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North Africa’s New Horizons

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Photo: Martin Morrell

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.

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