Sandstorms! Scorpions!! The heat!!! At a 'luxe' Saharan desert camp, the tents might have A/C but, Christopher Petkanas discovers, real luxury is a mirage
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.
The hotel is not alone in the oasis, a bristling tuft of olive, pomegranate, and tamarisk trees zapped here and there with pink and white oleander. The company is reassuring, at least in theory. There is a small casern, or garrison, and three lesser camps, whose patrons are notorious for hogging the solitary hot spring. A dusty shanty village has a population of 200 seminomads; a mosque; a gas pump; two "shops," where villagers can buy basics like soap and cigarettes; a whitewashed obelisk celebrating a 1943 battle led by General Leclerc; a primary school; and an ambulance. The nearest town, Douz, is 112 miles to the northwest.
But for all the psychological succor Douz and the ambulance provide, they might as well be in Brooklyn. What if I fall off a camel and break my neck?Or flip over in a quad bike and smash my legs?Since camel rides and quad excursions are two of the big pastimes at Ksar Ghilane, these questions are never far away. One night, something that might have been a big worm but could also have been a small snake (and that at least was not a scorpion) wriggled out of the shower drain when I turned on the hot water. I scalded it to death, just as it was eyeing my big toe.
It was a falsely empowering victory, for nature always wins in the Sahara. Sandstorms are not shy about reducing to shreds the camp's sixty 300-square-foot tents (which are canvas, not, as the Web site claims, linen). Many of the tents are new, and by November they all will be: phase one of a refurbishment program that will, I hope, redress a scandalously casual approach to maintenance. The program also includes adding lockable storage units, facing the cement tent platforms with marble, and isolating the toilets from the other bathroom facilities. Japanese travelers famously require this, and they are not about to relax their standards just because they happen to be in the Sahara.
Unlike conventional camps, Ksar Ghilane blessedly does not feel the need to annoy its charges with entertainment or harangue them with a long menu of activities. The most anyone will suggest you do is visit the ruins of a second-century A.D. Roman fort, which are spectacular, or pay a little extra for a traditional bedouin dinner, served in low-slung tents of camel hair woven with strips of goatskin. The chic and civilized way of "doing" the garrison, one of a network that monitored the nomads' movements, is to have a driver arrive at the fort ahead of you to get the mint tea going; book a camel, but only one way, timing your arrival (the trip takes 45 minutes) to coincide with sunset; and return in the relative chauffeured ease of a 4WD.
The bedouin meal holds more anthropological than culinary interest, though I was able to make two check marks on the list of ethnic curiosities I feel I must try before dying. One is a flat bread, which you should try, since you'll never make it at home: it's baked in an open fire in direct contact with embers and hot sand. (Not as scary as it sounds. Since the loaf is unleavened, with no cracks or swellings to trap ash or grit, it brushes clean.) Actually, you should try only the crust, dipped in harissa. The crumb is like partially set mortar.
The other novelty is gargoulette. Like tajine, gargoulette describes both a terra-cotta vessel (tall, narrow, unglazed) and a dish (lamb stewed with peppers, tomatoes, paprika, and turmeric). The pot is sealed with luting paste, set in a hole lined with coals, buried picturesquely up to its neck in sand, and ultimately whacked open with the blunt edge of a heavy cleaver. Butchered according to rules laid out in a medieval manual that is still finding its way to the West, the meat inside is delicious, if completely, frighteningly mysterious.
Just like the nighttime desert. The explosive mating snorts of camels, so cute under the sun, seem less so—sinister—in the dark. On my way to the fort I had seen thousands of sandfish, a type of lizard, swimming through the dunes, looking for cool spots. Where were they now?Sleeping?Or did I have to worry?The custom at Ksar Ghilane is to hang out after dinner in the no-man's-land where the oasis stops and the colossal void of the sands begins. Lingering there is exactly like lingering too close to the lip of the subway platform when a train pulls in.
Emirates Al Maha
Forty luxurious tent-roofed bungalows, a 45-minute drive from Dubai. Suites have private pools. Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve; 971-4/303-4222; www.al-maha.com; doubles from $1,150.
A camp of 15 linen-canopied tents. UluruKata Tjuta National Park, Australia; 61-2/8296-8010; www.longitude131.com.au; doubles from $1,350.
Three Camel Lodge
A resort of 46 gers (nomadic dwellings of felt and wood) at the edge of the Gobi desert. 800/998-6634; www.threecamellodge.com; doubles from $140.
Emirates Al Maha
The luxury Al Maha Desert Resort & Spa is designed in the style of a Bedouin encampment. Each of the hotel’s 42 spacious suites resemble tents, and they look out over the desert near the Hajar Mountains, about 45 minutes outside of Dubai. Suites are decorated with regional artwork and antiques and feature private plunge pools. The hotel is situated in a wildlife sanctuary that is home to oryx, camels, and gazelles, and the resort offers a variety of on- and off-site activities, including wildlife drives, desert safaris, and falconry exhibitions.
Pansea Ksar Ghilane
With travel frontiers dwindling, the Tunisian desert still holds the promise of a true pioneer experience. Those willing to endure a rugged four-hour drive over unpaved Saharan roads and through blinding salt flats will be rewarded with Ksar Ghilane, an otherworldly camp on 25 acres of olive, pomegranate, and tamarisk trees. The 60 private, 300-square-foot canvas tents are improbably equipped with full bathrooms, heating, and even air conditioning. Climb the five-story observation tower for a look beyond the mirage-like, sultry pool. Unlike conventional camps, Ksar Ghilane won’t harangue guests with a long menu of activities. The most anyone suggests you do is visit the ruins of a second-century A.D. Roman fort or try a bedouin dinner of gargoulette (a type of lamb stew), served in low-slung wool tents.