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North Africa’s New Horizons

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Photo: Martin Morrell

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."

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