TRAVEL: You can afford to dream in terrific Tunisia

Ginny Warner finds the one success story of the Arab spring.

By The Newsroom
Monday, 16th July 2012, 5:01 pm

When my daughter was little she desperately wanted to swim with dolphins. But only in Tunisia did her dream finally come true.

The look on her face as she and her brother got up close and personal with these beautiful, gentle creatures brought tears to my eyes and a lump to my throat.

Although several holiday destinations around the world offer the same experience, in Tunisia there are no long waiting lists - we booked just a few days earlier - and it is excellent value at less than £50 for a 45-minute session.

It began with a familiarisation exercise, “shaking hands” with the dolphins and tickling their tummies when they rolled over. This was followed by snorkelling with them in their pool, and ended with a “piggyback” ride - being pulled along, holding on to their fin. As a final party trick, the dolphins have been trained to wave goodbye.

There are some concerns about the welfare of captive dolphins, particularly with regard to their living conditions. But these animals seemed happy enough in their beautiful, large, clean pool, frequently popping their heads up as they waited for the session with their visitors to start.

The treat was an optional extra during a Thomas Cook excursion appropriately called African Dream, which included a visit to the Friguia Zoo, where camel rides are also available, and culminated in a traditional three-course meal accompanied by non-stop entertainment by Zulu drummers and troupes performing different styles of African dance.

A holiday in Tunisia - a fusion between Africa and Mediterranean Europe - offers something for everyone. It’s an easy two-and-a-half hour flight from London, with the same time zone as ours.

The big attraction of Tunisia this year, say tour operators, is that it is one of the few countries to benefit from the Arab Spring - from the tourists’ viewpoint at least.

The country is calm and prices are comparatively low. Hoteliers, in particular, learned a harsh lesson when national revenues from tourism plunged by about 50% in 2011 to around £800m.

Tunisia has so much for culture vultures and history buffs to explore: you can easily take in three cities in one with a visit to the capital, Tunis, along with ancient Carthage and picture-postcard Sidi Bou Said with its blue and white buildings.

Adventure seekers might prefer the two-day Sahara Explorer trip - which includes Roman relics, a salt lake, cave dwellings, a 4x4 safari and a camel ride across the desert.

Wherever you go, taxis are cheap, so making your own outing to local shops and markets is easy to arrange.

We did a simple round trip by taking a cab to the old town of Hammamet to explore the Medina and then catching the “noddy” train down to the new town, Yasmine Hammamet - only 11 years old but made to look ancient - before taking a taxi back to the hotel. Don’t miss the life-sized sculptures of Hannibal and his elephants in Yasmine Hammamet.

Try to practise your haggling in the shops - it can become very addictive and there are plenty of bargains to be had.

But beware of Tunisian men bearing “gifts” - my daughter was given a bracelet she had been admiring but was very distressed when the shopkeeper expected to get “touchy-feely” with her in return for his generosity.

I was also asked the cliched question - how many camels would I sell her for?

The style of our hotel, the Sentido Phenicia in Hammamet, meant we could pack each day with action - or do virtually nothing at all.

Its location in the middle of the Gulf of Hammamet is perfect for water lovers and offers activities including parasailing, jetskis, “donuts” and banana boats. Or you can settle for a gentle dip in the crystal-clear Med - as relaxing as a warm bath, and very shallow and safe.

The hotel’s entertainment team are amazing - enthusiastic and with seemingly boundless energy.

On the go from mid-morning until late at night, they offer a range of activities including Pilates and aquarobics, beach volleyball, water polo, football and archery during the day, as well as a kids’ club, and shows every night. This was particularly admirable during Ramadan when, as Muslims, they are forbidden to eat or drink between dawn and sunset.

Everyone is encouraged to join in but if you want to just soak up the sun with a chilled drink and a good book, you are left alone.

Evening entertainment included a snake charmer, a light-hearted men versus women competition, and a Michael Jackson tribute show by the team featuring their leader doing a very impressive turn as the King of Pop.

Breakfast is served in a room overlooking the pool. Every day offers a continental-style spread of cheeses and meats with salads, cereals, fruit, bread and croissants, as well as sausages and bacon, with a griddle serving fried eggs, omelettes and pancakes.

A buffet-style lunch is served in the beach restaurant, or hamburgers and other snacks are available in the breakfast room. For an afternoon sugar rush, nothing can beat the delicious chocolate pancakes!

Dinner is served in the main restaurant, again on a buffet basis, with different dishes of the day - the melt-in-the-mouth roast lamb is to die for. There were also two speciality restaurants - Dragon and Panache - if you fancy a change.

After dinner you can chill out in the Arabic cafe, with a chance to lounge on cushions and try out the traditional shisha “hubbly bubbly” pipes, or relax with a drink in one of several bars around the hotel. The signature Phenicia cocktail slips down particularly easily.

Old habits seem to die hard with some of our European neighbours. Many of the French and Belgian guests at the hotel (we didn’t come across many Germans) felt the need to get up at the crack of dawn to reserve their sunbeds with their towels.

Some of our fellow Brits took an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” attitude but we were able to enjoy a leisurely breakfast and still managed to get sunloungers where we wanted so couldn’t see the point of the Battle of the Beds. Slipping the “mattress man” a dinar (45p) daily also helped!

Tipping is not expected at the hotel but a ready supply of dinar coins can make already great service even better.

Key facts - Tunisia

:: Best for: Families with children of all ages.

:: Time to go: All year round, but July and August can be very hot.

:: Don’t miss: The chance to experience local culture.

:: Need to know: You can’t take the local currency - the Tunisian dinar - in or out of the country so take sterling or euros and only change what you need. There is a universal exchange rate and no commission, so there is no need to shop around.

:: Don’t forget: Small tips go a long way...

Travel facts:

Ginny Warner travelled as a guest of Thomas Cook Holidays with Style, which offers seven nights’ all-inclusive at the four-star Sentido Phenecia Hotel in Hammamet from £464, including flights ex-Gatwick in mid-Sept. Prices ex-Manchester from £477, ex-Glasgow from £554.

Thomas Cook reservations: 0844 412 5970 and

Tunisia travel guide (£4.99) is available from Thomas Cook Publishing on 01733 416477 and