Tunisia-Where hip hotels and hot cuisine blend with history

From the stunning terrace of the Villa Didon in Carthage, (a 15-minute ride from the Tunis Carthage Airport), high on a hill with a commanding view of the Bay of Tunis where once Hannibal commanded his vast armies, there has arisen a daunting, but hip, hotel that is unique to this part of the world. It is the home to Spoon, the restaurant created by stellar French chef Alain Ducasse.

This hotel contains 10 expertly designed suites and is a place where one must expect the unexpected. The bathtub, smack dab in the center of the suite overlooking the bay of Tunis, would have turned a few heads of state even in Hannibal’s day.

The restaurant Spoon is in a class by itself with a menu showcasing multi-ethnic cuisine and flavors, a play on ingredients bringing menu choices to a new level. Top plates at a recent dinner featured double filets of loup with puttanesca and risotto with Parmesan cheese. Desserts moved by French interpretation were beyond exquisite. That night, I dined with intense sorbets.

At the hotel’s Turkish Bath and Balneotherapy spa, customized treatments and cures are offered, such as a 35-minute skin tonic massage. It can be scheduled in advance so that upon arrival you can slip right into a robe and relax. Thanks to a healthy rate of exchange, this treatment for a one and a half hour relaxing anti-stress facial that would normally cost about $48, costs just $28.

But this is just part of the lure of Tunisia’s mesmerizing coastline, where there are memoirs of wars, from Punic to World War II. On Memorial Day, I visited the North Africa American Cemetery and Memorial, where 2,833 headstones arranged in rectangular lines harmonize with the rectangular composition of the cemetery. This 27-acre memorial is one of 24 permanent American military burial grounds and 22 separate monuments and markers on foreign soil.

Those venturing beyond Tunis will find the 65-room (and seven suites) Tamerza Palace a favorite place for those heading to Tozeur and the Sahara, whether for a camel ride or a look at the filming locations for “Star Wars” and “The English Patient.” Furnished with local art and bath amenities scented with neroli, this is an irresistible desert hideaway. The surrealistic setting for this sprawling hotel is a story in itself. Blending in with the siena-colored sand dunes, near the oasis of Montagnes, a refreshing feeling of calm captures the evening, as the sun sets over the sand dunes.

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And then there is the olive oil. I’m talking about genuine extra virgin olive oil. I learned about this while sampling delicious tart lemon peel marmalade on the terrace of The Residence Hotel in Carthage (a member of the Leading Hotels of the World). Paolo Fetz, the general manager, confided to me the maker of the marmalades had a farm about an hour’s ride from Tunis, where the family’s exclusive method processing of olive oil took place.

Known by olive oil fans as “Les Moulins Mahjoub,” this is a family-owned olive oil business spanning five generations. The story began at the beginning of the 20th century when Khomis Mahjoub and his brother Mhamed took over the family olive press business. Their organic olive oil has been available at le Pain Quotidien, a quality market with stores in Los Angeles.

Taylor H. Griffen, president of The Rogers Collection of Extraordinary Foods (and spokesperson for Les Moulins), assured me the olive oil would soon be seen on the shelves at Whole Foods. I hope they remember to ship the wild mountain capers, sun dried tomatoes, black olive paste and inimitable piquant orange slices, which are equally delicious.

“It is homemade and handmade,” said Mahjoub as he pointed out the process to our group.

The Mahjoub farm in the olive groves of Tebourba is not open to the public, but we were able to have a private tour. The factory is small, located in a small town about a one-hour ride from Tunis, where the ambiance is distinctively Andalusian. We were told most of the inhabitants are descendents of Moors who fled from Andalusia and eventually settled in this fertile area.

This was my fourth visit to Tunisia, a country that is the cradle of proud ancient cultures and is proud of its policy of tolerance. The results of well-planned tourism development have born fruit. The opening of boutique hotels such as the Villa Didon is just one example of how well this policy has succeeded.

The French influence in Tunisia is a result of the country’s link to France, which lasted 75 years. From 1881 to 1956, Tunisia was a French protectorate, and to this day French is spoken everywhere. French bread is a staple.

In 1956, equal rights were granted to women. A visa is not required. Fifty years of independence will be celebrated in 2006, and events are still in the planning stages.

An innovative tour operator, TunisUSA, with headquarters in Wayne, Pa., has a solid reputation for customizing tours to Tunisia with private guides and drivers. Jerry Sorkin has spent 30 years visiting Tunisia and discusses creative itineraries with his clients, while zeroing in on their interests, whether it is archeology, Sahara treks or local cuisine. A recent 12-day tour for two with all accommodations cost $6,900.

Recommended routes to Tunisia are flights between Los Angeles and Paris with a connecting flight to Tunis or between Los Angeles and London with a connecting flight to Tunis.

* The Villa Didon; www.villadidon.com

* The Residence Tunis; www.theresidence-tunis.com

* The Tamerza Palace; send e-mail to tamerza.palace@planet.tn

* The American Battle Monuments Commission; www.abmc.gov

* TunisUSA; www.tunisusa.com and 610.964.0333

* Les Moulins Mahjoub; www.moulinsmahjoub.com

* Tunisia Tourism; 212.466.2546 and www.tourismtunisia.com

Pamela Price is the co author of 100 Best Spas of World and Fun with the Family in Southern CA , both published by the Globe Pequot Press (HYPERLINK “http://www.globepequot.com” www.globepequot.com). She can be reached at pamprice@dc.rr.com

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