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North Africa’s New Horizons

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Photo: Martin Morrell

"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.

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