Unlocking the secrets of the Tunisian Sahara in Tozeur

My first look at the Sahara came from atop a fluffy camel as the sun breaks above the horizon, flinging cotton-candy hues across the sky above the wide expanse of the Chott el Djerid salt pan – the largest in the Sahara. As a morning person, I’ve seen a lot of sunrises and this one was truly something else: a profusion of pinks and purples streaking great lengths of the sky, emanating from an intensely glowing orange ball. It lingered, too, as did my camel who seemed to be taken by the show. Then we were off again, to break fast with a variety of local dates – some 300 types are grown in this region of southern Tunisia, thanks to the far-reaching oases of Tozeur and Nefta.

I’d arrived at Anantara Tozeur Resort the night before, landing long after the sun had set and the inky black of night effectively hid the desert landscape away, as if behind a curtain. The lights of the car could barely cut through it, so I’d have to wait until morning to see what this brand-new resort – Anantara’s African debut – and its surroundings were all about.

Less than an hour’s flight from Tunis, Tozeur is a world apart from the verdant seaside capital city. (Should you find yourself with a long layover there, head out to the chic white-and-blue town of Sidi Bou Saïd that tumbles down, Santorini-style, to the Mediterranean, or the nearby ruins of ancient Carthage.) Appearing like a fata morgana, the property is nestled in the sand with just 93 guest rooms and villas, each either overlooking the landscape of desert, salt pan and palm oasis, or inwards toward the mirage-like pools. Composed of light-coloured, low-lying buildings similar to the local style, the minimalist design blends in with clean whites and sandy tones while intricate geometric patterns reflect the ornate ochre brickwork I’d seen in the town, unique to the area. My Deluxe Sahara View Room was spacious and stocked with books about the country, a comfortable lounging area and a terrace with a fireplace that I lit in the evenings to cosy up next to as the sun set. Each room is assigned a villa host, who greets you on arrival and ensures that you’re left wanting for nothing, always on call with a buggy to get you to your next meal, make sure you’re at the lobby on time for your next excursion and have a hot bath steaming as you return after a long day out. My host Minyar was the cheerful start and end to each day, making sure everything went smoothly.

Though the resort hadn’t yet officially opened during my stay, I got a peek at what guests from this month on will experience, like the serene spa with a gorgeous hammam, and treatment and lounging rooms that have clear views to the desert beyond – a key product here will be the North African-produced Maison Desert brand. Other wellness offerings include a fitness centre equipped with Technogym gear, a yoga room, a court for tennis and
basketball and three pools – a large main pool, an adults-only pool and a children’s pool at the kids’ club. Two expansive three-bedroom Royal Villas were created with VVIPs in mind and include their own access, separate guest quarters for an entourage and outdoor spaces with a private pool and a sunken seating area around a fire pit. At the edge of the property, with desert views, one- and two-bedroom villas are great for families or couples seeking privacy, set behind palm-frond walls, some with their own plunge pools.

The two main restaurants are Sarab for all-day dining on international cuisine – and a great shakshuka at breakfast – and Mekong for Asian, which sits next to the pool in contemporary Far Eastern style that nods to Anantara’s Bangkok roots. The menu was still being created during my visit, but the succulent, flavour-packed duck breast I was served one evening showcased a kitchen that knew what it was doing. Another way to eat is the brand’s signature Dining by Design – suited to couples or small groups – and one evening I found myself in a majlis-like area of colourful cushions and
retro décor set up next to the pool. One of the roaring fire pits held a clay pot, which later was pulled out and cracked open to reveal the main course: traditional slow-cooked lamb and vegetables, the meat so tender it fell off the bone at the slightest suggestion. Adjacent to the hotel is the Arabian Nights culture village, an experience all guests would enjoy, soon to be filled with small shops where Tunisian artisans will make and sell traditional handicrafts, and a dining and entertainment space where cushioned seating areas are set around a stage and guests will be served mezze and grilled meats while taking in performances.

While the resort is cosseting, you’ll want to explore the surrounding areas – by camel is just one way to do that – and there’s an expansive menu of experiences with even more to come, like hot-air-ballooning over the desert, telescopes for dark-sky tourism (on a good night, you can see the Milky Way) and scenic aeroplane transfers from Tunis. Each day offered up something new and interesting. On one I set out driving through Chott el Djerid, a white, salt-dusted expanse that sparkles as if covered in a fine
layer of diamond dust, to find the abandoned Berber settlement of Chebika at the tail-end of the Atlas Mountains. At the base of the old village there’s a hot-spring pool filled with frogs singing joyfully, but now only the town’s skeleton remains after devastating rain in 1969 destroyed its traditional palm-and-clay buildings. In Tozeur, the small medina is charmingly beautiful, its walls and façades covered in eye-catching diamond and zig-zag brickwork (be sure to take in the panorama from atop La Grande Boutique de la Medina, a tourist holdout from before the revolution). You can also saddle up a horse and trot through a palm oasis, a green feast for the eyes shaded by innumerable date palms. And then there’s Star Wars – four of the series were shot here. Among the nearby filming sites the most popular may be the Mos Espa set from The Phantom Menace, though the desert is ever encroaching on it.

Like sand to a deserted movie set, there are signs that tourists are returning to Tozeur – and Tunisia – and Anantara is leading the charge to show off its best side.

This story was originally published in the December 2019/January 2020 edition of Condé Nast Traveller Middle East, as seen below

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