It may be but a slim wedge of North Africa’s vast horizontal expanse, but Tunisia has enough history and diverse natural beauty to pack a country many times its size. With a balmy, sand-fringed Mediterranean coast, scented with jasmine and sea breezes, and where the fish on your plate is always fresh, Tunisia is prime territory for a straightforward sun-sand-and-sea holiday. But beyond the beaches, it’s a thrilling, underrated destination where distinct cultures and incredible extremes of landscape can be explored in just a few days. Tunis is refashioning itself as an ambitiously modern Arab capital, though both its long Ottoman and not-so-distant colonial past still have a powerful, palpable presence. In the north, lakes teem with pink flamingos, surprising deep-green forests rise up from the coast, and gently rolling plains are dotted with olive and citrus trees. To the south, the ever-enchanting sands of the Sahara stretch deep into Africa and the traditions of the indigenous Berbers persevere.
Tourism plays a huge part in the economy but Tunisians are surprised, and charmed, by independent travellers. Although around 7 million tourists arrive each year, unless you’re holed up in an all-inclusive hotel in Hammamet, Sousse or Jerba in July, you’re probably going to wonder where the 6,999,995 or so others are. While there’s precious little that caters specifically for those staying outside resorts, that doesn’t mean that travel isn’t easy here. You’ll discover atmospheric hotels that are pure colonial swansongs, cafes and restaurants where you can gorge on Maghrebi favourites, plates of homemade pasta or perfect pastries for a fraction of the price of those in Italy or France, and often have the unbeatable historical thrill of kicking around a stunning ancient site with just you and the ghosts. The country’s public transport is cheap and reliable. Plus there are new breeds of hoteliers, restaurateurs and shopkeepers who have taken their cues from the high-end offerings of Morocco and are creating an increasing number of stylish, atmospheric alternatives to the chain monoliths and tourist souqs – but in true Tunisian style they’re both a tad more laid-back and more affordable. North Africa’s most relaxed and hospitable country just might turn out to be its most interesting.