EILAT, ISRAEL – This tiny resort city has always been a desired destination.
In fact, in the closing days of Israel’s 1949 War of Independence with its Arab neighbours, a push was on by all sides to claim this magical sun-drenched city that drifts off into the Red Sea for their very own.
In what has become historically known as Operation Ovda, Israeli troops made a mad dash for Eilat to hoist their country’s flag over what was designated to the Jewish state as part of the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan.
However, when the troops arrived, much to their dismay, they realized they had forgotten to bring a flag. Unfazed, members of Israel’s renowned Negav Brigade improvised; taking pen to paper to create an “Ink Flag” which they raised over what was then just a border outpost. It has since become the nation’s sun and fun capital.
Nowadays, troops of tourists march into this city of 55,000 regular inhabitants, whose ranks swell by 10 times that number in peak seasons.
There’s no doubt Eilat is the hottest destination in Israel – for many different reasons.
It seldom rains here – 12 days a year – and the temperature rarely dips below 21C, even in winter. And 40C days in the summer months are the norm, turning the Red Sea water into a giant Jacuzzi.
And Eilat’s nightlife rocks to a Mediterranean beat – the clubs and seafood restaurants that line the neon shoreline are filled with music and laughter well into the wee hours of the morning.
Eilat – the name roughly translated from Hebrew means “ram” – is sandwiched between Jordan and Egypt and on a clear day you can even see Saudi Arabia. It’s the southernmost point in Israel, an hour’s flight from Tel Aviv, and has played a major role in the country’s history, dating back to the time of King David, who established a defensive shield here. King Solomon stationed his naval fleet here and the Queen of Sheba supposedly passed through Eilat on her way to see the king of Jerusalem.
Left: A local Bedouin is happy to pose for pictures. Right: Eilat's aquarium.
As we looked out from our luxurious King David hotel room – the resort is a 5-star beauty equal to any in the world – we see the sprawling Jordanian port city of Aqaba, which entices us to visit.
However, we quickly realize, pulling ourselves away from Eilat and its many wonders won’t be easy.
Attractions like the city’s world-renowned aquarium – the best we’ve ever seen – featuring the top underwater preserves in the world; its awesome beaches; nearby Timna Valley National Park; and Kings City, a theme park retracing the ancient past; will keep us busy during our short visit.
On our drive from Tel Aviv – flying is much faster but the 5-hour drive from Tel Aviv through the remarkable Negav Desert and its many wonders is well worth the effort if you can afford the time – our guide Ora insists we stop at Timna Valley, located 27 kilometres north of Eilat.
We're glad she did.
The stone forest is one of the most remarkable sights you’ll ever see – a place of ancient copper mines first discovered by the Egyptians and later run by King Solomon. Many of the mine entrances are still visible and the remarkable canyon is filled with many odd-shaped mountains. The most famous rock formations found here include “The Mushroom” because of its fungilike shape, and “Soloman’s Pillars”, which rise high into the always-present azure sky like giant skyscrapers. It’s no wonder the park, which features an artificial lake, has become a favourite for hikers, Jeep tours and camel rides.
Nearby, the Hai Bar wildlife reserve is home to many rare and endangered desert animals, like leopards, cheetahs, hyenas, gazelles and ostriches. Soon after our arrival in Eilat, Ora tells us we have time to visit the city’s aquarium, so we dash off along the city’s lovely promenade and join a long line at the entrance.
The aquarium is unique in that it allows visitors an underwater view of local marine life because it’s built 15 feet under the tranquil Red Sea. You come face-to-face with everything from venomous lionfish to moray eels to sharks, seal turtles and a kaleidoscope of brightly-coloured small fish during your stay in this remarkable sea world.
Above: Eilat's King Herod Hotel offers five-star comfort and million-dollar views of the harbour.
Not surprisingly, Eilat – its sister cities in North America are Los Angeles and Toronto – is also a favoured destination for divers. The coral reefs found in the Gulf of Eilat are among the best in the world. Non divers are offered the chance to see the reef from the comfort of a submarine, which can hold 50 people and dives 200 feet below the surface.
A recent addition to Eilat is Dolphin Reef, which allows you to swim and dive with the playful mammals.
One thing few people know about Israel is that it’s a bird watcher’s paradise, a landing spot for migrating birds from Europe to Africa – and Eilat is ground zero. About one billion birds traverse this area each year, making Eilat the site of one of the greatest concentrations of migrating birds in the world. The best times to see the birds are from September to November when they leave Europe for Africa and between March and May, when they make their return flights. Not surprisingly, Eilat is headquarters for the International Bird Watching Center.
You don’t have to be a biblical scholar to enjoy Kings City. It’s just a fun place to spend an afternoon and get acquainted with ancient kings – played by actors – and explore the manmade caves and lakes that dot the site.
There’s always a party atmosphere hanging over Eilat, a city that has often been compared with Miami Beach. Miami Beach wishes it looked this good.