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Mitzpe Ramon

Oases in Israel : Relaxing at three comfort zones in the harsh desert

November 17, 1996|MARJORIE MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Miller is The Times' Jerusalem Bureau Chief

The two-lane, desert highway from Be'er Sheva to Israel's 25-mile-long Makhtesh Ramon (Ramon Crater) stretches through an archipelago of Bedouin camps, past a few modest clumps of trees and then on for mile after hypnotic mile of rocks and rolling hills of sand.

If you like the desert, then you'll love the Negev. There's no mistaking it for anything else. But if, like us, you are partial to the world's tropical forests and green highlands, you might find yourself in a sudden, thirsty panic, combing the horizon for every last tuft of vegetation and imagining your car giving out at the gaping jaws of an enormous snake.

The first clue that maybe, just maybe, this is an overreaction is in the relatively heavy traffic on this well-paved road that does not lead to all that many places. Route 40, as it is called, runs south from Be'er Sheva--a famed watering hole for Abraham's sheep 3,800 or so years ago--toward the Gulf of Eilat (Aqaba) at the southernmost tip of Israel. True, the Israelis saw fit to stick a number of ugly army installations and a substantial prison out here in what is not exactly the country's prime real estate. But, in fact, we found ourselves in the company of a number of tour buses during a weekend excursion away from Jerusalem at the beginning of this year.

With two kids and a grandmother growing antsy in the backseat of our VW Golf, my husband and I drove through this seemingly unending landscape for a couple of hours before we rounded a bend and, boom, ran right smack into the town of Mitzpe Ramon.

Like so many of the places we have discovered in our 1 1/2 years working as journalists in Israel, Mitzpe Ramon may not be the most beautiful town we have ever seen. But it is a fun spot, nonetheless--good for walking and Jeep tours of the nearby crater, good as a stopover on the way to the Red Sea resort of Eilat, and a good base from which to set out on a camel ride.

Its very existence in the middle of the Negev seems a minor miracle.

With about 5,000 residents, many of them Russian immigrants and Black Hebrews originally from the United States, Mitzpe Ramon is a neat community of cement apartment buildings that look like college dormitories, parks with clean playgrounds and a municipal swimming pool. But the town has had trouble attracting industry and has suffered from severe unemployment in recent years since the more direct Route 90 to Eilat was built.

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In the middle of town is the Ramon Inn, a modern 96-room hotel whose lobby boasts a welcome riot of green plants. It does not offer a view of the desert crater, as guidebooks would seem to suggest, but it does have attractive rooms done in purple and peach pastels, and the staff is friendly--and will organize and book family activities for you, including hiking, Jeep tours, cliff rappelling, etc.

We stayed in an air-conditioned two-bedroom suite with living room (an extra sofa bed there) and equipped kitchenette for $174 a night. A regular double room is $86 weeknights and $120 weekends. This includes a nice buffet breakfast. for American or Middle Eastern taste buds. The spread is fresh fruit, juice, cereals, scrambled eggs and whole wheat breads, or pita bread with smoked fish, cheeses, vegetables and olives. For dessert, there are sweet breads, syrupy fruits and halvah.

There is a well-regarded youth hostel in the area, Beit Noam Youth Hostel, that must be booked well in advance; and the Hanion Beirot Camping Site, which is open day and night with bathroom and cooking facilities and also has old-fashioned desert huts for guests who want to get closer to the land where Moses led the Israelites. We did not have a chance to visit either one on our family outing.

Mitzpe Ramon, which means "Ramon viewpoint," sits on the lip of a true natural wonder--a 1,320-foot-deep crater carved by erosion rather than by a volcanic explosion or fallen meteorite. This really is the town's raison d'e^tre.

Our first stop, however, was at an alpaca farm on the edge of town, the only one we know of in the Middle East. Ostensibly, this was to please the children. In fact, it was to satisfy our own curiosity about just exactly how these animals of the South American Andes had adapted to the Negev.

The answer is, just fine.

"We shear them in April and build them lots of shade," said one of the farmhands. "We are at a 1,000 feet here, so sometimes we even get snow in the winter."

Seeing our incredulous faces on a sunny, shirt-sleeves day in January, he added, "Well, today isn't the best example."

The Alpaca Farm is a little jewel. The Israeli owners brought about 120 alpacas from Chile eight years ago and now have 300, a majority of them born in the desert.

Many of these long-necked creatures wander about unfenced and will gladly nosh alpaca food from your hand, which generally tickles, except for the few animals we encountered with buck teeth.

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