Glorious sunshine, tropical seas, beautiful beaches and more culture than you can poke a stick at. Welcome to Eilat and the real Israel
Israel, the Holy Land, is, if you believe in that sort of thing, the birthplace of Christ and the world’s only Jewish state. Sadly, it is more famous in modern times due to the ongoing conflict with its Middle Eastern neighbours since it declared independence in 1948. But to be blinded by what you see on the news is to miss out on a country that benefits from an extraordinarily diverse landscape, more culture than most nations could dream of, and the kind of weather sun-worshippers scour the globe in search of.
Although the capital city is Jerusalem, I flew into Ben Gurion airport and the financial and commercial hotspot of Tel Aviv, a European-style city spread along the sandy shores of the Mediterranean. Fringed with modernity yet bordered by the ancient town of Jaffa, it’s a perfect representation of the cultural contradiction modern-day Israel represents.
Into the desert
But I wasn’t here for Western culture and city living, so after a short stroll around town I was on the road south past the awesome vastness of the Ramon Crater and deep into the Negev Desert. A short stop-off at the Chan Shaharut Camel Ranch and a bumpy camel ride over the ancient spice roads provided a break from the drive and the chance to drink in the horizon-stretching views out towards neighbouring country of Jordan, where the curvature of the earth is clear to see. Our local guide, Yaniv, happily described everything around him with the kind of knowledge only a lifetime of living there can provide.
Hot, dusty and tired, two more hours on the road saw me pulling into Israel’s southernmost resort town of Eilat, nestled on the glowing turquoise waters of the Red Sea, for a three-night stay at the excellent four-star Meridien Hotel, perched directly on the water. Views from my corner suite stretched to Jordan directly opposite, Syria far to the right, and, on the horizon further along, Egypt, highlighting the geographical crossroads this part of the world sits upon.
Early the next morning I was up and on my way to Timna Park, site of ancient copper mines that today is a stunning geological park packed with curious rock formations, amazing trails and the breathtaking Solomon’s Pillars, where hundreds of years of corrosion have left the natural cliffs looking like something peeled from the pages of the bible.
Diving with dolphins
But with midday temperatures rising over the 40° mark, Timna’s arid, dusty landscape soon overwhelmed and it was time to hit the beach and for me the highlight of the entire trip: a dolphin dive and afternoon relaxing in the unique ‘Stalbet on Waters’.
The dolphin dive takes place in a controlled environment with a pod of wild dolphins well used to swimming with curious humans. It's suitable for novices or experienced divers and snorkellers alike, and each person is assigned their own dive partner from the dolphin school to ensure they don’t touch or upset the wildlife. Given the contained area, seeing and interacting with the dolphins is guaranteed in the 30-minute time slot. I was also lucky enough to see turtles and a huge variety of amazing Technicolor tropical fish.
After the exertions of the dive, the perfect unwinding session came in Stalbet on Waters, a sublime indoor-meets-outdoor relaxation and therapy centre with three pools – one fresh water, one natural Red Sea water and one Dead Sea water. Aqua masseuses attending each pool offer 10-minute therapies as you float and listen to the music, piped underwater so you can only hear when your head is submerged. Bliss barely describes it.
Suitably relaxed and sunkissed, we had dinner that night at the local El Gaucho restaurant, a meaty fusion of South American and Argentinean cuisine, which while not exactly local was delicious nonetheless. Keen to get back on a local vibe, we spent the rest of the evening in Eilat’s only shisha café, sipping local mint teas and drawing deep on hookah pipes.
Cruise and views
The following morning involved a trip out onto the Red Sea in a wooden clipper ship and a gentle four-hour cruise of its still waters, peppered with impromptu swims, an on-board barbeque and a phenomenal parasail offering bird’s eye views across the Jordanian and Israeli landscapes.
Slightly queasy from so much time afloat, that afternoon I embarked on an off-road jeep tour up into the Eilat Mountains where, only 10 minutes beyond the town limits, I was face to cliff with the legendary Mount Sinai, where Moses is believed to have received the Ten Commandments. It's imposing and barren, no matter what your religious beliefs, and it’s impossible not to be awed by the scale of history surrounding you. And as you climb the rocky trails in the ancient workhorse Land Rover, the sense of magnitude only increases until you reach the mountain range peak and see the Middle East spread out below, engulfed in a burning bronze haze as the sun sets on the horizon. It’s an experience not to be missed.
A light dinner at excellent seafood restaurant The Last Refuge (the swordfish caught that day was spectacular) rounded out my Eilat experience and after a final night in the Meridien Hotel there was one more stop to make on the journey back to Tel Aviv and the flight home.
The Dead Sea is the lowest place on earth and as such offers some unique medicinal benefits. Engulfed in an atmospheric fug, it is 13 per cent richer in oxygen than anywhere else in the world, meaning UV rays aren’t as harmful here as elsewhere – the perfect excuse to laze in the sun and float in the salty waters of the world’s strangest ocean.
It was the perfect finish to an extraordinary adventure in the Holy Land. This country of contradictions left me beguiled, bronzed and positive I’ll be back to see more of it soon.