I've always wondered what it would be like to stay at a “classy” hotel, which I define as a place where someone takes your luggage when you get there and brings it up to your room for you, and the accommodations are so tasteful that you never want to leave. To be fair, you have to be willing to dip into your cash reserve to afford such luxury. If you're not (and I'm not called Frugal Fred for nothing), you have to lower your standards a teensy-weensy bit. One thing about Eilat, they have a full range of hotels from one-step-up-from-Motel-6 to some p-r-e-t-t-y extravagant establishments.
The Astral Seaside is “my kind of place,” not the lap of luxury we could easily become accustomed to, but what we can reasonably expect on our budget. Our room was large enough to move around in, plus a little balcony – overlooking the parking lot. By walking to the end of the corridor from our room, you’d get to the swimming pool, which, it being off-season, was open until about 4PM. with a life-guard on duty. Not a stressful job this time of the year. The pool was not heated, and the next afternoon when we went to use it, only David was tough enough (or crazy enough) to go for a swim. Having brought my bathing suit, I was determined at least to get wet, and I achieved my goal – to wade from one end of the pool to the ladder on the other end, hastily emerging into the warm, mid-day sun.
But first things first. Didn't I say it was just about time for dinner when we arrived? Let's get cracking! If you had any question at all, this is not the kind of establishment in which you need to “dress” for the evening meal. Just show up at the dining room in anything more formal than a bathing suit, and you're in. And so we showed up, along with everybody else who was staying at the hotel. I guess everybody got the same deal, half-board, meaning you get breakfast and dinner included in the tab. So everybody picked out a table and then sort of weaved his way through the several food tables, creating an individual, eclectic mix of dishes, hot and cold. It wasn't the insane over-abundance we experienced a year and a half before on our cruise to Greece and the chef probably will not be lured away to join the staff of the David Citadel in Jerusalem, but, all-in-all, the food was OK. No complaints.
I had wondered: who hangs out at a hotel like this, as opposed to some of the fancier places? Tourists? Locals? The kitchen is, of course, kosher. Would they be getting a religious crowd? So I made it a point to eyeball the crowd as they came and went and listen to the languages that were being spoken. Not much English. No Russian, no French. Lots of Ivrit. Looking around, I had the sense that I was looking at what has been called “Middle Israel,” the people who don't live in either Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, who are not really religious but would not consider themselves hilloni (secular) either; who are neither part of the Tel Aviv left nor the Gush Etzion right. In America they might be described as “the silent majority,” but I have rarely met an Israeli whom I would consider quiet, let alone “silent.” I was also curious how many of these guys might show up for a minyan Fri. evening, but that I would find out the next evening.
Tina and David had already taken a walk in the afternoon and were more than content to hang out in their room after dinner. So Barbara and I ventured forth to take an evening stroll along the promenade, along with a sizable crowd of like-minded people. There's something about being in a place where essentially everyone is on vacation. There is, of course, another Eilat, the place where the “locals” live and work, but the area by the beach is definitely for the folks in the hotels. At some point along the way, my “I'm on vacation, might as well start enjoying myself,” mode must have kicked in. Maybe it's a subliminal feeling that becomes contagious in a large crowd. We walked along the promenade with the gulf on one side and a mix of shops, restaurants, and hotels that, once you cross the overpass over the lagoon, become increasingly “tony.” One of the restaurants had a solo saxophone player sitting on an outdoor podium, playing surprisingly good jazz, the sound of which contributed to a feeling of total and absolute relaxation. It was a pleasant evening after a warm day. No stress, no worries – except for the off chance that we might oversleep and miss breakfast the next morning.
In case you had the slightest doubt, none of us did that. The four of us had, in essence, one day to spend sightseeing – or whatever you want to call it – together, and we were going to make the most of it. By unanimous vote, we agreed to head off to the Coral World Underwater Observatory and Aquarium, a ten minute cab ride from our hotel. The main attraction there is the observatory, about three hundred feet off-shore, which gives you a wonderful panoramic view of what's swimming fifteen feet down in the Gulf of Eilat. It's kind of like being inside an aquarium looking out, except that the fish and whatever else hangs out down there are not looking in. They're just doing their thing, swimming back and forth in the little area they've staked out for themselves. If you've ever spent considerable time in front of someone's tropical fish tank, just watching some guppies go from one end of the tank to the other over and over again, you know the hypnotic effect it can have on you. We must have spent an hour down there, and by the time we finished looking at the other exhibits, shark feeding and the like, the morning was over, and it was on to our next scheduled stop.
If you have been playing close attention and thinking ahead, you might have anticipated our dilemma. I mentioned that we had half board at the hotel, breakfast and dinner included. So what about lunch? Not a problem on Friday; plenty of places to go and get a bite. But what about lunch on Shabbat? (Yeah, what about lunch on Shabbat???) Like most hotels in the area, The Astral Seaside has a solution. They provide for those who are interested an elaborate Shabbat meal – at 200 shekels per. That seemed a bit steep. The lady from Zion Tours, sizing up our level of frugality, had a more economical solution. Do what any self-respecting Israeli would do. Bring a bag with you to breakfast Shabbat morning and haul away enough vittles for a decent lunch. (There is a sign saying something to the effect that guests may may not remove food from the dining area; but of course that only applies to the other guests....) There were lots of reasons why that scheme wasn't going to work, not least of which was that the idea of having rolls and hard-boiled eggs for my Shabbat lunch seemed excessively Spartan. Vat to doooooo?
You know already that I would come up with an idea, dazzling in its simplicity and practicality, to save the day. If one is standing in the middle of an ocean-full of finny denizens, what's the obvious thing to think of? That's right: SUSHI!!!!!!!!!! There are several establishments in Eilat that prepare kosher sushi. Why don't we splurge and spend a hundred or a hundred and fifty shekels in total and get enough for a decent lunch for the four of us? We have a refrigerator in each room, so there'd be no problem in storing it overnight; we can get some drinks; I brought some grape juice from home; OK, we'll “borrow” a few rolls from the hotel, and we'll be set. Great idea! So off we went to Sushi Mushi (or was it Mushi Sushi?), a cab ride away in the opposite direction.
We were correct in our assumption that any self-respecting cabbie in town would be able to get us to any place in the tourist area. Atta machir et haMushi Sushi (or Sushi Mushi)? Of course he knew where it was. And so we were off without knowing it to that wonder-of-wonders, Eilat's own Ice Mall.
Israel has achieved a sufficient level of affluence that it can start creating things that are completely zany. For quite a while, there has been an ice skating rink in Metula, all the way up north. Now all the way down south in Eilat there is a large rink smack dab in the middle of a mall – with the stores on several oval shaped levels around it. (Admittedly, it's not as way out as, say, the Museum of Clean in Pocatello, Idaho; still, it's high up on my personal outré scale.) Midday Friday, there were a few people strutting their stuff on the ice when we came in. Shortly thereafter, the music started and the folks were treated to a skating exhibition. Most everybody stopped to watch. I, on the other hand, had my priorities straight. Sushi! And while our order was being constructed, off to one of the several other eateries for a bite of lunch. Why watch, when you can eat!
Shabbat was still hours and hours away, but I could relax and take a deep breath. If nothing else, we would have what to eat. Now about that minyan Friday night........