Forte to open 2 hotels in Holy Land

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NEW YORK -- London-based Forte Hotels is opening two Le Meridien brand luxury properties in the Holy Land, one in Eilat, the other in Tel Aviv.

The resort Le Meridien Eilat is scheduled to open in December, facing the Red Sea (see sidebar, below). It will have 247 suites, a health club and spa, an English pub, a convention hall with a capacity for up to 400 people, restaurants, a children's club and two pools. The resort will be located on Eilat's northern beach, next to the Red Rock, Club and Sun Suite hotels.

In central Tel Aviv, Le Meridien will be part of a $460 million real estate development plan called the Peace Project that the firm claims is the largest ever undertaken in the Middle East. The project calls for three towers, to be known as the Azrieli Center, that will house shopping malls, movie theaters, restaurants, a health center and recreation areas. Each of the towers -- round, square or triangular in shape -- will have a designated purpose: Le Meridien Tel Aviv, which is scheduled to open in late 1999, will occupy 15 floors of the square tower.

The 423-room property will have rooms and suites, meetings and conference facilities, restaurants, an indoor pool, a health club, an executive lounge and a helicopter pad. It will be located near the business district downtown.

Rates are not available yet, but a Forte spokeswoman in Israel said the per-person price at both properties is expected to be between $280 and $420 for a double room and will include breakfast for two. More information is available from the marketing manager in Tel Aviv. Call Anat Starik-Dahan at (011) 972-3 688-7666.

Le Meridien Hotels & Resorts, Web: www.forte-hotels.com

Resort gains popularity

EILAT, Israel -- This growing resort, situated at the southern end of Israel, where the Negev Desert ends at the Red Sea and where Asia and Africa meet, will be the home of Forte's first Le Meridien property in Israel. The area has become a winter destination for Europeans and is increasingly being offered to American travelers as an add-on to tours of the Holy Land.

Eilat first was mentioned in the Bible as a rest stop for the wandering Israelites after their exodus from Egyptian bondage, but it has been little more than an oasis since then, with summer temperatures hovering at 103 degrees. It came to modern attention in the late 1960s with the advent of air conditioning, which rendered summers tolerable and made an asset of its near-zero rainfall, its winter temperatures in the high 70s and year-round water temperature readings of 70 degrees.

From its luxurious resorts, guests can see as far as Saudi Arabia to the southeast and can explore Israel's Negev and Egypt's Sinai deserts or visit nearby Petra in Jordan. Vacationers can swim with dolphins, water ski, scuba dive or snorkel in the warm sea along the shore, off yachts or at the coral reef. In the spring and fall, observers can watch millions of birds -- more than 30 species of birds of prey and about 400 of water fowl according to last year's count -- migrate between continents.

A beachfront promenade -- dotted with shops, outdoor cafes and a handful of amusement park rides -- connects several hotels and is favored by evening strollers enjoying the cool night air. The hotel strip offers nightlife and fine restaurants, and the area is a duty-free shopping zone.

Most of the resorts are clustered along the northern shore, which faces the length of the Red Sea and is nearly adjacent to the Jordanian port of Aqaba. Lagoons have been constructed to extend the Eilat shore line, so several hotels that are a few blocks inland have waterfront access for swimming or boating.

Most local attractions are at the sea, with Coral World about two miles southwest of town heading the list. Its aquarium recreates the coral reef with its many tropical fish, while the Underwater Observatory, with a snack bar above the water line and viewing windows below, takes visitors beneath the sea's surface to see the reef in its natural state. Also docked there is the Yellow Submarine, which takes 47 passengers on a 40-minute tour of the reef as well as to divers who are exploring it nearly 200 feet below the surface.

Tours of the sea also are offered by glass-bottom boats, including the Jules Verne, a boat with underwater glass walls, as well. At the Dolphin reef, swimmers can choose to frolic with either humans or the resident marine mammals.

The area's other great attraction is the spectacular Negev Desert that comprises the southern half of Israel. There, the natural reserve called Timna Park offers exploration of the desert terrain. Also in evidence at Timna Park are bronze-age copper mines and prehistoric drawings. Nearby, visitors can stop in at the Hai Bar project, which is restoring species of animals that were native to the area in biblical times but that disappeared from the region in the last two millennia and are nearly extinct.

The Yotvata Visitors' Center advises tourists on visiting the area and provides a small archaeological display plus a sound-and-light show about the Negev. Tours of the desert on quad-runners or on horseback also are offered near the city.

Eilat is about 200 miles south of Jerusalem. It can be reached in about four hours by car. For those aboard the domestic Arkia Airlines, it takes about an hour from either Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.

Together the hotels have 4,100 rooms. The town has 25,000 residents, most of whom are employed by the 22 recommended tourist hotels.

Visitors interested in meeting some of these Israelis should contact the Government Tourist Office in Eilat at (011) 972-7 593-4353 or the Elot regional Tourism Association.

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