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Eilat: Israel's Winter Playground
Between November and April, while Europe is freezing, a lucky few are basking in warm sunshine only four or five hours away by charter jet. The bustling Israeli tourist resort of Eilat is proving an extremely popular destination for holiday makers from England, Scandinavia, Germany and France. And these holidays can be cheap holidays.
Situated at the southern-most tip of this small country, Eilat was established as an important trading post 3,000 years ago. It reached its historical peak at the time of King Solomon, when mining and trade with Africa flourished, but then went into hibernation, barely surviving as a small fishing village.
Redevelopment started after the founding of the State of Israel, when the Red Sea access made it a vital port during the closure of the Suez Canal. But it was a port with few facilities and little tourism. European hippies camped on the beaches, but apart from the sunshine there was little else to enjoy.
Israel soon recognized that tourism was one of its greatest potential attractions. And while many people visited the country because of its religious significance, there was also interest from young families and singles who were more attracted to sun worship than to churches, synagogues and mosques. Eilat has been so successfully developed for this market that the permanent population of 25,000 to 27,000 people swells to 50,000 when you include tourists. This is expected to double in the next decade.
The mainstream tourists still come to Israel for traditional reasons: to get close to the aspects of religion, for the connection with the Old and New Testament as well as Islam, and to explore the dry-lands development and farming projects which have made this small country the world's foremost pioneer in this area.
In the rest of Israel one feels that, despite the frequent changes in Israel's government, the Religious Party always manages to hold a great deal of power. Jerusalem almost comes to a complete halt on Saturdays, dietary laws are enforced rigidly in many places, and in the orthodox part of Jerusalem, girls in shorts and T-shirts would be chased away. Not so in Eilat! The orthodox are rarely to be seen, and topless girls soaking up the sun on the beaches raise few eyebrows.
In this resort town, modern hotels, many with world class resort facilities, are springing up like mushrooms. Europeans in the 25 to 50 age group flock here by the thousands, and for good reasons. If one has experienced a cold winter's day in Scandinavia, the attraction of holidaying in Eilat, the nearest first-class resort which enjoys warm sunshine, becomes abundantly clear.
Accommodation options in Eilat range from the sumptuous King Solomon's Palace Hotel, with the nearby marina and waterfront development, to inexpensive two-star hotels at US $30 per person per night. Thought the town caters to swinging singles and retired couples, family accommodations are available. The latest trend is to develop serviced apartments for young families who find them more practical than hotels.
King Solomon's Palace, living up to its somewhat exotic name, is an eye-opener. The rooms are up to the standard of those at the best Hawaiian and Caribbean resorts, with fully computerized radio, TV, air conditioning, etc. operated from bedside controls. Both service and cuisine are hard to fault, and the clientele must agree with my judgment, because according to the hotel management over 60% of the bookings are repeat business.
The Red Sea Sports Club runs what is reputedly the best diving school in the world. The teeming, colorful marine life on the coral reefs just off-shore from nearby Coral Beach was made famous on international television by Jacques Cousteau.
Within sight of Aqaba (Jordan's only port) across the bay, the water sports available at Eilat are legendary. In the calm waters produced by the prevailing north winds, sailing and boat trips, diving, snorkeling, water skiing, paddle boating, glass-bottom boating, parasailing and motor boating make this a dream-holiday for the water-minded. The area is known to be one of the easiest places to learn windsurfing. And, for those interested in archeology, Jordan's Petra is now easily accessible from Eilat.
The underwater observatory in Eilat is reputedly one of the best in the world. Here, some three meters below the ocean surface, one can watch a myriad exotic underwater creatures, from brightly hued fish of every imaginable shape and color to crabs, starfish and lacy coral.
But that's not all. Horseback riding, car and bicycle rentals and desert safaris in guide-led jeep groups expand the activities available. Trips to Santa Katharina, the monastery in the now Egyptian Sinai, are also available.
Bird watching here is fascinating, as Eilat is directly in the migratory pattern of birds traveling from Europe to Africa and Asia.
Club Med also operates an extremely popular resort here. This organization is famous for its outstanding holiday packages, and caters specially to the 18 to 30 year age group at their Red Sea establishment. In winter, 80% of the tourists to Eilat are Europeans, 10% Americans and 10% Israelis. Between May and October, Israeli tourists make up 80% of the visitors, with 10% Europeans and 10% Americans.
Though one can dine in Israel without any risk of the stomach upsets common to other places in the Middle East, the standard of the cuisine in many of the country's restaurants is quite disappointing. By contrast, we found the cuisine in Eilat to be surprisingly good, with a number of excellent restaurants.
The Last Refuge restaurant at Coral Beach is arguably Eilat's best seafood restaurant. The owner previously had another seafood restaurant at Sharm El Sheik at the tip of the Sinai, and when this area was returned to Egypt, he established this new venue at Eilat.
The younger set favors the restaurants along the town's main waterfront. Here one finds simple fast-food restaurants that serve American-style hamburgers in open air settings with marvelous sea-front views, and there is even a Pizza Hut. You will also find fine French, Italian, Middle Eastern and, believe it or not, Chinese restaurants run by Chinese with adopted Hebrew names.
At the luxurious King Solomon Hotel, the Chinese restaurant is fully Kosher, and one of the most popular of the establishment's eateries. Here we met the senior Chinese Chef, Mr. Li De Qun, who comes from Shanghai and who has been living in Israel for six years.
He has since been joined by his brother, Li Shuang Qing, and his nephew Li Ci. Together they make up the brigade for the hotel's Chinese restaurant.
"Getting used to adapting Chinese dishes to the rules of Kosher food was a little difficult, but once I knew what had to be done, the problems disappeared," says Li. "Our menu covers dishes from several areas of China -- Peking, Szechwan, Shanghai and Canton -- and if a dish was originally with pork, we substitute beef or turkey. Instead of prawns we use fish, and everything works well."
Li explained that it was not difficult to get Chinese vegetables in Israel, though some specialized varieties were not yet available. More and more Chinese and Thai restaurants are springing up around the country, so more and more authentic ingredients are becoming available.
Eilat's tourism growth is being matched by expansion in the infrastructure, permanent population and residential development. We visited whole new suburbs under construction -- new industrial subdivisions and very impressive housing developments. One is never far from history in Israel, and next to one housing development site we were interested to see that the government has designated an archeological site for future excavation and exploration.
With the town's growth comes culture. Eilat has started an annual international jazz festival that is making a real name for itself and attracting artists and visitors from around the world. The newly-developed public park alongside the marina regularly features free classic and pop concerts, played by recently arrived migrant musicians from Russia who, the rest of the time, teach music at an Israeli university campus some hour and a half away by car.
The waterfront strip, partially completed in the last year, and still being further developed, incorporates gift shops, pubs and outdoor restaurants. They are usually brim-full, and great favorites with local residents, Israeli, American and European tourists.
Eilat is also often visited by what seems to be half the United Nations peace-keeping force in civvies, enjoying their R&R (rest and recreation). What used to be a sleepy hollow is developing into a jumping joint. On Friday nights discos start at 9.00 p.m. and go through to 5.00 a.m. the next morning.
All this, together with 350 days of sunshine a year, now makes Eilat the hottest destination for those who are aware of its attractions. And the fact that 60% of the visitors keep coming back again and again speaks for itself.
Walter & Cherie Glaser are an international travel-writing team based down under in Melbourne, Australia.