By Douglas E. Duckett
Eilat + Petra and Wadi Rum (in Jordan)
Now we move to Israel’s narrow, southern tip—the Red Sea port of Eilat. Eilat is a lovely beach and resort city, and I used to think of it as just another city of that type, not remarkable enough to warrant a visit. But my Israeli friends tend to love it, so I decided to open myself to a broader experience with my first real visit in November 2013. Some of my original feelings remain valid, but I also saw Eilat’s beauty and charms, so if you have enough time for the rest of Israel or are making a return visit after touring other parts of the country, it is absolutely worth a stay. The city has beautiful beaches on the Red Sea, lots of water sports and related experiences, access to beautiful desert and mountain touring, and Eilat offers warm to hot weather nearly year-round with views at night across the Gulf of Eilat to glittering Aqaba, Jordan as well as the coasts of Egypt (Sinai) and northwestern Saudi Arabia. On my first overnight visit, I would sit on my hotel balcony every evening, gazing at four countries at once. For many, Eilat is also the gateway to Petra and Wadi Rum in Jordan, one of the wonders of the world for many travelers.
Eilat has more to offer than visiting the beaches, though that is the main attraction to many, including Israelis. Some other options:
One of Eilat’s most remarkable sites is the Underwater Observatory on Coral Beach where you can see the famous Red Sea coral reefs and fish life. The reefs have been heavily damaged by pollution from all four countries in this crowded tip of the Red Sea, but the views are still spectacular. Children in particular are enthralled by this—but this “kid” was too!
Many people also enjoy swimming with the dolphins at Dolphin Reef. Snorkeling and scuba diving are available; because I have asthma, albeit well controlled, I had to pass. There is some controversy about the site as well because the dolphins are effectively captive (they can jump the barrier but they stay for the food). But many visitors rave about the experience, which is hugely popular. See www.dolphinreef.co.il for more information. The beach there is lovely as well, one of the best in Eilat. You can also rent jet skis there—not sure what certifications or permits may be required.
There are lots of places to go into the Red Sea for a swim, and it is absolutely amazing how beautiful tropical fish are swimming all around you (and occasionally jellyfish, so be careful). On our most recent trip, we went to Barbeach, where you can rent snorkels or even get scuba equipment to swim along the corralled off nature reserve area. It’s on Coral Beach opposite the Ambassador Hotel, tel. (08) 632-5058, (057) 646-0111. It also is a good place to get some food beach-side—and try the limonana (lemonade and mint) with arak (anise liqueur)—yum!!!!
The Botanical Garden of Eilat is a quiet and off-the-beaten path, different kind of experience. I really enjoyed it. Tel. (08) 631-8788; website www.botanicgarden.co.il, e-mail email@example.com for more information.
Want to go out onto the Red Sea on a private boat? Consider a trip on Boat Moriah run by pilot Eitan—e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. There are other boat operators available as well at the marina.
Not far north of Eilat is Timna Park, a national park that was the site of copper mines vital to the Egyptians and King Solomon himself. The craggy desert vistas are stunning. You can experience it just by driving through or by bicycling or hiking trails, including nighttime tours. See www.parktimna.co.il for more information. Some evangelical Christians enjoy visiting a replica of the tabernacle in which the Israelites worshiped during their forty-year desert journey. If you return to Eilat via Route 12 along the Egyptian border, the view of Eilat as you come up and over the mountains will elicit a gasp.
You can do jeep tours of the spectacular valleys and mountains surrounding Eilat through Desert Eco Tours based in that city. I took a four-hour jeep tour of the Arava Valley between Israel and Jordan and the Eilat Mountains in March 2015, and it was a great experience! Desert Eco is one of the finest touring companies in all Israel; see more about the company below. And that is my friend Angela Herrnstadt and I at right on top of the jeep in this picture. Note: They’re friends; they’re not letting other customers ride on top of the jeep (thus sayeth the lawyer). 😊
For many people, a visit to Eilat is also the gateway to explore wonders in southwest Jordan, particularly two amazing destinations, Petra and Wadi Rum. Petra was the ancient capital of the Nabataeans, a once nomadic people who settled in the Negev and mountains of Edom in Jordan and came to dominate the lucrative perfume and spice trades that ran from ancient Arabia through this region to Philistine ports in what is now the Gaza area, and from there to the Greek and Roman worlds. You can see evidence of the Nabataean trade throughout this region—trails, watchtowers, and fortifications, and of course, their breathtaking capital in Petra. Wadi Rum is a vast region of spectacular mountains, canyons, and unforgettable scenery.
To visit Petra from Eilat, you must cross the border into Jordan at the Yitzhak Rabin Terminal in the Arava Valley north of Eilat. The fee to enter Petra is 90 Jordanian dinars for same-day visitors; 60 JDs if staying overnight in Jordan. Visas cost 60 JDs unless you are staying two nights in Jordan, in which case they are free. Visitors to Petra and Jordan without visas will likely be asked to provide their passport details to the touring company by the night before departure so to speed up the crossing, but independent travelers can again get the visa at the border, but check on line to make sure that the procedures have not yet again changed. I note that in addition to the visa being free (and the lower fee to enter Petra), the other advantage of two nights in Jordan is that the Jordanian hotels are more reasonably priced than those in Eilat, and if you use Desert Eco Tours (see below), a transfer service is included in the booking cost. In Jordan, many people stay at the Movenpick Hotel just outside the entrance to Petra; it is an expensive, European-class hotel that is conveniently located and quite lovely—but has no local character. I really like the Hyatt Zeman, built in the homes of an abandoned Bedouin village and it has such extraordinary color and charm! Ask Desert Eco Tours for other options that can give a much more Jordanian experience, while still being comfortable. Staying in Aqaba is an option. Others camp out with a Bedouin tent experience—not for me, but many enjoy it. Talk with Desert Eco Tours about the option that works for you.
You can tour Petra on your own, and as is evident from my guide, I generally favor the independent approach, but here I strongly recommend that you use Desert Eco Tours, an Eilat-based touring company. Contact them at (08) 632-6477 or cell (052) 276-5753; www.desertecotours.com; e-mail email@example.com. I had heard rave reviews of this company for years on TripAdvisor but experienced their work directly for the first time in November 2013, and they are fabulous!
Desert Eco Tours is run by the amazing Erez Herrnstadt, and I have come to know him and his wife Angela quite well. Erez’s lifelong passion for the desert is deep and driving, and it shows in his work. His company partners with Jordan Experience to take tourists to Petra and Wadi Rum. When you use Desert Eco Tours, the transition from Israel to Jordan is easy and seamless—the Israeli tour operators pick you up at your hotel and take you right to the border terminal. The crossing fees are included in the tour price, and the Jordanian guides pick you up on the other side and guide you through the Jordanian entry process. Heading back is the same in reverse—it could not be easier or less stressful.
Petra is a world-renowned site, often called one of the wonders of the ancient world, and its fame was greatly enhanced when it was used as backdrop for scenes in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and, so I’m told, in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. It is about a two-kilometer hike into the site through the narrow, facing cliffs of the Siq before you reach the most famous site at right, what the Bedouin called “the Treasury”—which it never was (as the Bedouin found when they unfortunately shot up the façade looking for the money). Instead it was a funeral monument in all likelihood, but when you first glimpse it through that narrow opening at the end of the Siq, it really does make people gasp in wonder. It is no wonder the Nabataeans successfully hid the site of their capital from so many—until you are right upon it, it is not at all visible!
Petra is usually crowded with tourists—and with Bedouin merchants unceasingly hawking their wares and animals to ride—and this will be a long and full day. There are places to buy lunch inside and lots of vendors. If you have the time, there is also the option to hike to the famous “Monastery” at left—again, not a monastery in fact but another funeral site—atop a mountain perhaps another kilometer and a half into the site. The monastery is in fact spectacular, as you can see, but I offer this caution. Reaching this site requires an arduous hike up a mountain for about an hour and 850 steps, much of it on uneven and challenging surfaces. I was 56 at the time, and though I work out frequently, this climb up and especially the climb down about did me in. While taking the donkeys up the mountain might be an option (though I would never do it), taking the donkeys down is not safe and I strongly recommend against it! (The donkeys are also poorly treated.) On the other hand, if once down you find your ankle throbbing (as I did), taking a camel or donkey out for the long hike back to the park entrance may suddenly seem like a good idea. Of course, if you are fitter than I apparently am, this may be easier, but I am glad I rode out on my camel “friend.” That was never a box I needed to check, but in any event, I need never do that again. 😊
Many visitors to Petra take a one-day tour, and if your time is limited, that is certainly an option (though with significant day fees and visa costs, as noted above). If you have more time, however, I strongly recommend the two-day tour option through Desert Eco Tours where the second day is an all-day, off-road jeep tour of Wadi Rum. This desert wilderness in southern Jordan with stunning, craggy mountains offers some of the most breathtaking scenery I have ever seen. This is the land of nomadic Bedouin herders, and its romantic landscapes were the scene of filming for Lawrence of Arabia, for this was indeed one of the main sites of the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks in World War I, assisted by the legendary British officer T.E. Lawrence. One of the major battles of that revolt was the attack on the Ottoman railway (still visible in the area) and the port city of Aqaba to the south. If you take the two-day option and stay one or two nights in Jordan, discuss hotel options with Desert Eco Tours.
If you tour Wadi Rum, ask Desert Eco Tours to assign Ali Hilalat to you as your driver/guide/cook if he is available that day. I am sure that all their guides are great—it is that fine of a tour company—but this man is just amazing. He is retired as a major from the very distinguished Jordanian Army, and he is fascinating and a delight to get to know. Our conversations that day spanned his Muslim faith (only because I asked about the lovely Qur’anic chants he was playing in the jeep as we drove), his army history, and his acquaintance with the late, great King Hussein and the current King of Jordan, Hussein’s son Abdullah. Of course, as a guide who has lived much of his life in that area, he knows the region like the back of his hand, and he took that jeep in amazing places! On top of all that, I have to say that Ali’s grilled chicken lunch over a fire using the mesquite-style brush growing in the area was one of the tastiest meals I have had. But as is often the case with me, I remember people I have connected with long after a vista or historic site fades from memory, and I will always remember the day when Ali showed me his beloved country and landscapes while sharing his life. He is a remarkable person—and I feel the same way about Erez and Angela. As the saying goes, meeting them was itself “worth the price of admission.” Because of them, Eilat has become a city that I plan to visit often, a real change from my early visits.
As a major resort city, Eilat has many hotel options, most of them high rise and expensive, though there are some smaller, more-budget options. On our most recent visit, something of a honeymoon following our legal marriage after being together for over thirty years, we stayed at the Isrotel Agamim in the North Beach area, and this is a stunning hotel, even though it is not a beach hotel. But the customer service was just extraordinary; they even gave us “Just Married” tee-shirts as a gift! And look at that view out the back of our ground floor room into the pool area (upper right)! Tel. (08) 630-0300; www.isrotel.com/isrotel-agamim. On my first visit, I stayed at U Suites Eilat, also in the North Beach area. Tel. (08) 638-3333; www.fattal-hotels.com/eilat-hotels/u-suites-eilat. The views there are spectacular, and while this hotel does not have its own swimming beach, the pool facilities are wonderful, and there is a nice workout area and spa as well. But there are lots of other options; see TripAdvisor for more suggestions or ask Regent Tours or Beresheet/Genesis and Clive Barker (see pp. 9-10) for recommendations and prices.
I confess that I have still not had much of a chance to sample Eilat’s restaurant scene on my visits to the city. But there are lots of places to eat (see TripAdvisor or Frommer’s), and here are some dining options I can recommend:
I have had some of the best seafood meals of my life at Pago Pago on the North Beach Marina, tel. (08) 637-6660; www.pagopagorest.com. It is not kosher. The food was delicious and the service was absolutely excellent! I was blown away on my 2016 visit with my husband Brett when the server remembered me from more than a year before. Pago Pago also has a beautiful view of the boats in the marina—a great resort experience. Tell owner Adi Ben-Yakir, who runs what is truly one of Israel’s finest restaurants, that I sent my best regards! This was Brett’s favorite restaurant in the whole country.
Entrecote is a burger and grill place that looks like a strip-mall joint, but it surprised me by having some sophisticated, grilled food, way beyond just hamburgers. It’s popular among French visitors; that has to say something about the food, as the French know good food. It is at 68 Agmonim St., tel. (03) 863-4028; https://m.facebook.com/antrikoteilat.
A friend from Jerusalem raves about a seafood restaurant called The Last Refuge on Almog Beach, tel. (08) 637-6237. I have not yet been there, but I trust his taste and recommendations. My Eilati friends agree that it’s a great place.
Want a very different, offbeat dining experience? Check out the small, hideway café above the relaxation pools at Dolphin Reef, called Stalbet al ha-Mayim, tel. (08) 630-0111. You have to ask to find this place, and call ahead—Erez and Angela Hernnstadt showed it to me. It is small, not at all advertised, and has low tables with cushion seating under a thatched roof in front of a small bar. The menu is limited but quite good, the wine is tasty, and the place is funky, fun, and real Eilat. It feels a little like a cross between a backpacker’s ashram and some California place trying for an Eastern-mysticism feel. I loved it—definitely not just another mass-market, touristy place!
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