Travel editor Susie Boswell samples a road less travelled – and finds the Mediterranean offers far more than the much-vaunted Greek isles.
Despite being installed in the spiffing Les Orangers Beach Resort, standing on golden sand on the south-west Mediterranean, I was none to happy with the hotel just at that moment.
“What happened to my wake-up call?” I inquired grumpily of Reception, having woken and realised I’d missed the dawn departure of the Sahara Desert tour.
“Madame,” the desk replied gently, “we called your room many times. No response.” Oops. Red face. Sorry, err – thanks!
Well if you will dine languorously and late, murder the Bee Gees’ First of May in the disco long into the night and laugh and play in the balmy blue pool with newfound Austrian friends till the wee small hours (equally assaulting the German language), you are almost certain to sleep through an early morning summons.
Pas d’importance, as the French-speaking staff advised me: in fact, the Sahara tour is a very long dry dusty trip not ideally combined with a beach holiday, they confided. And so I dragged myself from the bed, crawled into my bikini, struggled a few paces to poolside again, fell horizontally onto a sun lounge and accepted the mint-and-hibiscus mid-morning mocktail presented with a flourish by the pool service waiter.
Ahh, delicious! After all, les Orangers (Orange Trees) is named for the sun-kissed juicy citrus abundant in the region – and the hotel’s equally ubiquitous and wholesome flavour-packed orange, watermelon and pineapple drinks are one of the delights of a holiday in Hammamet, in fascinating, intoxicating (watch that word!) Tunisia.
Les Orangers is all about sun and fun. Set on a sandy beach, the resort boasts a fabulous, vast swimming pool; great Moorish architecture – white stucco draped with cascading bougainvillea; fragrant orange blossom and jasmine on the breeze; airy, open, tiled-floor rooms ideal for the Mid-East climate; a fabulous nightlife, good food and friendly multi-lingual staff. Although 99 per cent of the country’s 10 million people are Muslim, the compound is excluded from Islamic religious observances, and is also a safe haven from some of the hazards for tourists in a number of north-east African countries – yet handy for forays out into authentic souks (bazaars) and the short trip to the capital itself, Tunis (formerly the site of ancient Carthage, and an intriguing centre of Arab and early Roman history) to visit incredible sites such as its medina, or old city. And although the hotel has much in common with any beachside resort anywhere in the world … it, too, breathes the unmatchable exotica of the Middle East, mixed with the chance to mingle with a United Nations of tourists, mostly from Scandinavia and the Continent.After all, Tunis is merely the equivalent flying time of Brisbane-Melbourne from major European ports such as London or Paris and even closer from Rome. As well, fares right now are both low and competitive: from Rome, as little as $150, often less. It’s the ideal time to plan to leave a few days spare in your northern hemisphere trip to free-range to destinations like Tunisia, formerly off the beaten track or out of economical reach. The Tunisian dinar is worth about 85c.
I found several days in Hammamet were immensely refreshing, way our of proportion to the length and cost of my stay, and an entirely unique experience. (Note, though: Les Orangers is not the place for a quiet holiday!).
Similarly, neighbouring Malta – some 400km across the sea at the centre of the Med – is a small, often-neglected but distinctive nation well worth a brief visit. Here, Christianity is the dominant religion expressed in the country’s famous catacombs – fantastic subterranean burial chambers carved deep into the honeycomb-coloured rock typical of the capital, Valetta, its surrounds and its magnificent fortified harbour.
Malta is an eclectic melange of cultures, a tiny strategically-placed nation influenced by its numerous invaders over the centuries. Sadly, its cuisine is more reminiscent of its most recent occupiers – i.e: British stodge – than of its proximate neighbour Italy, or even of fragrant African tagines.
But never mind the food, at least it’s edible, more than can be said in many places. Let’s enjoy the other British legacy: official language – English. Malta is a sightseer’s delight – paramount impressions are of narrow cobbled streets, fountains, churches and cathedrals. It’s an “easy” destination – handy for punctuating an energy-sapping itinerary around other more robust lands.
Story by Susie Boswell.