Israel in the gardens: Hotel offers lap of luxury in a breathtaking landscape

Stroll the moonlike terrain along the rim of the Ramon Crater in southern Israel and you’ll feel like you’re walking on the edge of the world. Continue a few yards back to your room at the Beresheet Hotel and you’ll feel like you’re staying on the top of the world.

Open for two years, the Beresheet Hotel is a five-star property in a 10-star location. It is practically chiseled onto a cliff that overlooks Makthtesh Ramon, the largest (10 miles wide at some points) of the Negev’s three otherworldly natural erosion craters. Makthtesh means “crater” in Hebrew, while beresheet means “in the beginning” or Genesis.

The Beresheet Hotel overlooks a miles-long natural erosion crater in the Negev. photos/andy altman-ohr

Beginning — or ending — a trip to Israel in the Negev probably isn’t at the top of most travelers’ lists. It’s a vast, arid region containing more than 60 percent of Israel’s land mass but less than 10 percent of its population.

But the Negev is slowly and surely developing as a desirable if not a “hidden gem” travel destination. The area’s “Wine Route” includes more than a dozen wineries, a mineral water health spa and goat cheese farms to visit, and the crater itself (and its accompanying topography) provides for a slew of outdoor activities, such as hiking into the canyon, biking through the primordial scenery, going off-road in Jeeps or ATVs and rappelling down cliffs.

Looking for adventure that’s not quite as taxing? Options abound. You can walk on a groomed trail, sit by the pool, start your morning with an outdoor yoga class or a sunrise photography excursion, ride a Segway or take a tour to a nearby Bedouin community.

And for people who like to rest their invigorated (and perhaps tired) bones in the lap of luxury, having the Beresheet right there is a desert dream come true. Its location cannot be beat.

Nor can the hotel’s beauty. Simul-taneously looking like a wide-angle painting of ancient Bethlehem and a setting in a science-fiction movie, the hotel’s 40 buildings (111 rooms) are built with an exterior of indigenous stone and tropical Brazilian wood. They are slung low to the ground and blend in perfectly with the yellow-brown landscape. No building is taller than two stories. The lobby and interiors are classy and contemporary while at the same time sensitive to culture, history and natural surroundings.

The hotel’s infinity pool “drops off” into the 1,640-foot-deep, 25-mile-long crater. The dining room’s vibe is five-star ski lodge meets desert motif meets world-destination luxury resort. The expansive breakfast buffet, with Middle Eastern delicacies aplenty, is a culinary symphony. Dinner is just as good. Easy-to-access walking and jogging trails that traverse the rim of the crater jut out from the hotel property. A flat, five-minute walk away is a sculpture park.

“This is a very special place,” said Sylvie Cohen Gabay, the general manager of the Beresheet Hotel until recently. She has now moved on to another hotel in the Isrotel Exclusive Collection, the Cramim Resort & Spa on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

“When Americans come here, they can see something that, as an Israeli, I can’t understand: How nobody really took this area seriously [as a vacation destination] for years and years,” she said. “It’s a really amazing place. This is the vision of David Ben-Gurion.”

Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, was a champion (and the most famous resident) of the Negev, seeing a biblical history mesh with a potential future as few others could. Two other believers, however, emerged in the 1990s, when Shimon Peres, then Israel’s finance minister and soon-to-be Minister for the Development of the Negev and Galilee, invited David Lewis, founder and president of the Isrotel hotel chain, to the desert village of Mitzpe Ramon.

Peres tried to convince Lewis to take over the rustic Ramon Inn, formerly a housing unit in the town, and turn it into a two- or three-star Isrotel hotel. “David said ‘What? What can I do with that building? And there is nothing here for tourists. It’s not a village even,’” Cohen Gabay said.

“Peres said, ‘Listen. I will take you on a tour. I want you to see the crater.’ ”

The rest is history. Lewis quickly became convinced the area could be turned into a tourist mecca, and started planning the Beresheet Hotel on the rim of the crater near Mitzpe Ramon, 123 miles from Jerusalem, 120 miles from Tel Aviv, 93 miles from Eilat and 52 miles from Beersheba.

When the Beresheet finally opened in April 2011, Peres attended the grand opening and reportedly pronounced it “the Taj Mahal of Israel.” Lewis himself made a point of traveling around the world, from Morocco to Thailand, researching five-star resorts during the Beresheet’s planning stages.

Some travelers on complain that a dearth of road signs makes the hotel difficult to find, although that certainly isn’t a problem for people who opt to arrive by helicopter (a one-hour flight from Tel Aviv). And with rooms priced from the low $300s to more than $500 per night, it’s certainly not a bargain hotel.

Also, a year ago, nightlife and shopping options were almost nonexistent. Now, however, there is Lasher (a bread bakery open to customers on weekends); the Mitzpe Ramon Jazz Club; Hadasa’ar (a coffeehouse, organic grocery and gift shop); Made in Mitzpe (a hangar that has been converted into studios and galleries); Faran (handmade cosmetics); and Nature Scent (a family-run workshop that makes soaps and bath products). Most of them are in the village of Mitzpe Ramon, which is far enough away from the Beresheet to be out of sight but still within fairly easy walking distance.

Then again, you don’t come to the Beresheet for shopping. You come for the heavenly views. Nearly all of the rooms face the crater — some are right on the rim, while others are further away (tip: if you’re in a room that’s away from the crater, request the second floor for a better scenic angle). All the rooms are modern, luxurious and designed for the sophisticated traveler.

Additionally, the hotel is placing itself in the center of the Negev’s growth. Room amenities, spa items, wine, breads, meat, and fruits and vegetables are all locally sourced. The food, elegantly displayed and presented, goes well beyond the offerings of other resorts in the Dead Sea area.

Though the hotel is not a certified green property — all laundry, for example, is sent by truck to Eilat, so as to avoid creating wastewater on site — the management has taken great care to not disrupt the natural surroundings. The electricity lines are underground. The land was not altered, no hills were flattened, no big holes were dug (aside from the swimming pool). A public use trail running along the rim of the crater traverses the Beresheet property. Most of what one sees is stone and wood.

“It was very important for Mr. Lewis to keep the place quiet, not to bring something big and shiny and marble,” Cohen Gabay said. “He really wanted to make the area mesh with the surroundings.”

Mission accomplished.

Andy Altman-Ohr stayed at the Beresheet Hotel while on last year’s Murray Fromson Media Mission to Ben-Gurion University, sponsored and hosted by American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.