Beyond Tunisia's package tourist hotels awaits a land of stylish restaurants and cool places to stay
While most travel writers wax lyrical about Morocco, I have a bit of a soft spot for its less glamorous neighbour, Tunisia. Sure, Tunisia doesn’t have a single defining image to put on its postcards. Egypt has the pyramids, India has the Taj Mahal and Tunisia has... what?
Don’t ask this question of a Tunisian. His eyes will darken and his chest will swell as he reels off a few of the national treasures: the Roman ruins and the French boulevards, the sun-baked beaches and the rolling desert dunes, the bustling souks and the Berber villages. Not to mention Carthage and Djerba, the original land of the Lotus Eaters.
So why has the country failed to make more of an impression on discerning British holidaymakers? The answer is that in the 1960s Tunisia built rows of hideous beachfront hotels and marketed itself as cheap and cheerful.
Today, that image is beginning to look outdated. Although package tourists still descend on the resorts of Hammamet and Sousse, a new breed of independent tourist is arriving to find that historic homes are being converted into stylish restaurants and boutique hotels. Some are even whispering that Tunisia could be the new Morocco.
One place to find evidence of this turnaround is Sidi Bou Said, a smart seaside suburb of the capital, Tunis, and a stone's throw from the ruins of Carthage. Sidi Bou Said looks like the quintessential Mediterranean village, with its white-domed houses and narrow cobbled streets lined with blue studded doors and shaded cafes. It’s just a 20-minute drive from the airport and a scenic train ride from the centre of Tunis.
The place to stay is Dar Said, a 19th-century villa converted into a dazzling boutique hotel. It has 24 individually-styled rooms, tiled courtyards, fountains and orange trees, a quiet garden overlooking the sea and swimming pool. Rooms cost £100-£220 and include a huge breakfast.
There is no restaurant at Dar Said, so you’ll have to drag yourself next door to Au Bon Vieux Temps, an excellent French place occupying another converted house. Here you’ll find starched tablecloths, a floodlit garden, sea views and photographs on the staircase of distinguished diners, such as Prince Albert of Monaco.
Tunis, too, combines French sophistication with Arab charm. Make for the medina, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the spiritual heart of the city, where a 9th-century mosque stands at the centre of a maze of souks selling perfumes and hats, killims and carpets, silver bangles and flintlock rifles, saddles and slippers. For lunch, book a table at Dar Belhadj on the Rue des Tamis, a narrow alley that runs between Rue de la Kasbah and Rue Jamaa ez Zitouna. Ring the bell and you’ll be led upstairs to a gorgeous tiled room with high ceilings and cushioned alcoves, where a selection of starters - prawns, tuna, parcels of spiced vegetables, mint salads and cubes of tender lamb - costs £5, and main courses are only a little more. Tel: 1-336 910.
The south is markedly different to the cosmopolitan north. An hour’s flight from Tunis lands you on the flat, whitewashed island of Djerba, which has miles of sandy beaches and an atmosphere so languid and laid-back that it seems at times to be standing utterly still.
It doesn’t take long to get into the swing of doing nothing, and the best place to do it is at Hotel Dar Dhiafa, a charming little hotel converted from a couple of 19th-century houses in the village of Erriadh. This is a real gem, with 14 rooms, two small pools, a good restaurant and a private hammam. Double rooms with breakfast cost from £95.