Eilat offers bevy of aqua options

Travel Weekly editor-at-large Nadine Godwin toured Israel shortly before the escalation of violence between Israel and the Palestinians. Her report follows:

EILAT, Israel -- Promoters of this city, located on the Gulf of Aqaba at the southern end of Israel, highlight a wide range of activities available to visitors besides swimming.

They include waterskiing, paragliding, snorkeling and diving, boating and enjoying nature through bird-watching, a safari into the mountain deserts or an aquarium visit.

Although I did not have to go so far from home for this first-ever pleasure, I swam with the dolphins -- to use the language of travel literature -- during my journey to Eilat.

Translated, that means I finally shook off the certainty I would drown and conquered snorkeling, at least for the day.

At Dolphin Reef, a shoreline facility for the study, care and training of dolphins, I joined a group of mostly German tourists and a guide who led us on our 30-minute swim to and among the friendly animals.

The dolphins are relaxed about visitors. And the guides are there to protect them, not us.

Dolphin Reef also has a beach for swimmers and a bar and restaurant. Visitors, who also can scuba-dive with the animals, need to make advance reservations for their dolphin swim.

Entrance to Dolphin Reef, open daily, is about $8 for an adult and $6 per child (ages 5 to 15); snorkeling with the dolphins is $47 per adult and $42 per child (at least age 10); and scuba diving with the animals is $56 per adult and $50 per child (at least age 8).

To book a swim with dolphins, go to www.eilat.net or call (011) 972-8 637-5935.

Nearby is the Coral World Underwater Observatory and Aquarium, which is a major facility for viewing sealife of many and exotic types, including some not native to the Gulf of Aqaba/Red Sea area.

It was a very hot day, and the air-conditioned, indoor viewing areas beckoned. The indoor aquarium offers views of fish so wildly colored, and even comical, one might think they came out of a Disney studio. One room was totally black so visitors could see fish that glow in the dark.

The Underwater Observatory is reached via a 330-foot wooden bridge; visitors descend to a circular room with windows on all sides that yield underwater views of coral reefs and, again, numberless exotic fish that live in the region.

Atop this setup is an observatory tower, rising 70 feet above sea level and offering views of the shorelines of Israel and neighboring countries.

We also sampled the Oceanarium. A relatively new attraction, it is the setting for an audiovisual show that, through tricks on film and chairs that move, is meant to give ticketholders the sensation of riding over the land, on the sea and deep under water. It is fairly effective; I closed my eyes part of the time.

From the dock off the Underwater Observatory, we picked up a ferry ride back to Eilat. The Underwater Observatory and Aquarium is open daily but with shortened hours on Fridays and holiday eves.

Admission to the park is about $13 for adults and $9 for children. Entry including the Oceanarium is about $16 for adults and $12 for children.

The telephone and fax numbers are (011) 972-8 636-4200 and (011) 972-8 637-3193.

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