(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.
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.)
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.
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.