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EILAT

Oases in Israel : Relaxing at three comfort zones in the harsh desert

November 17, 1996|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

This, 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 in roughly equal numbers for its resort hotels, its beachfront promenade, its top-notch diving and snorkeling. And on Eilat's inland side, they can find more familiar Israeli scenery: the red, beige and gray expanses of the Negev Desert, dotted by the occasional kibbutz.

For an American on a demanding Middle East itinerary, Eilat can be the perfect place to take a breather. I landed there last fall, just after a week of haggling and camel-riding in Cairo and the Sinai, just before another week of desert hikes and ruins-touring in Petra and Amman, Jordan. In Eilat, my adventures were more modest and began with a little wandering along King's Wharf, a double-scoop cone from the Ben & Jerry's, a beer on a patio at dusk.

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. All told, Eilat (also spelled Elat) has less than 10 miles of beachfront. Beyond the breakers of its beaches, you can just make out the undeveloped coast of Saudi Arabia, a long, low colorless lump across the Red Sea. To fully relax anywhere in the Middle East, a degree of faith is required. 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 in 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 Red Sea's surface, ogling fish of 1,000 hues. Some were confined to aquarium containers and dramatically lighted, like new products on sale. Sharks circled in round tanks. Still other fish drifted in the open sea, visible through picture windows that reminded me of California's Monterey Bay Aquarium.

But there are at least two big differences between aquarium life in California and aquarium life in Eilat. One is that the Red Sea's native fishes are far more colorful than those of the California coast. The other difference is that while most tourism in California is a secular--if not downright godless--pursuit, many travelers in Israel have spiritual matters in mind. This made for intriguing eavesdropping at the aquarium windows.

"And idiots think of evolution!" said one man in a stage whisper to his wife as they watched a slow procession of yellow and orange fish through a blue aquarium window. "These are the wonders of God's creation!"

"Dear," said another woman to her mate, "I've just had a thought. Here we are looking at all these fish, and yet Moses parted the Red Sea. They must have started right up again."

*

I stayed at the Isrotel King Solomon's Palace, one of several tall hotels in the city's Northern Beach area. The hotel was a big but agreeable place with a popular poolside area, and one night I walked from there to a novel buffet dinner at the nearby Isrotel Royal Beach Hotel's Vista Restaurant: Diners were invited into the kitchen, and set free to claim our buffet options from that world of stainless steel and working cooks. Having selected our food, we returned to the dining room, where a saxophone player strolled table to table.

But the Eilat hotel that made me most envious was the Orchid, which lies near the aquarium above Coral Beach on Ha-Arava Road.

The Orchid Hotel and Resort looks from a distance like a misplaced Swiss chalet. Up close, however, I realized that it is instead a misplaced Thai palace.

"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.

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