Mitzpe Ramon, 120 miles south of Tel Aviv, has been a convenient stopping-off point for more than 3,000 years. The first travellers to break their journeys here were Nabatean nomads, who needed a place to rest on their long treks from the Arabian peninsula to the Mediterranean.
Their great camel caravans carried spices along a 1,500-mile route from their homes to port cities; later, Roman traders followed the same route to export precious goods to Europe.
Today, anyone eager to escape Jerusalem or Tel Aviv and head south to Eilat follows a similar path, heading straight through the Negev Desert along the highway. The Negev takes up more than 60 per cent of Israel’s land, but less than ten per cent of the population live here.
When David Ben Gurion resigned from office he made his home in the nearby Sde Boker Kibbutz, believing that he should set an example of living in the Negev desert, but relatively few people followed him.
Now, finally, Mitzpe Ramon has changed: rather than just acting a midway refuelling spot, a place to pass through, it has developed into a destination in its own right.
The natural wonder of the Ramon Crater is a key draw to the area and it is not hard to understand why. It is the largest crater in the world caused by erosion — rather than the impact of a meteor or a volcano — and it stretches around 25 miles in length by six miles at its widest point.
The Prism rock formation at the Ramon Crater (Photo: Dafna Tal/IMOT)
In its own way it is as impressive as North America’s Grand Canyon or Bryce Canyon and I feel utterly embarrassed that I knew nothing about it until now. At the Ramon Crater Visitor Centre a short film and displays explain how the crater, or makhtesh, was formed five million years ago — in geological terms, that’s relatively recent.
The centre also has several exhibits and an informative, moving film relating to Israel’s first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, one of the seven who died on the Columbia Space Shuttle on February 1, 2003.
While my sons, Sammy and Jack, enjoyed visiting the centre, it was on a bouncy jeep tour deep into the heart of the crater that everything really came to life. Our guide Yarden helped our boys build sand models of mountains, and then explained how they were slowly eroded by water, before showing them examples of each different layer of the crater. Now masters at identifying sandstone, limestone and basalt, it is a lesson they’ll remember for a long time.
The colours of each rock are strikingly different, and Yarden poured water over the layers to bring each shade through, revealing how to paint our faces with the iron-rich red sandstone. The boys needed little encouragement.
Our second stop, Avdat National Park, was designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2005 (along with the rest of the Incense Route). Founded as a way-station for Nabateans, it was later developed by the Romans and Byzantines; the Romans added a watchtower to guard against unwanted visitors, then the Byzantines added a church. Centuries on, there are still thrilling burial and storage caves to explore.
As the sun set we drank delicious wine from the Sde Boker winery, while overlooking the excavated wine terraces where the Nabateans tended their own vines long ago.
The area’s accommodation is equally memorable: for a unique glamping experience, we chose to stay in a comfortable yurt at the Alpaca Farm close to the crater. Home to more than 100 alpacas, part of a herd that was flown over from Chile in a specially adapted Boeing jet, as well as horses and llamas, you can feed the animals during your stay. From the shower block, I’m pleased to say I saw llamas in my pyjamas — I don’t know who was more amused.
But there’s more than desert to discover and the town of Mitzpe Ramon itself has been overlooked for too long. As well as the diverse social mix that has long been present, it has developed into an oasis of hipsters with an impressive artistic and alternative culture and a commitment to the social wellbeing of the town.
The city is home to a few theatrical troupes and it’s fast becoming a key Israeli centre of circus and theatre skills. We tried a short but dizzying acrobalance class in the youth centre: while lying on his back, our genial host Tamir lifted me into the air with the soles of his feet, spun me round, then gently lowered me back to the ground. If we’d had longer, full courses are an option.
Eyal Alexandre of Inside Mitzpe was our guide to all that is new and exciting in the area, seeming to know everyone and everything and taking us to unusual spots off the beaten track such as the attractive solar-powered library, complete with Persian rugs that would not have looked out of place in ancient Avdat, and a domed khan constructed out of books where our children could tuck themselves away to read.
And if a small town in the heart of the desert also seems like an unlikely location for a culinary centre, we also enjoyed the best food in our two-week tour of Israel here. If you want innovative, perfectly presented food with a buzzy vibe, forget Tel Aviv and head to the new Sumsumiya restaurant.
Or, for a crater picnic breakfast, Mitzpe Eat’s beautiful hamper comes generously full of home-made goodies, and complete with picnic blanket and specially curated Spotify playlist.
You’ll find outstanding bread, pastries and coffee at the Lasha Bakery too, while a goat’s milk cappuccino at the long-established Kornmehl Goat’s Farm was delicious. Kornmehl’s konafa was also the best I’ve ever had (aside, naturally, from my mother-in-law’s).
On our last day in Mitzpe we witnessed a rare flooding of the wadis, a sight that caused great excitement in the area and drew onlookers all the way from Jerusalem.
Sheltering from the weather in the Uma art café, it not only sold the wares of local artists and craftspeople but gave our children the opportunity to indulge their own creative urges, selling paper bags containing art activities and providing a craft table with all the tools they needed to make their own wooden owls to take home.
Our guide Eyal had arranged for us to enjoy a taste of Bedouin hospitality before leaving, and despite the rain, we managed to reach the village of Salman Sadan and his family just in time, before the wadi became impassable. Welcomed with hot, sweet tea, they provided a homemade feast of fresh bread and traditional dishes cooked over charcoal — much as the Nabateans might have all those centuries before.
Coffee made from beans roasted over the fire — and pounded to the accompaniment of his two-year old daughter’s enthusiastic dancing to the rhythm — was a more modern addition to round it off.
When the water subsided, we left not only with full stomachs but equally replete with stories of our memorable time in the desert.
Various airlines fly to Israel from the UK, including El Al, Virgin, BA and easyJet, and the drive to Mitzpe Ramon takes around two hours.
Rooms at the Alpaca Farm cost from around £150 per night.
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