In addition to guiding tours around Israel, in the past two years I supplemented my income by creating and customizing itineraries for clients of Touring Israel, a luxury private touring company I highly recommend. As I spoke to clients on the phone, custom building their Israel trip itineraries, I would sometimes get the request, “We want to visit Eilat”.
Oh, Eilat. For many of us tour guides, Eilat is like a thorn in our sides. Yes, sunny place, awesome snorkeling, but seriously, it’s a 4 hour drive* from Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, way out in the boondocks, southernmost point of the country, no holy places, not much conflict, not much archaeology, no amazing architecture and innovation and therefore we desperately try to convince the first time tourist to drop it from their wish list. Why? Because tourists usually come to Israel for a short time, 7 maybe 8 days, and with all there is to do, to learn, to visit, to experience, to see in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the Galilee and Masada, who has time for Eilat?!? No, no, no.
I have visited Eilat but a few times in my life. I remember a trip there at age 8 with my parents, I visited during my army service, sleeping on the beach, I was there with my family on vacations to Israel and I was there a few times as a tour guide. I knew there was ‘stuff’ to do, and I knew Eilat was getting a bum rap. But it is so distant, so out of the way…
Ok, so here is a confession. One of our daughters, who lives in Europe, announced a few weeks ago that on her visit to Israel she would like to see Eilat. My first instinct, of course, was to say “What? No, it’s not worth it, too hot in July, too far away, too touristy, too kitchy, too whatever…” But I held my tongue and as I mulled this Eilat thing over and over, I relented. “Heck,” I thought, “Let’s do like so many Israeli families do, and go vacation in Eilat for a few days.”
So that is what we did. We packed the family in the car and drove the four hours south from Tel Aviv. But of course, this would not be MY blog without some history about Eilat.
Eilat is Israel’s southernmost city and its only port on the Red Sea. It sits next to the Jordanian resort/port city of Aqaba to the east, the Egyptian town of Taba on the Sinai Peninsula to the west and a mere 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) from the Saudi Arabian border. Though the borders of modern-day Israel, Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia were established in the mid 20th century, the history of Eilat is quite ancient, going back at least 3,500 years.
The first written mention of Eilat tells of Moses and the Israelites passing by on their Exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land, showing that even back when the Hebrew Bible was written, Eilat was already a known, established place.
And when we passed by from our brethren the children of Esau, which dwelt in Seir, through the way of the plain from Elath, and from Eziongaber, we turned and passed by the way of the wilderness of Moab (Deuteronomy:8)
In the 10th century BCE, King Solomon built a great maritime port in Eilat enabling him to trade with Asia and Africa.
And king Solomon made a navy of ships in Eziongeber, which is beside Eloth, on the shore of the Red sea, in the land of Edom. And Hiram sent in the navy his servants, shipmen that had knowledge of the sea, with the servants of Solomon. And they came to Ophir (which we believe was the Indian subcontinent), and fetched from thence gold, four hundred and twenty talents, and brought it to king Solomon. (1 Kings 9:26-28)
Eilat and Aqaba were under Roman army control in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, then came the Byzantines and eventually they were conquered by the Muslims in the 7th century. The Crusaders took Eilat and then lost it in 1187 to Saladin. During Mameluke times (1267 – 1515) the site continued to be an important trading post but later, under the 400 years of Ottoman rule it became a dormant fishing village. In 1917, Lawrence of Arabia, the British spy working with the Bedouins to defeat the Ottoman Empire in World War I, conquered Aqaba and the British built a small police station north-west of Aqaba that sits in today’s downtown Eilat and called it Umm-Rash Rash.
In 1949, during the Israeli Independence War, Israeli forces managed to reach Umm-Rash Rash in a race to establish the borders of the new state. While the new city of Eilat was built in 1950 and helped with the absorption of the vast Jewish immigration to the nascent State of Israel, Aqaba remained in Jordan.
Today, Eilat is a touristy beachfront city of about 50,000 people, famous for its fabulous Red Sea coral reefs, the snorkeling and scuba diving, the desert hiking trails and the beten-gav (meaning stomach-back as in when you tan your belly and then turn over to tan your back over and over non stop). Not much else. Or so it seemed to me.
So to Eilat we headed for three nights at a hotel outside of town because I wanted peace and quiet. I also wanted to give us enough time to beten-gav as we needed the relaxation and I was bent on getting it, darn it, and the family granted me the honor of designing a day of touring as well. Yay!
And you know what? We had a GREAT time! Who knew?!?
So this is my ode to Eilat. Here are a few sites and activities I recommend:
THE DOLPHIN REEF– (link to their website) A unique site in Israel and throughout the world where visitors can enjoy an unusual opportunity to meet and observe dolphins in their natural habitat. A group of bottlenose dolphins was rescued from the Black Sea and released here about 20 years ago. Their descendents maintain a daily routine of hunting, playing, courting and socializing and are free to choose between human company or their daily life in the open water. The fact that many times the dolphins choose to come close to the trainers and visitors show the true bond created between cetaceans and humans.
Visitors can get an introductory snorkeling or scuba lesson and then take a guided session in the water but are NOT allowed to touch the dolphins. Those not wanting to get wet can enjoy getting close to the dolphins from the floating piers and observation points. My family spent the day at the Dolphin Reef, we relaxed, took a snorkeling session, loved the magnificent dolphins and had a wonderful time.
SNUBA (yes, with an N) is a form of underwater diving that uses what looks like an umbilical cord connected from the diver to a floating raft on the surface that holds the air tank. This is different from scuba diving, where the diver’s breathing equipment is completely self-contained and there is no link to the surface. The origin of the word “Snuba” may be a combination of snorkel and scuba, as it bridges the gap between the two. (Snuba in Eilat info)
My family tried snuba and loved it. We dived about 18-20 feet, were able to check out the coral reef up close and personal and swim with the colorful schools of fish that make this place so amazing.
THE UNDERWATER OBSERVATORY MARINE PARK (Check out their website)
The Underwater Observatory Marine Park offers visitors a rare chance to enter the natural and abundant marine kingdom of the Red Sea. The park has over 800 species of fish, coral, mollusks, stingrays, sea turtles, and other animals from the Gulf of Eilat and a large walk-through shark tank. Very cool! The observatory is a tower situated off-shore, without any fences or cages, with a rare underwater view of the Red Sea, with its bright colors, tones, and the marine life in the Gulf of Eilat. The observation halls are submerged at a depth of 12 meters, giving visitors a natural view of the coral reef’s spectacular beauty through huge plate-glass windows.
Yeah, we liked that too. Put it on your list.
Ok, enough with the water activities, now let’s see some other places.
HAI- BAR YOTVATA NATURE PRESERVE (Their website)
At a 25 minute drive north from Eilat you’ll find the Yotvata Salt Flats, one of three large salt flats in the southern Arava (the others are the Evrona Salt Flats and the Eilat Salt Flats, from which only a few vestiges remain). Even though the annual precipitation is only 25 mm rain, this is a habitat with a rich variety of vegetation and animals, and that it why it was selected for an amazing restoration project to bring back some of the wildlife that went extinct in Israel and to reinforce endangered species. At the beginning of the 1970s an area of 12,000 dunams was fenced in on the Yotvata salt flats, and large herbivores that had become extinct in Israel were brought in (including a few species that had never been in Israel but were endangered in other parts of the world), among them the Asian wild ass, addax (white antelope), the Sahara oryx (Oryx dammah), the white oryx, the African wild ass and ostriches. In the mid-1980s, another few thousand dunams west of Road 90 were fenced in order to protect the last population in the world of acacia gazelles (Gazella gazella acaciae), a sub-species of the mountain gazelle that is endangered worldwide, and is under constant surveillance.
At the Hai-Bar, one drives the family car on a designated path through the salt flats, watching the varied, gorgeous animal herds in their natural habitat. This family visit was priceless as our car was accosted by some curious ostriches causing us to giggle and laugh until we could barely breath. It is awesome!
Seeing as we were in Eilat in July for only 3 days (and it was HOT) we briefly visited these sites; the rest of the days we got in some relaxing beten-gav. In the evenings we enjoyed the restaurants and strolled the touristy pedestrian mall with all the Vegas style lights, crowds and commotion.
But there is more to the Eilat region, so even though we as a family did not get to them on this trip, they are still awesome places I recommend:
FUGAROT AT THE EVRONA SALT FLATS
During the early Muslim period in the 8th and 9th centuries, a farming village was established here on the salt flats. Using a technology developed by the Persians sometime in the early 1st millennium BCE, the farmers built a sophisticated irrigation system known as fugarot, or chain wells. It is composed of several vertical shafts, connected by gently sloping tunnels which dig east into the aquifer below the Edom mountains. The tunnels become aqueducts and those carried water to a small reservoir that supplied water to the farm. This farm was an important stop on the Muslims’ yearly pilgrimage to Mecca as pilgrims coming from the west needed rest as well as water and food before continuing on their journey.
I find this place fascinating, but will concede that it is mostly for archaeology and history buffs. I have gone down one of the shafts, crawled through the tunnels, marveled at the 1,200 year old irrigation system in the middle of the desert. Yup, loved it.
TIMNA NATIONAL PARK
Timna is a wonderful place to discover and explore. First and foremost, it is the site of ancient copper mines, with thousands of ancient mining shafts and the remains of smelting furnaces dating back to the late Bronze and early Iron ages (12th – 8th centuries BCE), when Egypt ruled the land and King David and King Solomon reigned over the United Kingdom of Israel. Archaeological excavations indicate that the copper mines in Timna Valley were probably part of the Kingdom of Edom, however mining continued throughout the Roman period in the 1st and 2nd centuries and then by the Ummayad caliphate in the 7th century.
Not only copper mines, but at Timna you’ll find remnants of ancient Egyptian presence at several archaeological sites such as the Temple of Hathor, goddess of copper miners.
Timna Valley has beautiful geological formations carved out of the stone and sand by eons of water and wind erosion. Although predominantly red, the sand can be yellow, orange, grey, dark brown, or black, and near the copper mines one finds light green and blue in the stone cliffs. The hiking or biking trails are fabulous and it is not uncommon to see ibex herds roaming among the acacia trees and other arid-land vegetation.
To Timna I would go in the winter, spring or fall and camp for a few days to take advantage of the hiking and bike trails, the stars in the desert night sky, the spectacular dawn and sunset colors…
LEOPARD TEMPLE IN THE VALLEY OF OVDA
I am enamored with prehistoric archaeology, and the Leopard Temple, about an hour’s drive from Eilat, is one of my favorite sites. Would you appreciate standing in a sanctuary used by ancient peoples for 4,000 years (let me spell that out, four thousand years!) as a cultic site? I can’t even fathom that number of years of human spirituality. Wow. Just wow. If this wets your appetite, then this a must visit for you.
To do it justice, I’ll have to write a separate post about it. The remains of this prehistoric temple just blow my mind. Please read about the Leopard Temple here.
THE BIRD SANCTUARY AT THE EILAT MARSHES
Israel is a major crossroads on the bird migration flyway from Asia to Africa and back and Eilat is the southern-most rest stop. The only overland bridge between Europe, Asia and Africa, Israel is a bottle-neck that serves hundreds of millions of migratory birds every year. The birds flying into Eilat are preparing themselves for the most challenging task of crossing the foodless and hostile Saharan desert for their winter station.
Visitors can explore the different habitats at the Bird Sanctuary and walk along the trails and birding hides. There is a fresh water lake that holds waterfowl, herons, kingfishers and waders, saltpans with flamingos, gulls and waders, saltmarsh with warblers, rare species of sparrows and shrikes, reed beds with crakes and reed warblers and a forest with a wide diversity of species. One can take a guided tour or explore on their own. Just delightful! Check out the Eilat Birding Center here
And, if you’re already in the Arava Valley and the Negev Desert, why not take a camel trek? The Camel Ranch is a few minutes out of Eilat and the kids will love it. Their website
HIKING, BIKING, RAPELLING, JEEPING GALORE
Outdoor enthusiasts, listen up: in the winter, spring and fall, don’t miss the myriad trails in the Eilat region, as well as jeep excursions and rapelling adventures. Google these, there are many companies that offer these experiences, or you can do them on your own. Enjoy!
And finally, I hereby convey my sincerest apologies to Eilat. I appologize for ignoring you, I’m sorry for disparaging you, dismissing you without really giving you a chance. Mea culpa. I’m now a changed woman, and I can’t wait to get back down to visit you in the fall.
* Ok, for all you purists, one can also take the 45 minute flight to Eilat. However, the total time spent is the same: go through passport control, wait to board, board, fly 45 minutes, deplane, go through passport control and customs, drive to hotel. 4 hours. Ugh.