Israel's comfort capital is at its southern tip Resort: Israelis and tourists alike go to Eilat for its hotels, beachfront promenade, diving and snorkeling.

April 20, 1997|By Christopher Reynolds | Christopher Reynolds,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Eilat, many an Israeli will tell you, isn't the real Israel.

It's too new, too comfortable. In spirit and in geography, Eilat can seem far removed from the struggles that have defined Jerusalem, Gaza and the disputed territories at the northern end of the country.

But Eilat, Israel's southern toehold on the Red Sea, is almost certainly the country's comfort capital. Israelis and foreigners come for its resort hotels, its beachfront promenade, its top-notch diving and snorkeling.

And on Eilat's inland side, they can find the red, beige and gray expanses of the Negev desert, dotted by the occasional kibbutz.

True, Eilat is not everyone's idea of a place to relax. In one of this century's most violence-ridden regions, the resort city sits in Israel's loneliest corner with the Egyptian border on one side, the Jordanian border on the other. But on any day in any season, Eilat is full of people in a state of obvious and profound relaxation.

The day of my arrival, I took a $5 taxi ride over to Coral World Eilat, the underwater observatory, a futuristic structure that sticks up from the shallow water at Coral Beach. Nearby, in the waters of the Coral Beach Nature Reserve, scuba divers and snorkelers bob and splash. Elsewhere along the waterfront, tourists commune with dolphins, race on jet skis, float beneath para-sails.

Choosing to stay dry this day, I paid my $18 admission, descended the stairs and stood at a window 20 feet below the water's surface, ogling fish of a thousand hues. Some were confined to aquarium containers; others drifted in the open sea, visible through picture windows that reminded me of California's tTC Monterey Bay Aquarium.

I stayed at the Isrotel King Solomon's Palace, one of several tall hotels in the city's Northern Beach area. But the Eilat hotel that made me most envious was the Orchid Thai-Style Resort Hotel, which lies near the aquarium above Coral Beach.

"At long last," begins the brochure, "Israel has a Thai-style resort village of its own." But in a locale that features a "Texas Ranch" theme park (at which camel rides are offered), a Yellow Submarine sea-viewing excursion, a Club Med and a restaurant that calls itself the Bedouin Tent but offers kosher food, one can't be too fussy about cultural dissonance.

And the Orchid is a wonderful little oasis. Exotic sculpture and craft works stand here and there in dramatic light, and wooden floors gleam beneath rattan furniture and wide windows in an airy A-frame design.

(Since my visit, the Dan Eilat hotel has been completed and has joined the Isrotel Royal Beach and the Eilat Princess among the leading luxury lodgings in the city. There are also some older, less expensive lodgings in the central city area, which lies on a hillside northwest of the beaches.)

Though the city's first beach-area hotel went up in the late 1950s, Eilat's emergence as a resort came after the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel and Egypt, which left the Sinai under Israeli control. Now, the Sinai belongs to Egypt, and Eilat is the end of Israel. But instead of dwindling, tourism has accelerated.

Population, about 40,000 now, is expected to reach 50,000 in five years. City planners, running low on waterfront real estate, have scooped out a second lagoon and marina. Five new hotels opened last year, and another five were due to open before this year's end. That puts the number of rooms in town at about 7,500 -- roughly twice what the city had in 1991.

And perhaps most remarkably, Israeli and Jordanian government officials have established a committee to talk about building a joint international airport that would serve both Eilat and Aqaba.

"Once, everything that was going on in town we knew," said Yitzhak Moreno, a 13-year resident of the area. "It was a small place."

Moreno was my guide on a daylong tour of stark Timna Park and its desert environs. (There are also horseback, camelback, hiking and dune-buggy excursions.)

Heading north, we watched the sea yield to wetlands, the wetlands to desert. In a green patch in this transitional zone were three binocular-wielding travelers.

This was the International Bird-Watching Center. Eilat is a migration stop for millions of birds -- an estimated 30 species -- that breed in Europe and Asia, and head to Africa in winter. Migration conventions for bird-watchers are held each March.

About 20 miles north of Eilat, where centuries of wind and water have shaped the sandstone, is Timna Park. Admission for adults was about $6. Its most famous feature is Solomon's Pillars, a set of sandstone natural arches that rise abruptly from the desert floor. On one of the walls, archaeologists in 1985 found hieroglyphics thought to date to the 12th century B.C.

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