FIDEL Castro once said “A revolution is not a bed of roses” and he, of course, should know, but it seems the people of Tunisia are intent to prove him wrong, with a beautiful country to show off and, well, an abundance of sweet smelling roses.
When I mentioned to my friends and family that I was going on holiday to Tunisia, Libya’s next door neighbour, the place from where the Arab spring sprung, I was met with quizzical looks. But aside from Tunisians being fiercely proud of the fact, as my tour guide frequently mentioned, “this is where it all started – the freedom of the Arab world” any sign of the angry crowds holding aloft anti-government placards baying for President Ben Ali to step down, is long gone.
I knew there must be something special about this small slice of North Africa, which has attracted some famous visitors including Sir Winston Churchill, Oscar Wilde and Sophia Loren. What I did not expect was to discover that there is far more to the so-called Jewel of the Mediterranean than miles of golden sandy coastline. It is packed with a wealth of diverse history and culture worthy of a country twice its size.
Its popularity is certainly growing rapidly. In the resort of Yasmine Hammamet, where I am staying, the rows of palatial looking hotels have sprung up only in the last seven years.
The impressive black wrought iron gates of the Hasdrubal Thalassa Spa hotel, were a clue to the ensuing luxury within this sprawling palm tree lined complex. As my guide announced on the airport transfer, “There are no rooms in this hotel” – leading to some puzzled expressions on the faces of some of my fellow passengers – before proceeding to tell us “There are only suites”.
As I stepped into the magnificent marble lobby I was handed a delicate pink rose, before being escorted to my room – one bigger than my first flat, I must admit. A bed so large it is almost necessary to phone your partner in the morning to see whether they are awake, a private balcony complete with sun beds, overlooking the white stone walkway down to the crystal blue swimming pools and the private stretch of beach beyond.
Then there were the rose petals – crimson red, like delicate tear drops carefully placed on my crisp white pillowcase – while the artful arrangement in my bathroom was more than enough to bring out the romantic in me. Though I have to say even my inner princess thought petals in the toilet was perhaps a step too far.
It is safe to say you could escape from the world here. If the beach and pool are not enough sanctuary, revilatise and rejuvenate in the Thalasso spa. I am told that Brits are a bit behind on the take up of the idea of soaking in a warm salt water pool but when it has been proven to benefit weight loss, reduce cellulite and be good for post-natal toning, back problems, water retention, circulation issues and joint pain, there is no keeping me away.
The delicate smell of sandalwood and incense instantly melted away my worries. As soon as the warm water enveloped my body I realised I had formed a new and lifelong partnership with this alternative way of enjoying the sea.
Feeling refreshed and ready to face the world, I hopped on board the land train, which makes its way between the hotels of Yasmine Hammamet to the more cultural quarter of Hammamet. Exploring the 15th century Kasbah or fort in the Old Town and climbing its sandstone walls is well worth it for the spectacular views of the sea bordered by the Atlas Mountains.
The narrow streets of the old medina next to the old fort are great to roam, with loads of photogenic doors and entrance ways to little houses and shops, decorated with colourful purple and pink bougainvillea. The domed corridors are packed with colourful pottery, jewelry, leather goods, lanterns, brassware and take home trinkets.
I loved it all but if shopping gets too much, slip into a café for a sweet mint tea and relax and unwind with the delicate aromas from a shisha pipe.
Just a stone’s throw away is Villa Sebastian, once home to both Winston Churchill and Field Marshal Rommel. It is famed for its stunning architecture, beautiful gardens, and World War Two artifacts but there is also a quirky side to this whitewashed mansion. Despite there being a large bath tub to accommodate four people you will see no water pipes. Its creator, George Sebastian, could not stand the sight of them. Instead, he designed an elaborate system of sliding marble sluice gates.
If you are travelling with children and in search of a bit more adventure, Friguia Park is 20 minutes’ drive from Hammamet and will keep the little ones entertained. The zoo offers a variety of well kept animals with an exciting dolphin display.
It is even possible to arrange to swim with these magnificent creatures. Water sports activities can also be organised from Hammamet beach. If you have a bit more time, book yourself on an adventure trek into the Sahara Desert.
For the holiday photographs to make your friends jealous visit the picturesque village of Sidi Bou Said, on the outskirts of Tunis. With bright blue doors and windows framed in whitewashed stone walls, draped with flowers, it’s a visual feast. Every corner you turn on these narrow cobblestone streets offers another breathtaking view. Despite being a tourist trap, it has managed to retain its charm.
I stopped off here on route to the airport, giving me just enough time to browse the vast array of art shops and souvenir stalls, saving my best bartering skills for the last minute and leaving just about enough time to stuff a bargain leather pouffe into my suitcase before the flight home.
Sarah Poole flew direct from Manchester to Monastir with Tunisair. Flights start from £161 return, including taxes and charges. There is a range of quirky options offering options for the type of fare. These include Dunes, Beach, Thalasso and Golf. See the website for more details - http://www.tunisair.com.tn/site/publish/content/default.asp?lang=en
Sarah stayed at the five star Hasdrubal Thalassa and Spa Hotel in the resort of Yasmine Hammamet http://www.hasdrubal-thalassa.com/?langFilter=en-GB
Prices for a suite based on two adults sharing, including breakfast starts from £132 per night. Use of the Thalasso Therapy spa is included, along with the fitness studio and aerobics centre.
Various spa treatments are available at an additional cost from massages to four-day packages. All the details and prices are detailed here: http://www.hasdrubal-thalassa.com/images/stories/pdf/Brochure_ang.pdf
Friguia Animal Park: http://www.friguiapark.com/
The Tunisian Tourist Board offers a wealth of information and advice for holidaymakers at http://www.cometotunisia.co.uk/
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