They can't talk. They can't touch. But they can -- and do -- sit and stare at each other, especially at night when their lights dance and flicker across the intervening waters. They beckon toward each other -- only a few hundred feet, yet so unbridgeably, so impossibly far away.

Thus, Eilat in Israel and Aqaba in Jordan live their days -- two cities of the desert, occupying essentially the same location and enjoying certain common characteristics -- condemned by contemporary Middle East politics to exist entirely apart.

Because of the closed border between Israel and Jordan, which precludes easy passage, such constraints have hampered tourists as well. Unless they were willing to undertake circuitous routes and cumbersome procedures, they were forced, until recently, to choose one spot over the other.

Now that has changed. With the establishment of ferry service between the Egyptian port of Nuweiba, on the east coast of Sinai only an hour south of Eilat, and Aqaba, the crossing has been rendered, if not convenient, at least more feasible. And, several months ago, I made it, finding in the process two destinations all the more affecting for being at once so similar and so disparate.

The primary -- and most obvious -- attribute shared by both Eilat and Aqaba is geography. About a four-hour drive south of either Jerusalem or Amman, these cities are located in the geological corridor running from East Africa to Turkey and known as the Rift Valley. At the edge of a starkly dramatic desert, they sit on the curve of the crescent that caps the finger-like extension of the Red Sea called the Gulf of Aqaba (except in Israel, where it is called the Gulf of Eilat). In Biblical times, King Solomon built his port of Ezion-geber in this area, and a couple of sites contend today for that title.

The setting is stunning. Behind Eilat hulk the sandstone-and-granite mountains of Sinai; behind Aqaba stand the mountains of Biblical Edom. When hit by the rays of the setting sun, they turn various shades of rose, pink and carmine, staining the otherwise Prussian blue and turquoise waters with their reflection. (Hence, according to one theory, the name Red Sea.) In and around both mountain ranges exist wind-carved rock formations in startling, surrealistic shapes. Underwater lies one of the world's most spectacular coral and fish reserves. There is little rain in this region and, while summer days can be searingly hot, the air is always dry.

Beyond geography, however, both cities enjoy a certain mutuality of spirit. Both are basically frontier towns, relatively isolated, and removed -- at least somewhat -- from the concerns at their countries' cores. Perhaps because Aqaba is Jordan's only outlet to the sea, a de facto peace prevails in this area. Not only has the vicinity been virtually trouble-free, but also it has known cooperation -- however unsung.

There is talk here of boats, animals and even tourists who cross the border by accident and return "by accident"; of joint mosquito-control projects aimed at the supranational pests breeding in marshes on the border; of communication between airport control towers that alert each other to aircraft in the corridor and that, on occasion, redirect planes that land on the wrong runway. The restricted border area between the two is relatively inconspicuous and, in Aqaba, King Hussein has erected a vacation palace at the edge of his territory. Indeed, in the storm that is often the Middle East today, this area seems the calm.

Yet, at least at this time, one senses from the residents' dress and behavior that the soul of Eilat lies in the West, whereas the soul of Aqaba -- though not immune to Western influence -- lies somewhere to the East. And, while Aqaba welcomes its Western guests with the warmth and hospitality that is an Arab hallmark, Eilat is currently far more touristically attuned.

In fact, Eilat today lives for and from tourism. A city of 20,000 whose gleamingly white buildings are crowding westward toward Sinai, it has, during its four decades of existence, known several identities. But lately it has concentrated on turning itself into a first-class visitors' playground -- and proceeding with such a passion that it has been dubbed "the Las Vegas of the Holy Land."

If it deserves such a label, though, it is not because of its casinos -- it has none -- but because of its brashness, its brassiness, its Wild West, live-and-let-live outlook. This is an anything-goes town, a stronghold of secularism and nonsectarianism in the Jewish state. It is not unlikely here to find bevies of Asian beauties flirting madly on the beach with machine-gun-toting soldiers, or busloads of West African visitors slaking their thirst at sidewalk cafe's. (Eilat's beer prices are 20 percent lower than elsewhere in Israel.) Always a magnet for rugged individualists, Eilat, in the '70s, became a hippie haven as well. And, though the atmosphere is no longer quite as freewheeling as it once was, the carefree demeanor remains.

This has been coupled, however, with a gritty determination to create something from nothing -- a goal since Israeli troops, initially occupying the spot in 1949, found only three mud huts.

The early pioneers, who arrived after a bone-rattling, 12-hour jeep trip from the Tel Aviv area, came to reopen ancient copper mines at nearby Timna. But the bottom fell out of the copper market. After the 1956 Sinai Campaign cleared the Gulf of Aqaba for Israeli shipping, the Israelis believed Eilat would become a major outlet for Israeli shipping to Africa and Asia. Even though the 1967 Six-Day War was started to keep these shipping lanes open, when Israel gained access to the Suez Canal, Eilat's usefulness as a port was diminished. And the return of Sinai to Egypt dashed the town's dreams of being a major gateway to that wilderness.

Yet Eilat, which claims the Queen of Sheba as its first tourist, has continued striving to make the most of its ever-marketable assets -- sun, sea and sand.

Along a waterfront once delineated only by a narrow band of pebbles now exists a wide, golden beach fringed with palm trees and edged with a grand promenade. A marina has been built, from which excursion boats depart each day for lazy sails upon intensely blue and blue-green waters. A man-made playground-island with slides and other water-bound diversions has been constructed just offshore. Windsurfing, water-skiing, snorkeling, diving, parasailing and horseback riding are readily available.

At the seaside and along an artificial lagoon rise most of Eilat's 30-odd hostelries -- from unadorned vacation villages to luxury hotels. Down the road a bit, in Taba, the border area whose possession is disputed by Egypt, stands the Aviya-Sonesta Hotel resort. Eilat also abounds with restaurants -- from classy French eateries to simple fish houses -- and boasts a number of nightclubs, pubs and piano bars as well. Taxis are generally abundant; buses connect major points.

But what Eilat does best, perhaps, is display its natural wonders.

Along a stretch of shore called Coral Beach, a protected underwater park has been created, complete with underwater signs. Here snorkelers, often by merely sticking their heads into the water, can spot such colorful Red Sea specimens as angel, lion, clown and emperor fish darting among hosts of vivid blue, pink and yellow coral specimens. For those who prefer their fish from a drier perspective, there is Coral World, an underwater observatory sunk among the coral reefs, through whose windows visitors can view submarine life without getting wet.

In addition, numerous tours are run to unusual sites and sights in the surrounding desert. Prime among these is the Timna Valley, part of a vast, erosion-formed crater, which harbors the ruins of an ancient Egyptian temple; the remains of the 600-year-old copper-smelting system; and natural sandstone sculptures including the 150-foot-tall King Solomon's Pillars. Other excursions visit the smaller but equally impressive red sandstone Amram's Pillars; Ein Netafim, a cool, clear spring; and the Red Canyon, a mini-Grand Canyon.

Since many trips are led by desert aficionadoes, they also underscore some of the more subtle wonders of this world without water. On a recent expedition, an English-speaking Bedouin pointed out the remains of an ancient watering system and gazelle tracks baked into the hard clay earth.

About 45 minutes north of Eilat exists Hai Bar, a wildlife reserve featuring animals, such as the ostrich and the antelope, that existed in the area during Biblical times. Guided tours are available from town. Trips also operate, in conjunction with the Egyptians, into Sinai, and week-long permits to visit this area can be obtained at the Taba checkpoint.

As one leaves Israel for Nuweiba and the sail to Aqaba, the scene changes. Now the world becomes one of veiled women, water-pipe-smoking men, cardamom-spiked coffee, ubiquitous minarets -- and a less-urgent sense of time. Despite Aqaba's position as a leading Middle Eastern port, not to mention its growing industrial capabilities, it presents an unruffled demeanor. Unlike Eilat, Aqaba has had an ongoing history, and its tall palms, stone structures and languid streets convey a feeling of rootedness.

Indeed, because of its strategic location and the abundant freshwater springs in the vicinity, Aqaba has occupied a position of prominence. After the Arab conquest in the 7th century, it became a way station for pilgrims en route to Mecca. The Crusaders held it briefly in the 12th century -- and established a bishopric that still exists -- before it returned to Moslem control. Aqaba declined under the Ottomans; and after the Suez Canal opened, offering a more convenient route to Mecca, its importance was diminished even further. In World War I, however, the Turks fortified it against the British and the French, thus making it a target for T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) and the Arab Irregulars. (Its conquest was vividly depicted in the film "Lawrence of Arabia.")

Subsequently, it became a place of exile and a permanent campsite for pilgrims who failed to complete the voyage to Mecca. But development during the two decades since the settlement in 1965 of a border dispute with Saudi Arabia has raised its population to at least 40,000, including Egyptians and West Bank Palestinians happy to be away from the turmoil to the north. Slum areas have been razed and the city, largely an aggregation of Arab-style villas, has sprawled northward.

As in other times, it is again a key terminus on several trade routes. Traffic flows here to and from Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Iraq, with most materiel for the war with Iran passing this way. Consequently, unlike the residents of Eilat, who often feel their city lies at the end of the world, people in Aqaba consider themselves at the heart of the action.

What is more, Aqaba lies within commuting distance of two major attractions -- Wadi Rum and Petra.

Thirty-five miles northeast of Aqaba, Wadi Rum, where Lawrence of Arabia had headquarters (and where much of the film was shot), is in essence a Middle Eastern Monument Valley. Pinkish-red in all its aspects -- one exits the area covered with rose-colored dust -- the wadi, or dry river bed, is home to the Wadi Rum Desert Patrol and is the meeting place of several Bedouin tribes. Some Bedouins with pick-up trucks drive tourists deep into the wadi. Along the way are the huge chunks of granite and the freestanding, 1,000-foot-high protrusions of swirlingly shaped sandstone that prompted Lawrence to call the spot "this processional way greater than imagination." But even here, the outside world intrudes. My driver, upon learning I was an American, shook my hand warmly but, in broken English, opined, "President Reagan -- fifty-fifty."

Petra, the ancient Nabatean city cut from red sandstone rock, lies farther north. Among mountains that hang like purple drapes on the horizon, this museum town began to achieve prominence as a trading station in the 4th century B.C. Approached through a dramatic canyon, only arms'-width wide in places, it was easily defensible, thus providing its inhabitants with a fairly safe haven. The Nabateans developed it royally, borrowing ideas from the Assyrians, Greeks and Romans, among others, to carve from the valley walls elaborate temples, tombs, amphitheaters, altars and administrative buildings. They also invented a water supply system that, even today, evokes admiration and attempts at imitation by those who would irrigate arid lands.

Yet, despite the proximity of such potentially commercial spots, and natural endowments similar to Eilat's, the residents of Aqaba pride themselves on their conservative behavior -- they are simply more restrained than their uninhibited neighbors to the west. The town boasts seven comfortable hotels -- including the Western-style Holiday Inn and the water-sports-minded Aquamarina, which runs its own diving operation. It also has several good restaurants serving such Middle Eastern specialties as sambusek (meat- or cheese-filled pastry), fatayer (turnovers), batenjan (eggplant) and hummus (ground chickpeas). But, at least at the moment, it is a fairly quiet and sedate town.

Nevertheless, touristic development here is a priority of King Hussein. He entertains chiefs of state in Aqaba, from Vice President Bush and Secretary of State Shultz to the leaders of China. And grand plans are afoot for building hotels, vacation villas and beach facilities on the long, broad stretch of shorefront between the port and the Saudi Arabian border.

It is expected that many of Aqaba's future visitors will come from other Arab states. But there are visionaries in this world, too. As a local government official said, "I hope to see the day when everyone can walk back and forth, without problems, across an open border with Eilat." Phyllis Ellen Funke is a free-lance writer specializing in travel and the arts.