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Country of coral reefs, camels and kibbutzim.

When you've hod your fill of history there are watersports to try, desert excursions to make and Dead Sea muds to wallow in. Alex Benwell goes exploring

THERE ARE NOT MANY COUNTRIES in the world that can offer skiing in the morning and swimming with dolphins in the afternoon, but in Israel this is possible. If you've had your fill of history there are desert drives, watersports and Dead Sea mud baths to occupy you. The country is only 416 kilometres long and 70 at it's widest so you can see and do plenty of things in a short time.

You can catch a direct flight and be in Tel Aviv or Eilat within four-and-a-half hours. Squashed between the mountains of Jordan and Egypt, Eilat is Israel's access to the Red Sea and a top destination for divers worldwide. The climate fluctuates between hot in January to unbearable in July when the only place to be is underwater. The coral reefs are stunning and whether you have a SCUBA (Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus) diving certificate or not there are numerous ways of seeing this underwater paradise.

To acquire your PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) certificate buy a five- or six-day package from one of the reputable schools in Eilat (such as Aquasport or Red Sea Sports club). The average cost is around 170 [pounds sterling] and you'll need to get a medical from a local doctor (15 [pounds sterling]) and a PADI pack, including a manual and certificate ($5 [pounds sterling]). Easier and cheaper options for viewing the reefs are to hire a mask, snorkel and flippers, or a `snuba'. The latter allows you to breath underwater with the aid of a long pipe attached to oxygen tanks in a support boat. If you don't want to get wet then there are glass-bottomed boats that operate from North Beach and a yellow sub marine that sails from the Underwater Observatory and Aquarium at Coral Beach. This is an excellent place to see and learn more about the ecosystem of the reef and the wildlife that inhabits it such as reef sharks, turtles and manta rays. The beaches around Eilat are pretty good. Dolphin Reef is one of the nicest and offers the chance to swim with these beautiful mammals.

From Eilat you can make excursions into the desert on camel, quad bike or jeep, and maybe have lunch with some bedouins in their tent. Most hotels or hostels can arrange these trips for you or you can book them from here in the UK.

North of Eilat is the geological wonderland of Timna Park. Here, thousands of years of wind erosion have carved shapes into the soft sandstone. These include King Soloman's Pillars and the giant Mushroom Rock. Other day-trip destinations from Eilat include the Sinai Desert, St Catherine's Monastery and Petra in Jordan.

The Dead Sea is a two hour drive from Eilat. Here you are at the lowest point on earth at 403 metres below sea level. There are several resorts along the shore of the sea offering quite expensive hotel accommodation. The water in the Dead Sea is ten times saltier than that of the Mediterranean making it impossible for it to sustain any form of life, hence the Dead Sea. Going for a `bob' is a very strange experience; whatever you do avoid getting the water in your eyes or swallowing it. Not only does it contain salt but also bromide, magnesium and iodine which give relief to people with skin complaints, arthritis and rheumatism. Most beaches have freshwater showers so you can smother yourself in thick black Dead Sea mud and not have to worry about getting it on the car seat covers.

High and dry

Between Eilat and Be'ersheva you can experience the beautiful barren terrain of the Negev Desert. Near the town of Mitzpe Ramon there is one of the world's largest craters. If you're feeling brave you can abseil down the shear rock face or just explore the desolate wilderness below in a four-by-four. As you drive through the desert you will see large swathes of cultivated land. Israel is the leading country in the world when it comes to turning the desert green and most of the kibbutzim or moshaves (cooperative farms) still invite foreigners to spend a few months working for them (Kibbutz Representatives tel: 0181 458 9235). The work can range from picking mangoes outdoors to emptying the dishwasher in the kitchens. You will work a six to eight hour day and get everything provided for your daily needs plus a bit of `pocket money'. It's a great way of seeing what life in Israel is really like and you also get several days off a month so you can visit the rest of the country and Egypt.

The north of Israel is considerably greener and, in the winter months, colder. Tiberius on the shores of the Sea of Galilee is the centre for most activity in this region and there are plenty of good hotels, Kibbutzim and hostels able to offer car hire, boat trips and tours. Sailing is sometimes possible and there are mountain bikes for hire all year round. You can ride around the lake in a day checking out the various religious sites on the way. If you are very lucky, Mount Hermon in the disputed area of the Golan Heights may have enough snow to make skiing possible. If not, then nearby is the beautiful Hula Valley and Yahudia Nature Reserves. Hula Valley was once a malaria-infested swamp, home to 150 species of birds. In the 1950s it was drained and converted to farmland but now the land is being re-flooded in the hope of turning it back in to a bird-infested swamp without the malaria. Superstar Holidays offers birdwatching holidays in northern and southern Israel (tel: 0171 957 4300).

Israel's Mediterranean coastline stretches from the Lebanese border down to Gaza and you will not have a problem finding a decent beach to sit on. Haifa and Tel Aviv are the main cities on the coast. Haifa is Israel's principal port from where it is possible to catch a ferry to many destinations in the Eastern Mediterranean including Cyprus and Athens. Tel Aviv is a lively modern city and Israel's principal settlement outside Jerusalem. It has plenty of restaurants, hotels and clubs but its main attraction is the gorgeous beach. If the conditions are right you can while away your time sailing, windsurfing and sunbathing.

THINGS TO REMEMBER

* From dusk on Friday to sunset on Saturday Jews observe their holy day. Most things close and there is a restricted bus service. Everything gets back to normal on Sunday

* Should you want at a later date to travel in a Arab country (especially Jordan) DO NOT get your passport stamped. Ask the Israeli-authorities to put the entry stamp on a piece of paper and put this inside your passport

* White number plates mean an Arab-owned car, yellow ones mean an Israeli owned car

* Do not shave (anywhere) prior to a dip in the Dead Sea

* One of the most important archaeological sites in northern Israel is the `Battlefield of the Holy Land', Megiddo. Twenty-five miles southwest of Haifa, and also known as Armageddon, it is the place where `the army of rightousness and God will confront the forces of evil' to precipitate the `second coming'. Christian cults, mostly from America, believe that time is getting close

* By paying in hard currency (US dollars) you can avoid the 17 per cent added tax. The local currency is the shekel which is divided into 100 agorots. All major credit cards are acceptable and switch cards can be used in some cash point machines

* No visa is required by visitors holding a full British passport

* You do not need any innoculations for a visit to Israel, but a hat and sunscreen are strongly recommended
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Title Annotation:vacation ideas from Israel
Author:Benwell, Alex
Publication:Geographical
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Jun 1, 1999
Words:1317
Previous Article:A History that's worth celebrating.
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