Tunisia is a land brimming with optimism

On the face of it, there is little evidence of the scenes of beamed around the world 14 months ago when the Jasmine Revolution was in full swing.

Blue sea and sky at Hammamet Medina
Blue sea and sky at Hammamet Medina

On the face of it, there is little evidence of the scenes of beamed around the world 14 months ago when the Jasmine Revolution was in full swing.

However, Tunisia’s millions of annual holidaymakers largely deserted the country last year, scared off by the wider Arab Spring and war in neighbouring Libya.

But now efforts are under way to attract tourists back – and there is plenty to shout about from comfortable hotels, friendly people and golden beaches to ancient ruins, great food, good service and t-shirt weather (even in late February).

Post-revolution Tunisia has a free press, held free and fair elections and brims with optimism for a better future. This is despite ongoing economic problems made worse by claims that the former dictator, now exiled in Saudi Arabia, fled the country with a few pallets of gold bullion from the national bank in his private jet.

The unrest began in December 2010 when street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight in protest at the confiscation of his wares by over-zealous officials. His act of defiance cost him his young life and sparked mass protests across the country. By January 2011 protests had reached Tunis and former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali unceremoniously fled the country he had ruled with an iron fist since seizing power in 1987.

Amid all the changes, it seems the assets which made Tunisia such a popular destination before the unrest are still intact.

For a start, it’s hot and sunny. Between June and September, Tunisia typically basks in temperatures of more than 30C (86F) and it gets a good deal hotter in the south-western desert regions.

There are some great beach resorts like Hammamet, which has a relaxed atmosphere and charming small-town feel, and Sousse, a larger city which is further south and boasts huge five star hotels.

If historic sites are your thing, now is a great time to visit Carthage. Our group almost had the place to ourselves.

The World Heritage Site on the outskirts of Tunis was one of the great Mediterranean civilisations until its destruction by the Romans. It was the city where Hannibal, the great general whose tactics are still studied in military academies, and who famously marched elephants across the Alps to attack Rome, was born in 247BC.

Port El Kantaoui is home to excellent fish dishes
Port El Kantaoui is home to excellent fish dishes

Tunisia also boasts several heritage areas like the Tunis suburb of Sidi Bou Said where the buildings adhere to a strict blue and white colour scheme.

There are also Roman amphitheatres, historic forts, national parks and some of the most important mosques in the Islamic world for visitors to explore.

Sandwiched between Libya and Algeria, with their well publicised troubles in recent years, Tunisia has always enjoyed a reputation as a safe travel destination and this is how it seemed during my brief stay.

This was my first visit to Africa, an Islamic country and the Arab world, yet Tunisia did not feel unfamiliar because in many ways it looks to Europe.

Old colonial ties mean French is the unofficial second language and many Tunisians also speak English.

Alcohol is produced and consumed, the resorts look like those on the northern shores of the Med and women’s rights are enshrined in law.

It all makes for a place perhaps best described as Arab world light.

You realise this at 2am on Friday morning when the nightclub you’re in is still packed with locals drinking spirits and dancing the night away. Indeed, many will be at the mosque in the morning, but it confirms this is a place with one eye on Western culture and the other on Arab traditions.

Tunisia has more than 700 miles of Mediterranean coastline, which is home to seaside resorts and posh hotels complete with golf courses, spas and marinas.

For those in search of accommodation with more character and charm, smaller boutique hotels are opening up as Tunisia attempts to entice a wider range of tourists.

Being a small country, there are varied landscapes from the high Atlas Mountains, where snow in winter is not uncommon, and the Sahara Desert to the fertile coastal region, which is the focus of the tourist industry.

More adventurous travellers can arrange to explore the interior with a guide or take a Star Wars tour to see the desert locations used for the planet Tatooine in the 1977 blockbuster.

But our group was sticking to the well-worn tourist trail, staying at coastal resorts in Hammamet, Sousse and Gammarth, on the outskirts of Tunis.

At the Hasdrubal Thalassa Hotel in Sousse, it was time to unwind when our hosts treated us to some treatments in the adjoining spa.

After a relaxing massage, I emerged smelling of Tunisia’s national flower having been soothed with jasmine oil and naff new age mood music for a good 30 minutes.

Many of Tunisia’s spa hotels offer thalassotherapy treatments, which focus on the use of heated sea water. Very relaxing it is too.

The Residence Hotel in Gammarth is situated by the sea and has a spa, comfortable rooms, a golf course and several restaurants.

At the hotel’s golf course restaurant I was introduced to harissa – a fiery condiment made of hot chilli, salt, olive oil and lemon juice. It’s one of Tunisia’s culinary delights and fans of spicy food will be hooked when they try it.

Another tasty dish called brick, a thin deep fried pastry filled with tuna, harissa and egg, is well worth a try.

Seafood fans will be in their element in Tunisia, as evidenced by a dish called ‘fish symphony’ served at La Daurade restaurant in Port El Kantaoui. Octopus, squid and sea bass all featured in this fishy feast, which followed a delicious tapas-style spread of nibbles.

The sunny weather makes Tunisia fertile ground for growing olives, and there are pretty groves throughout the countryside in coastal areas. The olive oil they produce is excellent.

Wine is produced in Tunisia and it’s not half bad. Another local tipple worth trying is Thibarine, a strong date liqueur, and the mint tea served across the country is sweet and delicious.

Foods popular across North Africa are eaten in Tunisia, from cous cous and pork-free merguez sausage to dates and apricots plus slow-cooked meat stews cooked in tagines.

A word of warning for travellers flying out of Tunis-Carthage Airport – change your unspent dinars into Euros or pounds before immigration control as they are not accepted in the duty free shops, somewhat bizarrely.

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