Clear seas and sunny skies make Israel’s Red Sea beach destination Eilat a perfect winter sun escape, says Georgina Stubbs.
Laughs our guide Naftaly Gal Or, as he drives through the dusty mountains surrounding the southern Israeli city of Eilat: “I have never seen snow in my life, and if it snows here, I will leave.”
When most of Britain is being lashed by wind, frozen rain and snow, temperatures here average 20C in January; and alongside just 30mm of annual rainfall and 360 sunny days a year, it is easy to see why sightings of the white stuff are rare.
Nestled on the coast of the Red Sea with its crystal clear waters – home to an abundance of colourful marine life such as lionfish, parrotfish, octopus and seahorses – Eilat has plenty of potential for adventure.
Clinging to Naftaly’s bouncing jeep as he moves it up the inclines of the path ahead, singing the vaguely recognisable tune of “shake to the left, shake to the right”, it is difficult to believe he is approaching 70.
The back wheels are kicking up dust from the rocky track as we meander our way through the harsh and barren landscape of Solomon Valley – close to the Egyptian border – headed for our second viewpoint of the two-hour excursion.
With the air invitingly warm as the sun is engulfed behind the jagged edges of the mountains, casting a soft light amongst the crevasses and highlighting the many differing hues of red, browns and grey, it is hard not to be captivated by the immense natural beauty of the area.
Founded in 1950, the resort and port is close by the Jordanian city of Aqaba, which, from the height of the mountains, becomes visible as a mass of street lights as darkness descends.
But spectacular views are not all Eilat has to offer. One of the resort’s attractions is Dolphin Reef (dolphinreef.co.il), home to four bottlenose porpoises called Neo, Nana, Luna and Nikita, who live in a large netted part of the sea.
Instead of forcing the marine mammals to perform tricks, at Dolphin Reef the animals are treated with respect and sensitivity.
There’s the option to dive (£71) or snorkel (£61) with the sea mammals for 30-minute sessions, and once immersed in their underwater habitat I’m overcome with a sense of excitement and joy that I know I haven’t felt since the Christmas Eves of my childhood.
A dolphin glides beneath me with such grace it takes me completely by surprise as it carefully inspects this latest being to enter its world. I can’t get enough of listening to their clicks and squeaks as they chatter between themselves.
There is also a pebbled beach and a floating walkway where visitors can observe the animals (£14), and three relaxation pools with the option of an unusual water-based treatment (£67). I’m moved around one of the pools by a specialist, into positions designed to relax mind, body and spirit.
In autumn and spring the skies above Eilat teem with birdlife as half a billion flamingoes, raptors, kingfishers and other winged creatures migrate across continents. In a typical March, more than 130 species can be seen in a day.
Providing a safe haven, a team of researchers and conservationists maintain an oasis of freshwater and saltwater ponds and lakes at the International Birding and Research Centre in Eilat, close to the Jordanian border. Pre-booked tours of the sanctuary start from £7 per person.
The centre humanely catches and rings birds which pass through the area, to collect data for their work. Best of all, visitors can actively participate. I gently undo a cloth bag to reveal a reed warbler ready for release and I am given careful instructions on how to hold its delicate body.
Watching the warbler fly away, I feel awed by the tiny creature which journeys thousands of miles every year.
“There are only two seasons here – summer and hot summer,” Yoram, one of the founders of the Eilat Botanical Garden, tells me as he guides us through the collection of plants and tree. Entry costs £6 per person.
The pinnacle of the gardens is a rainforest, where a misting water feature activates every six minutes and provides the most refreshing reprieve from the blazing Israeli sun.
A mere 18 miles from Eilat is Timna Park, a 60,000sq km valley where copper ores were mined from as early as the 5BC.
There are many mine shafts to discover, and geological formations such as the mushroom, a natural stone formation which resembles the fungus, and the incredible King Solomon’s Pillars – imposing red sandstone cliffs that look like they ripple through the landscape.
The ruins of a temple dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Hathor can be seen at the base of Solomon’s Pillars. Behind the Pillars, look out for a carved inscription by Pharaoh Ramses III making an offer to the goddess. Entrance costs £10.30.
Or you can sSink to the lowest point on Earth. At 431m below sea level, the ever-shrinking Dead Sea is the lowest dry-land point on Earth. It’s a two-and-a-half hour drive, but worth the effort to visit. Eilat Shuttle offers a day tour for £107.
Monarch is the only airline to operate direct flights to Ovda, Eilat from London Luton, with fares, including taxes, starting from £104 one way (£140 return). The weekly Thursday flight launches on November 2 and runs until April 12.
Monarch offers seven night beach holidays starting from £425pp. For further information on flights and holidays, visit monarchagents.co.uk.