Lynette Blackhurst and her family had the most exotic swim of their lives when they plunged into the sea off Eilat to be surrounded by thousands of exotic fish
OUR THREE children had never been on a plane, so we decided to blow last year's building society windfall on a foreign holiday rather than feed one of several overdrafts. We gave our bemused travel agent a wide brief: where can five of us fly in winter for pounds 1,500 all in?

Israel popped up on the screen, which sounded fine. Having spent a great summer there in our carefree backpacking youth, we were keen to go again, with Harry, 10, Daisy, eight, and Barney, five. We hoped the five-hour flight would fulfil the children's wildest dreams about flying.

Eilat seemed like the place to be. The last time we were there as a couple we slept on the beach, possessions stuffed by our feet in sleeping bags, surrounded by mountains, stars and the odd dog. But now the brochures promised a growing tourist town with glitzy hotels, exclusive jewellers, and banana-boat rides.

Being seasoned members of the "Oh we're camping in the Dordogne again" brigade, we did wonder how we'd cope with the package holiday scene. But I was strangely thrilled by the prospect of not having to do the washing- up al fresco in the company of frighteningly wholesome Dutch women, and having real beds to sleep in and doors to close. We decided to risk it.

After we landed at dusk in a windy wilderness, a coach sped us through the Negev desert down towards Eilat, following the barbed-wire border with Egypt and giving the children their first glimpse of real soldiers with guns. "I don't know why you're taking the children to a war zone," my mother-in-law had said as we set off.

The Red Sea sparkled with the lights of Eilat, Aqaba in Jordan, and Saudi Arabia beyond. We were staying on the Coral Beach, a stretch of land which leads out of town to the Egyptian border. The coach dropped us off next to a mountain of rubble which Harry coined "the slag heap"; later we realised it was the desert. It comes down to the sea, and anything else - hotels, palm trees, fresh water - is the result of human effort.

Being a family of five in a world where hotels assume no one has more than two children, we chose our self-catering apartment in the Club Hotel more for the sofa than the facilities, but were delighted by the place anyway - a palm-fringed pool with real crickets at night, a balcony, NBC on television for the husband and the sea only five minutes away.

If I had Eilat's advertising account, I would sum up its Unique Selling Point in one word: "Fish". Not the edible variety, nor the solitary bright specimens you've seen in an aquarium, but hundreds of them weaving between you and the coral in a 360 display of colour, shape and movement. The sea is so salty, swimming is easy. Within ten minutes, Barney was enticed into paddling by a shoal of yellow butterfly fish investigating his shoes. The sight of scorpion fish, pipe fish, porcupine fish, parrot fish, groupers, assorted sea urchins and a token sea-cucumber every two minutes was mind-boggling. If you want to see this wonder, it's best to stay on Coral Beach. There are three main attractions: the Nature Reserve, Coral World & Underwater Observatory, and Dolphin Reef.

The Nature Reserve is a featureless stretch of shore with an entrance resembling a public swimming pool - the nature of course being underwater rather than terrestrial. Anxious to preserve the coral, the conservationists have constructed piers, submerged ladders, and roped-off swimming routes, allowing you to explore the reef without damaging it.

The Underwater Observatory at Coral World is quite incredible. Descending the spiral staircase you are surrounded by windows under the sea, with more fish on view than your local chippy sees in a lifetime. And these are wild - there are no comforting labels with Latin names. Above ground there are tanks with turtles, sharks, luminescent species and a description- defying frog-fish.

We spent two idyllic days at Dolphin Reef, where a family of dolphins live in a netted-off area of sea, free to pursue largely normal feeding and social behaviour. During "feeding times" they congregate near the walkways and perform their natural acrobatics. lt was wonderful to see them in this environment, and to hear their squeaks while snorkelling on the shore next to their enclosure.

The other dominant natural wonder is the desert - miles of terracotta and ochre gritty mountains. You would dehydrate and die in about four hours if you didn't drink in the desert, so we decided against the DIY family hike and opted for two safaris - one on camels and the other in a jeep. My husband was smitten by the camel; my daughter was initially rigid with terror and had more than her fair share of the personal attentions of a handsome guide; and my bottom lost all sense of feeling. We plodded up the dry valley, reaching the summit at sunset, half-expecting to see Moses. We saw a desert fox, and rested under the stars for a Bedouin meal, listening to one of the camels grinding her teeth. It was magic.

The jeep safari involved taking the wheel of a rusty vehicle that would bring an MOT inspector out in a cold sweat, chasing the guide in the jeep in front, and crashing through gears to scale near-vertical boulders and plunge down sandy gulleys. Boy, do you need a 4X4 in the Negev. We found beetles, gazelles, a pepper plant, and a flock of white flamingos. But the rocks were the main attraction, eroded into strange formations, littered with malachite and coloured shades of red, yellow and green.

We spent our final lazy day on a clipper, cruising down the Red Sea, past the Egyptian border at Tabah, to Coral Island. Flying fish fanned out as we sailed, diving back into the water like swallows. The boat anchored offshore and we were ferried to the tiny island to explore the old fort. At the end of the week, one of the children said: "I've seen three worlds this holiday. The world above the clouds, the world under the sea, and all the land." What a mind-expanding recommendation for a holiday in Eilat.

eilat fact file

Lynette Blackhurst travelled with Longwood Holidays (tel: 0181 551 4494), whose stays in Eilat run throughout the year. She recently paid approximately pounds 1,800 for two adults and three children for a week in a self-catering villa at Club In, Coral Beach, Eilat.

Current good deals with Longwood Holidays include a departure on 2 April for an all-inclusive week (all food and alcoholic drinks) at the Lagoona Hotel, for pounds 395 per person.

Between now and June conditions are warm and pleasant. But remember that after that, the weather hots up considerably and could be too hot for many holidaymakers. For more information, contact the Israel government tourist office on 0171 299 1111.