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Sleep in the Desert

Gustavo Ten Hoever The swimming pool at Tunisia's Ksar Ghilane resort.

Photo: Gustavo Ten Hoever

This is not the Tunisia of self-satisfied design hotels or of palaces with well-being centers, billion-dinar views of the Mediterranean, and thimbles of fig alcohol on arrival. Nor is it the Tunisia of charming boutique properties cached deep in the medina and scattered with velvety rose petals "pour le plaisir des yeux" ("for the eyes' pleasure"), as everyone keeps telling you in this most European of North African countries.

Rather, this is the Tunisia of backbreakingly bumpy, pitilessly hot desert camps, where even the prissiest travelers (and you know who you are) seem willing to put their usual hospitality needs on hold for the chance to star in their own remake of The English Patient (shot on this patch of the Sahara). The sandy privilege of sleeping in a remote back-of-beyond accessible only by four-wheel drive is another draw. So no Gulfstreams, Mr. CEO-who-is-used-to-buying-his-way-in-everywhere, and no wimps. The number of travel frontiers is dwindling quicker than you can say "eight days in a collapsible canoe in the South American rain forest," yet the Tunisian desert fulfills the promise of a pioneer experience.

Named for the romantic 25-acre date-palm oasis that shelters and cradles it, Ksar Ghilane is part of the Pansea hotel group and by far the best camp in the region, with more infrastructure than any of its competitors. But no matter what Pansea's partnership with the glamorous Orient-Express brand would seem to guarantee—and no matter what anyone has told you or you have read elsewhere—it is not about luxury or cosmic levels of comfort. What Ksar Ghilane has going for it, and what makes it unique, are private tents with full bathrooms, heating, and air-conditioning. The very fact of a handsome five-story vernacular surveillance tower and of a huge, sultry swimming pool produces frissons, given the unexpectedness of the first and the almost ridiculous improbability of the second. Guests climb the tower to capture cell-phone signals and catch views that stretch all the way to Libya—or at least to the middle of next week. But no, you don't go for the service or housekeeping (tentkeeping?), which is neither better nor worse than what a thinking person would reasonably expect from a place with double-occupancy rates that barely manage to attain $120 per night. This may be the Sahara, and Tunisia may be a developing country, but nobody's giving anything away.

The four-hour drive from Tozeur airport is one I am pleased to be able to say I made, and hope never to make again. Sometimes the road is surfaced, sometimes it is covered with murderous shards of gypsum, and sometimes there is no road at all, just dunes. The trip was so painful, producing so many weirdly benign black-and-blue marks in so many hard-to-examine bodily zones, I would have slept on a pallet at Ksar Ghilane and loved it.

You can rent your own vehicle, but unless you have practice maneuvering on sand with a texture between cake flour and couture-quality duchess satin, this is not recommended. (I had seen pictures of stranded safarists desperately sticking palm branches under their car tires for traction, all the dissuasion I needed.) In any case, drivers are too cheap not to hire one—the transfer from Tozeur is about $80—and they free you up to freak out about the heat (110 degrees in summer), anguish about running out of gas, and enjoy the quivering mirages, spiraling whirlwinds, and blinding salt flats 20 times the size of Martha's Vineyard. This last Saharan phenomenon has wowed everyone from Aldous Huxley, who described them in a Vogue essay as being "furred with a bright saline efflorescence," to video artist Bill Viola, whose 1979 short on the largest flat, Chott El Djerid, is in the Museum of Modern Art film collection. To attract business along the causeway that slices through El Djerid, shacks selling inky mint tea and clusters of beige crystal roses—which occur naturally underground—build life-size camels out of the one material found here in excess: salt.

The last 50 miles to Ksar Ghilane are pure punishment, really ghastly. Of course, this is just the way the hotel wants it. For management knows that save for the odd delicate flower, like me—guests who are more accustomed to lying between cashmere sheets at the Principe di Savoia in Milan than under a hairy tribal throw in the desert—most people consider the effort required to reach the camp half the reward. The state has green-lighted the blacktopping of the final stretch of the journey, but nothing happens overnight in the Sahara, so for the near future it remains paved with suffering.

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