A taste of the true Tunisia

WHEN a camel licks your face on the first day of holiday, you know it's going to be a trip like no other.

We'd only been in Tunisia one night when Mahmoud the camel decided to get acquainted, and – drooling aside – his unassuming charm set the tone for the rest of the week.

Despite some reservations about visiting Tunisia in late November, we discovered that with fewer tourists and calmer temperatures, it's a great time to get to know a country rich in culture and vibrant with life.

Our winter getaway took us to the quiet resort of Djerba situated on 'the island of 10,000 palms', connected by road to the Tunisian mainland of northern Africa.

With lush palm trees everywhere it certainly lives up to its name, and is about as tropical as you can get for a three hour flight from the UK.

Aquamarine waters fringed by ribbons of white sand make Djerba every tourist's dream, but this Tunisian oasis offers a bit more than the typical winter sun package.

From sweet-smelling spice markets to inspiring architecture, there's an intriguing mix of Muslim, Christian and Jewish traditions, with an African twist.

Legend has it Djerba was the island of the lotus eaters from the Greek myth of Odysseus, and since then has been influenced by Roman, Sicilian, Spanish, French and Ottoman cultures.

Unspoilt

Its tourist trade, which suffered in the aftermath of the Ghriba synagogue bombing in April 2002, is now booming, with more than 120 hotels on the island and tourists flocking yearly from all over Europe.

Temperatures range between 20C in winter and 40C in summer, which lasts from April to October.

Unlike the westernised cities in the north of Tunisia, Djerba is mostly unspoilt, and its red desert landscape is peppered with Mediterranean-style whitewashed houses, olive trees and farmland.

And the dramatic landscape on the nearby mainland draws thousands of visitors for another reason: this stretch of mountainous desert was made famous by film-maker George Lucas when it became the location for his Star Wars movies.

Populated by the indigenous Berber people, the desert is accessible by car from Djerba and a guided tour around the local villages will take you back to those famous movie moments and give you an opportunity to absorb an ancient way of life.

It's also well worth Star Wars fans hiring a 4x4 to drive across the scenic lunar landscape to experience a true moment of movie magic.

Closer to our resort, there were also lots of lovely local excursions on offer. Taking a tour of the resort of Djerba offers an insight into the island's quaint but lively culture. From the fishing haven of Zarzis to the pottery village of Guellela, a tour will take no more than a morning's leisurely drive through the main sights.

Or if you've got a day to spare, you could take a trip on one of the spectacular tall ships at the Port de Plaisance, which leave daily at 9am for a tour of the bay and nearby Pink Flamingo Island.

Animal lovers should enjoy Djerba Explore, a museum and shopping complex with a collection of 400 Nile crocodiles, oddly out of place in the dusty desert but a huge tourist attraction since the park opened in 2002.

Djerba also offers a number of impressive museums, most notably the private collection within the Djerba Explore complex and the heritage museum near Guellela - where you'll meet Mahmoud the camel.

We also visited the Fadhloun mosque, a grand 14th century minaret restored to give visitors an insight into the Muslim faith, and were impressed by Djerba's Roman fortress and sprawling amphitheatre – as well as countless modern football stadiums.

Tunisian food is at its best in Djerba, where you'll find the most delicious mint tea and traditional meals which include lamb, olives, fish and tomatoes, all spiced with harissa – a hot sauce made of red chillis, coriander, cumin and garlic.

Lavish

There is an old wives' tale in Djerba that a husband can judge his wife's affections by the amount of spice she puts in his food – so beware if you're eating a home cooked meal.

We ate at the lavish Hotel Sangho and the nautical-themed Restaurant Haroun, both of which served tasty local dishes from 10 including drinks.

There's no shortage of hotels on Djerba, particularly on the tourist heavy north coast, and visitors choose between all-inclusive resorts, boutique residences and five-star luxury.

At the Club Magic Life Penelope Beach Imperial, an extensive complex catering for families, couples and older tourists, our all-inclusive package included water sports, bike hire and entertainment.

With four restaurants, six swimming pools and a stunning Green Flag beach, you can do your own thing away from any organised activities.

The fusion of Mediterranean, African and Middle Eastern cultures makes Djerba a unique and exciting destination, with far more to offer than most resorts.

Unlike Tunis and Sousse in the north, Djerba remains relatively untouched by millions of European visitors arriving year after year. But from May 2011, the daily Tunisair service ex-Gatwick into Djerba-Zarzis will be boosted by two more Thomson flights a week, from Manchester and Gatwick, so things may be about to change.

With its dramatic sunsets, eco-friendly resorts and fascinating culture, Djerba attracts a growing number of operators. If sun, sea, sand and camels sound like your cup of mint tea, book a flight there and swap your winter blues for an island adventure to remember.

TRAVEL FACTS

Sarah Rainey visited Tunisia as a guest of Thomson Holidays, which offers seven nights' all-inclusive in May 2011 at four star Magic Life Penelope Beach Imperial, Djerba, from 449 per person, with first child from 285 and second from 365, incl return flights ex-Gatwick and transfers.

Ex-Manchester prices: 449, 325 and 405 respectively.

Thomson does not offers departures to Tunisia ex-Glasgow in their 2011 programme.

Thomson reservations: 0871 231 3235 and www.thomson.co.uk.

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