We packed about as much into the last 3 days of our vacation as we possibly could. We left the pool at the Ramon Crater and were picked up by our driver Tovia Cohen for our drive to Eliat, at the southern tip of Israel. The drive took us through the crater. This is definitely a place to explore more at a future visit when, hopefully, the temperature will be well below the 110 degrees it was when we drove through.
Tovia drove us about 2 hours through the Negev desert until we were just north of Eliat, and then we drove east for about 5 minutes to the Jordanian border for our overnight excursion to Petra. Crossing the border from Israel into Jordan was an experience. There are multiple steps and fees on both sides of the border along with a 50 yard “no man’s land” between the two. There was a line of people ahead of us, but we were probably the only Americans.
We were met at the boarder by our guide, Marwan, and his driver Sam. They were our excellent escorts to Petra. On the way they proudly showed us Aqaba (the modern Jordanian city that shares the north tip of the Red Sea with Eilat), before we headed north into the Jordanian side of the Negev desert and up into the Jordanian mountains.
The 2 hour drive to Petra went through some interesting and diverse terrain. The mountains are unusual: red sandstone with diagonal stripes of black lava. From the barren desert we climbed into the higher hills where there was enough grass between the rocks for a few goats to graze. As we climbed to 4,000 feet, the temperatures decreased to the mid-80’s and there were a lot more goats, and even some sheep, camels and donkeys.
We made a quick stop with a great view of the mountains falling away into the desert about 30 minutes from Petra.
Marwan and Sam delivered us to our lovely hotel, the Movenpic, located right next to the entrance gate into Petra.
Petra is more than ancient carved sandstone temples, tombs and caves.
Between 200 BC and 200 AD, Petra was a major crossroads city of over 20,000 people strategically located on the main “incense trade” caravan routes among Damascus, Constantinople, the Red Sea, and what is now Saudi Arabia (where incense such as frankincense & myrrh were manufactured for use in religious and burial ceremonies throughout the ancient world).
The narrow sandstone cliffs of Petra are very similar to Zion National Park in S.W. Utah.
The Nabataeans who created Petra moved into the area from the northern Arabian desert after Israelites were taken as slaves into Babylonia around 500 BC, and the Edomites left the area to for the greener lands of southern Judea.
Although the classic Petra shot is known as the “Treasury” because many thought a treasure was hidden there, in fact all ruins carved into Petra’s sandstone cliffs are burial tombs varying in size according to the importance of the person buried there.
The Nabataens were one the most “modern” civilizations of their time. They were not a great military power, but their advanced knowledge about how to find and store water in the desert, plus their strong diplomatic skills when confronting militarily superior adversaries, allowed them to control the incense trade routes and become wealthy and prosperous. Because the Nabateans depended on trade, they respected all who traveled through the area (as long as they paid the “transit fees”).
Most importantly and very unusual for this region even today, women had (almost) equal rights with men. Nabataen women routinely owned property and businesses, and Nabatea was the only kingdom of the ancient world where the King and Queen both appeared together on coins. There are many countries in today’s Middle East that can learn a lot from the ancient Nabataens.
We very much enjoyed our time with our guide Marwan who personally has chosen to follow the Nabataen philosophy for women regarding his wife, son and two college-age daughters.
Jordan’s economy has been hit hard by the cost of supporting refugees from the Syrian civil war and by the spread of ISIS to western Iraq. Unlike other nearby Arab countries, Jordan has very few natural resources. Instead, the Jordanian economy depends mostly on tourism and on transit taxes levied on goods passing through Jordan, both of which have been hard hit by the violent conflicts nearby. As Marwan so eloquently stated: “The big problems in the world today are caused by those who want to dominate others.” Well said.
After our beautiful walk through Petra we headed back to Israel where we easily transited through the border and, thanks to a quick cell phone call, were promptly met by our Israel taxi driver Tovia on the other side of the border.
This trip we bought local Israeli cell phone chips for our “unlocked” cell phones so we had working cell phones and internet the whole time we were in or near Israel. It made it a lot easier to call taxis or hotels or family back home when needed.
Eliat is a strange place on the Red Sea. The area at the southern tip of Israel is so narrow that you can stand at the water’s edge downtown and easily sea Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Israeli young people come to Eliat to play. The boardwalk area is an “over the top” Las Vegas style playground of hotels, carnival rides, shopping and restaurants. The most southern beach area (next to the Egyptian border crossing to the little resort city of Taba) is teeming with sunbathers, kite surfers, wind surfers, scuba divers and snorklers.
Our hotel there was in the quieter, southern part of the city close to the scuba shop, which was good. Unfortunately, it was the only hotel during our trip that we didn’t like. We had to change rooms because the carpet in our first room was really gross. The Isrotel Yom Surf hotel is big, with big pools perfect for families, but not as clean as we like. Next time we would stay someplace smaller and cleaner.
We really only had one day in Eilat for scuba diving the Red Sea which led us to our next adventure. We chose to dive from a boat instead of from shore, but this required crossing the border into Egypt.
We were told by the Eliat dive shop to bring our passports “because we might need them”. That was a bit misleading. We absolutely needed them because we had to go through the official border crossing into Egypt before we could get on the dive boat — at this narrow part of the Red Sea, boats are not allowed to cross the well guarded border.
Our boat left from the little 3-boat dock at the Taba Hilton which was just beyond the Egyptian side of the border crossing. Joining us were a French family whose daughter was working in Israel with an NGO. Unfortunately, her student visa did not allow her to leave Israel for day trips to Jordan or Egypt, even for a few hours. But after some tears and some special help from an administrator, they let her through. Apparently, Israel border security routinely “profiles” pretty young women, because terrorists have used them in the past to smuggle explosives, usually unknowingly.
The border crossing was the same drill as for Jordan, with three different stops on each side and a “no man’s land” in between. The Egyptian side of the border crossing was very inefficient compared to the Jordanian crossing, with a large number of men (not one woman) at each station apparently doing nothing while we waited for them to notice that we were there.
After finally making it across the border, we had to find our way to the Egyptian dive center at the hotel, which took a lot longer than it should have because there weren’t any signs and no one gave us clear directions.
Although the dive equipment was a little old, the dive master, the dive boat, the scuba tank air and the diving experience itself were all great. It was wonderful being out on the beautiful blue water on a boat.
We spotted flying fish next to our boat almost immediately. Our three dives were really beautiful with lots of interesting fish, pretty coral and crystal clear visibility. This area has lots of big lion fish, scorpion fish, rock fish and other similar camouflaged poisonous ground fish.
We learned after our first dive that these fish are really quite venomous and we would have had to be rushed to the hospital if we were stung. (That propably would have been better shared before we dove our first dive!). Fortunately these fish are not aggressive at all unless you are aggressive towards them.
These fish are really hard to see in the photos because they like to hide in the sand or on top of the coral.
Our last dive, at Coral Island, was our favorite. I didn’t want to leave the water!
The trip back through the border crossing was easy but tedious and no one from the dive shop met us at the Israeli side of the border to drive us the mile back to our hotel. So we walked a bit and hailed a cab at another hotel. Back at the Isrotel Yom Surf we took a quick shower and rested before heading out for dinner. Although we were pretty tired we felt we had to venture out to grab a bite and see Eliat’s famed “boardwalk” area. As I described earlier, it was quite a show.
We slept soundly and spent our morning at the busy beach watching the beautiful kite surfers expertly playing and jumping in the wind. The Israeli side of the Red Sea is full of colorful activity as people play on the surf and beach.
We didn’t see anything like that in nearby Jordan & Egypt. There are hotels there but not much playing, as far as we could tell.
After our morning at the beach we took a 50 minute , super easy flight to Tel Aviv’s little “Dov” airport for our last night in Israel. We ended our trip where we began, at the “Shalom Hotel and Relax” which was our favorite hotel on our trip. We deposited our bags in our room and took another walk around the ancient port of Old Jaffa while enjoying the much cooler temperatures and Mediterranean ocean breezes. We watched our last Israeli sunset from the lovely hotel rooftop deck and then headed out for a fantastic final meal at our favorite restaurant: Shila’s.
We called to make our dinner reservation several days earlier in the week but even then we were only able to reserve a couple of seats at the bar. But it turned out great because we loved getting to know our bartender/server. He was flying to Atlanta, Georgia the next day to try to sell a special switch for laser equipment to the U.S. Army that he and his cousin had developed. Although he looked so young, he had already finished his mandatory military service as an officer. He truly represents the young, intelligent, can-do entrepreneurial spirit of so many in Israel. Unfortunately, this was a sad and stark contrast from the news stories of riots and violence in America (which we were asked about often). Hopefully, these crises will lead to the reforms needed to improve the quality of life in America’s inner cities.
Today, we woke early enjoyed our last big Israeli breakfast and were picked up by our driver and taken to the airport. As I write this we our on our first flight of the day, to London (5 hours because of a strong head wind), where we will get our next flight (9 or 10 hours) to Seattle. We left Tel Aviv on Sunday at 10 AM and should arrive in Seattle the same day at 5PM, but our trip will take 17 hours because Israel’s local time is 10 hours ahead of Seattle’s. We can’t wait to see everyone again! Jasmine, David and James will be picking us up at the airport so we’ll get to see them first.
Overall, We’ve been blessed with a magical and amazing trip. We thought we understood Israel and the area before, but it is hard to truly understand the complexity, mystery and history of the Holy Land without visiting it in person. We believe the best thing an average person can do to understand this area, support Israel and fight the terrorists (including ISIS and the others near here who want to dominate others) is to visit and see this beautiful and exotic land for yourself.
A good way to support peace is to travel here among the countries that want peace. Meet the friendly people, enjoy the area and the wonderful vibe. Many thanked us for being brave or courageous for visiting. We didn’t feel brave at all, and would not have visited if we didn’t think it was safe. Instead, we feel fortunate, humbled and proud to learn more about the people, culture and history of this amazing area, and to be able to share it with our family and friends. Thanks for reading!
PS. We are home! Posting our last blog from the boat. As Jim said last night, “we love traveling, but our souls’ home is here in Seattle. And there is nothing better than being picked up at the airport by your grandchild!