Eilat, Israel — Israel’s southernmost city, adjacent to the Egyptian town of Taba, has many upscale hotels, scores of restaurants and good shopping along its beachfront promenade. My family and I consciously avoided all of the above during our most recent stay here, one of the country’s most popular resort areas.
Determined to spend our vacation visiting nature sites, we chose five destinations, three of which were completely new to us.
Even after three trips to Eilat we had never been to the Dolphin Reef (dolphinreef.co.il), a nature reserve for dolphins. The Reef is the only place in Israel where one can swim or snorkel with dolphins, though physical contact with them is prohibited.
Dolphin Reef’s goal, according to its literature, is to enable the dolphins to “live in their natural environment, the sea, with minimal intervention in their lifestyle.”
While the dolphins aren’t living in the wild — they swim in the sea, enclosed by a barrier — they aren’t trained to perform. It’s fun to see them swim up to the dock, where they receive supplemental food.
Anyone age 8 and older who wishes to snorkel with the dolphins must feel confident swimming in deep (45-foot) water for a half hour, with no flotation devices, in a group led by a guide. Good swimmers age 8 and older can dive with the dolphins to a depth of 20 feet. There is a short introductory lesson prior to the dive, which is also led by guides.
Those who opt out of this special dolphin experience can still watch them from the dock, or swim or snorkel in the Reef’s crystal clear water or enjoy the relaxation pools (the latter at an extra fee).
Another first for us was the Eilat Botanical Garden (botanicgarden.co.il)
Located just a few minutes’ drive north of Eilat, right off the Arava Road (Route 90), this little garden oasis is all but hidden from view and a world apart from the surrounding desert landscape. It offers secluded trails, which lead you through a collection of local and exotic plants, and has one of Israel’s most varied collection of trees and flowers from all around the world, including a one-of-a-kind, climate-controlled rain forest you’d never expect to see in the Arava. It is a favorite stop for migrating birds.
During a guided tour the Garden’s owner, Eyal Arnon, explained how, in a scant 15 years, he and his two partners transformed this barren, rocky outcropping with their own hands, and largely at their own expense. The former military outpost is now an organic paradise with tiny waterfalls and secluded and shady nooks and handcrafted benches. The result is a model of sustainable gardening and ecological aesthetics.
The Eilat Botanical Garden is open to individuals and groups and offers walking trails for adults and easy climbing trails for kids. (Note: there are a lot of stone stairs.) There’s also a large plant nursery that features some of the partners’ unique handcrafted furniture and accessories, herbal teas, coffees and one-of-kind items. It’s a pastoral place to spend a mostly shady afternoon.
The Underwater Observatory Park (coralworld.co.il) is another great way to beat the heat. Plan to spend at least half a day here so as not to miss out on the shark feedings, to see the sea turtles and of course to tour the air-conditioned underwater observatory. The observatory provides stunning views of the Red Sea’s fantastic assortment of underwater life and the coral reefs its creatures call home. Advanced reservations are a must for this super-popular venue.
Once you’ve seen the reef at the nearby observatory, you’ll want to go diving or snorkeling yourself. The Coral Beach Nature Reserve, with its famous coral reefs, provides everything you need, including equipment rentals and purchase, for underwater exploration. Beginners, who might want to rent a snorkel safety vest, practice in the shallow water (the beaches in Eilat are rocky, so be sure to purchase water shoes along the seafront promenade or at Coral Beach). The art of snorkeling mastered, most people head to one or another of the ends of two docks, between which is a wonderful snorkeling trail. The beach offers free chairs and shaded spots with admission, and this is a perfect place to sit and read a book and stare at the turquoise sea even if you never make it into the water.
Our final stop was the International Birding and Research Center (http://natureisrael.org/BirdingCenters), which is another oasis in the desert.
Israel is the second most important migration route in the world because it’s in the center of the only land corridor between Africa and Europe. Every year half a million birds fly over Israel to and from warmer climes.
Exhausted from their long flight, the birds arrive hungry. Without the opportunity to gather their strength and feed in Israel, many would die.
The Israel Ornithological Center, which operates three bird-watching centers (including the marvelous Hula Valley Reserve) in Israel has counted more than 540 different species of birds in the country at various seasons in the year, despite the fact that the country is only 211 miles long.
Until it was transformed into an oasis, the Eilat Birding Center was a baked patch of rock and sand where nothing could grow. Today it boasts a handful of hiking trails, a man-made lake and a large variety of plants amenable to bird life.
A guide at the center demonstrated how they catch birds, weigh them in order to determine how far they have travelled and whether they are receiving the proper nutrition, and then “band” them in order to track their movements. She gently placed a banded bird into the hands of both my sons and helped them set them free.
The best times to visit are early in the morning and around sunset. Even so, the birds tend to be shy. Admission to the park is free but a paid tour is recommended — and helps support the vital services the birding center provides: a place for birds to rest and recuperate after their long journey. ✦
The author and her family received free admission to the venues mentioned in this article.