The Jewish Traveler: Eilat
Israel’s international resort playground offers more than fun in the sun: The seaside city teems with nature and wildlife sights as well as ancient ruins.
At Israel’s southernmost tip, where golden sands meet the deep blue waters of the Red Sea, lies Eilat. Here visitors let their hair down, giving themselves over to the year-round pleasures of sea and sun.
Like the residents—many of whom came here to get away from the pressures of politics, security and big-city life—visitors to this placid bay surrounded by sharply etched granite mountains can tune in to their bodies and to nature’s glorious abundance: multihued corals and brilliantly colored tropical fish; sleek dolphins; birds by the millions passing through on their way to Africa; and nearby, species of wild animals that roamed Israel’s southern region in biblical times.
At the northern edge of the Red Sea and at the crossroad of Africa, Asia and Europe, Eilat has always had strategic importance. It is mentioned several times in the Bible as Elath, which the children of Israel passed during their wanderings in the desert after the exodus from Egypt. From the time King Solomon built a port and a navy there until the Byzantine era, it was an important center of commerce and security. A Jewish community existed nearby until at least the middle of the 10th century. The site of the ancient port has been located north of the Jordanian port of Aqaba.
Modern Eilat is three miles west of Aqaba. Though the United Nation’s partition plan of 1947 included Eilat, the area had to be conquered. In March 1949, following Operation Uvda—the last operation of the War of Independence—the Israelis raised an improvised flag, made from a sheet on which they drew a Magen David in ink.
A kibbutz established on the shore in December 1949 moved two miles north and became Kibbutz Eilot. Eilat’s first permanent houses were built in 1950, but the town grew slowly while the Straits of Tiran were closed to Israel-bound ships. The Sinai Campaign in 1956 opened the straits, and that same year the road to Beersheba, via Mitzpe Ramon, was opened. Eilat was declared a city in 1959, though it had only 3,500 inhabitants. They worked in the port, the Timna copper mines, fishing, light industry, construction and tourism. Egypt’s closure of the straits in 1967 led to the Six-Day War, after which the city boomed.
Tourism has long been a mainstay of Eilat’s economy; 300,000 foreigners and two million Israelis visited in 2008. In 1970, there were 2,000 hotel beds (compared with 10,000 today). But the 1973 Yom Kippur War dealt a severe blow to the city, and the copper mines closed.
In 1975, charter flights from Europe made Eilat an international tourist destination. In the 1980s, the city grew to 20,000 inhabitants. In 1985, it became a free-trade zone; there is no sales tax.
With the signing of the peace agreement with Jordan in 1994, the Arava border crossing opened for tourists to Jordan. The 1990s saw a great expansion of both residential areas and hotels. In 2002, a satellite of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev opened.
Eilat’s natural beauty, its image as the country’s Wild West—a place of freedom, refuge and opportunity—the generous tax breaks as well as the bonus paid to those who work there after completing their compulsory army service have enticed a variety of Israelis to give the city a try. Some have stayed, and most earn their living in tourism-related services.
The first rabbi, Moshe Hidaya, arrived in 1957. Then, he recalls, there was nothing but sky, sea, golden sand, corals and 1,200 residents. He came for a year and remained, building a congregation at Pahad Yitzhak synagogue.
Lior Mucznik arrived in 1983 to spend a year as a dishwasher. Today, he is general manager of the Dan Panorama Hotel and says Eilat is a wonderful place to bring up children.
Dana Efroni came in 2003 to earn the post-Army bonus by working for six months as a waitress. Five years later and now the public relations officer of the Dan Eilat Hotel, she says, “What I like about Eilat is that you’re cut off from the news and from terror attacks. Also, my home is in the hills and it’s quiet, but it’s just 10 minutes away from the wildest party.”
Today, Eilat has more than 60,000 residents, but most are relative newcomers; fewer than half have lived there for more than five years, and there is a constant turnover of post-Army Israelis.
Among the residents are 3,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union, 1,000 BGU students and 700 refugees from Sudan. In addition, each day 200 to 300 Jordanians come to work from neighboring Aqaba.
Residents live mainly in the hills to the west of the resort area; the hotels and tourist sites are clustered along the northern and southern beaches.
Swimming, snorkeling, scuba and snuba diving—a scuba-snorkeling hybrid—are extremely popular activities, but it is possible to enjoy Eilat’s aquatic world without getting your feet wet.
The Dolphin Reef was established on Eilat’s southern shore so people could see bottlenose dolphins in their natural habitat. Visitors can observe the animals by swimming or diving with a guide, while relaxing on the beach or sitting on a floating observation pier, where the mammals are fed four times a day and where they will frolic in exchange for a friendly pat or a game.
Also onsite is an activity center for children that focuses on recycling. Separately, Dolphin Reef runs a therapeutic program for children with various disorders. Reserve snorkeling and diving in advance (011-972-8-630-0111; www.dolphinreef.co.il).
Sharks, turtles and stingrays; cauliflower- and brain-shaped coral; and every shape and color of fish are to be seen at the Underwater Observatory Marine Park at Coral Beach (972-8-636-4200;www.coralworld.com), near Dolphin Reef. Each level of the reef has its own flora and fauna, on exhibit in the observatory’s 40 aquariums; flashlight fish are displayed in a dark room. Visitors can also sail in a glass-bottom boat, travel in a yellow submarine or watch a film in the Oceanarium while sitting on seats that pitch and bounce to simulate the rocking of a boat.
But to see the real thing, head for the adjacent Coral Beach Nature Reserve (972-8-637-6829; www.parks.org.il), where you will find butterfly fish and parrotfish among the hundreds of species swimming around Israel’s only coral reef and the most northerly one in the world. Visitors enter the water via bridges so as not to damage the reef, which runs parallel to the shore. Swimmers follow along the reef’s seaside and, if they look carefully, they will also see the archaeological remains of a sunken city.
Though Eilat has long been famous for its colorful marine life, the city’s International Research and Birding Center is just as exciting. Half a billion birds coming from as far north as Siberia fly to Africa for the winter but must stock up on food before crossing the 2,000 miles of desert south of Eilat.
The center is gradually reclaiming Eilat’s salt marsh, which had become a garbage dump but now supports the endangered birds’ preferred food. Visitors can tour the site, watch bird-ringing, hear a lecture and even hold a bird.
To reach the center, drive north from Eilat and turn right at Kibbutz Eilot toward the Yitzhak Rabin Border Crossing. Just before the crossing, turn right onto a dirt road and drive a short distance to the entrance. Visits must be prearranged (972-50-211-2498;www.birdsofeilat.com).
A photographic display of Eilat’s flora and fauna is just one of the many elements in the Eilat Historical Museum (972-8-634-0754), opposite the mall at the intersection of Arava and Yotam Roads. On display are historic photographs, including the city’s first tourist (1954) and first underwater wedding (1965); a jeep used in the conquest of Eilat; and the bus returning from Eilat to Tel Aviv that was attacked by terrorists at Ma’aleh Akrabim in 1954.
Eilat’s natural beauty is even celebrated in the city’s largest synagogue, Pahad Yitzhak (972-50-720-1979). In its 350-seat hexagonal sanctuary with sky-blue walls, the central bima and Ark are richly ornamented in a silvery design that incorporates waves and seashells. Green and turquoise Eilat stones are embedded in the railing of the women’s gallery.
To get there, drive north from the mall on Arava, turn left on Sderot Hatmarim (Eilat’s main drag), left on Roded, right on Nahshon (Chabad House is on the corner) and continue straight to the corner of Nahal Amram. The large building on your left with the arches and an Israeli flag in front is Pahad Yitzhak.
Strolling the northern promenade and sampling the amusements and the wares of the various shops and eateries are favorite pastimes, especially in the evening. And because the desert air is so dry, visitors must remember to drink. They can do that and cool off at the same time at the 18°F Ice Space, a round fantasy bar created from ice and filled with ice sculptures of polar bears and penguins. In the Spiral Building opposite the neon-lit Slingshot ride, Ice Space provides warm clothing, serves drinks in ice glasses and has an outdoor lounge bar where you can warm up again (www.ice-space.co.il).
Seven events in the life of King Solomon are depicted along the route of a water ride that ends in a steep plunge at Kings City (972-8-630-4444), an attraction with an exterior that looks like a Hollywood set. In another section, animated dioramas present familiar scenes from the Bible, such as the construction of Noah’s ark.
King Solomon’s mines are the stuff of legend, said to have been at Timna, 15 miles north of Eilat. In fact, Solomon’s mines were not at Timna, but the oldest copper mines on earth were. A temple of Hathor, the Egyptian goddess of copper, is one of the signs that the Egyptians mined copper there in the 14th to 12th centuries B.C.E.
The 15,000-acre Timna Park (972-8-631-6756; www.timna-park.co.il) offers an introductory film about the mines; self-guided car tours to the wind-sculpted rock formations, including the mushroom, the arches and the red-rock Solomon’s Pillars; ancient rock drawings; the remains of the mines and the miners’ camps; a reconstruction of the biblical desert tabernacle; night tours; sports, such as mountain bike riding, rappelling and Olympic archery; and a small lake.
Many of the animals that roamed southern Israel in biblical times—wild asses, white oryx and lappet-faced vultures—were extinct or near extinction in 1968, when the Hai-Bar Yotvata reserve (972-8-637-3057; www.parks.org.il) was set up to reintroduce these animals to the region. Visitors can drive through the 3,000-acre site, north of Timna Park, to see the fauna while listening to a CD describing their ways.
Kibbutz Lotan, north of Hai-Bar, was founded by graduates of the Reform youth movement of America. It has adopted the concept of creative ecology, composting food scraps and recycling its other waste in alternative building projects. Lotan offers a two-hour Eco-Fun tour as well as a bird reserve, accommodations, holistic therapies and courses and workshops in organic gardening and alternative-building techniques (972-8-635-6935;www.kibbutzlotan.com).
Richard Llewellyn, the British author whose novel How Green Was My Valley (Scribner) inspired a classic film of the same name, spent his later years in Eilat and wrote Bride of Israel, My Love, now out of print.
Actor and musician Ricky (Raviv) Ullman, best known for his role as Phil Duffy in the Disney Channel television series Phil of the Future, was born in Eilat.
Windsurfer Shahar Zubari, an Eilat native, won Israel’s only medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a bronze in the RS:X windsurfing event.
The desert landscape figures prominently in Eilat by Luna Tarlo (Rain Mountain Press), the tale of a married American woman who in 1965 travels alone to the port town, where she has romantic encounters with two men.
Elena Lappin’s story, “When in Palestine, Do as the Romans Did,” in her collection titled Foreign Brides (Picador), describes what happens when an Israeli woman, married and living in London, visits Eilat on her own.
Belva Plain’s novel Harvest (Dell) depicts a terror attack in the 1960s by Egyptian fedayeen of a bus coming from Eilat.
In An Accidental Murder by Robert Rosenberg (Scribner), much of the action takes place in Eilat, where retired Jerusalem cop Avram Cohen contends with Russian criminals.
Birding enthusiasts will enjoy the description of the search for Hume’s tawny owl near Eilat in the chapter titled “Birding in the Dark” in Jonathan Rosen’s The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).
A slew of unsophisticated Israeli comedies have been shot in Eilat. Several notches above them is director Avi Nesher’s Turn Left at the End of the World. The film, set in a southern development town in the late 1960s, chronicles the relations between Indian and Moroccan Jews.
Less than an hour’s flight from Tel Aviv and about four hours by car, Eilat is a relaxing base for day or overnight trips to Petra in Jordan and the Sinai Peninsula as well as places in Israel. Charter flights from Europe land at nearby Uvda Airport.
From October through April, the weather is warm but not hot. Eilat hosts a very popular jazz festival in August, classical music festival in February and film festival in May.
The tourist office is at Bridge House on the northern promenade (972-8-630-9111; firstname.lastname@example.org).
The Dan hotels chain (www.danhotels.com) offers two options on the northern beach: the seaside Dan Eilat, with rooms and suites ranging from the princely to the imperial, and the more budget-friendly Dan Panorama.
But how ecological can a five-star hotel be? The Dan Panorama was recognized by the Council for Beautiful Israel for its recycling of cooking oil, paper and cardboard.
Eilat’s 50 hotels and their restaurants are kosher, but many others are not. One kosher option is Denis, a Mediterranean-style fish restaurant that also serves meat (Kaufman Street; 972-8-637-9898). There is also Shipudei Habustan, the Dan Eilat’s excellent Middle Eastern-style grill that opens onto the northern promenade (972-8-636-2222).
Having experienced the warm Red Sea and its corals, the fish, the dolphins, the birds and the animals, you will come away with the feeling of awe expressed by the British poet Gerard Manley Hopkins—“The world is charged with the grandeur of God”—and you will know why we must protect this wonderful resource.