243km (151 miles) S of Beersheva; 356km (221 miles) SE of Tel Aviv
This city of 70,000 at the southern tip of the Negev is the country's leading winter tourist resort. Eilat's chief claims to fame for the tourist are busy beaches with almost no wave action, coral reefs filled with exotic fish, and year-round sunshine. What was once a small, relaxed desert and Red Sea resort town now hosts 50 gargantuan upscale hotels and a downtown waterfront lined with jewelry shops, sneaker stores, and hawker's booths where visitors can while away their evenings. It's easygoing, fun, and mindless -- and Israelis, both Jewish and Arab, flock here to forget the pressures of daily life. Lots of European package tourists jet directly into Eilat (and see nothing else in Israel), but most of the Scandinavian swimmers and snorkelers who were the mainstay of Eilat's winter season have moved on. The architectural style of Eilat's hotels and shopping malls has been agreed upon -- new buildings are all of white concrete with straight, crisp geometric lines; older hotels are being redesigned to conform to the light, airy look. There is a unity to the new Eilat, but from the outside, most hotels seem to vary only in size and shape. Planners have not emphasized the desert and Bedouin traditions of the region -- instead they've aimed for the generic look of a gleaming white international resort, such as Cancún, Mexico. If you're hoping for a touch of regional color in your hotel, you'll have to try the Sinai or the new five-star establishments in Petra (Jordan).
Eilat is also a military outpost and shipping port -- you'll see ample evidence of this all along the shoreline. The city's first-class hotel area is less than a mile from the Jordanian border, and you can see the Jordanian port city of Aqaba, with a population of 20,000, across the bay in a haze of desert sand, ringed by date palms. For almost 50 years, until Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty in 1994, Aqaba seemed as unattainable as a mirage. There is now a border crossing for tourists just north of Eilat, and from Eilat you can also book excursions to Jordan's fabulous lost canyon city of Petra. For some time, Egypt, Israel, and Jordan have quietly been planning a regional coordinating committee and international park, which will protect the ecosystem of this end of the Red Sea, but this awaits a regional peace agreement. Meanwhile the area remains the most peaceful of Israel's borders. Even before the 1994 peace agreement with Jordan, when one of King Hussein's prize racehorses bolted and swam from Aqaba to Eilat, he was returned as if such incidents were an everyday occurrence. Saudi Arabia is 20km (12 miles) south of Aqaba -- you can see it from the beaches in Eilat.
It was from the port of Eilat that King Solomon sent and received his ships from the land of Ophir, laden with gold, wood, and ivory. Dominating this exotic trade route with Solomon was Hiram of Tyre, Solomon's famous naval ally (Hiram was king of the Phoenician trading city of Tyre on the Mediterranean coast north of Israel). It is even thought by some that the Queen of Sheba landed at Eilat when she came to Jerusalem to see Solomon and "commune with him all that was in her heart." From 1000 to 600 B.C., Phoenician shipping from Eilat plied the shores of East Africa and at times developed trade with the coasts of India and even Southeast Asia. There is evidence that on occasion, Phoenician vessels circumnavigated the African continent. Today, the port is again bustling. This is an individualist's town, and it's also an entrepreneur's dream.
During summer, the outdoor afternoon heat in Eilat can exceed 110°F (43°C); it's best to stay in the shade between noon and 4pm to avoid sun poisoning. In winter, the thick dusty heat is gone and the air is cool and dry, but the water is warm enough for swimming, especially if you're used to the waters of the North Atlantic.