Departing for the Red Sea

Winter sun for less thanks to a new direct low-cost flight to Eilat? Our features editor was first on board…


The days were getting darker, the nights colder. What better time for Wizz Air to start a new service direct to Eilat? At last, winter sunshine in Israel for an economy price. I hadn’t actually visited Israel for more than 30 years when I boarded Wizz’s inaugural flight, although that trip back in the 80s included a few days in Eilat.

I remembered it as a small town, a strip of hotels, somewhere where my friend and I went to a Bedouin style restaurant, and a boat trip round the bay. How different would it be now? And who is the ideal target market for this new service?

Our flight was eventful — thanks to the very special Israeli air etiquette, which hasn’t changed a bit since the 80s. As soon as we took off from a wintery Luton airport — and long before the seatbelts sign was turned off — passengers jumped from their seats, and started socialising.

For the next five hours, people chatted loudly. They davened in the aisles.

When asked to sit down, they stood up.

One Chasid was so desperate to get to the loo that he barged his way to the front of the queue. (When we arrived at Ovda airport, the police were waiting to escort him off.)

A full 45 minutes before the plane landed, we were ordered to stay in our seats, as we were in Israeli air space. The people moaned. The people rebelled. Toddlers cried for the toilet. And then the flight attendants warned them that if they disobeyed, the Israeli air force could shoot the plane down. I have no idea if this threat was actually true. Happily it wasn’t required, and Eilat awaited.

Ovda airport itself is 60km from Eilat, isolated in the desert — and a taxi to town at night costs around £60. So, like many economy flights, you may need to factor taxi fares into your budget, as well as adding an extra hour onto the journey.

The good news is that the journey will be halved when the new Eilat airport opens in a few months. And it’s still cheaper and quicker than any other option.

We were staying at the Dan Eilat — “the best hotel in town”, our taxi driver told us — and with its vast, desert-styled reception, one with the feel of an alien planet when you first arrive. Our room was comfortable and stylish, with a glorious view over the hotel’s two swimming pools and out to sea.

The hotel boasts its own private beach as well, with comfy loungers and towels. There’s a juice bar too, so you’re all set for total relaxation, and we loved the change in temperature, from nine degrees in London to more than 30C in Eilat.

In the evening you don’t have to go far to find a good choice of reasonably-priced restaurants. Be aware though, that few of those along the North Beach promenade are kosher, and many feature seafood, such as shrimp and calamari on their menus. Sushi is a favourite; we had to look hard to find falafel — although when we did, at a sports bar, it was light and utterly delicious.

Breakfast at the Dan Eilat was the classic Israeli spread: salads of every description, desserts aplenty (multiple flavours of icecream), and more kinds of herring than I ever knew existed.

What to do in Eilat, when you fancy a change from lounging around? There are the old favourites, of course, a visit to the aquarium, a boat trip, or a tour by jeep of the surrounding desert. It’s a much bigger city than it was in the 1980s, but the essentials remain the same.

We opted for Dolphin Reef, one of the new attractions since my last visit; a secluded beach where you can observe a group of dolphins at play and even swim with them. We loved it, even though our interaction with these intelligent beasts was confined to seeing a few fins sticking out of the water.

There’s a lovely shady wooded area bordering the beach, a laid-back feel to the place, and we liked the café offering a wide choice of food and drink. As cat-lovers we also enjoyed the antics of the feral felines who played on the beach. “They could have called it Cat and Dolphin Reef,” observed my daughter.

Real dolphin enthusiasts can sign up for a series of workshops at the Reef, learning about the aquatic mammals’ biology, habits and forms of therapy associated with them. If you’ve got an animal-loving child, this would be a very special treat on a winter holiday.

We swapped hotels on the last night of our stay to experience the Dan Eilat’s “little brother”, the Dan Panorama. It’s got a more intimate feel, but equally stunning views, this time over Eilat’s marina. And here our room boasted two balconies, one with its own Jacuzzi. Glass of wine in hand, it was easy to relax, especially as the daytime sun gave way to a balmy dusk.

At the Dan Panorama we sampled an equally sumptuous breakfast, and also tried the buffet dinner offered to half board customers. What a feast is in store for kosher customers — with meat and fish dishes, pasta and pizza, salads, vegetables, fruit and desserts.

No need to try the shellfish-heavy menus on the sea front if you stay here, I’d recommend the Dan Panorama to any family looking to keep fussy eaters satisfied.

In fact, young families are the perfect customers for Wizz Air’s new service, the minimum of hassle, at budget prices, for a holiday which kids will love.

The only hitch to the Dan Panorama is the hotel’s proximity to Eilat’s other airport — the one in town, used by few international flights.

The noise was a little intrusive, and it would have been nice to have had the chance to counter this by actually flying home from there, having watched planes take off and land from our room. But no, it was back to Ovda until all Eilat’s flights relocate to the new Ramon airport.

Again, on the journey home, fellow passengers climbed on the chairs to open the overhead lockers (while the seatbelt sign was still on), swapped seats, and changed shoes and socks.

“The thing about Eilat is, it’s more chilled than the rest of Israel,” one resident told me. “Since I moved here from Tel Aviv, I feel much calmer.”

Certainly, as a writer with a deadline to meet, I found I got a huge amount done by taking my laptop to the poolside. There was something about the combination of sea and desert that really cleared the mind.

Perhaps one day I’ll move to Eilat and open a school of British etiquette, with air transport a speciality. Until then, I’ll be relying on Wizz Air.


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