Mention the word "cowboy" and American prairies, rolling plains and Big Sky country usually come to mind. But think again, because there's actually a landscape thousands of miles from the rugged American West, with dramatic views, cool air and unspoiled countryside. This landscape, three hours north of Tel Aviv, is where Israel's oldest cowboy ranch sits; it too has those wide open spaces, clear night skies and – as the locals boast – some of the best steaks in the country.
Nestled at the foot of Mount Bental, the Merom Golan ranch was established in 1967 and is now run by third-generation cowboys, many of whose forefathers immigrated to Israel from the pampas of Argentina. They have more amenities than their predecessors in the Wild West, but with 1,000 head of cattle to take care of, the cowboys' days are still long and hard.
“Maintaining a ranch is constant hard work. Everyone here is up at dawn, feeding their livestock, before beginning the herding of them from one location to another. We're responsible for the health of the animals, dealing with their injuries and making sure they are vaccinated. On top of that, we also mend fences, maintain the equipment, patrol the land and carry out all kinds of odd jobs,” Arik, the restaurant manager tells me.
The fact is, while the cowboy's image has always been tinged with romance, the reality couldn't be more different.
“You need to be able to work in any kind of weather – rain or shine. You need to be strong, be able to cope with solitude and feel a certain connection to the land. After all, this is what goes to the heart of what we do – we might be raising cattle, but we're also protecting the land, keeping it safe from poachers and animal predators,” Arik says.
Adjacent to the ranch is the oldest restaurant around, which goes by the name of "Habokrim” (“the Cowboy”). Originally resembling a train carriage, it was recently remodeled entirely in wood and its airy, spacious feel make it a charming dining venue. The Gaucho-style dining hall boasts a wide variety of meat dishes, all of which come from the ranch.
The portions are hearty and whether you order the sirloin or entrecôte steak, a "cowboy kebab" (ground lamb with mint) or their famous “X-Grill” (a taste of everything), it's unlikely you'll leave hungry. Habokrim also offers its customers a selection of excellent Israeli wines, all made locally by boutique and family-owned vineyards.
After lunch, a leisurely walk around the grounds of the ranch reveals a beehive of activity. Local entrepreneurs sell their own products, ranging from artwork made of sheet metal to knitted woolen hats, and next door to the restaurant there is a riding stable where both kids and adults can go out on horse treks on the local trail, accompanied by knowledgeable and experienced local guides. Comfortable and well-equipped cabins also dot the grounds, where those visiting for an extended period can utilize the balconies to sit and stargaze.
A cowboy's life may not suit everyone, but after a few hours absorbing the rugged individualism, beautiful scenery, locally sourced produce and wide open spaces of Merom Golan, one gets the feeling that there's something special about frontier living.