Morocco has always had so much to offer in terms of geography, hotels, restaurants, and exotic cityscapes that I have rarely been tempted to go anywhere else in North Africa: Algeria was, and is, dangerous; Libya was, and is once again, at least for most Americans, off-limits. Tunisia, on the other hand, was known mainly for its mass tourism, the country's relatively liberal climate having attracted travelers—and developers—to this part of Africa's northern coast. Though for many it conjures exotic images of bustling markets and hill towns overlooking the blue Mediterranean, when I thought of Tunisia, I had visions of beaches packed with Northern European tourists getting too much sun and drinking too much. Perhaps because I have lived in Marrakesh off and on for decades, Tunisia and its cookie-cutter resorts never held much allure for me. But with the opening of a handful of small hotels, created from historic town houses and mansions, alongside the white-sand beaches and timeless medinas, there are new ways to experience the country's historic sites.
Dar El Medina, Tunis
I've often been wary of going to a Muslim country during Ramadan, with its sunrise-to-sundown fasting and supposed lack of things to do. Unfortunately the only time I am able to visit Tunisia is during the last week of that holy month. But when I arrive at my hotel in Sidi Ben Arous—a Tunis neighborhood in the medina that has cobblestoned streets, columned archways, and whitewashed houses with blue doors and trim—I am surprised to discover a smart little party going on in the courtyard at 10:30 in the evening. It's a very civilized affair: a young lutenist plays softly by a fountain, and well-dressed locals cluster at café tables, indulging in mint tea, honey-drenched pastries, and crunchy nut cakes. Some take puffs on tall silver shishas, or water pipes, filling the air with the aromatic smoke of fruit-flavored tobacco.
"Welcome to Tunis," says Salah Belhaouane. Two years ago, with his brother Mustafa, he transformed their family mansion into the Dar El Medina, the first boutique hotel in the capital's ancient quarter. He escorts me up a tiled staircase to a courtyard shared by two suites. Mine is a small duplex with marble floors, Tunisian kilims, hand-painted furniture, and a sleek gray bathroom down a secret staircase. Despite the festivities below, the room is quiet.
For the moment, the Belhaouane brothers' creation, with 12 rooms and suites ranging from over-the-top Ottoman to Moorish minimalist, is the only boutique property in the medina, but several other projects are in various stages of development here. "We welcome competition," Belhaouane says. "An only child is lonely; it's better to have brothers and sisters."
What to Do Many of the palaces and mansions in the city's medina have been converted into museums: worth seeing is the 18th-century Dar Ben Abdallah, with its salons and dioramas of late-19th-century bourgeois life. The Tourbet El Bey mausoleum is a maze of elaborate multicolored Italianate marble chambers and sculpted sarcophagi of the Husseinid dynasty, which ruled Tunisia from the early 18th to the mid 20th century.
The most impressive sight is the Ezzitouna or Great Mosque. Begun in the early eighth century, after the Arab conquest of Ifriqiyya, as Tunisia, eastern Algeria, and parts of Libya were known at the time, this enormous structure embodies the architectural traditions of the different dynasties that have ruled the city. And although it is off-limits to non-Muslims, much of the main prayer hall, with its carpets and massive chandeliers, can be glimpsed from a side patio, which is open to the public, as is a stretch of the impressive arcaded courtyard, built in the ninth century with columns salvaged from nearby Roman ruins. Don't miss a meal at Dar El Jeld and shopping at Ed-Dar.
Villa Didon, Carthage
Once a maritime power that rivaled ancient Rome, Carthage is now a suburb of Tunis, filled with Mediterranean villas and lush gardens. Villa Didon sits on a hillside overlooking the Gulf of Tunis and the ancient Antonine Baths. Above it is the column-strewn courtyard of the Carthage Museum. The 10-suite property is named for Dido, the mythological queen who famously romanced the Trojan prince and navigator Aeneas. But rather than celebrating the past, Villa Didon is contemporary, with a glass-and-steel elevator, minimalist suites with Ron Arad chairs, oblong sinks beneath suspended mirrors, and a huge veranda. The restaurant, initially helmed by Alain Ducasse, has the best wine list in Tunis; there is also a golden-marble spa and hammam.
The original villa dates from the period of French rule; its current owner, Tunisian real estate tycoon and philanthropist Mongi Loukil, has been accused by some critics of trying too hard to be trendy, but Loukil defends his renovation. "Our architect, Philippe Boisselier, considered many styles—Moorish, Neocolonial, Mediterranean," he says. "But with a place like Carthage, you don't decide lightly. The echoes of its history and its legends are too powerful—they imposed a certain humility on us. So ultimately we thought minimalism was the best way to respect the spirit of the setting and let the landscape be the essential element in the design."
What to Do Throughout modern Carthage, parks and archaeological sites recall the ancient city-state. Especially impressive are the 7,000-seat amphitheater, now the site of dramatic and musical performances during the annual Festival de Carthage, a monthlong event in summer; and the Antonine Baths, a series of arched labyrinthine chambers and covered paths.
Dar Saïd, Sidi Bou Saïd
Sidi Bou Saïd, 10 miles east of Tunis, was founded as a hill-town retreat by the 13th-century Sufi mystic Abu Saïd. Its stunning views of the Gulf of Tunis made it a popular summer escape for the Tunisian aristocracy in the 19th century. By the 1920's, Sidi Bou Saïd's whitewashed mansions—with their studded blue doors and blue-shuttered bay windows, exotic domes and tiled courtyards, and gardens of jasmine and bougainvillea—were attracting artists like Paul Klee, seduced not only by the town's beauty but also by its razor-sharp light.
The best way to experience Sidi Bou Saïd, a few miles up the coast from Carthage, is to spend a night or two in one of Tunisia's most enchanting places to stay. Located in a mid-19th-century mansion, Dar Saïd has been a hotel since 1948, but in 1998, new owners decided to increase its stars from one to four. Tunisian architects, working with the country's National Heritage Institute, spent three years remaking the property. The 24 rooms and suites look onto four patios; each has a unique personality, but all include tasteful antiques, rich Italian fabrics, and Tunisian carpets. The small swimming pool, set in a garden shaded by orange trees and inhabited by a family of friendly cats, is a tranquil spot, especially at the height of the afternoon.
Dar Saïd's manager, a handsome young hotelier named Karim Ben Hassine Bey, is a direct descendant of Tunisia's former ruling family. "I'm part of our national heritage—part of the furniture," he jokes, as he tells me the history of Dar Saïd's rebirth. Reopened just six months before 9/11, the hotel nonetheless managed to find an audience in the difficult year that followed. "One of the advantages of small-scale tourism is that our clients are better informed and less fickle than the masses," Bey says. "The people who come to a hotel like ours know history, culture—they are ripe to discover something else, something new."
Bey, whose company also owns the popular Dar Zarrouk restaurant, just across from Dar Saïd, is confident that the time is right for Tunisia. "The average occupancy rate for Tunisia's hotels is 50 percent," he says, "and here, with very little publicity, relying mainly on word of mouth, we have 60 percent." Encouraged by these results, the owners are currently in the final stages of restoring downtown Tunis's landmark Majestic Hotel, a colonial classic recently on its last legs but now scheduled to reopen in 2009 with 150 rooms.
What to Do The town is sheer magic, a North African Ravello crowded with shops, art galleries, and museum-mansions. Café Sidi Chebaane, with its cliff-clutching outdoor terrace, is where you'll find locals sipping mint tea. Au Bon Vieux Temps, Café des Nattes, and Dar Zarrouk are other popular restaurants.
Dar Dhiafa, Jerba
The resort island of Jerba is an hourlong flight south from Tunis and known for its nine-mile strip of white beach lined with big resorts that have all-inclusive meal plans, supersize swimming pools, seaside camel rides, and guests who rarely budge from the premises. Dar Dhiafa, however, is a notable exception. For one thing, it's not on the sea, but inland in the village of Erriadh. The hotel itself was created from five adjoining houses and fits so seamlessly into its surroundings that I think the taxi driver has made a mistake when he pulls up to its unprepossessing entryway.
Dar Dhiafa is the last word in rustic chic: rough walls, asymmetrical rooms, funky Berber furniture, and free-form banquettes. Its grounds are rampant with aggressive bougainvillea and bizarre cacti growing in twisted curlicues, and the 14-room hotel surprises with yet another courtyard, tunnel, secret salon, lounge, bar, or niche at every turn. My tiny suite, Scheherezade, has a private patio tucked behind a stone wall that backs a small swimming pool, one of two on the property. Inside, separate alcoves form a bedroom, salon, and dressing area, and the bathroom is a riot of red tadlakt, Moroccan polished plaster.
Unlike Dar Saïd, Dar Dhiafa was not an instant hit when it originally opened. A combination of an absentee owner, constantly changing managers, a poorly trained staff, minimal publicity, and Jerba's reputation as a destination for the masses meant that the hotel had virtually no clients. Yet when Côte d'Azur realtor Benoît Hennequart discovered the property in 2003 while en route to the Sahara, he fell in love with it and ultimately hatched a plan to lease, manage, and, above all, promote it.
"It was a shame. This hotel should have been full all the time," Hennequart tells me over dinner in Dar Dhiafa's open-air restaurant, which has a big palm tree at its center. To raise its profile, Hennequart and his partner brought in an experienced manager and a talented chef and turned the Ghriba dining room into one of the island's top tables. Recently, Hennequart has introduced "culinary weeks," with visiting French, and, more recently, Moroccan chefs. "Ultimately, I'd like to make this a meeting place for intellectuals, writers, and artists," he says.
What to Do Beyond the tourist-clogged strip of mega-resorts, Jerba has secret beaches, walled fortresses, and laid-back souks in the principal town, Houmt Souk. El Ghriba, in the village of Hara Seghira, is one of the most important synagogues in North Africa, with an interior of blue columns, high windows, and ceramic-tiled walls.
Pansea Ksar Ghilane
At the southeastern end of Jerba, a skinny, four-mile-long causeway, originally built by the Romans, leads to the mainland and ultimately to Tunisia's greatest natural wonder: the Sahara. I hire a 4 x 4 and driver for an overnight excursion to the oasis of Ksar Ghilane and the chance to see the shifting sands and the desert's night sky. When the paved road ends, we bump for an hour or so on a sandy piste before, miracle of miracles, we hit hard road again for the last 12 miles to our destination.
Clusters of camels and tented camps greet visitors at this deep-green strip of palms and eucalyptus backed by massive dunes. Pansea promises 60 luxurious tents with air-conditioning and modern bathrooms. Alas, most of the tents have seen better days, having been torn and shredded by frequent sandstorms. I get a firsthand taste of this desert phenomenon when the wind starts to pick up in the afternoon. Unfortunately the winds soon become so strong that I have to hole up inside my tent, which at moments seems as if it's about to take off into the mocha-tinted air.
But after the storm passes and the wind subsides, I explore the nearby dunes and then take a long swim in the velvety springwater of the huge pool. In the end, I am seduced by the glorious starry night and an eerie sepia sunrise.
What to Do The trip to Ksar Ghilane offers a chance to see some of the Saharan landscape, with its Berber villages and domed mosques. Stop at the market of Medenine en route and at abandoned ksars—fortified settlements of multistory apartment dwellings that remind me of Gaudí's architecture.
Richard Alleman is a frequent contributor to Travel + Leisure.
When to Go
Tunisia has warm, sunny weather most of the year. Fall is an ideal time to visit; July and August can be very hot away from the coast, and winter brings occasional rain to the northern part of the country.
There are currently no direct flights to Tunis from the United States, but it is easy to connect from London, Paris, Frankfurt, or Casablanca.
When to Stay
Great Value: Dar Dhiafa Erriadh, Jerba; 216-75/671-166; hoteldar dhiafa.com; doubles from $130.
Great Value: Dar El Medina 64 Rue Sidi Ben Arous, Tunis; 216-71/563-022; darelmedina.com; doubles from $150.
Dar Saïd Rue Toumi, Sidi Bou Saïd; 216-71/729-666; darsaid.com; doubles from $212.
Pansea Ksar Ghilane Ksar Ghilane; 216-5/621-870; pansea.com; suites from $264.
Villa Didon Rue Mendès-France, Carthage Byrsa; 216-71/733-433; villadidon.com; doubles from $300.
When to Eat
Au Bon Vieux Temps A Sidi Bou Saïd institution. French and Tunisian dishes—with a view of the Mediterranean. 56 Rue Hedi Zarrouk, Sidi Bou Saïd; 216-71/744-788; dinner for two $68.
Café des Nattes Main Square, Sidi Bou Saïd; no phone.
Café Sidi Chebaane A popular hangout for mint tea and pastries. Rue Sidi Chebaane, Sidi Bou Saïd; no phone.
Dar El Jeld Tunisian cuisine, using old family recipes, in a stunning medina palace. 5–10 Rue Dar El Jeld, Tunis; 216-71/560-916; dareljeld.tourism.tn; dinner for two $20.
Dar Zarrouk Rue Hedi Zarrouk, Sidi Bou Saïd; 216-71/740-591; dinner for two $70.
What to See
Ed-Dar A treasure trove of antiques and contemporary North African art, pottery, jewelry, and carpets—housed in a 15th-century medina mansion. 8 Rue Sidi Ben Arous, Tunis; 216-71/561-732; ed-dar.com.
Bardo National Museum Bardo, Tunis; 216-71/513-650.
Historian Mme. Jamila Binous gives walking tours of the Tunis medina most Saturday mornings. 216-71/715-765.