Life's (not just) a beach

Picking pomelo, biking around Timna Park and feasting on bream, the Eilat region offers the winter visitor a wealth of activities.

By NATHAN BURSTEIN
February 1, 2007 14:29
Life's (not just) a beach

timna park 298.88. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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Promoted by locals as the perfect combination of "sun, sea, sand and sex," Eilat exists for most Israelis only as a seaside resort. With its luxury hotels, informal eateries and general emphasis on beachside escapism, the city inhabits a special place in the national consciousness, seen as one of the few cities unburdened by the country's complicated ancient and more recent history. But the Eilat area, contrary to what most Israelis believe, has both a history worth exploring and a list of tourist offerings perfectly suited for the winter, when cooler weather and shorter daylight hours make the beach and boardwalk somewhat less enticing than in the busy summer months. Foremost among the region's winter attractions is Timna National Park, a 25-kilometer drive north from Eilat. Stretched across 60 square kilometers, the park features the remnants of ancient copper mining that took place at the site, with a multimedia presentation, "Mines of Time," ready for viewing in Hebrew and English at the park's Visitors Center. Timna, the presentation explains, was the site of some of the earliest mining in human history, with the first miners later eclipsed by the Egyptians, who mined the area for centuries and relied in part on the assistance of the Midians, the tribe from the Arabian Peninsula that plays a special role in the Bible. Evidence of various mining techniques remains visible through much of the park, with visitors' understanding of the site supplemented by explanatory placards based on the modern research and excavations in the area that began in the late 1950s. While Timna offers replicas of the ancient Egyptian civilization that left its mark on the area, the park can perhaps be most enjoyably explored by bicycle, with Timna now offering organized biking tours for visitors to the site. (The park is open weekdays in the winter between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., closing Fridays at 1 p.m.) Biking within the park can be arranged by calling (08) 631-6756, with pricing dependent on the number and ages of group members. Bike and helmet rentals can be arranged in advance, with escorts available to provide information about the park and ensure the safety of riders on the park's many kilometers of bike trails. The significance of the Eilat region as an ancient crossroads of peoples and civilizations can be viewed elsewhere in the park at one of Timna's more recent additions, a restoration of the Tabernacle, the moveable holy site the ancient Israelites are said to have carried with them as they fled Egypt on their way to the Promised Land. Though plastic dummies dressed as ancient Israelite priests give the site a bit of a kitschy feel - at least in the words of one visitor on the day I went - diagrams of the ancient Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and the life-size Ark of the Covenant nevertheless serve as thought-provoking illustrations of the story of Jewish desert wandering recalled in the Torah. Connections between that ancient story and the present moment can be further considered over lunch at Niguvim, a new restaurant within view of the new Ark that is also located next to Lake Timna, a small body of water drawn from local salt-water wells where visitors can ride paddle-boats. Those lingering over their lunches can see the role the area continues to play as a crossroads for wanderers, with several of those among the restaurant's wait-staff recent refugees from the ongoing genocide in Darfur. While Timna Park closes to the public at night, many of the area's other winter attractions offer comfortable facilities for overnight stays and guided activities during the day. The same Israelis who disparaged the new Tabernacle had nothing but praise for Kibbutz Lotan, Kibbutz Ketura, Kibbutz Yahel and Kibbutz Eilot, each located just off the main highway leading north from Eilat. With pleasant staffs comprised in part by immigrants from English-speaking countries, the three kibbutzim represent a "completely special connection with Judaism" and the type of Zionism that no longer plays a role in the country's most populated areas, one Israeli-born skeptic commented. Kibbutzim Ketura and Yahel offer similar activities for visitors, with tours of the kibbutz grounds and farming areas, where guests can pick pomelo fruit, peppers and other seasonal crops and learn how the kibbutzim have succeeded despite the lack of fresh water in the area. (The salty water provided by local wells makes plants act "diabetic," one tour guide explained, with the resulting cherry tomatoes and other produce ultimately tasting sweeter than those grown with fresh water.) Located across the highway - really just a two-lane road - from the Yitzhak Rabin border crossing with Jordan, Kibbutz Eilot is home to a number of man-made marshes, where birds migrating between Europe and Africa stop for layovers during their long journeys. Bright pink flamingoes serve as a main attraction in January, but a wide range of other species also stop at the salt-water marshes - also drawn from nearby wells - throughout the year. For those flying back to central and northern Israel, a pleasant and convenient final stop before the airport is the Denis Kingdom restaurant, where visitors can sample a wonderful selection of dishes emphasizing the Denis fish (bream), a species grown in hatcheries just behind the restaurant. (Visitors interested in looking at what they're about to eat can tour the hatchery before their meal.) With its excellent breads, spreads and wines - and several well-prepared meat dishes for non-fish lovers - the recently renovated Denis Kingdom also offers pleasant views of the rugged red mountains behind the Jordanian port of Aqaba. And for those looking for another first-rate meal on their way north, an additional highly worthwhile option is the Shaharut Inn (www.camel-riders.com), an isolated spot inspired by Beduin-style living where visitors can eat delicious salads, grilled meats and desserts before retiring, if they choose to stay the night, in pleasant, heated rooms with modern plumbing and amazing views of the starry night sky. The Shaharut Inn, which also arranges camel tours that can last for a matter of hours or up to two weeks, is located further away from the highway and from the more traditional tourist activities of the area, and offers a totally different kind of experience for those looking for a respite from the routine of life back at home. n The writer was a guest of the Development Regional Council Eilot.

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