Eilat, Israel’s resort-town oasis built on desert land, is a bit like Las Vegas minus the casinos. Then again, Vegas doesn’t overlook one of the world’s most spectacular underwater reefs and it can’t boast that it has no sales tax either.
Sitting on Israel’s southern tip, Eilat is surrounded by a goldmine of intersecting natural landscapes – from the Negev desert, to the Edom and Eilat mountains, the Red Sea, and the Gulf of Eilat/Aqaba – just waiting to be explored.
There are also plenty of activities to do in the city such as wining and dining, shopping, snuggling up to a dolphin, or even ice skating.
With the new Ramon Airport opening soon in nearby Timna, the city is revamping its image in time for the stream of tourists that will be no doubt flocking to Eilat to check out its new digs.
Here are some activities you won’t want to miss upon your arrival to this Red Sea city.
DRINK & DINE
The joint venture of three friends who share a love of beer and the sea, Soof brewery (named for the biblical moniker for the Red Sea) is Eilat’s first craft-beer brewery, and an interesting deviation from the usual outdoor activities the city offers.
Located in the city’s industrial zone, the brewery is divided into two parts. On the brewery side guests can tour the production area, learn about the selection of beers and see the cooking and bottling process. In the restaurant, dishes like fried calamari with tequila aioli, and beef jerky accompany the six original brews and additional special-edition beers.
The beers include creative combinations, such as classic wheat beer infused with fresh basil and coriander seed; dark berry beer with cherry and silan; and blond ale seasoned with aromatic ginger, goji berry and coriander.
Whale Restaurant, Herod’s Palace (North Beach Promenade)
Run by local chefs and former high-school sweethearts Inbar Shapira and Lior Raphael, Whale is inspired by the wide range of places where they worked and trained in North America and Europe. The non-kosher menu shows Italian, New York, Indian, and also local influences.
Well thought-out bistro-style dishes range from Jerusalem artichoke risotto to wild cards like deep-fried lamb brain served with preserved-lemon mayo, and Whale’s famous shrimp burger. Enjoy the fine dining along with a view of the resort town’s famous lagoon.
A vacation complex at the most southern tip of Eilat, Colonia brings a new twist to scenic resort life. Bridging glamorous camping with typical resort amenities, the complex allows guests to be pampered while getting a dose of adventure, as well as the chance to bask in the natural beauty of the area and enjoy fine Mediterranean style dining.
Located just one minute from the Egyptian border, the complex has a diving club; an event hall; nine luxurious air-conditioned camping tents; and a chef restaurant featuring slow-cooked food prepared by chef Eyal Samorai, where you can sip tropical cocktails while overlooking this more secluded area of the Red Sea gulf.
For those who prefer to ditch the tourist-packed promenade for a relaxing and otherworldly experience, the Dolphin Reef relaxation pools await.
At this quiet retreat, surrounded by botanical gardens and trickling waterfalls, visitors don robes, sip house refreshments such as fresh-squeezed orange juice and Israeli wine, and then spend two hours floating in three lagoon-like pools that feature piped in underwater relaxation music and a team of water therapists who perform water watsu on guests according to their purchased package.
Like finding relaxation through less passive activities? Try snorkeling or diving with dolphins in another area of the Dolphin Reef complex.
There’s no denying that the Eilat coral reef is spectacular, but it’s well worth venturing into the surrounding Arava Valley/Negev desert landscape. Nestled between the borders of Egypt and Jordan, below the Edom Mountains, and close to historically significant nature reserves like Timna Park, the area offers endless views and experiences to be discovered or rediscovered.
A 15,000-acre ancient copper-mining site with lengthy hikes and bike paths through red dirt and impressive rock formations, Timna Park also offers camping and other family-friendly activities.
Being a national park, Timna has an entry fee and specific opening and closing hours, so make sure to check before you set out to hike. On the plus side, this means access to bathroom facilities and a visitors’ center, where a short 360-degree 3D movie offered in six different languages explains the rich history and geology of the park.
A stop by the park’s hidden lake, the path to which must be braved by an off-road vehicle, allows hikers a much-needed retreat from the hot desert sun.
Eight miles outside the city is Yoash Mountain Lookout. This breathtaking spot in the Eilat Mountains Nature Reserve is the starting point of a two-hour hiking trail. It is well worth the drive just to see the view of the Edom Mountains, the coastal waters and the surrounding mountain range. Pack a picnic and your camera.
There’s no sales tax in Eilat, which is why its four large shopping centers are so popular with Israelis accustomed to paying 17% VAT.
Eilat’s Ice Mall has the added attraction of an Olympic-sized skating rink. Spend a few hours on the ice and you may forget the record-high temperatures outside. It’s also a great winter getaway when the rains finally come pouring down.
Shopping, dining, ice cream, and other indoor experiences await visitors here, including an igloo-shaped Gymboree for the little ones, a 7D theater experience, and a daily 7pm ice show that you can catch free of charge.
HIT THE REEF
Coral World has a 12-meter-deep underwater observatory offering visitors an in-depth view of the coral reef and the wildlife that lives within — without ever setting foot in the water, thanks to large plate-glass windows.
In the nearby shark tank, visitors are invited to watch sharks and rare fish being fed by divers; play interactive educational games; view an educational simulation film about the reef; pet baby sharks in the touch pool; and visit the center’s turtles and stingrays.
Perhaps the most classic Eilat experience aside from sunning on the beach is snorkeling in the gulf waters of the Coral Beach nature reserve. One of the most colorful reefs in the world, Coral Beach is accessible to people of all ages and abilities.
Wading pools allow children to get close without entering the deeper waters, as do observation bridges where one can admire the fish while remaining dry. Those who are willing to get wet can rent snorkeling and diving gear.
It would be a shame to miss out on the myriad water-sports options provided by service providers such as Red Sea Parasailing. The company also offers sailing excursions, jet skiing, paraflying, banana boats, pedal boats and kayaks.
Yacht rental services in Eilat, such as Escape Luxury Charter, offer anything from rent-your-own yacht experiences to a guided cruise along the Sinai desert with stops for snorkeling and dinner, and even a week-long boating adventure where travelers explore Petra and other locales in Jordan and northern Egypt.
Aside from being a different and thrilling way to experience the desert terrain, ATV tour companies such as Shanti Jeep Safari offer a personalized touring experience in Eilat’s surrounding rocky desert and beyond.
Discover the mountain ranges, lookout points, border spots and ancient paths that you might not otherwise get a chance to see on foot. Get a feel for the bumpy natural terrain, both in the jeep and periodically on foot, while also getting the inside scoop on the area, its history and geography from expert guide and owner Luis Constantinovsky.