THE HARDEST thing about visiting Eilat is leaving. Is this the catchphrase from an Israeli Tourist Office poster? A travel writer's cliche? Worse. It's the truth. I very much wanted to leave, but it looked as though I was to be prevented.

Forget Mr Rabin. Forget the Hasidim. The most powerful institution in Israel is the national bus company, Egged. Its friendly drivers have the power to determine who will go to what part of the Promised Land and when. This miserable fact dawned upon me as I sat at the Egged bus station in Eilat, wondering whether I and my companion would get on the last bus back to Tel Aviv.

At the base of the problem is the fact that no one queues in Israel - at least, not for a bus. They scrum for it. This would not be so bad if one did not have to compete with surly young men with machine guns and elderly ladies built like Solomon's Temple. We flicked through the guidebook for solace, and discovered that we would need to reserve seats three days in advance to be sure. Another three days at the end of the Negev Desert?

Eilat is Israel's Miami, far away at the southernmost tip of the country and at the head of the Gulf of Aqaba or Eilat, depending on your politics. Many famous people have passed through it, but 45 years ago it was still a tiny desert outpost. Moses and the Israelites paid a visit on their way from Egypt. The Queen of Sheba parked her royal yacht here when she went to see Solomon. Neither of them hung around to soak up the sun, as so many people are doing today.

When we arrived we were mobbed by children and shy adolescents, all trying to persuade us to come and take a room at their parents' house. This was welcome, as we had not booked ahead. Negligent? No. There are plenty of public telephones in Israel, but most of them are decoys. Those that do work are fiendishly difficult to operate.

A boy and a girl took our arms and began to haul us out of the bus station. 'Yes, yes,' they beamed. 'You look first. Pay later.'

At their insistence we passed up the Egged Self-Service Restaurant, despite the glowing reviews it received in the guidebook, and took a clean room in the family's bungalow. Conversation was somewhat hampered by the fact that, to our shame, we did not speak any Hebrew and only the boy spoke English. We soon discovered that this did not cover much more than 'Yes, yes. You look first. Pay later.' Added to this, the most monstrous television I had ever seen dominated the room and thundered at us in Hebrew.

We walked down the hill and out along the coast to the Coral Beach Nature Reserve. Despite the ports of Eilat and neighbouring Aqaba, the water in the Gulf is very clear and not far under the surface are reefs of astoundingly beautiful coral. It was as though the Queen of Sheba had returned from Solomon laden with gold and precious stones, and dumped most of them overboard. To see it, you can hire all manner of snorkelling and scuba gear.

Neither of us knew the first thing about scuba diving, so we opted for snorkels and flippers. We joined other scuba-ignorami with pipes and duck feet, stumbled down the beach and paddled about, heads down, like speed-happy 17-year-olds who have just passed their driving tests. But no one minds. In fact, no one minds much about anything in Eilat, and this is its peculiar attraction.

Instead of a synagogue there is the Queen of Sheba Hotel; instead of a mosque there is the Lido Pub, and instead of rabbis there are topless bathers. Eilat is an outlet for a decadent Western materialism that elsewhere in Israel is - often thankfully - suppressed by religion. It is like a giant escape valve at the bottom of the country.

As a result, Eilat is not the place to look for culture. That evening we took a walk to the Cinema Eilat and saw The Worst Film Ever Made. I cannot remember its title, but I hasten to add that it was American, not Israeli, and had Hebrew subtitles. We sat on the hard seats and laughed until we cried and the stodgy felafels we had eaten earlier threatened to rupture our stomachs.

The building was packed with Israeli adolescents who were more interested in who was fondling whom at the back of the cinema and could not understand what we found so funny. It was a fantastic way to spend an evening and, high on endorphins, we chuckled our way back to the guest house, where the terrifying television had ceased to thunder and the family had gone to bed.

It cannot be guaranteed that Cinema Eilat will show this gem of a film again, so you should consider some of the alternatives. There are plenty of bars and restaurants and several nightclubs. Some of the larger hotels put on films and videos, Hebrew lessons, belly dancers, dancing lessons and so on.

Despite the Tourist Office's considerable efforts to promote Eilat as a centre for hedonism, the best things about it are the natural features. It is worthwhile exploring the desert, which contains an extraordinary variety of animals, plants and colour. Many of the best hikes can only be made with private transport, but the Mount Tsfachot Circular Trail is an exception and offers views of Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan all from one spot.

At dusk the following evening we found ourselves at that place of judgement, the Egged bus station. For some reason, the driver allowed my companion to get straight on. Moses and the Children of Israel had it easy, I thought. I gave up shoving, and began looking pleadingly at the driver. 'Please]' I said. 'My friend. On bus.' I jabbed with my forefinger. Why is it that English people so often speak pidgin English when abroad?

To my surprise he smiled. 'I understand,' he said. 'Please get on board.' The inside of a bus had never seemed so beautiful.


Getting there: Fly to Tel Aviv from Gatwick. Monarch Airlines pounds 214 from 25 April, pounds 264 in the summer. Then bus or car to Eilat. World Market Travel (0225 466256).

Accommodation: Apartments or B & B are easy to find. Best hostel is Max and Merran's Hostel.

(Photographs omitted)