Lord Levy isn’t happy. Actually, that isn’t strictly accurate; sitting in warm sunshine, eating breakfast with his wife Gilda, in Bubbe’s, one of two breakfast venues at Eilat’s Royal Beach Hotel, the chairman of Jewish Care seems remarkably happy and relaxed, especially at the end of a year during which JFS (of which he is president) has been riven by seismic legal judgements, and in which he underwent emergency heart bypass surgery.
However, there is one issue that is definitely exercising him: it is that so few of his fellow UK communal leaders take their winter holidays in Eilat, preferring — as he notes — to head to the Caribbean.
It would be foolish to suggest that Israel’s Red Sea resort can compete with the Caribbean’s endless eye-ravishing vistas of cerulean sky, azure ocean and palm-dotted silver sands.
But even ignoring the fact that some of the islands are less glamorous than they appear in the travel brochures and that Eilat is less than half the flying time (just five hours from Luton with one of the new direct flights courtesy of Isrotel’s Sun Express), Eilat still has a lot to offer for anyone in search of seriously warm sunshine in a period when the northern hemisphere is collectively slipping on the ice and scraping its windscreens before the school run.
If you haven’t been for a while, you will find Eilat has grown — from a strip of beach with three hotels and a similar number of restaurants in 1984, to the amalgam of Cannes, Las Vegas and Tel Aviv that it now is.
It has also added some appealing amenities: along with an expected selection of kosher restaurants, far more, in proportion to its size than Tel Aviv, and malls (the now slightly garish one in the west of the resort added in 1996, the Boulevard at the Royal Gardens Hotel, opened in 2001, and the centre beneath the Hilton Queen of Sheba recently reopened with a slew of great shops).
It also has a theatre, again, courtesy of the Royal Gardens; a concert hall; an Imax Cinema; a theme park (Kings City, opened in 2005), new shops (Mont Blanc, Rolex, Factory 54, Adidas), infrastructure improvements (new roads and new parks), and — coming later this year — yet another new mall with (pause for a small fanfare)…an ice rink.
While the idea of doing triple axels when the outside temperature is a slow-roasting 26 degrees — Eilat enjoys around 359 sunny days a year — is novel, the rink is probably not designed for us sun-starved north Europeans, but for the local population, now 70,000 compared with 24,000 in 1984, and for the Yeruyshalmis and Tel Avivians who visit year-round, despite the tropical 40-degree summer temperatures.
It was 1984, by the way, when Isrotel opened King Solomon’s Palace, its first hotel in the southern city. With its glitz and glamour, its countless restaurants, lively promenade cafes, shops, vast and elaborate pool area, entertainment programmes and kids’ clubs, Eilat had seen nothing like it.
It became a blueprint for the six Isrotel properties which followed and which now include its flagship, the elegant Royal Beach; the Royal Gardens with its vast lawns, faux beach, water slides, theatre and Parisian boulevard; the lively, all-inclusive Sport with its endless land and water activities; the Laguna — also all inclusive —with its relaxed atmosphere, charming lounges, kids’ club and excellent cuisine; the Agamim, with its pools, swim-up rooms and hip Tel Aviv vibe; and the newest acquisition, the Yam Suf, with smart rooms, great dining, al fresco lounges and easy access to snorkelling and scuba-diving.
The KSP’s numerous UK fans will be cheered to hear that the once-bustling King’s Wharf which has, in the past decade become sad and desolate, is undergoing a £3 million facelift which will see a slew of new and smart shops, cafés and restaurants.
In addition to its amenities and plenty of other great hotels, including the five-star Hilton Queen of Sheba, with its huge, elegant rooms, outdoor Jacuzzis and sublime Ysushi restaurant, the resort is also perfectly located between desert and sea, allowing those with an adventurous spirit to explore the Red Sea’s Coral Reef with its teeming, technicolour fish, or to head into the sandy, dramatic panoramas of the Negev by jeep, camel, on foot or by coach.
There is also the architecturally dramatic, five-star Dan Eilat and the well-equipped, home-from-home Dan Panorama; the comfortable Sheraton Moriah, the Magic Palace, glamorous Meridien and, literally, dozens of others.
While regular visitors know that Eilat’s principal evening activities are dining, strolling and shopping, another option is Wow! the show on nightly at the Royal Gardens theatre.
Personally, I would normally prefer to stick hot needles in my eyes than watch modern dance, jugglers, acrobats and a clown — which is what Wow! comprises.
But from the moment a clever backdrop of a cityscape with moving cars, buses and pedestrians, transforms into a film, with real dancers mingled seamlessly with the celluloid figures, I was hooked.
Reminiscent of Cirque du Soleil in its in raw energy and cleverness, the show compellingly blends the jaw-dropping feats of the performers with brilliant special effects, such as the clown-compere’s flying red handkerchief, which does loops and rolls around the auditorium, enthralling an audience ranging in age from five to 85.
The Royal Beach, the hotel which set a new gold standard in Eilat when it opened in 1994, was my base for a pre-Christmas trip.
Days spent there are pretty undemanding: after waking in one of the well-appointed rooms or suites and huge, ultra-comfortable beds, there is a relaxed breakfast in either the main restaurant with its sprawling terrace, or in Bubbe’s where you can consume — indoors or out — fresh fruit, fresh juices, an array of deli and cheese dishes, salads, breads and cakes.
The sun starts to dip at around 3.30 in December so, after a tough day spent devouring your airport paperback, snoozing or listening to an iPod, there is still plenty of time for a nap and some shopping before the big decision of the day — where to eat.
When it comes to dining, Eilat has everything, from the up-scale restaurants, mainly belonging to the top hotels, to modest cafés offering pizzas, pasta or schwarma.
Perennial favourites include the Royal Beach’s Ranch House, with its vast, imported steaks and toothsome sticky “wings” and ribs.
The same hotel’s La Cucina, with authentic Italian cuisine in a trattoria-style setting is another — and Wang’s Grill, with its fabulously yummy take on Californian-Oriental fusion cooking.
The vegetable spring rolls (egg rolls on their menu) are four crispy, golden parcels, stuffed with tender, perfectly seasoned vegetables. Portions are large and three shared starters would comfortably fill up two adults, while allowing space for some of the mouth-watering parev puddings.
For those who like traditional Middle Eastern fare of humous, falafel, skewers and schwarma accompanied by the crispest chips at the Red Sea, the Dan Eilat’s Shipudei Habustan is still
the place to go, though the Royal Beach’s al fresco restaurant On the Beach is a great alternative on warm evenings.
For lovers of sushi, the Hilton Queen of Sheba’s stylish Yakimono is another not-to-be-missed Eilat eating experience. Dishes are authentic: think Nobu blackened cod rather than unidentifiable, micro-chip size pieces of fish wrapped in rice and seaweed. And they’re utterly delicious.
For the squeamish, there is also the unalloyed joy of knowing you haven’t swallowed some swimming or swarming creature you would not have wished to ingest. With other branches in Israel, the chain is popular with Israelis, so book well ahead.
Skating and kosher sushi — you don’t get that with your sun, sand and sea in the Caribbean.