take a five-hour ride on two buses or hire a driver, you’ll need a car. For those who travel in style, the hotel offers a one-hour helicopter ride from Tel Aviv.
The roads leading to the crater are winding, the lighting spare and the stereotypes about Israeli drivers all too true. But overall the drive is relaxing, offering panoramic views of Israel’s central farmlands and the Negev. If you can, slow down occasionally to catch a glimpse of the ibex, goats or even camels meandering along the road.
Unlike most hotels, Beresheet takes advantage of the open surroundings to spread out across a network of winding stone paths, all of which lead to the lobby and restaurant. The hotel offers free, on-demand golf cart service for those unable or unwilling take the few minutes’ walk to their room.
The lobby, dominated by a bowl-shaped fountain of black marble, leads to a kosher meat restaurant (open until 9 p.m.; things close fairly early in Mitzpe Ramon) and a charming lounge area offering a full kosher dairy and drinks menu until 10:30 p.m.
Our trip from Tel Aviv got us to Beresheet in time for a lounge dinner. Like the rest of the hotel, the room exudes a feel of desert luxury. Small statues of ibex sit on long wooden tables next to bulbous, empty black vases. Spherical lights cast a dim glow in a room heated by iron stoves with exposed piping. Colored in pastel purples and browns, the room blended seamlessly with a view of the Negev’s boulders at night, while a piano and bass duo serenaded us in Hebrew, Italian and Spanish.
The hotel is nothing if not English friendly — as expected, the staff was proficient and there were plenty of English-language brochures — but our fellow guests conversed mostly in Hebrew (with some Arabic). They dressed in casual outerwear, propped their feet on stools and sunk into couches as if they were in someone’s living room.
The meal, though, was worthy of an upscale restaurant. I ordered a Caesar salad and brick oven ricotta and olive pizza, while my wife went with Jerusalem artichoke cream soup and goat cheese ravioli. Both meals were filling, rich and flavorful. My only mistake was ordering cheesecake — one cheese too many — though my wife’s white chocolate mousse made for a sweet ending. Each meal cost about $35.
Beresheet shuts down at night; we began watching the movie “Take this Waltz” in a room with a projection screen until an employee came in 20 minutes later to lock up. Soon after, we found out that we’d missed the last golf cart at midnight.
During the day, Beresheet is full of activity. That Friday offered a yoga class, a photography workshop, movie screenings and a massage. Kids get a bright, colorful room of toys and games, and the hotel has an indoor and outdoor pool, both with views of the crater.
The main enticement though is a full-service spa offering a long menu of treatments, from short massages to skin wraps, deep-tissue pressure and oil massages. The choices include Swedish, Indian, Thai and Japanese massage. The full massages come with a price tag of around $100.
For guests who want to leave the hotel grounds, the crater offers no shortage of hikes, walks and rappelling. Sde Boker, where visitors can see David Ben-Gurion’s house, is nearby. And Eilat, Israel’s main resort and beach town, is an hour-and-a-half away.
At Beresheet, however, you’ll be tempted not to leave your room, which has a rustic aesthetic similar to the lounge. Our room featured a charming private pool, even if the night was far too cold for outdoor swimming. We also had a king-size bed, a living-room area with couch, coffee and tea, wine, fresh fruit, dried fruit bars and not one but two widescreen TVs — one for the couch and one for the bed. Fancy a 2 a.m. “Mad Men” rerun? Oh yes.
Our only quibble was the tile floor. The desert gets cold at night and we found ourselves shivering as we tried in vain to work an inadequate thermostat.
Fortunately, there was tea to keep us warm. And in the morning we were greeted with a typically sumptuous Israeli hotel breakfast: pastries, fruit, eggs and more cheese. Beresheet put a twist on the offerings with the addition of Druze labane cheese and natural honeycomb.
Luxury doesn’t come cheap at Beresheet. A standard weekend room including breakfast costs $500 a night. Tack on another $100 for the private pool. But those that can afford it will enjoy a relaxing resort far from Israel’s crowded tourist hot spots, and even further from the daily grind.