ECONOMY

Desert deluxe: Israel’s lavish new Six Senses resort

To get to the Six Senses Shaharut, the newly opened resort almost at the southern tip of Israel, I left my home in Jaffa, on the Mediterranean coast, and drove deep into the Negev desert.

At first, the landscape changes slowly, from the gritty, decaying charm of southern Tel Aviv to the grimy, industrial outskirts of Beersheba. But urban Israel soon falls away and the otherworldly beauty of the rocky Negev desert fills the windscreen. At one point, the deep craters formed over millennia of erosion create a landscape so alien, so inhospitable, that Austrian Space Forum researchers are this month using it to simulate the isolation of life on Mars.

To get to the Six Senses, though, you keep driving. You continue past a rival, the Beresheet Isrotel, perched on the edge of the Ramon crater, and continue further into the desert until you’re suddenly confronted with a serious fork in the road.

Straight ahead: the Ovda Air Base, a military airport surrounded by barbed wire, sentries in jeeps and an ominous air of Do Not Enter. To the left: a tiny lane winding up a hill, and a small sign promising that it will lead to your destination — the newest, buzziest, most expensive and most sought after hotel in Israel.

A villa with private pool and far-ranging views at the Six Senses Shaharut

This awkward juxtaposition, between the military infrastructure and the undeniable beauty not just of the landscape but the resort itself, will become a motif of my extravagant three-night stay. It’s not an irrelevant aside, either, nor manufactured anguish.

House & Home travel map Israel

All travel is political right now — from the questions of privilege that allow vaccinated tourists to vacation midst-pandemic, to the unsettled issues of our leisure’s impact on climate change. On this trip, just a few months after an 11-day violent confrontation with Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, the hovering presence of the Israeli military — from tank manoeuvres throwing up dust storms nearby, to the late-night thuds of shells from the Shizafon School for Armored Corps, a 20-minute drive north — provides a jarring backdrop to perhaps the most gorgeous hotel in the country.

For now, as one of the few foreigners at the resort, I seem to be the only who notices — or cares. Israel is all but closed to foreign tourists, and the hotel is full of wealthy Israelis desperate for a vacation unfettered by the unpredictability of quarantines and the vicissitudes of foreign travel. (One morning, I woke to the sound of helicopters ferrying in Tel Aviv-based investment bankers to a corporate retreat.)

A villa as night falls over the desert. The hotel has 60 rooms and villas in total
Night falls over one of the hotel’s 60 rooms and villas

But what awaits those foreign tourists, when they are finally allowed in, and is delighting the locals right now, is a property of extraordinary restraint and thoughtful grace. Hewn into a hillside over more than a decade of construction — including years of stones being broken by hand and fitted, jig-saw like, into rising walls — the hotel has 60 rooms and villas, all arranged so they look down over the rocky slopes and barely break the horizon themselves.

The Tree of Life at the Six Senses
Part of the reception area, with the hotel’s ‘tree of life’
Desert deluxe: Israel’s lavish new Six Senses resort

“The challenge for us was how do we create something that is a simple but luxurious hotel, but also where the topography will be the main subject,” says the architect, Daniela Plesner. Her Tel Aviv-based company, Plesner Architects, won the design competition to build the resort for the Israeli developer and entrepreneur Ronny Douek.

Plesner had visited the area when she was an architecture student in the early 1990s. (Her boyfriend was working here on what was then a camel farm.) Today, a few camels sit by a faux-Bedouin tent near the entrance, the starting point for desert experiences offered to guests, but that’s where any Bedouin influences end.

Plesner’s vision, built at a cost of more than $100m, is a meditation between the harshness of the landscape and the plush safety of the rooms. In nearly each part of the hotel, guests first enter a sort of shaded courtyard or patio, and then move on into their rooms or the spa, or restaurant. “It’s a sequence between the openness and beauty of the view, and then going into something more protected,” says Plesner.

A cheerful fleet of Hummer-branded electric buggies ferry guests between their rooms and the communal areas at the top of the hill — the reception, restaurants, pool and spa, all of which come with far-ranging views over the Arava valley and the Edom Hills. In the evenings, lights from Aqaba, in Jordan, and from Taba, in Egypt, twinkle below the night-sky.

The outdoor pool
The outdoor pool in the middle of the desert

During the day, there is not much to do but luxuriate in the beauty of your surroundings, best done by the outdoor pool. On my second day, I walked down to the spa, where I was met by Omrie. He sat me beside a table filled with fragrances, salts and herbs, and helped me concoct a scrub that he would soon be using to slough off the desert sand and dead skin off my back.

Omrie, in his late twenties, had spent years travelling “in the east — Tibet, China, and elsewhere,” to better learn how best to tune his body, “the instrument with which I travel the world.” How he had ended up working in a resort, massaging wealthy people, was “a complicated question,” he said.

Indeed, the entire staffing at the Six Senses is a complicated question. In a place so remote (the nearest village is an artist’s colony called Shaharut, and the resort city of Eilat is over an hour’s drive away) finding the 250 staff required to take care of the guests required an inventive solution.

The indoor pool and spa
The indoor pool and spa. Architect Daniela Plesner aimed to create ‘a sequence between the openness and beauty of the view, and then going into something more protected’

The answer came from the Israeli military — the majority of staff are just out of the mandatory army service. A government program pays them a bonus if they work in certain industries, including hospitality, for a year after their service, instead of immediately going off on their long-awaited travels to India, Thailand or South America.

The hotel built staff housing on a nearby kibbutz and the ex-soldiers shack up for a year, working shifts, and awaiting their bonus to start their trips. General manager Thomas Fehlbier, who previously ran the Banana Island Anantara Resort in Doha, says he hopes some will stick around and make a career out of hospitality. “I don’t need you to have ten years of experience serving breakfast in Eilat, but if you’re fresh and smiling then . . . you’re one I can deal with,” he said. “I can teach you how to serve a coffee, but smiling has to come from the heart.”

The hotel serves lavish dinners featuring lamb chops from Galilee and Mediterranean fish
The hotel serves lavish dinners featuring lamb chops from Galilee and Mediterranean fish
Desert deluxe: Israel’s lavish new Six Senses resort

On one night, the staff needed to come to reset the electricals in my villa before the lights would turn off — a process that took an hour — but, since it opened in August, the hotel seems to have worked through most of its teething pains (mercilessly documented by the local media, including slow service, plumbing problems, delayed baggage and long waits for the Hummers). Fehlbier said it had been necessary to lower the occupancy temporarily to make sure there was enough time to prepare rooms between guests. “For now, we are not here to make money, we are here to make friends,” he says. “No cost has been spared till now, but at a certain point, I want to work for the owner and make him happy too.”

A two-bedroom villa with a pool
A two-bedroom villa with a pool

Lavish dinners featuring lamb chops from Galilee and Mediterranean fish felt especially extraordinary given the remoteness of the hotel. That naturally brings up questions of the overall environmental impact of building such a high-end hotel at a location so isolated. The Six Senses chain places sustainability at the centre of its branding.

Both Plesner and Fehlbier have a ready answer: the hotel was going to be built either way, they say, but their involvement has allowed them to make sure, for instance, that local materials were favoured in construction and that there is a sustainability officer who has trained suppliers to use minimal packaging and slowly reduce the trash produced.

On my last day, I met Adam Sela, who had driven two hours in an immaculately maintained Land Rover Discovery with 350,000km on the odometer to show me the desert trails around Shaharut. First, we climbed a hill to look at the air base. Fighter pilots train for dogfights here, but that afternoon we watched as a vast Antonov cargo plane took off.

A terrace overlooking the Negev desert
A terrace overlooking the Negev desert

Afterwards we trundled away on some relatively well-beaten tracks to look at the remains of a 6,000-year-old religious site, perhaps for a leopard-like deity. Nearby, we watched two dorcas gazelles lope through the desert, and waited to catch glimpses of a pair of wheatears, then a yellow-vented bulbul (which quite unfairly lost out on being named Israel’s national bird in 2008 because bulbul is Hebrew slang for parts of the male anatomy).

Sela had a tour planned for us that would take us to a hilltop to watch the sunset but when we got near, a group of soldiers were already camped out there — the entire area is used by the Israeli army for training, and Sela confessed that a couple of his tours had had to be quickly redesigned because of the military’s training manoeuvres.

Instead, he deftly drove us through a limestone quarry, and up a hill just before the sun dipped below the horizon. We pulled out a carpet and pillows, and he heated up some coffee to go with a tiny picnic basket of dates and juices.

Camels taking guests on a ride out into the desert
Activities include trekking with camels and Land Rover tours of the desert

It was an oddly crowded view for a place so remote — a quarry below, and the lights of an army base not far away. But it was also serenely quiet, and the sun blazed a violent orange right before it set.

We spoke of the old ways of the desert, how the Bedouin travelled from waterhole to waterhole with their livestock, and the army’s embrace of the Negev as a training ground, which ended up displacing thousands of Bedouins from their traditional grazing areas. The light vanished quickly, and we drove back to the hotel just as it got chilly.

The short expedition had reminded me exactly how harsh and unforgiving the desert could be, how odd it was to be holidaying near so much lethal force, how absurd to be here in such luxury. For now, though, dinner awaited — a wine from the Negev, almost tart in its minerality, a lamb chop with a decadent line of fat, and a rich, chocolate dessert under the stars, as a cool breeze ran through the terrace and a DJ put on some tunes at the cocktail bar next door.

Mehul Srivastava is the FT’s cybersecurity correspondent and former Jerusalem correspondent

Details

Mehul Srivastava was a guest of Six Senses. Double rooms cost from £633 per night, including breakfast. A half-day 4×4 excursion costs from £145 per person, based on four people sharing the Land Rover.

Israel is expected to start reopening to international tourists next month; for updates see goisrael.com

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