Between The Desert And The Sea, Eilat
Sheltered by mountains of red sandstone, surrounded by the Negev Desert to the north and bordered by the Red Sea to the south, the Israeli city of Eilat is enviably placed. "Eilat is unique," says Ben Julius, founder of Tourist Israel, an online travel organisation that helps visitor plan their explorations of the country. "I can't think of a location anywhere else in the world where you can find such diversity in such close proximity - there's this incredible coral reef with world-class diving and snorkelling, right next to spectacular mountains and deserts, all just a few hours' flight from most European capitals."
Ben's enthusiasm is entirely justified. While many think of this southern Israeli city solely as a holiday resort, it's much more besides. Founded in the 1950s, it has long been a beloved vacation spot for Israelis, but now foreigners in search of winter sun are beginning to recognise its potential. But its climate, which stays in the mid-20s even in December and January, is just one of its many charms.
"Eilat's natural surroundings make it stand out as a world-class destination," adds Assaf Admon, Head of the Eilat-Eilot Environmental Unit (Eilot is the name of the wider region that spans north of the city). "It's home to the world’s northernmost coral reef, which is some of the only coral in the world not showing signs of bleaching due to warming sea waters."
Indeed, there are excellent opportunities to snorkel and dive here, especially at the designated Coral Beach Nature Reserve, part of a national park that spans some 1.2km along the coastline. Those who don't want to get their feet wet can still marvel at the aquatic world at the Underwater Observatory Marine Park, a one-of-a-kind attraction that looks like a spaceship perched on a pier off the coast. Further out to sea, conditions are prime for kite-and-wind-surfing.
Inland, the city itself is developing, too. "Ten years ago, tourism in Israel was almost exclusively for religious pilgrimages," explains Ben. "But with the arrival of more flights to the area, much more has developed. Cultural, historical and experiential tours have become more popular and now the focus is as much on Eilat's geographical location - both for its own impressive natural wares and its proximity to sites such as Petra and Wadi Rum in Jordan - as it is for more traditional day trips to Jerusalem and the Dead Sea."
That growth continues: an expansive area of the city centre is set for redevelopment in 2019, with plans for parks, hotels and even an amphitheatre in the works.
Even in this part of the city, though, nature is central; here, you'll find Eilat's International Birding and Research Center. "Eilat is one of the most important locations in the world for migratory birds," says Assaf. "Because it's the only overland bridge between Europe, Asia and Africa, it serves millions of birds each year as they migrate north or south." As such, it's a bird lovers' paradise, where lucky twitchers can spot rare species including the Nubian Nightjar and the Levant Sparrowhawk.
Beyond the city limits, the Negev Desert encompasses mountains, canyons and more, including several kibbutzim (traditional communes). Timna Park is a highlight - it's home to the world's oldest copper mine and a range of geographical and geological marvels, such as unusual rock formations hewn from granite and red and white sandstone. The region is also teeming with wildlife, including wild ibex, spiny-tailed lizards and Arabian ostriches. There's even an oasis - albeit manmade - where flamingos wade.
"The scenery, and the open connection between the desert and the sea, is precious. We locals don't realise how lucky we are," says Assaf.