The Six Senses Shaharut, an oasis in the Negev surrounded by unlikely neighbors

The one-lane road to Six Senses Shaharut, Israel’s latest luxury resort, is winding and three kilometers long, and with good reason: this oasis is designed to be one with the landscape, desert and peaceful that surrounds it, and it succeeds, with every stone and every stone.

The 60 suites and villas, spas, pools and restaurants of this carefully built desert resort have been carved into the mountainside overlooking the Arava Valley, with the Edom Mountains on the other side of it. the valley and the small village of Shaharut just behind. tray.

The owner, Ronny Douek, initiated this project by contacting the architecture department at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design ten years ago to find an optimal design for this space located on top of a cliff, with the aim of creating buildings that look seems to have existed here for centuries, a kind of reclaimed Nabataean village.

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There had long been a government plan to build a commercial hotel on this lunar landscape, but the first ideas required a much larger, less luxurious establishment of the “Club Hotel” type that would have looked like it had fallen on the mountain, “explains Thomas Fehlbier, CEO of Shaharut.

Instead, Douek and his partners invested $ 100 million in the design and construction of the complex, working closely with architect Daniella Plesner to create structures that blend into the surrounding natural elements, extraction using local limestone and flint as building materials and construction. of low-rise buildings that blend seamlessly into the desert and surrounding formations.

They wanted the facility to be part of the landscape, both for sustainability reasons and to avoid anger from neighbors closest to the resort in the nearby village of Shaharut, a 30-year-old community of 164 residents who deliberately live so far away. from the mains as possible in a quiet desert surface.

It was not easy to build on the mountain. Pipes and other construction elements had to be hidden without creating problems with drainage odor, says Fehlbier.

The outdoor pool overlooking the serene expanses of the desert at Six Senses Shaharut, which opened in August 2021. (Courtesy PR)

It took time, said Fehlbier, who lives in the village along with several other hotel staff, but today the villagers accept the hotel more than ten years ago.

Douek and Plesner called on the expertise of several Shaharut residents in the design and construction of the site, for its carved wooden ceilings, solid teak doors and finely crafted pottery made by the village artisans. A Pilates instructor and other spa professionals also live in the village, Fehlbier said.

That said, there are just as many Shaharut residents who do not want anything to do with the station, he added.

“They moved here for a specific purpose,” he said. “They want to live in the middle of nowhere, and they do not have to walk around with a Shaharut bag. »

And there is definitely a signature feel to this luxurious desert oasis by the cliff.

How did Six Senses end up in the Negev?

Douek’s collaboration with global wellness group Six Senses began about halfway through the ten-year construction process.

“You could say I believe in the universe because it [Ronny Douek] came up with a project that suited us perfectly, ”said Neil Jacobs, CEO of Six Senses, in an interview recorded for The times of Israel.

Douek owns Six Senses Shaharut, but the resort brand, which is owned by the InterContinental Hotels Group, gives its hotels franchises.

“Usually we commit before the first shovel hits,” said Jacobs, who met Douek in New York about five years ago. But I got up and said, “You are a brave man, and there is no other mark for this property, for what you have built is a six senses.”

If Jacobs is more involved with Shaharut than some of the other Six Senses hotels, it’s because of his roots.

He grew up in Jewish North London, and his father briefly left England to fight in Israel’s war of independence in 1948, which instilled in him a lifelong love for Israel and a lasting interest in how the country has changed and developed.

He plans to create an Israeli circuit of Six Senses accommodations, where several other Six Senses hotels will be built over time in other Israeli regions and cities, all completely different from each other.

For now, Six Senses begins with this resort in the Negev, where the selection of every tassel pillow, wall mount and Moroccan lamp was overseen by Duek and Plesner, according to Fehlbier.

Each of the 60 suites at Six Senses Shaharut is designed to feel like a private cabin coming in through a teak door, with dreamy cream hues and a centrally located platform bed in the room to maximize the view of the undulating lines of the room. desert and the deep blue of the sky from the floor-to-ceiling window.

There is not much privacy in ordinary suites for guests traveling with a child (children 12 years and older are welcome) who can sleep on the sofa bed at the foot of the main bed. There is also a little extra space to open suitcases. The luxuriously appointed bathroom, on the other hand, is no shortage of space, with a claw-foot tub with stunning desert views. Shampoo, conditioner and bath gel are in disposable brass dispensers in accordance with Shaharut’s sustainability program.

One of Six Senses Shaharut’s private pool villas. (Courtesy PR)

Outside, a stroll through the peaceful smooth stone walkways overlooking the property’s rocky stone-zen garden offers a meditative experience. You can sit on scattered benches carved from recycled teak and look out over low, arched walls built with local stone, hand-picked and layered to resemble ancient Nabataean architecture.

You can also go to the outdoor pool and spa, stretch out on sun loungers by the foamed pool and dine al fresco on the poolside in the warmer months.

Inside the spa there is an infinity pool with fresh water as well as a full range of treatments, separate steam baths for men and women, yoga and pilates classes and an alchemy bar to prepare scrubs to take home.

The more adventurous can go on camel rides and hikes through the desert, stroll through the herb garden and stare at the big starry sky at night. And for those who prefer to drive for dinner or a massage in the warmer months, Shaharut has a fleet of mint green Hummer electric golf carts, powered by staff members.

At meal time, a short walk along the smooth plastered tadelakt corridors will take you to the dining room with teak ceiling in the Midian Restaurant, which offers a menu of grass-fed, free-range meat, air and fresh fish from the Mediterranean (the Shaharut is not kosher but none is served shellfish, and the meat and milk are not mixed).

The Six Senses Shaharut’s Midian Restaurant Serving Dinner and Breakfast (Jessica Steinberg / Times of Israel)

The dinner menu, created by former King David Hotel chef David Bitton, emphasizes seasonal ingredients and fresh herbs, most of which are grown on-site and on local farms, though it does not yet offer revolutionary culinary performances.

Breakfast, however, is a unique experience worth lingering over, with freshly squeezed juices and milkshakes, a buffet of local cheeses, eggs made to order, served with homemade bread and ever fresher salads, which can include an impressive roasted pumpkin drizzled with tahini or a dish of chopped herbs, sprinkled with roasted nuts.

In the Jamillah Lounge, located next door, you will find a friendly and comfortable atmosphere with leather sofas and armchairs, shelves with travel books, a turntable and a collection of the owner’s favorite vinyl records.

Guests can enjoy pre-dinner drinks and snacks here, sitting on the wide veranda overlooking Jordan’s flashing lights, or eating more casually with cocktails, grilled burgers and sandwiches.

A little too familiar service

One of the challenges of delivering all this luxury at Six Senses, given the expected level of service for rooms starting at $ 1,000 per night (including breakfast), was finding the right staff willing to stay in the desert. Eilat, the nearest town, is an hour away by car or more by public transport.

The resort, like many other properties in the south, decided to hire only young Israelis fresh out of the army.

“We took young people fresh out of the army, who have never been to a five-star hotel, and they make all sorts of mistakes, but with a smile,” said Fehlbier, who led the David Intercontinental in Tel Aviv before coming to Shaharut.

The indoor freshwater pool at Six Senses Shaharut, part of the spa complex. (Courtesy PR)

The young Israeli staff has a more laid-back tone, talks easily with customers – sometimes a little too confidential – but has a harder time describing a dish or suggesting which wine to combine with lamb. The young people also left a client hanging in front of his room, under a scorching sun, waiting for someone to take him home.

“The Israeli way of doing things is not very suited to what is expected at our level,” Jacobs said. “It is a challenge, and to that you have to put the place where we are, which does not suit everyone. »

The luxury resort does the best it can for its young employees, who are housed in a nearby kibbutz and commit to working at the hotel for at least six months. Mr. Fehlbier is aware of the time it takes to train hotel staff and hopes that some of them will be seduced by working at the hotel.

In fact, Shaharut is probably the only hotel in Israel that has a waiting list for staff, according to Fehlbier. (There was also a waiting list for the first guests in August last year, with some booking a room three years before the hotel opened).

The latter is proud of the achievements of its first-time staff over the past eight months, as most of the resort’s guests have been Israelis since the hotel opened in August 2021. It was only recently that Israel lifted its coronavirus restrictions and welcomed foreigners. . tourists again.

“I’m very grateful to the Israeli audience we had, because Israelis are the toughest customers you can imagine, and it can only get easier from there,” Fehlier said. “That said, I think we’re ready to welcome customers from all over the world.”

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