LAST RESORT Eilat, Egypt

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The Independent Travel
As the driver of the coach taking us from the airport to our hotel switched on his stereo, I appreciated that this holiday was going to be a little different. The fluttering strains of a very bad disco version of "Scotland the Brave" began to wow from tinny speakers, as we sped through the dark moonscape. Egypt was just a hundred yards away over a fence running all the way alongside the road, as we descended from a biblical desert plateau down to the northern tip of the Gulf of Aqaba, and the hot winter package destination of Eilat.

When you land at Ovda airport, the sight of F-14s poking out of underground bunkers, and anti-aircraft missile batteries beside the runway, alerts you to the fact that Israel is not going to be quite like Marbella or Corfu. As you descend to the coast the landscape does become familiar and Mediterranean-looking. Eilat is much like Benidorm used to be about 25 years ago. That is, before Benidorm spent billions (of pesetas) on a big image improvement. But with one subtle difference: Eilat has a runway running right through the middle of it. Yes, you could find yourself being gently rocked from your slumbers at 6am by a Boeing 737 hurtling past your hotel window less than a thousand yards away. One small comfort is that this is the town's original airport and so is too small for larger jets (which is why most Brits arrive at the military airport of Ovda, back up in the hinterland).

Once settled in, let the usual British urge to paddle take over, and head for what passes as a beach. It is remarkable to stand on the narrow strip of gravel that is the beach, looking out over the turquoise waters of Aqaba, and to be able to see four different countries at once. To your right, about seven miles away, is the border with Egypt. Immediately to your left, only two or three miles away, the streets and houses of the Jordanian town of Aqaba. King Hussein's seaside palace stands out quite clearly on the waterfront. And following the coastline south some ten miles you see the distant hills of Saudi Arabia, shrouded by the mists of Arabian fable and legend, and also the discharge of a huge (presumably oil-burning) power station.

What brought me to Eilat was not geographical novelty but the simple fact that it is one of the best winter destinations around at the moment, in terms of both cost and sun. It is about as far south as the Canaries, comes at about the same price, but is sunnier and has almost clear, blue water just warm enough to put more than a toe into.

The truly Unique Selling Proposition is the Bible. As you wander about this completely modern and rapidly developing holiday resort, you pass little bureaux organising car hire, cultural evenings and excursions. The list of those excursions, though written on a poster in felt-tip and stuck in the window with masking tape, is still a wonder to behold: day trips to Mount Sinai, where Moses saw the burning bush and received the word of God in the form of the Ten Commandments, and to Jerusalem, the Dead Sea or Masada. And overnight trips to Cairo, Petra or Bethlehem. But to bring you back to the late 20th century, try just the newly opened crossing from Eilat to Aqaba - a consciousness-raising experience in itself. The hundred yards of no-man's-land between the Israeli and Jordanian border posts reminded me of those Checkpoint Charlie movies, exchanging spies and just waiting, on your interminably long walk, for the crack of an East German border guard's rifle. Travel and politics are uneasy companions.

Peter Martin

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