May 17, 2001
Red Sea Holiday
Unwinding in the port city of Eilat.
Nobody takes Eilat too seriously -- which is a good thing. Poised on the cusp of the Red Sea, this resort city at the southern tip of Israel is where Israelis and others go to unwind. During the short, cold days of winter, northern Europeans by the planeload come to soak up the guaranteed sunshine.
Although Eilat is also a port, its resort attractions have caused a building boom. Bright white hotels in every conceivable style have sprung up like mushrooms after a rain -- although with an average of less than two inches precipitation per year, there's little chance of rain in Eilat. As a result, the city has expanded: north into the Aravah Valley and up the lower
slopes of the Eilat Mountains, which stand in garnet-colored ranks along the city's western edge. The focus, however, is still the narrow curve of the Red Sea.
A broad, busy promenade swings along part of Eilat's shoreline. Here tourists lounge in cafes, children clamor for rides on the Ferris wheel, street vendors sell T-shirts and tchotchkes, and tony shops display upscale goods. Beyond the bustle, the Eilat area offers a wealth of natural beauty and human history.
Where sea and sand meet are beaches, aqua waters and vivid coral reefs. At the city's back, the rugged Eilat Mountains are a desert tapestry of sculpted canyons and scenic panoramas. The sweep of the Aravah Valley provides shelter for wolves, gazelles and hyenas, as well as ostriches and countless other birds. In fact, the Eilat area is a birder's dream. One of the world's greatest flyways, the Aravah sees more than a half-billion birds fly along its length during spring migration.
South of the promenade, the place to sample the coral reef is Coral Beach Reserve, one of Israel's many protected natural areas (www.parks.org.il ). The reserve rents snorkeling equipment, and it is just a few steps farther to the reef, which parallels the shoreline. A footbridge spanning the reef ends at a ladder that allows you to step into an enchanting underwater garden full of corals, clownfish, wrasse and parrot fish, among hundreds of species in a kaleidoscope of colors. For those who want more, dive companies take both snorkelers and scuba divers out to reefs.
CoralWorld displays many of the same fish -- with IDs -- as well as sharks and rays. One exhibit tells how CoralWorld's research team restores populations of large, endangered sea turtles. Aside from the gift shop and cafeteria, the most popular spot is the marine observatory. Sunk deep into the Red Sea, the observatory lets visitors peer into the actual reef (www.coralworld.com ).
Nearby, Dolphin Reef Eilat offers another Red Sea adventure. This complex includes a beach, restaurant, dive center, and activities for young children. The real activity is in the water, where visitors, accompanied by guides, snorkel and dive with dolphins. Don't know how to dive? They'll teach you (www.dolphinreef.co.il ).
Eilat's southern beaches are the best for lounging on warm sand. Here the sea is floored with sand rather than coral, which makes it a good spot for swimming. If it's birding you want, go to North Beach. Dawn and dusk are the best times to see birds; spring and fall migrations are the best seasons to see them, seemingly without number. During migration, birders from around the world go to North Beach and the adjacent salt marshes to spot herons and buzzards, bee-eaters, kingfishers and hundreds of other birds.
Follow signs north along the sandy road from North Beach to Eilat's International Birding and Research Center's bird-ringing station, where visitors and schoolchildren learn how researchers track birds from here to Europe and Africa (www.arava.org/birds-eilat). The birding center's office in Eilat sells a guidebook to other good birding spots in the southern Negev Desert.
Not far from Eilat are a number of great day trips. Timna Park, about 16 miles north of Eilat, is the site of one of the world's oldest mines. Look for the turnoff to Timna on the west side of Route 90. At the park entrance, purchase tickets and maps, and check the schedule for park interpreters' demonstrations of how miners used the simplest materials to smelt copper 5,000 years ago.
From the visitor center, a drive winds past dramatic boulders and cliffs. At a handful of stops along the way, short self-guided hikes and interpretive signs present views of soaring Solomon's Pillars, ancient mine shafts, and a temple to the hawk-headed goddess Hathor, complete with rock carvings. Back at the visitor center, a snack bar, small lake, and picnic grounds wrap up a pleasant trip.
About five miles north of Eilat, also on the west side of Route 90, the road to Amram's Pillars is a bit rough, but not too bad. Where the dirt road splits, the right-hand track leads to a small parking lot, views of the wildly crenellated cliffs, and hiking trails that wind through part of the Eilat Mountains.
Yotvatah Wildlife Reserve lies on the east side of the road about 25 miles north of Eilat. The reserve, which protects, breeds, and reintroduces wildlife native to the Negev, allows visitors close-up views of elegant caracal cats, Negev wolves, striped hyenas and huge lappet-faced vultures. An interpreter-guided car caravan takes you through part of the vast reserve. Here, ostrich, oryx, desert asses and gazelles roam, at home in the Aravah (www.parks.org.il ).
Traveling west from Eilat, Route 12 passes the Mount Yoash observation point. On a clear day, you can see Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia from its broad back. Farther up the road is the turnoff for the Red Canyon, a short and easy walk away and remarkably scenic. Its serpentine twists and turns, softly sculpted by wind and water, are shades of red, while the upper canyon glows stark white.
Although you can experience the southern Negev from the back of any number of camels, one of the best camel outfits is Camel Riders Desert Exploration Tours. Their trips last anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of weeks, from a quick snapshot trip to a journey tracing biblical routes. They are a bit out of the way but worth the journey (www.camel-riders.com ).
After adventuring, it's nice to return to a clean room and sit-down meals.
Of Eilat's many accommodations, here are a few suggestions. For completely extravagant accommodations at prices to match, the Eilat Princess (www.eilatprincess.com) has built a fantasy land with pools, grottoes, theme rooms, and restaurants with views worth the price of the meal. The Marina Club Eilat and the Riviera Apartment Hotel (www.kibbutz.co.il) have lots of amenities -- including pools and kitchenettes -- but are moderately priced. For a low-cost, clean, well-lighted place, the best bet is the Eilat Youth Hostel, which has dorm rooms with a bathroom down the hall but also has family rooms with private bathrooms (www.youth-hostels.org.il ).
Restaurants abound, but the Last Refuge is among the best for fish and Au Bistro for French cuisine. Mai Tai has good Thai food at moderate prices, as does the Golden Duck, which is kosher. For parents of fussy eaters, there's the ubiquitous Pizza Hut.
Michal Strutin's new book, "Discovering Natural Israel" (Jonathan David Publishers), will be a main selection of the Book of the Month Club/Traditions.