January 3, 2009:

After the immigration and customs, we got a cab to our hotel! The cab driver asked us about where we were from and in turn I asked him his origins. He mentioned his last name and told me that he was a Moroccan Jew, but was born and brought up in Israel. The cultural diversity of Israel was immediately apparent to us: We had just met a Indian Jew, a Russian Jew was our immigration officer and now a Moroccan Jew was our cab driver. This small country is a melting pot of Jews all over the world, each bringing their unique culture and thought with them.

We checked in to the hotel, Le Meridian Eilat and were informed that we were being upgraded from a standard to a deluxe suite. We’re low budget travelers and this was heaven. We had a 1 bedroom suite overlooking the Eilat promenade, the red sea and Aqaba, Jordan. It was simply awesome! And there were two flat screen TV’s in the suite! Woohoo! Not to mention a fully working shower (see previous post on no water) and a lovely pool!

We decided we had enough of felafel and hummus and were craving some Asian food. We headed to Giraffe Noodle Bar – a chain restaurant that serves Asian fusion cuisine. We reasoned that they’d have some noodles with vegetables and tofu. Alas, they only had noodles with some vegetables but no tofu. Apparently, tofu is not that big in Israel, at least outside of Tel Aviv. The food was very good, nonetheless but not as spicy as we would have liked (they gave me chilly flakes to make it spicy). After a nice meal, we walked back along the Eilat promenade which was very lively with street shows and a lot of stalls selling knick-knacks and food.

At the hotel, Heena fell asleep and I sat admiring the view of the Red sea and Aqaba from the window while watching TV and writing in my journal. Through the balcony, I could see the red sea, the mountains of Jordan and a hint of Taba, Egypt in the corner. I sat in the balcony, listening to the sounds of the red sea waves lashing against the sea-wall.

 

View from our hotel balcony at the Le Meridian in Eilat, IsraelView from our hotel balcony at the Le Meridian in Eilat, Israel

January 4, 2009:

We woke up and after a simple breakfast in the room we spent the morning lazing around. The past week had been hectic with the illness and then constant walking in Petra. At 11 AM, I asked the concierge for a very good local place for felafel (its hard to resist felafel after 1 day). He suggested a place called Chatuka Felafel (pronounced Hatooka) and wrote the name down in Hebrew for us. We hailed a cab and I showed him the name. He read it and immediately said, “Hatuka felafel, good felafel”. Except that he said it very fast and I loved that style :) It turns out the cabbie had lived in NY/NJ for almost 10 years. When I asked him why he moved back, he said: I feel I am at home here. I belong here (a sentiment we heard throughout the trip from many people – Israelis and Palestinians). As immigrants ourselves, we could thoroughly resonate with that feeling.

Chatuka Felafel was low key, in a residential neighborhood, away from the touristy part of town. The guy who runs/owns the place speaks no english at all. But the menu is simple: Felafel and fries! We got 2 felafel sandwiches, fries and some felafel balls to munch on. Heena got a lemon drink and I got a coke zero. The serving style was simple: You order the felafel and he would make it fresh for you. While he makes the felafel you fill your pita with whatever condiments you like – spicy red chutney, onions, salad, tahina and amba (mango chutney). Heena was delighted to find out that they had amba.

The first of many excellent felafel sandwiches in IsraelThe first of many excellent felafel sandwiches in Israel

After lunch, we hailed a cab and headed to the Underwater Observatory Marine Park. The park has many ponds with various types of fish, turtles (large ones!) and most importantly an underwater observatory where you can see sea life under the red sea up close! There were many families that were visiting and we had to stand in line for almost 20 minutes before we got our tickets to enter the park. I noticed, quite interestingly, that there were a lot of Russian Jews in Eilat and none of them spoke a word of Hebrew or English. This usually ended up in frustration for those who spoke only Hebrew or English and those who spoke only Russian; yet they were quite polite to each other.

Shark food? at the marine observatoryShark food? at the marine observatory

We spent some time watching the turtles being fed. I had always been under the impression that turtles were vegetarian, but it turns out that there are omnivorous species as well. They were fed fish and after a while the stench got to us (and many others) and we moved on to the underwater observatory.

Before we went down to the viewing deck, Heena picked out some lovely Eilat stone jewelery at the store above. Unfortunately, none of my credit cards would go through (I then had to spend almost 1.5 hours calling back and removing the fraud protections) their machines and I did not have that much cash. Finally, we gave up and headed to the observatory. I expected a small room with just a few views, but it was nothing like that – lots of space and lots of opportunity to view marine life in the corals. Definitely very good and highly recommended!

Marine lifeMarine life
Marine life in the coralsMarine life in the corals

We spent an hour observing and then went back up to the observatory cafe. It had excellent views of the red sea and the mountains of Aqaba and Egypt. We chose a spot from where we could see all three! We got a tiramisu and the waitress served it for us and made a heart sign of chocolate in our plate :)

TiramisuTiramisu

After the marine center visit, we hailed a cab and asked him whether we could have a look at the border to Egypt. He agreed and we headed to the border (less than 2 miles away). We got out of the car and just stood observing the lovely view of the sea. A border security patrol (with a machine gun) started walking our way. The cab driver said something to him in Hebrew and told us to get back to the car and we just hurried back in and drove away. I asked him if it was something serious and he said it was not a problem, but because of the political situation, they did not want tourists near borders anymore. Quite understandable. The cab driver talked about the Gaza War and said that the Israeli wars all scared him because Israel is one small nation surrounded by hostile neighbors and that is not a good thing in the long run.

After that we returned to the hotel and just relaxed: after all we had a deluxe suite – how often do you get upgraded to one?!? In the evening, we just walked across the street to a place called Pizza Meter (Hebrew Website only). It took us a while to figure out whether we need 1/2 a meter or a full meter for dinner (full meter it was). The pizza was pretty good and went well with the huge bottle of coke zero that we got with it. After dinner, we went to the Eilat promenade for an after-dinner stroll before heading back to our hotel to enjoy views from the room and savor the happy feeling.

January 4, 2009

Our initial plan was to rent a car and drive to Timna National Park. I had even made a tentative reservation but canceled it. The hotel had beds by the pool and when we lay on the bed we had a lovely view of the red sea and Aqaba, Jordan. In hindsight, we wish we had gone since Timna has the worlds oldest copper mine! Oh well, there’s always something for a next time.

So instead, we head to Shibolim Bakery for brunch. Heena got a breakfast plate of Pesto sandwiches (three pieces – each with a different flavor of pesto) and the order came with salad, olives, cheese, bread and tea. I got Omelet that came with salad, bread, bulgari cheese, cream cheese and coffee. The food was excellent. They also had an assortment of bakery items and we picked up enough to last us through lunch. We had checked out the buffet at the Le Meridian and it was expensive and very disappointing for vegetarians. Since we did not want to leave the hotel that day the bakery goods from Shibolim would tide us through the day.

Shiv Sena Graffiti in Eilat, IsraelShiv Sena Graffiti in Eilat, Israel

After the brunch, we walked around the main business area of Eilat. Heena got a manicure while I walked around some residential districts taking pictures. I stumbled upon a picture with a Shiv Sena graffiti. This totally stumped me; whats Shiv Sena graffiti doing in Israel anyway?? If anyone has a clue, please let me know.

We walked back to the hotel, stopping at a store to get some snacks and spent the rest of the day lazing by the pool and taking walks on the beach/promenade. We even took an afternoon nap! In the evening, we decided to walk back to Chatuka Felafel. We thought it would take us 15 minutes to walk there since it took less than 5 minutes to drive there. How wrong were we! It took us a good 40 minutes or so to get there! However, I think it was not a bad idea to walk, since we walked through a lot of residential districts and saw people returning from work, kids playing and even got lost in a residential building that was eerily quiet (but people surely lived in there since the lights were on in the houses). Dinner of felafel was excellent. We were smart to take a cab back. We spent some time at the mall next to our hotel and spent the evening enjoying the views from our room.

Tomorrow we head to Jerusalem!