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Pardon My Decadence
by Judy Lash Balint
December 7, 2006

The view from the pool at the Herod's Palace Hotel in Eilat is blissful. Softly waving palm trees frame the terracotta mountains in the distance and the clear blue waters of the Gulf of Eilat just across the promenade. Bright scarlet and purple bougainvillea surround life-size sculptures of ibex, the docile deer-like animals native to the Arava desert, and the slightly sharp scent of nearby grapefruit trees helps induce relaxation.

Laid out on a comfortable deck chair, drinking in the view after a leisurely swim in the perfect temperature pool on a warm December day, I feel distinctly guilty. Aren't Israelis supposed to be suffering, tension-ridden, security-obsessed, and threatened by enemies that surround us on all sides? Here in Eilat, except for a few telltale signs, one could be forgiven for thinking that we have no more cares in the world than people in Miami or the Greek Islands. Like thousands of other Israelis to be found in our swankiest resort city this week, I decided to enjoy a few days off to pretend that we're really carefree.

How does a struggling freelance writer get to participate in such decadence, you might wonder? An interesting assignment plus a dose of protexia does the trick—a friend in the right place who is taking part in a business conference. The room and half board was paid for by the company, all I had to do was throw in a laughably tiny amount of shekels to tag along. Not only that, but I didn't even have to pay to get there and back from Jerusalem since my friend was reimbursed for the scenic four hour drive. I would have actually spent more staying home than the amount I laid out for four glorious days in Eilat!

So, once I'd accepted the reality of a respite from the intensity of Jerusalem, I set about taking in everything Eilat has to offer.

I was last here in the summer of 2005, two weeks after the disastrous and devastating destruction of the Jewish communities of Gush Katif. At the time, I was part of the team hired to update the Fodor's Israel guidebook. It was late August and I was assigned with a colleague to cover Eilat and the Dead Sea. We rode the bus down with a horde of teenagers on summer vacation; got one night in a hotel and ran ourselves ragged for two days in the 104º heat tromping through a dozen hotels and countless restaurants furiously jotting down notes to write our reviews.

This week, with daytime temperatures a comfortable 75-80º, children in school awaiting the Chanukah vacation, and a conscious decision to not work too hard, it was an entirely different experience. Still, unless one is completely oblivious, the geographic setting of Eilat does make the whole thing a little incongruous. Our hotel on the northern beach is the last one before the border with Jordan. Looking out of our 10th floor window to the east, we see the Jordanian city of Aqaba less than half a mile away. The massive Jordanian flag flutters over the port that shares the gulf with Eilat.

It takes me less than 10 minutes on my morning walk along the beach to get to the border warning sign where I can see the Jordanian army patrol vehicles on the other side.

Later in the day while my friend is learning about the finer details of Israeli pension funds, I head south to Taba, the border crossing into Egypt. It's a 12-minute drive from the hotel along the spectacular Coral beach that's dotted with scuba-diving schools.

The day before our arrival, Egypt had put their Sinai resort areas on high security alert and Israeli authorities issued strong warnings for Israelis to stay away from Taba and Dahab. Before the bombing of the Hilton Hotel in Taba in 2004, tens of thousands of Israelis crossed the border every year in pursuit of a cheap and different vacation. Today the international boundary is deserted except for two plain clothes, heavily armed Israeli security officers who appear out of nowhere as I walk up with my camera. They're satisfied after checking my press card that I'm not a potential threat, and they warn me not to take photos of any security personnel but refuse to answer any questions.

Out in the bay a few navy patrol boats are visible but it's a little disconcerting to imagine how this little border crossing is holding back the terrorist threat. Less than 100 miles up the border to the northwest, Hamas is smuggling in tons of weapons from Egypt to Gaza. Meantime, a few yards from the Taba border inside Israel, in blissful denial snorkelers peruse the unique coral reefs and tourists ogle the immense variety of colorful fish at the glass-bottomed Underwater Observatory. The signs identifying the fish are only written in Hebrew and English even though, as at many places in Eilat, a majority of the visitors at the observatory are Israeli Arabs. The fish have names like yellowspotted burrfish and domino damselfish and it's easy to while away a few hours just marveling at their diversity and beauty.

On the road back into town, I pass the Navy base and the Eilat port, where a lone small cruise ship sits in the dock. Reminiscent of many US ports where Japanese cars are imported, hundreds of identical grey mini-vans and sedans are lined up in the unloading area of the port.

Enough activity for the day—it's back to the tranquil spa facilities of the hotel for me. It's time for a mind-emptying session in the Jacuzzi; the mineral hydrotherapy pool; the cascading falls that feel like an automatic massage and a swim followed by more down time in the sauna and steam room.

Sunsets here are famously spectacular. As the winter sun falls rapidly behind the majestic mountains creating a palate of earth colors and shadows, the moon rises over the Jordanian side of the valley and the pink-tinged sky pulls the crags of the hills behind the twinkling lights of Aqaba into sharp relief.

It's a halevai moment. "If only…" If only we weren't wedged in between hostile neighbors… But pardon my decadence; I'm off with my friend to enjoy some Eilat nightlife before we head back to reality.
P.S: If you're interested in seeing some of my pictures of the scenes above go to http://homepage.mac.com/jbalint1/PhotoAlbum13.html. Be sure to click on the slide show option--they're much clearer.



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