We’re off to the Red Sea or more correctly the Reed Sea and Eilat


This week we are heading to Eilat, a beautiful beach town at the very southern end of Israel on the Red Sea. Eilat is the southern gateway to the Sinai which now belongs to Egypt and is just across the water from Aqaba in Jordan.

I’ve been to Eilat a number of times. Years ago, it was a very small place indeed, hardly anyone lived there, it was an outpost at the end of the Negev Desert with one or two hotels at the most. Boy, has that changed. Today, 60,000 people live and work in Eilat. There are loads of hotels, lots of water activities, desert activities and other amusements to keep you busy if that’s what you want and you are certainly able to do a one day or longer if you wish, trip to Petra in Jordan. I really recommend that and will tell you more later. Most people in Eilat speak some English and quite a few speak French. Eilat is really geared to tourists so you should be able to manage no matter what you speak. Israelis tend to have multiple language skills, so, someone will speak your language.

I’ve been to Eilat several times in the past few years, both winter and summer which are different (it’s stinking hot in the summer, over 100 degrees or above 40 and more like 45 Celsius every day. People say, but it’s dry. Well yeah, but it’s still HOT.) And, lots of Israeli families are on vacation with their kids in the summer so the hotels are jam packed. I would recommend spring or autumn for a visit—it still may be crowded if it’s one of the longer Jewish holidays when people go on vacation, but the weather is a lot more comfortable. It’s still hot but not brutal. Winter is very pleasant, still warm during the day, but you might need a light jacket at night. This is desert and the temperatures drop dramatically once the sun goes down. I find the water too cold to swim in the winter but you might not. You will not need to pack an umbrella because it hardly ever rains in Eilat, maybe one week out of the whole year.

Getting there
Once upon a time, you had to drive or take a bus to get to Eilat. You still can and have a drive through the Negev Desert which will take several hours and longer if you have to stop for breaks. (You will and should). Alternatively, you can fly from Tel Aviv and I know there are a number of places in Europe that have direct charter flights to Eilat. The trip from Tel Aviv is under an hour, the airport small so you get your luggage right away, and you are only a five minute taxi ride to the hotels. I most recently did this trip with my son who really enjoyed the flight because you can see the landscape all the way. One idea is to drive one way and fly the other but it’s up to you.

What should I do?
I’m in Eilat, now what do I do? You can take your pick. Eilat is a great place for things like water skiing although most people who go to Eilat really want to see the Red Sea fish and they are spectacular so chances are you want to go diving or snorkelling. If neither of these things is for you, then by all means, visit the Coral World aquarium where you will see incredibly colorful Red Sea fish. One of the cool things is that part of the aquarium is underwater so you are seeing the fish in their habitat. By the way, two things that might interest you—in Hebrew the term is Reed Sea, not Red, and no, it is not red so all I can think is somewhere a mistranslation crept into English and it stuck. You will also notice the sea water is far more saline than in other places; not enough to really bother you but noticeably more saline.

If dolphins are your thing, then head to the Dolphin Reef where you can swim and dive with the dolphins. There are also times when wind-surfing is popular and one of my former dance teachers told me her father coached Israelis that went on to the Olympics so obviously, conditions are pretty good. Of course, you can always hang out at the hotel pool, but you could do that anywhere, so at least give the Red Sea some of your time. If water sports are not your thing, there’s always the desert.

Into The Desert
There are lots of things you can enjoy in the nearby desert but the one thing not to be missed is Timna Park. This is Israel and you are walking in history almost everywhere. Timna is a short distance from Eilat where you can hike and learn about the geology of the area. There is also a replica of the Tabernacle of the Children of Israel that they carried throughout their 40 years of wandering in the desert. I would recommend going early in the morning before it gets too hot, give yourself some time in the museum at the entry, then set out on the trails and enjoy the shapes and colors and make sure you see the petroglyphs, ancient copper mine shafts that are associated with the time period of King Solomon and the fossils. Don’t forget to visit Solomon’s Pillar, a rock formation, and the artificial lake which is pretty popular for recreation too.

If you have more time in the desert, definitely try to visit Hai Bar Nature Reserve. I had a friend who was a volunteer there for a while and again, if you want to see animals, go early when they are inclined to be up and moving. If you are lucky, you might see leopards, cheetahs, hyenas, gazelles and ostriches (who pecked incessantly at the car windows on one trip years ago.) All of these species live in the park and are local, endangered desert animals.

Once you are worn out from swimming, snorkelling, etc. and need to feed yourself or the kids or both, there are lots of restaurants in Eilat, no problem finding food. Undoubtedly, you will find Middle Eastern food as well as other cuisines but do try the local felafel, kebab, houmous and tehina while you re there. Eilat also has an IMAX which the kids will enjoy.
Do not miss sunset—look across the water to Jordan as the mountains seem to glow red while the sun sets—this is spectacular and a highlight of your trip.

Heading across the border
Once upon a time, there was no way to cross the border between Israel and Jordan, at least not legally. During the 1950’s, there was a popular song called The Red Rock about the rose colored city of Petra in Jordan, a center of Nabatean civilization thousands of years ago. Teenage boys used to dream and occasionally attempt to get across the border to see Petra and some of them ended up being shot and the song was banned. Today, it’s played as an “oldie” on the radio and anyone can cross the border to visit Petra, a trip I highly recommend so here are a few tips.

Petra is an easy day trip from Eilat. Of course, you can go for more than one day, that’s up to you. I did the trip with my teenage son because that was what I wanted for my birthday. I wondered if he’d give me a hard time, teenagers being notoriously difficult to please but fortunately, he had a great time, paid rapt attention to the guide, and couldn’t wait to get back to Eilat so he could post all his photos on Facebook so I knew he loved it.

My recommendation is to go with a tour company that you book in advance. After talking with a few friends, I booked Eco Tours and we both found them terrific. Going with a tour company is good for several reasons. They will pick you up early in the morning because there are long lines on the Israeli side for crossing the border, but once you are over on the other side, their rep will meet you, collect your passports and stand in line to get the visas instead of you having to do it. There isn’t much to do while you are waiting except get a drink and look at tacky souvenirs which I don’t recommend, but then your guide will round up the group and you’re off to the bus. Our group was very international, our young Jordanian guide spoke English quite well and tailored his talks to everyone. All the teens enjoyed this as much as the adults.

There is another reason I recommend the tours. Someone I know decided she did not need a tour guide, took a car without really knowing the hairpin turns in the mountains and you guessed it. She had an accident, fractured her leg and had to be sent back to Aqaba and airlifted back to Eilat. You don’t want that, so take the tour.

Back to Petra. The ride is not long, you can enjoy the trip through the mountains which are spectacular and within a short time, you’re at the entrance to Petra. This is a downhill walk through the Siq, a narrow path between the cliffs, which is not too hard but if you can’t walk, there are horse carts available, no motorized vehicles are allowed in the area since this is Jordan’s most important archeological site. Personally, I would not take a cart unless I had no choice because I imagine they bounce around quite a lot on that rocky surface but that’s up to you. There are also camels for a ride further down.

All along the walk down, the guide would point out various remnants of Nabatean civilization carved into the rock over 2500 years ago but nothing prepares you for the site of The Treasury—that magnificent pink stone building. If you saw Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, then you know the building I mean. It’s incredible and we spent a long time just examining this truly ancient wonder of the world. For a surprise, I booked horses to ride back up, a la Indiana Jones which my son really enjoyed. I admit, I did not gallop up but went at a very sedate trot but we were humming the theme music anyway and both of us thought this was a cool way to end our time in Petra. The best time for photos in my opinion is mid morning when the colors of the rocks are most spectacular.

Some of the tours will take you to Aqaba but it’s a long and tiring day and that option might be better for a two day trip. We came back to Eilat exhausted and very happy.
There’s lots more to do in the Eilat area including heading down to Sinai which is now part of Egypt so that’s another entry.

Enjoy Eilat because you will have a great time!