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The ancient and modern; Ros Dodd visits Israel, where the past and present collide.

Everywhere has its own smell. Everywhere, that is, except the Timna Park nature reserve in Israel's Negev Desert. Here, standing in the infinite stillness, there is nothing but pure, pellucid air.

A hundred miles or so to the north it's a different story. Floating languidly in the salt water of the Dead Sea, the nostrils are assailed by the pungent smell of sulphur.

There is stillness here too, though. As afternoon pales into evening, the shadows begin to play a symphony across the Jordan mountains opposite. Pink turns to violet, ochre takes on a terracotta hue and, finally, all becomes a dreamy blend of coffee and grey.

A dip in the fabled Dead Sea - ten times more salty than the average ocean - is one of life's unforgettable experiences. Stepping into the water is like being enveloped by a swathe of cool velvet and as you lie down, your legs take on a life of their own: as if pulled by a magnetic force, they shoot out in front of you and you find yourself floating on - rather than in - the sea.

Reading a copy of the Jerusalem Post - or The Birmingham Post if you've remembered to take one with you - whilst laid out on the surface of the water provides a not-to-be-missed photo opportunity.

The only disappointment is that you're not floating in the actual Dead Sea: over the centuries the waters have receded - leaving a swathe of salty desert - and the sea has been artificially extended to the south.

It's along this extended shoreline that a gaggle of hotels has sprung up - all geared towards the lucrative spa trade. Many of those who stay here come for the mineraich Dead Sea's curative waters. Isrotel's Lot Hotel is one of several offering guests a full range of health treatments - from underwater massages to mud packs. Those who don't fancy taking a dip in the sea can float in the large pool of heated sea water or wallow in two sulphur pools.

Apart from being thoroughly pampered, though, there's not a great deal to do here. There's no village or town to speak of and the Dead Sea and Jordan mountains apart, the scenery isn't the most stunning in the world.

Having said that, a short drive north brings you to the historic site of Masada. From being 1,400 feet below sea level - the lowest spot on earth - you find yourself ascending by cable car the mountain-top fortress of King Herod, just above sea level.

Although another world away in terms of culture and tranquillity, Masada and the Dead Sea are a comfortable two-hour drive from Eilat, Israel's most popular beach resort. Situated at the tip of the right-hand arm of the Red Sea, Eilat is where the country narrows so much it is practically squashed between Egypt to the west and Jordan to the east. Stand on the sea-front and the Jordanian port of Aqaba is on your left - so close it's hard to believe it's in another country. Gaze southwards and the mountains of Saudi Arabia are clearly visible.

Unfortunately, Eilat is an uninspiring concrete jungle of landscape-dominating hotels, uniform shopping centres and noisy European-style bars. Although starkly beautiful mountains ring the resort to the west and east, the view of them is marred by the high-rise buildings.

Eilat's lack of charm - the mountain backdrop and yacht lagoon apart - is due to the fact it was created from nothing. There was never a quaint fishing village or seashore town here; hence there is no real heart to the place.

The beaches leave a lot to be desired too - the coarse sand looks as if it's been brought in by lorry - and due to the construction of two more mega hotel complexes, ugly cranes and workmen's clutter do little to relieve the scenery.

But it's not all bad news. Although the hotels aren't pretty to look at from the outside, it's hard to fault them once you walk through the revolving front doors. Attractive and, in some cases, highly imaginative decor, coupled with wide-ranging facilities - including prettily-landscaped outdoor pool areas - and impeccable service.

Eilat is blessed with an alear-round climate of sunshine and warm-to-blazing temperatures. With less than an inch of rain a year, even in January the skies are an unbroken blue and the sun is hot enough to give you an impressive tan.

Israeli food isn't world-renowned by any stretch of the imagination but Eilat boasts a plethora of high-class European-style restaurants. Whether you fancy Chinese or Indian, Italian or seafood, there's no shortage of choice. And though not cheap, you won't pay more than in Britain.

So what is there to do in Eilat apart from eating, drinking, lazing by the poolside and shopping for duty-free goods in the air-conditioned malls?

Well, there are watersports of all kinds and impressive coral reefs. Particularly exhilarating is the dolphin ree where you can don a wet suit and oxygen tank and, clasping the hand of a trained diver for safety, plunge into the crystal clear sea for a face-to-face meeting with dolphins.

So far is Eilat from Israel's potential trouble-spots it's easy to forget the country still has serious political problems.

The new-found understanding with Jordan, however, has opened up another gem for visitors to Eilat: the "Rose Red" city of Petra.

It's not cheap to get there - Thomson charges pounds 140 for a fulay tour - but it's most certainly worth it.

This "forgotten" city, carved out of pink rock, was founded 1,500 years ago. The jewel in its crown is the "Treasury", a towering and heart-stoppingly majestic building.

Back to Eilat, with its dearth of history. Still, the resort is ideal for those who are content to relax by their hotel pool on the days they're not venturing further afield to discover what the real Israel has to offer.

TRAVEL FACTS

Ros Dodd travelled to Eilat as a guest of Thomson and Isrotel. She stayed at King Solomon's Palace hotel, where a week's bed and breakfast costs between pounds 475 and pounds 815.
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Feb 7, 1998
Words:1007
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