Summer surprise? Located at the southernmost tip of Israel, Eilat is a majestic port city that is home to beautiful beaches, a vast coral reef, and, surprisingly, a large population of local and migratory birds.
Bordering the Red Sea, Eilat can give a vacationer the feel of a tropical resort, as well as of a cosmopolitan and modern city: Travelers — the city, with its particular ambiance, appeals to many Europeans — can either luxuriate lazily on beaches, explore historical or environmental sites, take a day hike, or hit the local bars and restaurants.
Eilat has a wide variety of beaches along its sprawling coastline and many of them are free; all have different personalities.
Some, like Princess Beach, are quiet and sedate, while the Village Beach is more of a youthful party beach. For a chance to swim with the dolphins, the appropriately named Dolphin Beach offers its visitors the rare chance to do so.
No matter what beach you choose, most offer diving and snorkeling services; the most notable is Coral Beach, about a five-minute swim from the shore to reach the reefs where many of the exotic fish reside.
Lined with chairs and umbrellas along the sparkling blue water, the beach is still ideal for sunbathing and swimming as well. There are bars and restaurants on the beach for those feeling a bit peckish or dehydrated. It can get as hot as 110° in Eilat.
Located at the tip of Coral Beach is the Coral World Underwater Observatory Marine Park. Great for families, the park has a variety of marine life exhibits, notably the shark aquarium.
The sharks swim around a 650,000 liter tank; observers can view the sharks from above or below water level in a cool, dark walk-through tunnel structure.
The main attraction here is the giant underwater observatory located at the end of the park. Visitors must walk over a small bridge to get to a structure that looks almost like the Space Needle of Seattle, though it's submerged in water — with a lighthouse stuck on top.
Through the doors, visitors can enjoy a snack from the cafe or peruse the gift shop — all with the Red Sea as a beautiful backdrop. For the real view though, you must go down the stairs to see the magnificent and colorful reef life teeming beneath the water's surface.
On the lower floor of the observatory, vibrant exotic fish glide past the windows amid a vast forest of coral and seaweed. Parrot fish, named for their beak-like mouths, peck at the algae and coral, drifting in and out of sight as they feed.
Neon-colored butterfly fish dash in between the staghorn and finger coral. Sea anemones wave their tentacles about with the moving currents.
Moving away from the water and looking skyward, Eilat is one of the best places for birdwatching in Israel. In the spring, thousands of birds migrate along the Arava.
If you are traveling in Eilat later than spring, don't worry — one of the most popular delights among birders and tourists are the flamingos, which spend their time just north of Eilat in the evaporating salt ponds.
The site is a little out of the way, and be warned, the smell is not pleasant, but the birds are beautiful to see. Don't be surprised if not all the birds at the salt ponds are pink. Young flamingos are born white — their pink coloring coming only after a healthy diet of the salt pond's shrimp and algae.
For those interested in caves and history, a visit to Timna Valley Park, the location of one of the oldest copper mines in the world, is appropriate. The park is located just north of Eilat, and one can drive through, stopping to explore all the man-made and natural features along the route.
Because of the high copper content in the soil, much of the surrounding rock formations are red. Timna Valley Park chronicles the history of the area stretching back to 6000 BCE, when the Egyptians first started mining the area, leaving behind drawings and tools.
Meanwhile, natural elements created arches, pillars and the mushroom rock.
Eilat is a jewel at the bottom of the Negev. It may be part of a hot desert, reaching temperatures in the low 100s during the summer, but it is anything but barren.
Instead of picturing sparse sand and rock, think of the deep aquamarine of the Red Sea, the pink of the flamingos and the blazing red of Timna Park.
Eilat is only the very small tip of Israel, but it is packed with many diverse activities and adventures just waiting to be had.
For more information, visit: www.eilat-guide.com.