Eilat (אילת, also transliterated Elat) is an oddity in Israel: a tourist town without a hint of history, which is purely Jewish and purely secular.

Eilat is the southernmost town in Israel, and it covers all of Israel's 7-kilometer coastline on the Red Sea. Originally just a military outpost to prevent neighbors Egypt and Jordan from snapping shut Israel's access to the Red Sea, Eilat's first incarnation was as a port, used for shipping goods like oil and cars from Asia. But in the 1970s people started to realize that the coral reefs of the sea, the sandy beaches of the coast and the guaranteed sunshine of the desert climate would also make a tourist attraction, and the place took off.

Orientation

Today, the 2-kilometer northern beach strip is boxed solid with opulent hotels with names like Herod's Palace Sheraton and Queen of Sheba Hilton. A promenade extending the length of the beach is almost finished, making this by far the most attractive part of town in a Disneylandish way. The southern beach, which has the coral reefs, is divided up into nature reserves, public beaches and scuba diving shops. (The navy outpost, a fortress of barbed wire in the middle of the town, is now being gradually removed.) In the center of it all is Eilat's tiny airport, now used primarily for national flights as larger planes land at Ovda, 50 kilometers to the north. The actual town of Eilat, where its 40,000 permanent inhabitants live, stretches off into the desert to the north and west of the coast.

At the southern tip is the border with Egypt, featuring the Taba Hilton, whose primary attraction is its casino (gambling being illegal in Israel). The Sinai desert starts here. To the east is the Arava border with Jordan and the immediately adjacent town of Aqaba, Jordan's largest port and a burgeoning tourist attraction on its own (especially with the added attraction of nearby Petra.)

Attractions

The two reasons people come to Eilat are the beaches, which are overrated, and the coral reefs, which are dying fast. The good beach is in the north, which is owned by the hotels and packed tighter than a sardine can in season. The coral used to be among the world's finest, but excessive traffic -- both boats and the two-legged type -- has killed off over 90%, and despite the valiant efforts of the nature reserve it will take hundreds of years for them to grow back. Most serious divers head down the Sinai coast to Dahab or Sharm el-Sheikh now, but if you must stick to Eilat, Coral Beach is the best of the bunch and quite an OK place for an introductory dive or a little snorkeling.

One additional attraction worth mentioning is the Underwater Observatory, which has a plethora of aquaria, the Oceanarium "simulator motion theater" and the Observatory itself, a large glass-walled chamber 4 meters below the surface that gives you a surprisingly good look at the live reef. Also, the nearby Dolphin Reef isn't just a rip-off exercise, as the staff actually works to rehabilitate dolphins for life in the open sea. Finally, the Negev desert surrounds the entire area and there are plenty of jeep safaris, camel rides and hikes available.

Personally, after 4 visits to Eilat, I've tended to find that the biggest attractions are local bus 15 from the Central Bus Station to the Taba border and -- perhaps even more important -- the best falafel joint in the country, just across the street from the bus station at the International Birdwatching Centre, on HaTemarim Boulevard.

Getting There

Egged express buses drive from Tel Aviv to Eilat hourly, the trip takes around 4 hours and costs around 50 shekels. Arkia will fly the same distance in less than half an hour, but will also charge you at least five times more. Most tourists arrive in Eilat on charter flights via the military airfield Ovda.

In the past, Eilat has tried to offer itself to English tourists, be they Jewish or not, with the slogan "Where the Sun takes its Winter Holiday". And until the outbreak of the recent Palestinan violence, it had been doing very well.

(This is slightly weird as there haven't been any attacks in Eilat but, of course, people are scared.

However, from a Jewish point of view, it's the one place in the world you can go where the hotels are the same standard as an international five star hotel, and the food happens to be Kosher.


TheLady asked me "are you saying there are no top notch hotels anywhere else in Israel?". My answer is this. There are a lot of very good hotels elsewhere in Israel, primarily in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. But unfortunately, most of them still rely, to a certain extent, on the fact that people will always go to Israel for religious or ideological reasons. Eilat on the other hand has hotels that can compare with, for example, Miami Beach.

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