Contemporary resorts that are one with the environment are springing up like oases in Tozeur and Nefta, small towns in a much-changed Tunisia.
In southern Tunisia, a hotel revolution
As a perennial city dweller, the idea of floating in a tranquil oasis pool in the middle of the desert has always been seductive, but a die-hard adventurer I'm not. Chances are that I'd long for a fluffy white towel and tall glass of fresh lemonade after the dip.
At Dar Hi - a recently opened eco-friendly retreat with 17 playfully futuristic and brightly coloured living spaces, superb home-made organic cuisine, yoga classes and a holistic spa - you can have it all and don't have to rough it.
On the sun terrace, I ease into the geothermic pool, heated to a toasty 38°C by the oasis hot springs at the foot of the hotel. The water is like warm silk (never mind the faint whiff of sulphur) and, suddenly, lap swimming seems pointless. Instead, I paddle languidly back and forth and take in the view.
Directly ahead is La Corbeille, a lush date-palm oasis that stretches all the way to Tozeur, 23 kilometres away. Just beyond is the poky little village of Nefta, a cluster of flat-roofed, cinnamon-coloured brick houses sunk into the pale dunes. At this hour, the distant horizon glitters with a mirage-like mist, reflected off the large salt lake, Chott El Jerid.
These desert towns are hardly the place you'd expect to find an avant-garde contemporary-style boutique hotel, yet Tozeur is slowing finding its way onto the map as a "cool" getaway destination. It's low-key and glitz-free - in contrast to the dazzling, sumptuous offerings in Marrakech or Tunisia's bulky beach resorts, the buzzwords here are simplicity and authenticity.
"I wanted to develop a small hotel in the desert where you could slow down, take the time to reflect, enjoy simple things and also see how an oasis functions," says French designer Matali Crasset, over breakfast. "Nefta is only a few hours from so many major cities, but you feel like you've arrived at the end of the world."
And in a way, you have. There are still farmers leading donkeys toting heavy sacks of grain down the dusty streets. The coolest place to go in town is a tiny cafe in lush tangled garden of the palm oasis, where Nora, the owner, serves mint tea but will also whip up some flat Berber bread in a frying pan right there in the sand. There is nothing to buy here except for the local pride and joy, deglet nour dates, called "fingers of light" for their fine transparent texture.
The early morning haze has lifted. I'm sitting with the Dar Hi's founding team in a lime-hued sunken dining niche on the terrace, feasting on the breakfast buffet's mouth-watering homemade cakes - date and honey, lemon, carrot, and pear crumble - all made from local seasonal ingredients.
Essentially, the concept of Dar Hi emerged in the wake of a long-established successful partnership between friends. Best known for her whimsical-verging-on-wacky rainbow universe (which includes everything from multi-functional modular furniture to moonbeam-powered lamps), Matali Crasset teamed up with Philippe Chapelet and Patrick Elouarghi in 2003 for the conceptual interiors of the ultra-hip Hi Hotel in Nice, on the Côte d'Azur. Dar Hi is the designer's first foray in the world of architecture.
"People are curious about the Saharan desert and want to discover landscapes away from the coast," Philippe explains. "So we thought, why not look for an alternate form of hospitality that would be more extreme than the bling-bling of the seaside Riviera?"
"We brought Matali to Nefta, a place we'd often visited on holiday," says Patrick, who is Franco-Tunisian. "Then we showed her this property on the hill, overlooking the dunes, and asked her to imagine a new kind of living space."
"One important objective was building a facade that would blend with the environment," says Matali. "We didn't want the hotel to be an imposing contemporary structure that would be viewed by the local population as some kind of UFO."
That was four years ago. As it happened, Dar Hi opened its doors just a month before the Jasmine Revolution.
Before leaving for Tunisia, I'd wondered about visiting a country that was still processing the aftermath of a revolution. But as soon as I'd stepped into the tiny airport in Tozeur, the smiling customs officer had immediately put me at ease, as do the handful of other tourists staying at the hotel when I arrive. That feeling would linger throughout my entire stay. "Since the elections in October, tourists have been finding their way back to Tunisia," says Philippe Chapelet. "Dar Hi was completely full over the Christmas and New Year's holiday."
Another reason to be optimistic is that Dar Hi is not a trendy enclave for wealthy tourists set apart from the community. From the start, explains Matali, the idea was to become actively involved in local environmental issues, which meant joining in to revitalise the oasis and develop new ways of using palm-derived products. Plans are in place for an exclusive beauty line of Dar Hi date creams and cosmetics.
"The concept was to collaborate with the local artisans and not import anything, including our own logic. It was really exceptional to invent everything from scratch," the designer says. Working closely with Tunisian architect Mohammad Nasr, she found uses for the locally sourced palm wood for everything from the framework of the buildings to tables, chairs and kitchen utensils.
"You can feel the solidarity of the people in Nefta, wanting to get back on their feet again," adds Marie-Caroline Bourieau, the Dar Hi's director. "We had a problem about sharing the hot water source with one of the farmers, but everyone stood behind us, and no one was afraid to say what they had on their mind."
My room is one of nine sand-coloured "Pilotis" units, elevated on long concrete columns like stilts. The interior is ablaze with a turquoise daybed mattress with orange pillows, set in front of a huge bay window for the sweeping desert vista. The furniture - a simple pine bed attached to a little table and chairs, and a small cement sink - is minimalist but comfortable.
Built below the main terrace, the "Troglodyte" rooms are a veritable shelter from the blazing sun, divided into cocoon-like bedroom nooks. They were inspired by the cave dwellings in Matmata, Matali explains, and are lit by a circle of daylight from above. The two spacious, curvy rooms on the ground floor were dreamed up with the desert landscape in mind. "The bed is meant to make you feel as if you were hidden behind a wind-sculpted dune," says Matali.
Predictably, there are no TVs or mini-bars in Dar Hi, but this is to encourage the communal vibe. Guests tend to drift into the "media room", equipped with Wi-Fi, a large screen and soft fuschia chairs, to watch films or a must-see soccer match. The cosy Moroccan salon/library is filled with moveable pouffes, perfect for evenings by the fireplace when the temperatures drop.
Drinks, snacks and fruit are always on hand in the serve-yourself gallery, just in front of the glass-walled, open-plan kitchen, where you can watch the preparation of traditional Tunisian dishes, but with a slight gastronomic twist. The chefs, a group of local village women, were all trained under the expert eye of Parisian food consultant Frédérick Grasser Hermé, known for her wildly creative culinary innovations. The heavenly aroma of chorba, a thick spicy soup with merguez and chickpeas, is already wafting through the front hallway as we exit.
There's still time before the midday heat strikes to stroll along a renovated pedestrian path that winds through La Corbeille's 400,000 palms. After years of neglect, the joint funding to rehabilitate this 2,000-hectare oasis (including a hefty €350,000 [Dh1.6m] donation from Monaco and the Prince Albert Foundation) has already yielded visible results. Beyond the rather grand entrance gates and a showy stretch of concrete, the graceful palms shelter parcels of land, given to 200 local farm labourers to develop their own vegetable patches and orchards.
Next, we venture into the maze of Nefta's partially renovated medina, where a group of passing schoolchildren greet us, giggling, and call out a friendly "bonjour". Hidden away in the narrow streets is Ibn-Khaldoun (00 216 76 431 353), a small museum devoted to the Arab and Berber civilisations and packed with century-old photos and engravings of dreamy oasis landscapes and townspeople.
Tozeur, only a 15-minute drive from Nefta, seems almost busy in comparison. We pass the outdoor market, a colourful blur of stalls piled high with melons and pomegranates, and head to the Restaurant de la République. Housed under an arcade a few metres off Avenue Habib Bourguiba near the souq, it serves simple but market-fresh fare. Another option for good local dishes is Le Petit Prince (signposted off Avenue Abbou Kacem Chabbi).
For those who can't get enough of the oasis, don't miss Eden Palm (www.eden-palm.com; 00 216 76 454 474), where you can take a guided tour, or head straight to the terrace cafe for mint tea and an array of luscious date pastries made on the premises. Inveterate shoppers can pick up quality handcrafted finds - table linens, blown-glass dishware, woven foutahs and local scents - at Alef (13 souq Rebaa; www.alef-deco.com; 00 216 76 453 766) , a prettily restored colonial-style boutique owned by French antique's dealers Jean and Antoine.
By late afternoon, we decide to leave town and pile into a four-wheel drive, racing against the sunset. After careening through the dunes, we arrive at Ong Jemel, near Chott El-Gharsa, where the original 1977 Star Wars decor still stands like a ghost town at the foot of the Sahara and has remained a tourist attraction. It is nearly closing time, and the wind-weathered spaceship models and rounded red cave huts take on a deeper hue in the fading light.
We trudge up to the highest dune and let the silence wash over us as the sun slowly disappears into an indigo sky. No one dares to pull out a mobile phone; there's a tacit understanding that even the faintest click of a camera will somehow ruin the moment.
Later that night, back in my room at Dar Hi, utterly relaxed after an invigorating salt scrub and a rose-oil massage at the spa, I feel light years away from home.
If you go
The flight Return flights with Emirates (www.emirates.com) from Dubai to Tunis cost from Dh3,330. Return flights from Tunis to Tozeur with Tunis Air Express (www.tunisairexpress.com.tn) cost from €107.5 (Dh515). Prices include taxes.
The hotel Dar Hi in Nefta (www.dar-hi.net/en; 00 216 76 432 779) has a special offer on its elevated "Pilotis" units, from €100 (Dh1,610) per person, per night, based on two sharing, full board, including airport transfers, laundry, access to the hammam and pool, and taxes. The newly opened Diar Abou Habibi in Tozeur (http://diarhabibi.com; 00 216 76 460 270.) has 12 luxurious treehouses with bathrooms, air-conditioning and Wi-Fi, from €159 (Dh753) per night. Dar Saida Beya (www.darsaidabeya.com; 00 216 25 566 066), located near the Tozeur medina, is a small and stylish new hotel, with double rooms from€105 (Dh497) per night, including breakfast and taxes.