Part of the Great Rift Valley that runs for some 5000km from northern Syria to central Mozambique, this austerely beautiful and sparsely populated desert stretches from the Dead Sea to the Red Sea and has as its backdrop the majestic multi-hued Jordanian mountain range known in Israel as the Edom (Red) Mountains. Map.
The desert scenery is most spectacular around the settlement of Tzukim (aka Zuqim, or Zukim)(map) on Hwy 90 between the Dead Sea and Zihor Junction.
The Arava is becoming known as a center for outdoor activities, especially cycling. A popular 33km bike trail runs along a wadi (dry river bed) between Zofar (map) and Paran (map), and the desert terrain is a favorite destination for 4WD enthusiasts. In rainy years, Eshet Lake near Paran (map) is a popular swimming spot.
Kibbutz Neot Semadar (054 979 8966 (gallery), 08-635 8170 (tours); http://www.neot-semadar.com; Shizafon Junction; gallery entrance 18NIS, two-hour guided tour 250NIS; tours & gallery entrance 11am-2pm Sun-Fri)(map)
A true oasis in the desert, this kibbutz has lush green surrounds and a bizarre pink tower in which residents have established an arts center and a gallery where artisan crafts are sold to the public. The community was established in 1989 and focuses on promoting cooperation, creativity and learning in daily life. It supports itself through agriculture (orchard and olive grove), a winery, a solar field and the workshops it runs on self-awareness and Eco-building. The kibbutz is located on Hwy 40, halfway between Mitzpe Ramon and Eilat (10km up Hwy 40 from Ketura Junction on Hwy 90).
Timna Park (08-631 6756; http://www.parktimna.co.il; day ticket adult/child 44/36NIS; 8am-4pm Sat-Thu, 8am-3pm Fri )(map)
The colorful sands and craggy mountains of the Timna Valley, 25km north of Eilat, are full of minerals including copper, iron and manganese. This park incorporates traces from one of the world’s first copper mines,
and is home to thousands of ancient mining shafts, the remains of smelting furnaces dating back to ancient imperial Egypt, temple remnants and ancient rock drawings depicting ostriches, ibex and Egyptian battle chariots. Other attractions are geological phenomena including Solomon’s Pillars
(two huge columns of granite formed by rainwater some 540 million years ago) and the Mushroom, an eroded monolith in the shape of…you guessed it. You could easily spend a whole day hiking here, but the park is so spread out that you’ll also need a car. Information about walks is available at the visitor center, accessed off Hwy 90.
Hai-Bar Yotvata Nature Reserve (08-637 6018; http://www.parks.org.il; adult/student/child 29/25/15NIS; h8.30am-4pm Sun-Thu, 8.30am-3pm Fri & Sat) (map)
Wild animals that are mentioned in the Bible are bred at this nature reserve 35km north of Eilat, as are other endangered desert species. Divided into three areas – an area where herds of desert herbivores live in conditions similar to the wild; enclosures containing large predators, reptiles and small desert animals; and a ‘dark room’ to view nocturnal animals when they are active – it can be thoroughly explored in two hours if you have your own car. The reserve’s inhabitants include asses, oryx, addax and ostriches, and its flora includes acacia groves. You’ll find it on Hwy 90 about 42km north of Eilat, between Kibbutz Yotvata and Kibbutz Samar.
Kibbutz Ketura (www.ketura.org.il) (map)
One of the most interesting of Israel’s kibbutzim, Ketura has transformed itself from an agricultural kibbutz into a leader in innovative eco-technology. Founded in 1973, it is unusual in that it is a CABIN multinational, religiously pluralistic community. Home to the internationally renowned Arava Institute (http://arava.org), which researches and draws attention to ecological problems in the region, it runs businesses including a date plantation, a dairy farm, a photovoltaic solar field and an algae factory producing the powerful antioxidant Astaxanthin. The kibbutz is located on Hwy 90, 50km north of Eilat.
Kibbutz Lotan (08-635 6935; http://www.kibbutzlotan.com)(map)
Embracing an ecological vision known in Hebrew as tikun ‘olam (repairing the world), this kibbutz is known for its sincere and long-demonstrated commitment to sustainability and cooperative action. Visitors can take a guided daily tour at 9.30am (20NIS), spot wildlife in the kibbutz’s nature and bird reserve, discover the therapeutic delight of watsu (water shiatsu) in the kibbutz’s heated pool, or sign up for a one-week ‘eco-experience’, four- to seven-week ‘green apprenticeship’ or short permaculture workshop at the ecology education center. Regional bus 20 from Eilat stops at the kibbutz, and Egged buses to/from Tel Aviv stop on Hwy 90, nearby.
Samar Bike (052 551 8904, 052 304 0640; http://www.samarbike.com; Kibbutz Samar) (map)
Based at Kibbutz Samar, 34km north of Eilat, this outfit runs bike tours across a variety of trails in the Arava and can supply pick-up and drop-off services and logistics for those wanting to cycle part of the Israel National Trail. It operates a small guesthouse on the kibbutz that is tailored specifically towards bike tourism.
Sleeping & Eating
Desert Routes Inn (052 366 5927, 08-658 1829; Hatzeva; dm/d/tw/f US$27/208/208/285)(map)
The owners of this khan (desert inn) close to the Jordanian border in the Northern Arava are a mine of information about the area and can organize jeep, hiking and rappelling tours. They offer private and dorm rooms, and also operate a nearby camping ground. There’s a communal kitchen and hospitality tent, making it a great option for self-caterers.
Desert Days: Negev Eco Lodge (058 484 2357, 052 617 0028; http://www.negevecolodge.com; Tzukim; d weekday/weekend 450/525NIS, per child extra 50NIS)(map)
Nine cabins made of straw bales and mud provide a base for city dwellers seeking a tranquil desert escape. The surrounds are stony and stark, but there is an unusual string of desert pools to soften the overall effect. Each cabin can sleep up to six, and green features include self-composting toilets, recycled grey water and solar-generated power. Breakfast costs an extra 50/30NIS per adult/child. To reach the lodge, turn off Rte 90 at Tzukim and follow the ‘Desert Days’ sign.
Neot Semadar Guesthouse (054 979 8433; http://www.neot-semadar.com; d weekday/weekend 430/480NIS)(map)
A minimalist aesthetic is the hallmark of these sustainable built and attractive cabins, which are set in a garden on the edge of an olive grove. Each is equipped with a fridge and kettle, and the room charge includes a breakfast basket. Other meals can be taken at the nearby inn.
Kibbutz Ketura Country Lodge (057 941 9109; http://www.keren-kolot-israel.co.il; weekdays/weekends NIS350/400, d 440/530)(map)
Ketura’s guesthouse is comfortable and extremely well maintained. Three types of room are on offer: the ‘Marulla’, which sleeps up to four and has a private terrace; the two-room ‘Pitaya’ family suite, which sleeps up to eight; and the four-room ‘Argania’, which can also sleep eight. All have kitchenette and cable TV, and there are communal BBQs. Facilities include a basketball court, football field, alternative health centre (treatments from 180NIS), bicycle hire, and on-site coffee shop (open 8am to 11pm every day except Shabbat). Guests receive a free tour of the kibbutz and are welcome to join members for a dairy dinner (adult/child 35/30NIS) in the communal dining hall. Egged buses traveling along Hwy 90 will drop passengers at Ketura (40 minutes from Eilat; be sure to specify Kibbutz Ketura, not Ketura Junction). From Eilat, Regional Council bus 20 also stops here.
Kibbutz Lotan Guesthouse (08-635 6935; http://www.kibbutzlotan.com; weekday/weekend 300/370NIS, d 370/440NIS)(map)
There are two types of accommodation on offer at this kibbutz: simple but comfortable guesthouse cabins with kitchenette, bathroom, air-con and outdoor seating area; and hippy-ish mud eco-domes (some with private bathroom and some with shared facilities). Prices include breakfast in the kibbutz tea house, and other meals may be enjoyed with kibbutz residents in the communal dining room. Lotan is known as a ‘baby-butz’ because it is relatively small and many of its residents are young (the average age is 40), so there’s a lively atmosphere. Facilities include shady gardens, a children’s playground, a basketball court and a soccer field. Meals make the most of home-grown vegetables and dates, as well as dairy products made on site, and both vegans and vegetarians are catered for. Egged buses travelling to/from Eilat will drop passengers on Hwy 90 near the 1.5km-long access road to the kibbutz (45 minutes from Eilat); Regional Council bus 20 comes to the kibbutz itself.
Midbara (052 701 0444; http://www.midbara.co.il; Tzukim; d weekdays/weekends 800/900NIS, q 1200/1500NIS)(map)
The settlement of Tzukim is becoming a tourism hotspot, with a boom in construction of desert lodges. Midbara is definitely the most attractive of these, offering 11 well-spaced, comfortable and stylish mud cabins scattered along a valley planted with fruit trees. All its cabins have kitchens, a few have indoor fireplaces and most have a private relaxation pool and hammock. Children love the free bike hire and on-site animals (chickens, a camel), so it’s a great spot for a family holiday. Note that prices drop for stays of multiple nights. Tzukim is 113km north of Eilat. To reach the lodge, turn off Rte 90 at Tzukim and follow the ‘Desert Days’ sign.
A great deal of thought has gone into the design of these mud cabins overlooking a stony wadi in Tzukim. Each is extremely well equipped and tastefully decorated, and has an outdoor BBQ and private balcony with hot tub. It’s worth paying extra for a cabin with a panoramic view, as the mountain vistas are magnificent. A delicious breakfast can be delivered to your cabin for 54NIS per person.
Neot Semadar Inn (08-635 8180; http://www.neot-semadar.com; Shizzafon Junction; labneh 26NIS, cheese platter 50NIS, mains 40-45NIS; h7am-7pm Sun-Thu, 7am-3pm Fri)(map)
A lush rear garden gives this roadside inn its name (neot means ‘oasis’). Operated by the kibbutz of the same name, it serves home-made goats cheese and labneh, as well as a range of salads, egg dishes, dips, pasta and cakes made using organic produce. Be sure to try one of the home-made fruit nectars or juices.