Surf, Sand And Sons (And Daughters)
Fri, 06/22/2007
Israel Correspondent

For many Israeli families, the word "vacation" is synonymous with "Eilat."

That’s because the town, which is located at Israel’s southernmost tip, on the Gulf of Aqaba, has great weather almost year round and boasts an unbelievable amount of attractions.

Eilat has more than 50 hotels ranging from semi-dumps to truly luxurious five-stars and a large assortment of rental apartments and bed and breakfasts, making it a place for almost any budget. The town is a great family destination because it caters to all ages. Older kids and teens can water ski or trail behind a motorboat on an inflatable in the crystal clear Red Sea while their younger siblings and dad wade in the shallow water and their mom goes hang gliding.

(Note: The sea bed is rocky, so bring or purchase rubber-soled water shoes.)

All the beaches, including sections that adjoin the best hotels, are accessible to the public, meaning that it’s free to swim — and snorkel — just about anywhere.

Summers in Eilat are extremely hot, but it’s bearable because it’s a dry desert heat. The key is to explore the gorgeous Sinai mountains by jeep or to do some other activity unrelated to water in the early morning or late afternoons, and to spend the rest of the day either in the water, at one of the numerous hotel spas or at the town’s air-conditioned waterfront shopping mall. If you arrive in the early afternoon either by plane, car or bus, don’t think your day has been wasted. You’ll still have a few hours to swim and prepare for a late dinner. Eilat’s restaurants (except for hotel restaurants, the majority aren’t kosher), stores and street bazaar stay open till the wee hours.

Before or after dinner, walk along the stroller-friendly promenade, where stores sell expensive designer clothing and street vendors hawk their wares. A small amusement park near the marina suitable for younger children operates during the summer and other school holidays.

This is the time to book a trip on one of the many boats and larger ships that offer excursions ranging from a couple of hours to an entire day. Virtually all trips include snorkeling along Eilat’s famed coral reefs.

If you’re afraid your toddlers might jump ship, you can still experience the reefs by visiting the air-conditioned Underwater Observatory, part of the Coral Beach Nature Preserve along the Eilat-Taba Road. Afterwards, don a snorkel and search for some of the 650 species of fish that call the reef home. Nearby, you can swim with the dolphins (for a fee) at the Dolphin Reef, which also has a nice private beach and a little restaurant.

It’s not unusual to see entire families out till nearly midnight, but if you want to sample Eilat’s great nightlife without the kids, ask your hotel whether it has babysitting services. Many do, if you give them a day’s notice.

If you need a break from the kids during the daytime, inquire whether your hotel has a play/activity room. These wonderful facilities, like the one at the Sheraton Moriah Eilat where we were guests of the hotel, offered games, puzzles, arts and crafts, books and videos, all under the supervision of in-house babysitters.

For information on Eilat, check out the city’s tourism Web site: http://www.eilat-guide.com/tour_info.html.

ASHKELON doesn’t have as many attractions as Eilat, but for us, that’s part of its appeal. It’s less expensive than fancier resort towns but shares the same Mediterranean coast and sandy beach that attract bathers to Tel Aviv and Caesarea.

A few years ago Ashkelon, about an hour’s drive south of Tel Aviv, became popular with European Jews in search of a second home in Israel, and they have spurred a building boom of seaside apartments, some of them available for short-term rental through local realtors.

We discovered Ashkelon during the summer of 2005, while searching for an affordable family weekend getaway. Friends suggested we stay at the Dan Gardens Ashkelon because it specifically caters to families.

It was only after we arrived that we learned how pleasant a couple of days there can be.

The first thing we did was head for the beach, a five-minute walk from our hotel. There we found a few cafes and bars (open on Shabbat), shops selling water gear, a jetty and marina. We plunged into the water, which gets bathtub warm during the summer, and searched for seashells.

The next morning, while it was still relatively cool, we visited Ashkelon National Park, which sits atop what was once ancient Ashkelon. Nature and archaeological ruins abound, which satisfied our thirst for history and the kids’ need to run and explore. At the entrance to the park, visitors are greeted by remnants of Crusader walls along with ramparts from the Canaanite period. There is a lovely sculpture garden with authentic Roman statues and the remains of Byzantine and Crusader churches. There is a sense of peace and timelessness here.

After heading into the crowded city center for a bite to eat, we picked up some snacks at the small, sleek shopping mall next to the Central Bus Station. Our next stop was Yad Mordechai, a kibbutz just south of Ashkelon, which has a small but important museum telling the story of Mordechai Anielewicz and others who died defending the Warsaw Ghetto.

We took turns outside while the children ran around the kibbutz. By the time we arrived back at the Dan Gardens it was very hot, so after a dip in the pool we headed to the hotel’s Play Palace, a sprawling building with themed rooms offering dolls, cars and trucks, books, computers and tumbling play mats, as well as a small movie theater. There was also a section for older kids.

Only later, when it was cooler, did we allow the children to romp in the hotel’s on-site amusement park, which offered inflatables as well as a track for tricycles and another one for motorized cars (the latter for children as young as 4). In short: kiddie paradise. The kids were occupied and we could relax. Which is what a family vacation is all about.

When, a year later, the hotel invited us to be their guests, we didn’t hesitate for a minute, even though a handful of Kassam rockets launched from Gaza had recently landed in Ashkelon.

Next time, we’ll check out the water park and the nearby horseback riding facility but someone else will be doing the paragliding.