Oasis in the desert? Let's drink to that
We find the wine cup floweth over in the Negev, but it's no easy ride.
The view from Beresheet hotel
Israel's president, Shimon Peres, who can turn a phrase or two, turned to his hosts with a huge smile.
"This," he declared, "is the Taj Mahal of the Negev."
Since the Taj Mahal is famously Shah Jehan's architectural declaration of love to his wife, the president might have exaggerated slightly. But David Lewis's magnificent new hotel, the Beresheet, is certainly a love letter to the Negev desert, and though it has only been open since Pesach, it seems likely that the embrace will be wholeheartedly reciprocated.
It's more than 20 years since the British hotelier was invited by Israeli leaders to help open up the Negev, fulfilling David Ben-Gurion's famous dream of making the desert bloom. But Isrotel, David Lewis's company that built the Beresheet, would readily admit it has not been plain sailing.
Not the least of the difficulty in opening the hotel, whose name means "Beginnings", was opposition from Israel's Green lobby, anxious that it would bring all sorts of environmental problems to the area.
In fact the father and son team who designed the hotel, Yehuda and Yoel Fagin, have achieved something really special. It is almost impossible to see Beresheet from the main road, but once inside, Sylvie Cohen Gabay, its general manager, watches out for the "wow" on guests' faces.
For the hotel perches on the edge of the Makhtesh Ramon, the giant crater next to the tiny township of Mizpe Ramon. You simply cannot help but say "Wow" when faced with the vast expanse of the crater, whose rocks flicker from rose to gold to chocolate, from sunrise to sunset.
Flights: Easyjet and El Al fly to Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv from various UK airports.
Trains: Run from Tel Aviv to Beersheba. Driving time, around 1 hour
Where to stay: Beresheet Hotel on the edge of the Ramon crater. Double room on a half board basis costs from $322.
Tours: As at hotel or My Wine Tours offer specialist Negev tours.
Mrs Gabay, who has opened six hotels for Isrotel, is slightly surprised at the behaviour of the clientele. Most people come for two or three nights and the Beresheet expected that guests would head out every day to explore the area - and there is much to do. But instead, she says, they stay, seduced by the sensational view and the great food and facilities, before either making their way down to Eilat or turning back to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.
Ah, the food. The Negev turns out to be a foodie paradise, who knew? Not just a foodie paradise, in fact, but a drinker's heaven.
More than 2,000 years ago the Nabateans grew grapes and cultivated vineyards on the rocky desert slopes, and now there are 11 wine-makers following in the Nabatean footsteps - some in almost the same stepped terraces.
Another ancient tradition which has been revived is cheese-making, and the Kornmehl goat cheese farm is one of the finest exponents. The arrival of the Beresheet has had a major impact on the wineries and the cheesemongers. The Isrotel management, headed by chef Assaf Bouzaglo, told the wine and cheese farmers: "We will feature your produce in our hotel - but it must be kosher." So kashrut certification was duly sought and obtained, making it possible to enjoy the best of the Negev at the Beresheet.
The adventurous, however, may well want to investigate for themselves. Banish from your minds all wine tours elsewhere. This is nothing like the Garden Route from Cape Town, with manicured wineries and a slick visitors' centre in the front office. Nor is it anything like California's Napa Valley, where winemakers have refined the art to a finely-tuned chemical process, with barely any sense of vinous romance.
Touring the Negev wineries is not for the faint-hearted. To start, very few can be approached by anything which we would recognise as a road. Most, though in place for more than a decade, have the air of having been flung down that very day.
The winemakers themselves run a gamut of presentation between Sde Boker's respectable Zvi Remak - a kibbutznik, married to a Brummie - to the eclectic artist Erez Rota of Rota Winery.
The latter was founded on the Negev Heights and though Rota wines are on the Beresheet menu they seem sometimes almost secondary to his wildly creative sculptures which are scattered around his farm.
The diminutive Moshe Zohar, at the Boker Valley Vineyard, quite literally built everything himself, from the indoor tasting room to the cool, covered outside picnic area, with rustic tables and benches. Zohar is bursting with ideas; he plans a cellar on site for all the area's wines. Unlike some of the other winemakers, he takes his grapes to a bigger winery, Barkan, to make into wine under his own label.
Over at Carmey-Avdat, winemaker Eyal Izrael could produce 20,000 bottles a year, but chooses instead to make only half that and sends the rest of his grapes to other wineries.
Like all the Negev wines there is a distinctive fruity taste, quite unlike wines from the Golan or the Galilee.
Anat Kornmehl is an eighth-generation Israeli who abandoned Tel Aviv to run her cheerfully rickety goat farm, on the site of an ancient Nabatean farm, with her Argentinian-born husband Danny.
The Kornmehls have been in the desert for 14 years and their small herd of 100 goats gives them the most splendid cheeses: they produce eight varieties, ranging from soft to nutty and hard. Each cheese, charmingly, is named after one of the goats.
Back at the Beresheet there is ample evidence of the impact of the Green lobby. Cars are not allowed in the complex of 111 rooms, so once you have checked in, you board an electric golf cart whose drivers whizz guests around.
The rooms are a series of mini-cottages, some of which have a private
12 sq m pool.
You could, if you wanted, arrive by helicopter, but most people, unsurprisingly, drive to the hotel, just over an hour from Beersheva. It's not cheap: the presidential suite is a socking £2,574 a night, but other rooms are proportionately less expensive - and you pay for the room, not per person.
On site is a spa, a small but willing to expand gift shop, a mini-synagogue (and two others only 150 metres from the hotel itself), a kids' club and a state-of-the-art cinema, which shows different films every night.
Shimon Peres might just be right about the Taj Mahal allusion. This is a jewel in the desert.