On Monday afternoon we drove south through the desert about 95 miles to Eilat, the tourism-driven coastal city at the southernmost tip of Israel.
People often have less-than-flattering things to say about Eilat; it’s known for seedy nightlife and tacky over-development. But it’s situated in a gorgeous natural setting, where reddish-purple sand cliffs approach clear waters. Standing on the shore, you can see the beaches of Egypt and Jordan in the distance.
We were most excited about the coral reefs in the Red Sea. Not only are they beautiful and full of interesting life, they’re also just steps from the shore. Divers and snorkelers can walk into the water right off the beach and see incredible things — brilliantly colored parrotfish, anemones and clown fish, spiny sea urchins and tons of other underwater life.
We tried out “snuba,” which is an option that lets swimmers without diving certification spend time deep underwater. We wore wet suits, eye masks and mouthpieces which were attached to an oxygen tank that floated directly above us on the surface of the water. With the help of a guide, we went down about 10 to 15 feet and stayed there for about 30 minutes. It was really strange at first, and harder than I had expected to get used to breathing through the tube and regulating the pressure in my ears. But once I got the hang of it, it really was incredible to stay underwater and have so much freedom to explore. I loved the bright colors of the coral itself, and the colors and movements of the fish, and the layers of activity beneath and between the rocks and the growth. We even saw an octopus! We both enjoyed it so much that we’re planning to work on diver certification when we get back to Seattle so that next time we can actually scuba on our own.
Our half-hour dive went by quickly, but it was good that the time finally came for us to get out of the water, because we were freezing. We sat in our wet suits in the sun and drank hot coffee to warm up, then spent another half hour or so snorkeling in the same reef before we were really too cold to consider staying in. On the upside, the nice thing about visiting Eilat in winter is that the temperature on land is much more comfortable — in the 70s and 80s, versus well over 100 degrees in the summer.
Later that afternoon, we rented a glass-bottom kayak and paddled onto the water to get some final views of the sea, the coral and the mountains looming from Jordan. It really was gorgeous.
Both nights we stayed in Eilat, we had dinner at the same low-key diner-style restaurant called (unfortunately) Duda. In a touristy town it can be hard to know which restaurants have good food and which are just overpriced, and we were really happy to find a very reasonable place that served Israeli classics like hummus and falafel, and some surprises like malawach, a very tasty fried bread that I remembered from my summer volunteering in Kiryat Gat. A bonus — Duda played the Fashion Television channel on multiple tvs mounted around the dining room, and I really liked watching the runway shows … though it made me a pretty poor dinner conversation partner.
Finally, Eilat was the only place on our trip where we stayed in a pretty typical hotel, the Dan Panorama. We took other travelers’ advice to sign up for a Dan Hotels membership (a free loyalty club), which gives discounts and allows you to request a room upgrade. We booked a standard room, but when we arrived, we were automatically upgraded to a better unsold room, which boasted a balcony with a hot tub. While the chain hotel experience is still more about convenience than charm, it was still pretty nice to end our first day with a glass of wine in the hot tub overlooking the city (our balcony, being a free upgrade, overlooked a less-stunning view of the airport runway … but still, it’s easy to pretend otherwise after dark).
On a less celebratory note, sitting outside on just one in a row of identical oversize balconies, listening to the roar of passenger jet engines compete with the mechanical hum of the jacuzzi-for-two (amid a row of identical jacuzzis-for-two) and looking out over the landscape of neon signage and gas stations, blinking runway lights and car headlights, and resort swimming pools — in the desert — makes me wonder that the planet has lasted this long. Eilat is just a pinprick of a city next to Tel Aviv, let alone Shanghai or Tokyo.