Djerba: in the footsteps of Ulysses

by Solange.Hando

Lapped by the Mediterranean, just off the southern coast of Tunisia, Djerba is a peaceful, sun-drenched island where sugar-cube villages and palatial hotels sit side by side

When Ulysses, the legendary hero, landed on Djerba, his companions lost all desire to go home as they feasted on succulent fruit under the swaying palms. Today, Djerba is still a glorious paradise where the sun shines 324 days of the year. Just imagine a perfect blue sea, silky white sand and the tall silhouettes of date palms rising from the island, flat but for a tiny hill in the south.
A three-and-a-half-hour flight from London, it’s Tunisia’s most southerly resort, along with neighbouring Zarzis, linked to the mainland by a four-mile-long causeway, or a ferry if you fancy a bit of a breeze. It’s barely 20 by 22 miles, so you’re never far from the vast sweeping sands of Sidi Mehrez, the main beach resort, where gleaming hotels nestle among oleander and bougainvillea, offering traditional hammam or thalassotherapy. You’ll be forgiven if you head straight for a dip in the big blue but there are loads of water sports, too, and you can sail to Flamingo Island. Flamingos winter in the lagoon and when they take off in great pink clouds, it’s pure magic.
A short drive from Sidi Mehrez, the little capital of Houmt Souk is all cobbled lanes, pretty blue and white houses, minarets and domes, and shaded squares where men sip mint tea from morning to night. There’s a covered market worthy of the Arabian Nights, brimming with silver earrings, handwoven blankets and rugs, leather sandals, spices and sponges, and a Folk Museum with enough embroidered costumes and jewellery to make you bristle with envy.
You’ll find more tribal displays in Guellala village, and so much pottery that they use the surplus to decorate the rooftops, but on the way, it’s worth taking a look at the old forts looking out to sea and the fishing harbour with its blue boats and octopus pots. Octopus and stuffed calamari are the local specialities, served alongside Tunisian couscous and followed by sweet dates and pastries.
Ever tried riding a camel on the beach? That’s definitely something to write home about, then have fun in the ‘Djerba Explore’ theme park, where a crocodile farm competes with a ‘Native Village’, or, if you’re mildly adventurous, hop on a bike and discover the real thing. In the quiet countryside, women in brightly striped clothes pick olives from the trees, donkeys trot along the sandy lanes and farms shelter behind white walls or cactus hedges. All around, the air smells of eucalyptus and spice.
When dusk begins to fall, it’s time to watch the local lads galloping across the sand, like Lawrence of Arabia. ‘Horse ride, madame?’ It’s wonderful, but beware. You may well decide to follow Ulysses and his men and enjoy the sweet fruit of Djerba, dates and all, for longer than you planned.


Getting there
Tunis Air flies there. Operators offering packages to the area include Club Med and Tunisia First.
Where to stay
Where to eat
  • Haroun restaurant, Houmt Souk, next to the fishing harbour: simple but excellent seafood.
  • El Ferida, casino restaurant: fine cuisine, including seafood.