Stretch Out on the Sand in Tunisia

You are standing up to your ankles in black slush and feel the icy water seeping down to your toes. You grope with frozen fingers for a tissue to wipe your perennially runny nose. You look up in despair and see nothing but gray sky, gray buildings, and gray faces set in utter gloom. And you realize you won't make it until May if you don't recharge your batteries first. You need to warm up your bones, tan your pallid skin and doze off to the sound of waves crashing on a beach.

But you only have a week of vacation left and your travel budget has shrunk to less than $800. Don't despair -- try southern Tunisia.

Much of the Mediterranean is too cold in winter for a beach holiday, but the weather in the sheltered bay off southeastern Tunisia stays sunny and near 20 degrees Celsius for much of the winter.

If you hit a cloudy day, you can ride a camel in the Sahara or wander through ancient Berber villages in the south, where temperatures rarely dip below 25 degrees. And your biggest expense, not counting the flight, will be the cab ride home from your beloved Sheremetyevo.

The cab from Tunis airport, on the other hand, will quickly introduce you to Tunisian friendliness and good value. For just $20 to $30 a shared cab will drive you hundreds of kilometers down the highway to the destination of your choice.

And there it is: the beach! My favorite one was in Sousse, a resort area 120 kilometers southeast of Tunis that my girlfriend and I used as our base for a rejuvenating one-week holiday. It boasts a long stretch of soft sand and a deep aquamarine sea that was still fairly warm in late November. When we had swum among schools of tiny fish, snoozed off our stress and run out of reading material, we wandered for hours along the beach, stopping off at beach caf?s for cold drinks and hot crepes.

We were not the only ones who enjoyed this location, but the swarms of tourists on package trips were neatly stashed away in the countless resorts north of the city. When we had enough of the sun, we escaped to the medina, the charming old center behind the city walls. It is a short walk to the beach and nearly devoid of tourists after 5 p.m.

The medina is especially worth a visit in the early morning or evening. At night the shops close, the men head to their coffee shops to chat and smoke their water pipes and the women fill the tiny alleyways with the tantalizing smell of broiling lamb.

In the morning you can visit the Great Mosque and the Ribat, a fortress that housed both warriors and Islamic teachers. They were built in the ninth century and are being carefully restored.

There are many restaurants on Avenue Habib Bourguiba but we found the best places across from the medina on the Place Farhat Hached. Malouf serves good kebab and couscous with lamb. The circular restaurant of the Hotel Hadromet serves fresh fried fish with good wine and is very popular with the locals. For a breakfast of warm croissants and fresh orange juice, or for an after-dinner cup of mint tea, try the Salon de The Marakech in the same row of restaurants.

Hotel de Paris, a clean and quiet option for the low-budget traveler, costs just 13 Tunisian dinars ($14) for a double room with shared bathroom and is just inside the medina at Rue du Rempart Nord. The Hotel Claridge, on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, has larger rooms with attached bathrooms (about $25) but faces a busy street.

If you get stuck with a cloudy day, consider visiting the fine Roman colosseum in El Jem, a 50-minute train trip from Sousse. Wander up the stone stairs for a view and then retrace the steps of the gladiators and lions through a tunnel underneath the theater.

You can also go to the Kerkennah Islands, a popular destination in the summer, when seawinds offer some respite from the scorching heat. It can be a bit chilly in winter and there is nothing to do but sit on the beach, but then again there is not a tourist in sight, forcing the resorts to lower their rates. We rented a nice double room with balcony and three good meals for 45 dinars at Hotel Farhat, at the end of the only paved road in the only resort town, Sidi Fredj.

Four ferries a day make the 80-minute trip from the port of Sfax to the islands. You are best off taking a cab to the hotel, but one of the buses stops at Sidi Fredj as well.

Warmer but reportedly more crowded is the island of Jerba, farther south. It even has its own airport and a bridge to the mainland.

It is a substantial 350-kilometer drive from Tunis and we never made it, but the quietude at Kerkennah suggests that the tourist crush should also be bearable on Jerba through the winter.

Using Sousse as a base, there are many interesting diversions within relatively easy reach, such as a cluster of ancient Berber villages near Tatouine, a seven-hour drive. The stone huts, stacked on top of each other or dug into the mountain slopes, are mostly abandoned but give you a good impression of how the Berber people managed to survive in this hot, barren corner of the world.

Chinine, perched on a high cliff, is a must as far as Berber villages go. You should also check out Ksar Megabla and Ghoumrassen, which are less touristy. In the off-season, when cabs are few, it is worth hiring a cab in Tatouine for the day ($20 should do).

On the bumpy dirt road from Chinine to Ghoumrassen, keep an eye out for the lilac and white flowers that manage to survive among the rocks.

Hotel La Gazelle, in Tatouine, is close to the cab station, clean and cheap ($28). Hotel Songho is better but farther out. At Restaurant de la Liberte the owner will serve you a dirt-cheap and delicious curried chicken with rice.

Just as far from Sousse as Tatouine, but more inland, is Douz, which bills itself as the gateway to the Sahara. Rent a camel with guide at Hotel Splendide for several hours or days to discover the charms of large amounts of sand. Matmata, a collection of unusual troglodyte dwellings designed to help the locals survive the summers, should be viewed early in the day or at sunset to avoid the crowds.

Tunis, of course, is a story in itself and you will probably want to spend at least a day there. Hotel Maison d'Oree on Rue el Koufa is wonderful at about $28 a night with a bath, friendly service and a good breakfast. Restaurant Andalous on Rue de Marseille has great couscous.

The medina is touristy but has the nicest souks (covered shopping bazaars) and many historic sites. It is possible, if sinful, to cram your tour of the Punic ruins of Carthago into the morning before your flight back. Take a quick train to Carthago-Hannibal and from there it is only a 15-minute cab ride to the airport.

If that sounds like an inappropriately cultural finale to a beach-bum holiday, there is always another stretch of sand to conquer. The chic suburb of Sidi bou Said, 25 minutes by train from the center, has two beaches, one next to the marina.

Give yourself one last dose of restorative sun before you join the wistful line of Russians at the check-in counter.

Travel Tips

? Tunisians speak French and Arabic, but many younger people also speak English and it is easy to get by in English in the main beach resort areas.

? The Tunisian dinar is now worth just over $1. None of the bank machines takes Western bank cards, and only a few take Visa credit cards, but banks across the country will give you cash for Mastercards and Visa cards, as well as Eurocheques. It is easy to change dollars and travelers' checks into dinars

at most banks and some hotels also take credit cards.

? To get around, the best form of transport is the louage, a shared cab that drives five to seven passengers from one "gare de louage" to another in any of the major towns. They cost about 1 dinar per 25 kilometers and are quite comfortable, if you manage to avoid the tiny back seat.

? Large towns have several gares de louage, with different destinations from each station. Cabs are cheap and metered, while trains are very comfortable and inexpensive but run rarely and only between Tunis, Sousse, Sfax and Gabes. Rental cars from agencies like Hertz and Budget are pricey.

? We found the Tunisians we met very hospitable and not as pushy as some of their neighbors. The few times we were overcharged or cheated, we never lost more than 1 dinar.

? Most men have a less-than-respectful attitude toward Western women, but they do keep a distance and in beach towns even Tunisian women get away with wearing short skirts, a sign that Tunisia is one of the more liberal Moslem countries.Calls for prayer at the mosque are widely ignored, and wine flows freely.

Still, travelers should respect the local culture by covering their upper legs and arms outside the beach towns, and visiting the mosques only during special tourist hours in the mornings.


and Accommodation

Albion Tours (237-2603), recommended by Russian friends who fly to Tunis regularly, offers a $330 round-trip ticket with Aeroflot, with restrictions, or flights with board and lodging for as little as $520 a week.

No visa is necessary for Americans or Europeans, although it is required for Russians.

Our flight to Tunis was trouble-free but I have had difficulties with two of the four flights I have booked with Aeroflot through other agents, so I would urge caution. Confirm your return flight the day you arrive and check in early. Try limiting yourself to hand luggage.

There are many alternatives with Western European airlines, but the flight to a European gateway will at least double your total fare.

A Lufthansa ticket for $780 is one of the more affordable options you will find, available through the Story-M travel agency (244-0667).

There is no real need to make hotel reservations ahead of time in winter, but you may get a cheaper rate for a resort if you reserve a room for a whole week or organize your trip as part of a package tour.