Jerba is an island with a harmonious mixture of Mediterranean brightness and sandy beaches, strong desert heat and lack of vegetation, and peculiar, beautiful, whitewashed domed-hut architecture. This extends to the island’s ethnic mix: Berber culture is dominant here and local women are wrapped in cream-striped textiles, topped with straw hats. A Jewish community, once integral to the island’s ethnic make-up, still remains on the island in small numbers, despite mass emigration to Israel. And the tourists, most of them on package holidays, splash around the island in seasonal waves, bringing precious employment and taking precious water resources.
The island is linked to the mainland by a causeway built in Roman times, and convenient 24-hour car ferries between Ajim (where Obi-Wan Kenobi had his house) and Jorf. Jerba claims to be the Land of the Lotus Eaters described in Homer’s Odyssey, where people lived ‘drugged by the legendary honeyed fruit’ – Ulysses had a lot of trouble prising his crew away.
Houmt Souq is the island’s ‘capital’, standing in the middle of the north coast. It’s a small town with a lovely central area, where a narrow tangle of souvenir souqs open onto lazy, café-lined squares. A highlight is staying in funduqs, the old merchant inns converted into charming hotels. There’s a tourist office (650 915; off Ave Habib Bourguiba; 9am-1pm & 3-6pm Mon-Thu, 9am-1pm Fri & Sat) in the middle of town and an ONTT (Office National du Tourisme Tunisien; 650 016; 9am-1pm & 3-6pm Mon-Thu, 9am-1pm Fri & Sat) near the fort. There are also banks with ATMs and a post office (Ave Habib Bourguiba). Publinet (off Ave Abdelhamid el-Kadhi) charges US$1.50 per hour for internet access. There’s a Taxiphone office (Ave Abdelhamid el-Kadhi).