Into the Red and no risk of baby blues
A trip to Eilat with a child of six months wasn’t the ordeal a family had feared
Eilat’s marina and promenade: set beside the crystal clear, warm waters of the Red Sea
Can I be honest? The thought of our first holiday with Sophie, our six-month-old daughter, filled me with foreboding. Sophie is the sweetest natured baby you could ever meet, but the five hour flight to Eilat, the kerfuffle which always accompanies any flight (especially with El Al security) and the airport transfers were - even before I started to worry about seven days away - enough to make me think that the best holiday would simply involve a few days off work pottering about the house.
I guess that's why I'm not a war reporter: I like to travel in comfort.
So let me admit it straight away: I was wrong. Very wrong. You couldn't want for a more relaxing holiday with a baby; everything worked like clockwork. And as for the hotel…
Eilat has suffered a dramatic decline in British tourists over the past decade, from 45,000 in 1997 to less than 6000 last year.
Voyana (www.voyana.com; 020 8515 4609), offers one week at the Royal Garden Hotel from £489 per person, based on four sharing, on room-only basis, including flights and transfers, based on from April 8 departure. Further details of Royal Garden Hotel and Isrotel Sun Express flights from Luton: www.isrotel.co.il; 00972 8 6387799
The reason is simple: the end of direct flights has made it a nightmare to travel to. No one but a masochist would make the journey, especially the former mainstay of Eilat tourism - families with young children and older, less mobile visitors.
Last year, Isrotel, which owns eight of the hotels in Eilat, took action to change this and chartered flights to be run by Sun D'Or, El Al's budget subsidiary. An outward and inward flight now operates weekly during the winter season, to and from Luton.
And, quite simply, it works a treat. The flight leaves at 8am; we were told to be at check in for 5am. We got there at about 4.50, and the queue was already long. Tired, apprehensive as to how Sophie would cope and not entirely sure we should be jetting off, we waited for the queue to move.
Which it did, with unprecedented speed. The whole process took less than 50 minutes. In fact, everything about the journey was perfectly organised. The coach met us at the airport - and Eilat City, not Ovdah - and we were in our hotel within an hour of landing.
We were staying at the Royal Garden. Within 10 seconds of arriving we knew we were in the right hotel for us, as we saw couple after couple pushing their strollers. Yes, it's baby central. There were, it is true, some people who seemed not to have children with them, but they didn't get in the way too much.
The great relief of a hotel full of babies and children is that when yours wakes up at 4am screaming, you don't have that awful embarrassed feeling in the pit of your stomach that everyone else in the hotel is now awake, it's your fault, and they're swearing at you. Because they probably are awake but they're in the same boat.
The hotel is designed for families. Even the smallest room in the hotel has space for four people. Each comes equipped with a kitchenette with a hob (with two burners for heating more than one thing at a time) and basic facilities for cooking. And there's a mini-supermarket inside the hotel open from 7am to 11pm with all the basics, and more: Nappies R Us and the usual corner shop stuff.
Even better, Eilat's main supermarket is a 20 shekel cab ride away, which has a cab rank right outside for the journey back. I did the shopping, and Mrs P cooked fresh food for Sophie every day, aided by the purchase of a 30 shekel (that's just over a fiver for those who haven't been to Israel for a while) blender.
It must be pretty draining working in a hotel which caters almost exclusively to families, many with very young children. But the staff are one of the Royal Garden's best assets. Nothing is too much trouble. We weren't sure how the laundry service worked so we took ours to reception to ask. We were told we should leave it in our room. When we sighed that we were going out, someone had come over to us to pick it up.
Have I mentioned how good it is to know that pretty much everyone else in the hotel is in the same boat as you? Because when you're eating in one of the two main restaurants (a bistro and a grill) and your little darling needs a nappy change, no one looks away askance as you shlep her off to the toilet to do the business. That's because every table next to you has a child seated at it, too.
The adult food will not send you into spasms of ecstasy, but it does the job very well and is both good value and tasty.
In fact, the bistro's salads were delicious, and I had a superb steak at the grill. And the breakfast, which of course you eat outside in the warmth and sun, is the typical Israeli fare.
The Royal Garden is renowned for its Boulevard shopping, and rightly so. Top brands - Tommy Hilfiger, Gant, Timberland and such like - as well as jewellers and shoe shops which Mrs P seemed to have moved into.
The shopping and grazing was occasionally interrupted by the pool. In my view, water is something you drink and shower in. Mrs P, however, gets withdrawal symptoms away from water, so she was especially looking forward to introducing Sophie to its delights. The pool is as family-friendly as the rest of the hotel, with the depth never going beyond shoulder height for an average teenager, and mainly no more than waist high. Cleverly, part of the pool, which occupies the main
central ground of the hotel, has imported sand, with deck chairs placed on a mock beach. For myself, sand is something to be avoided rather than actively sought, so I spent most of my time on one of the many grass verges or - I'm happy to admit it - reading in my air conditioned room when it got too hot for Sophie and I. Eilat itself is getting ever more upmarket. We tended to have lunch in the hotel but to wander off for short walks during the day (including repeated visits to the pharmacy for baby this and that), and then take a fast-asleep Sophie with us along the main drag for dinner.
It takes on an altogether more glamorous hue at night, with outdoor tables beautifully lit and food looking even more appealing.
And then, no sooner had we arrived, got into our routine and got used to the idea of switching off and doing nothing very much, it was time to go.
Here again, it worked like clockwork. Isrotel have arranged for a check-in from 10am to noon at the Royal Beach, over the road.
A porter took our bags there and within half an hour we were fully checked in and free to enjoy the pool for another three hours before the coach left for the airport - which was again Eilat City, and just 10 minutes away.
Did we enjoy travelling with a six-month-old baby? Let me put it this way: almost from the first day, Mrs P was suggesting that we come back not just next year, but later this year, too.
Isrotel have done a wonderfully innovative thing. Their business from the UK was suffering, so they started flying customers themselves. The decision, and its execution, is a triumph.