Travel: Sun, sea and sand lure tourists to Tunisia

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Beyond the Sahara desert is a destination that offers value as well as cultural fascination. Images provided by www.promotunisia.com

While throngs of Europeans visit this North African oasis, it has yet to be fully understood by the American traveler. With a 750-mile coastline along the Mediterranean and an abundance of olive oil and dates, this peaceful oasis had experienced a surge in tourism thanks to luxurious hotels, superb cuisine, political stability and cultural diversity.

Nonstop flights to Tunisia depart from Paris, London, Rome and Frankfurt; visas are not required for U.S. citizens and the dollar is strong here, compared to the Eurodollar, which now costs us about $1.28 to purchase. Instead of losing about 30 percent on the dollar, tourists here gain about 15 percent .

Tourism is shifting as rapidly as the sands of the Sahara, and it’s time to think about destinations that offer value as well as cultural fascination.

In a word, Tunisia has it all. Beyond the Sahara are luxurious therapy resorts offering spa vacations at a fraction of what they cost in Europe and the U.S.

More than one million tourists visit the Sahara every year; the drama of the desert is a magnet for those seeking an alternative to conventional travel.

Here are three stunning hotels to consider:

The five star-rated Palm Beach Palace Hotel is a masterpiece of desert architecture, with alluring swimming pools, 122 luxurious rooms and several restaurants serving traditional and international cuisine. It is just one of several four and five star hotels in this desert oasis. This resort was used to house staff during the filming of “Star Wars.”

La Residence in Les Cotes des Carthage is one of the more exquisite hotels along the Mediterranean Coast of North Africa. The heart of the resort is a nearly 40,000 square foot Phytomer Spa where you will feel like a pampered princess. The exotic spa pools will have you feeling you are in a Roman villa, with the advantage of jet showers, facials and an aquatic circuit to rev up your energy level.

Yadis Hotel on the island of Djerba is an outpost of leisurely pursuits, with a 27-hole golf course designed by British architect Marin Hawtree, located between the sea and a sand dune.

The sandy beach is lovely, but the Thalasso spa is equally irresistible. Resembling a palatial retreat, there are marine and mud treatments, an aqua-toning seawater pool and, between treatments, a bar serving a selection of herbal teas.

The spa is supervised by

a physician for personal consultations.

Best Bet Tour

If you are traveling to Europe, this tour provides a good introduction to Sahara tourism. Organized by Amelia International, “Golden Tunisia” puts you in the Sahara for five days/four nights. Moving at a fast clip, it’s “Midnight at the Oasis” come true. Put on your desert gear for this upbeat expedition; a four-wheel drive with a guide takes you on an expedition in comfort and style.

Upon arriving in Tunisia there is a short flight to Djerba, the “land of the lotus eaters,” where you will walk in the steps of Homer’s Odyssey. Ulysses was said to love the “happy palm-crowned gardens” in this part of the east coast of Tunisia. After a night here, there are two more stops, the magnificent Dar Cheriat Hotel in Tozeur, on the edge of the Sahara, followed by two nights at the tented camp resort, Ksar Ghilane.

The serenity of the Sahara is breathtaking, as are the undiscovered regions of Tunisia, such as Matmata and Douz, which are also in this itinerary. The cost is $1,550 per person (double occupancy, valid April 1-Oct. 31) and covers accommodations, domestic transportation, breakfast, dinner, entrance fees, service and taxes, chauffeured four-wheel drive with an English-speaking tour guide.

CONTACTS:

Tunisian National Tourist Office, 11515 Massachusetts Ave., N.W. Washington, D.C. 20004; 202.466.2546; Fax: 202.466.2553

Amelia International; 800.742.4591; www.amelia.bz

Promo Tunisia Exploration & Leisure: 888.701.3202; 309.303.4299;

e-mail: info@promotunisia.com; www.promotunisia.com

La Residence Contact: Leading Hotels of the World, 800.223.6800

Palm Beach Palace Hotel: 216.645.3911

Yadis Hotel www.yadis.com;

e-mail: thalassogolf@yadis.com

Travel Tip

During the inspection process, if the Transportation Security Administration screener cannot open your bag, they may be forced to break the locks on it. Officials say they will “take care to reseal the bag upon completion of the inspection,” adding they “are not liable to damage the locks.” I recently made the mistake of locking my checked bag and found it returned with a tamper-evident seal; it had been thoroughly searched.

I recommend you check www.TSATTravelTips.us for an update on this policy.

Pamela Price is the co author of “100 Best Spas of the World”, Globe Pequot