On the road in Israel

How much can you cram into a six-day Israel road trip? We went in search of the answer — and some sun


As I scraped frost off my windscreen for our journey to the airport, with the UK forecast promising more low temperatures and rain, the thought of our next drive lifted my spirits: ending the day cruising through the Negev in a rental car, glad of its air-conditioning.

With six days to explore Israel, we had planned a road trip through the country, starting in Eilat. Just 290 miles end to end at its longest point — only half the length of England — the question was how much we could actually fit into our break?

Driving in Israel does have a bad reputation, and it’s true that its per capita accident rate is about a third higher than ours, but having your own wheels means a lot of flexibility.

Despite being a small country, Israelis themselves aren’t used to making long drives — the car rental agent at Ben Gurion Airport professed himself astonished that we were intending to go all the way to Eilat that very day, a distance of around 200 miles; about the same as Manchester to London.

As long as you’re prepared for some — though by no means all — drivers to be aggressive, it’s really not that bad. Easier than, say, France, petrol is cheaper than in Britain, and if you want to see a lot of Israel in the course of a short trip, renting your own vehicle is hard to beat.

As for the drive to Eilat from Ben Gurion, it can easily be done in three and a half hours, initially on motorways, and then on the stunning, scenic highway through the desert. One doesn’t think of Israel as a land of vast empty vistas, but down here it is, rocks and crumbling cliffs slowly changing colour as the sun sets. Mitzpe Ramon, with its famous crater, made for a convenient place to stop for some fresh mint and ginger tea.

Arriving in Eilat just after nightfall, we downloaded the handy Pango parking app, which allows you to park anywhere in Israel with blue and white stripes on the kerb for just a few pounds a day.

With the temperature still close to 30C, we ambled in search of dinner along the marina boardwalks, me in shorts and a T-shirt, and my wife in a thin summer dress. Next morning, I opened the curtains of our bedroom to the golden vista of the craggy Eilat mountains beneath a cloudless sky.

Along the Eilat seafront lies a string of huge, concrete ziggurat-like hotels whose architectural merits are, one has to say, questionable. Instead, we were staying a few blocks back from the water in the boutique Brown Eilat, one of the latest additions to the growing Israeli chain. Its décor inspired by the Miami Beach of the 1930s — think warm browns, cane chairs and palm tree wallpaper — this is designed for couples without children.

Our room was spacious and airy, with a large, comfortable bed and a terrace with a Jacuzzi — a perfect place to sip a glass of the complimentary champagne on offer every evening in the lobby. There’s also a swimming pool and restaurant, Cena, run by leading Tel Aviv chef Tomer Agay, which opened shortly after our visit.

Fortunately, the breakfast buffet was very much in business, and was one of the best I’ve encountered anywhere. I’m used to smoked salmon being served in thin, fast-drying slices, but at the Brown Eilat you can help yourself to succulent, fillet-thick chunks.

Add to that a vast array of salads, cheeses, olives, cold roast vegetables, pastries, fruit, freshly baked breads, eggs cooked to order and excellent coffee and juice and you will understand why we rarely needed much lunch.

There is a side to Eilat that’s reminiscent of Blackpool. On weekend evenings the boardwalks are jammed with raucous, amplified buskers and tacky souvenir stalls, and while there aren’t illuminations, there are plenty of fairground rides, as well as the kind of restaurant that posts photos of the dishes on offer outside in place of its menu — seldom a harbinger of excellence.

However, there are also gems. Our first night dinner at Les Sardines in the marina was so good we came back again. Even better was Mamo, where chef Ohad Levy presents a changing, locally sourced menu inside a buzzing, low-lit, barrel-vaulted space, and where everything was delicious: stuffed zucchini, ceviche, and bream straight from the sea. Somehow we also found room for a perfect crème brûlée.

Making the most of our car, we explored the Red Sea beaches south of the city, where you can swim with half-tame dolphins and snorkel amid brilliant corals and innumerable species of tropical fish.

There’s plenty to do away from the water too. Rising to a height of almost 1,000 metres above the sea, the Eilat Mountains are a multi-coloured, arid marvel. At Red Canyon, a half-hour drive along the road north towards Be’er-Sheva, we explored a deep and gloomy gorge that is so narrow in places that you can touch both sides simultaneously.

You have to negotiate some vertical drops, but metal foot and handholds drilled into the rock make it straightforward for anyone with normal mobility.

Here, and at several other spots along the main road, are well-marked trials of varying levels of difficulty. But don’t do as we did and forget to bring water: even in March, it was seriously hot.

Another day, we visited the Timna National Park; a geological wonderland of giant panoramas and weird, weathered rocks that is Israel’s answer to Arizona. It has a desert lake, ancient copper mines and the remains of smelting furnaces dating back to Egyptian times. Again, getting there by car was simplicity itself and we explored on foot, although you can also rent bikes.

If we’d had more time, we might have taken a trip to Petra, the ancient Nabatean rock-cut city that lies across the border in Jordan. Instead, we were headed to Jerusalem, another scenic drive through the desert up Highway 90.

We stopped at the base of Masada but decided we didn’t have time to do it justice: it was another hot day, and we were determined to swim in the Dead Sea — an unforgettable experience that I’d somehow never managed in numerous previous trips.

It’s true what they say: you could read a newspaper floating in it. Just don’t try swimming on your front, because your over-buoyant legs won’t sink, so you won’t be able to kick, and the risk of swallowing the water (toxic in any quantity) is real.

Which still left time to spend two nights in Jerusalem; our stylish base was another Brown hotel, the Brown JLM Mamilla, not far from the Old City or the bars, restaurants and heaving throngs of the Machane Yehuda Market.

With its spacious rooms, helpful staff and parking right outside, it proved ideal for two days of determined sight-seeing. After taking in the Kotel, the Old City walls, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Temple Mount, we used the car again to visit the extraordinary Israel Museum, where anyone could lose themselves for a day, and Yad Vashem. Even in Jerusalem itself, I found the city roads easy to negotiate and parking was free.

Returning the car to Ben Gurion unscathed, it was hard to leave our early taste of summer behind. But I can think of few better ways to escape the British weather than cruising Israel’s roads.

Getting There

Flights to Tel Aviv cost from around £110 with various airlines flying from London and Manchester, including British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, easyJet, Wizz Air and El Al.

Six days’ car rental from Ben Gurion costs from around £350, including full insurance.

Rooms at the Brown Eilat cost from around £115 B&B, or from £180 for a terrace room with outdoor Jacuzzi.

Rooms at the Brown JLM Mamilla cost from around £160.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive