Gateway to Tunisia

Last Updated 23 March 2013, 12:56 IST

A quiet town with breathtaking beaches and markets, Djerba is not your typical tourist destination with monuments, but is home to some luxurious recreational activities. Stuart Forster explores this unique destination

A vague image of a camel caravan plodding over golden desert dunes was all that my mind could conjure up whenever North Africa was mentioned before this, my first trip to Tunisia. Holiday makers sunning themselves on the private beaches of resort-hotels and luxury hotels set within hectares of palm groves were added to that mental picture only during my trip to Djerba.

The Mediterranean island of 208 square miles (539 sq km), located just three miles off Tunisia’s southern coastline. Sun seekers from continental Europe have already discovered Djerba, and many locals have that envious talent of being able to switch between French, Spanish, Italian and German before tuning into English.

A smattering of French comes in handy here, especially if you want to chat with people and find out more about the local culture, but a number staff in the four and five star hotels set within the island’s sizeable Zone Touristique — the Tourist Zone,  which also hosts the island’s golf course, casino and a selection of restaurants — have a reasonable command over English.

Recreation galore

Sun-loungers on the beach, set under straw sunshades, and cocktails brought by uniformed waiters to loungers by the poolside appeal to the majority of foreign visitors seeking their R&R on Djerba. And quad-bikes, kite surfing, archery, tennis and beach volleyball are among the activities offered to the more energetic guests. But my intolerance of the sun’s ultra-violet rays and a desire to taste a glass of traditional mint tea in a market place — a souk, as it is known here — had me scurrying for the shade of Midoun, one of the island’s towns.

Sensibly, the local women dress in long cloaks and wear broad-rimmed straw hats to protect themselves from the sunshine. A couple of them bustled past me in the souk, as I looked at an array of colourful pottery from the village of Guellala on the island’s south. They looked suspiciously at my camera and I thought that it would be best not to photograph them, in deference to local sensibilities. Even many of the men around the market made it clear that they did not want to appear in pictures; a wish I reluctantly accepted.

Browsing the shops of the souk meant dealing with enthusiastic sales pitches and invitations into shops to look at shoes “made from real camel leather, sir”, and promises that “I give you good price.” In many of the shops, haggling over the price is all part of the purchasing process. But Midoun and Houmt Souk, Djerba’s largest town and the island’s administrative capital, both have a number of “fixed price shops” aimed at European tourists, who would rather avoid prolonged price negotiations for items such as ornate bird cages, hand-crafted textiles or the chicha water-pipers that men can be seen smoking in local cafes .

Exploring souks

After a stroll around the souk, I headed back to my hotel, the Yadis Djerba, to try out a spa session. The three-and-a-half hours of pampering was over in what seemed like no time, such was the level of relaxation that I experienced in the hot steam of the hammam and while floating with buoyancy aids in the salt-water thalasso pool. The hands of the masseuse worked away the knots in my back that hadn’t already been expelled by the underwater jets within the pool and I came away feeling that I had just experienced a definition of the term ‘divine’.

In retrospect, perhaps I should have saved my spa session until after I’d returned from a trip into the Sahara, where I stayed overnight, 120 miles from Djerba, in luxury tents at Ksar Ghilene Pansea, an oasis with thermal springs. There was nothing pioneer-like about this night under linen. The tents have real beds, plumbed toilets and showers with hot and cold water.

“This isn’t camping, it’s glamping,” joked one of the women on the trip. The resort even had a palm-fringed swimming pool, possibly the last thing I’d have expected in the desert and something I couldn’t take advantage of because, accordingly, I hadn’t packed my swimming trunks. Strolling out into the dunes after midnight and looking back on the oasis’s palms under a bright full moon did, however, make up for not having a swim.

The three-hour drive, in a four wheeler, impressed upon me the scale of olive production on the island and in groves on the mainland. For mile after mile, rows of dusty olive trees dominated the arid landscape. They then gave way to scrub and rocks as we entered the world’s biggest desert.

Sandy dunes — known as ergs here in Tunisia — form, I was surprised to learn, just a relatively small part of the otherwise rock-strewn Sahara but Hollywood location scouts found them here ahead of filming The English Patient. The area is also home to architecture which inspired Star Wars director George Lucas to create the village in which Luke Skywalker was raised. That famous galaxy is still “far, far away”, but Djerba is very much reachable.

(Published 23 March 2013, 12:56 IST)

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