October 2007. Exchange Rate: £1 = 2.5TD (Tunisian Dinars)
The four-star Tej Marahab hotel in Sousse, Tunisia was the focal point of our stay during October 2007, although we opted to stay in the three-star, Tej Marahab ApartHotel (self catering apartments) in a nearby block, in the same grounds. We actually had the half-board option as part of the deal, but the use of the kitchenette was very useful, not least because there was a fridge to keep drinks cold.
The hotel was typical of any one of the dozens of hotels in Tunisia; a fairly grand reception area, which also house the main bar, swimming pools both outside and indoors, fitness room, sauna, massage rooms and plethora of tourist-tat shops. It was a pity that the bar-staff were so glum, and were obviously on some sort of commission if they could sell you expensive "cocktails" which had so little alcohol in them we had only the one.
The hotel did have an Internet Cafe with some random opening hours; it was however, all broadband and fast as well as being one of the cheapest in the area at just 1.5TD (about 60pence) per 15 minutes. The girl running it was quite helpful too, even she did work to Tunisian standards of time-keeping.
One of the cashiers in the hotel who exchanged the foreign money and gave out Internet vouchers and so on was the rudest, grumpiest and most smarmy person I have ever met and did the hotel no favours at all. He would totally ignore you as you stood there with your 20 pound notes in your hand until he was good and ready. Eventually I got to the stage of just barking out my requests, grabbing the Tunisian Dinars and leaving without so much as a Thank You; treat as you would be treated really!
The Tej Marhaba hotel is part of a huge complex, with the aforementioned apartments in a block behind the hotel, but there is also the shopping complex, aptly named the Marhaba Center, which contains a few high fashion shops and an English styled pub. As far as it goes it's OK but nothing special, except for its restaurant which served some very good buffet breakfasts and dinners.
Next door to the hotel apartments (and still part of the complex) is the Saloon Bar, an almost Disney-esque Wild West themed bar-restaurant where they serve some (expensive: 20TD) steaks but also a decent beer. Pernod and Orange juice is also available for 4TD and 3TD respectively so order both (in separate glasses) for a decent drink for about £3!
There are some far finer hotels in the Port el Kantaoui tourist village just 4kms up the road, reachable by taxi (about 5TD) or Noddy Train (also 5TD single or 7TD return) or Caleche (horse and cart) at whatever price you fix up front.
We visited el Kantaoui about 10 times during our two week stay, sometimes just for a coffee, sometimes to see the well-run bird/animal 'zoo' (5TD entrance, plus 1TD for a bag of optional animal food).
The entire port is built around a man-made harbour which has some very expensive boats and yachts moored here. There are also some boat trips to be had from this port, such as a glass bottomed trip around the harbour, but I can't comment on their quality of value for money as I didn't try any of them.
Numerous restaurants surround the harbour so you won't go hungry or thirsty, and no-one minds if you just order a coffee and linger over it for an hour or more (although during high season you may be persuaded to order lunch or leave, I suspect).
Another big attraction for El Kantaoui is that it houses a special type of supermarket called a 'Magasin General', which is allowed to serve alcohol. You'll find it (if you look hard enough) just before the main arched gateway before the harbour. We must have passed it a dozen times before finding it, even though we knew it was there somewhere! You won't find alcohol being served in any other type of supermarket or shop; there is another Magasin General in Sousse about half a mile away from Tej Marhaba on the main road to Sousse (a very walkable route) but there were indications that it might be closing down.
If you think you can see cans of beer being served in other shops look more closely: you will find that they are all of the alcohol free variety. This is a Muslim country that takes the drinking of alcohol as something to be discouraged.
It's worth coming to Port El Kantaoui at least a couple of times; if I ever go back to Tunisia (and after 3 visits I think I've seen all I want to) I would stay in a more upmarket hotel in this area. You are still within easy reach of Sousse (and you can jump off the Noddy Train closer to Sousse if you want to walk the rest of the way) yet you avoid the noise and hassle of the 'Real Tunisia' in this little enclave.
Incidentally, if you do take the Noddy Train from Sousse (just flag it down as it approaches if you are not at one of the designated 'train-stops' en route) either buy a single ticket or else ensure you take the same train back again. The tickets (and trains) are colour-coded and are only valid for that particular train. As the trains seem to make up the timetables as they go, we found it far more flexible (albeit more expensive) just to buy single tickets at 5TD per couple so that we had the flexibility to return by whichever coloured train turned up next.
As there is no real price-advantage in travelling by Noddy Train compared to a yellow Taxi, why do it? After all, it is a slower journey, in a sometimes windy, open-sided, bumpy, jerky carriage! Therein lies its charm, the fact that you can see out and take in the journey at a pace more suited to Tunisian life generally, rather than being whished from one place to another by a Taxi of dubious mechanical soundness.
We only ever used the Taxis for trips to outlying villages such as Hergla. We even used the Metro train (down by the fish harbour in Sousse) to travel to Monastir and Mahdia, a ridiculously cheap ticket of about 2DT per person on a train that would not be out of place on British tracks.
After 5 glorious days of blue sky and 28° sunhine, the mother of all thunderstorms changed all that. On the day that Ramadan finished, the heavens opened with thunder and lightning, as though it were an omen from Allah Himself. Thereafter, temparatures were down to the low twenties with variable winds, clouds and rain showers.
Luckily, the change in the weather did not particularly affect the remainder of our holiday, although a few more degrees and a bit more sunshine would have been nice. On the final day, we actually moved inside one of the Port el Kantaoui cafes to have lunch as it was just the wrong side of chilly (and, being Brits, we're quite used to less than warm weather!).
Yes, you really need to know about this ninth month of the Islamic calendar, because it can impact your holiday.
Basically, during the month of Ramadan, Moslems are not supposed to eat, drink or smoke during the hours of daylight. Actually, they are also not supposed to indulge in another consenting-adults-only activity, but as this is a family-friendly site let's skip that bit. Suffice it to say, that their religous obligations requires them to pure of thought and action during this time.
Ramadan can impact your holiday because if, like us, you turn up at the end of the season when tourist numbers are already diminishing, you will find that some cafes, bars and the smaller restaurants all shut up shop as there is no trade to support them. Some take the opportunity to repaint and refurbish their outlets, but many are just closed.
In our case, once Ramadan finished, apart from the thunderstorms described above, there is a three-day periods of celebration called Eid al-fitr (The Lesser Feast) which is a bit like Christmas Day and Boxing Day: everything is pretty much on hold whilst they Tunisians visit their families for lunch and a general holiday feeling permeates their general activities. Many supermarkets and shops are closed.
On the fourth day, the shutters came up, tables got cleaned and the whole place (well, Sousse, anyway) started buzzing again with fast-food vendors and cafes opening up shop - and more importantly being frequented by locals as well as the remaining tourists. Itr was quite odd to suddenly see 'the locals' eating Kebabs at fast food stands during the day.
I wouldn't recommend visiting Tunisia during Ramadan and I'm just glad that it finished at the end of our first week. Unfortunately for tourists, the Ramadan timing varies each year. Because the Moslem year is based on the lunar months (with just 354 days per year) the months shift each year by about 10 days. This means that Ramadan (the ninth month) also shifts and could appear during the prime tourist season. I would expect the tourist numbers at that point to be enough to keep all the tourist cafes, bars and restaurants open, but at other times of the year it could be pretty austere.
Tunisia is well known for its coffee bars, but you won't find a Tunisian Costa Coffee here. All tourist cafes know that the tourists want Cafe au Lait, or a Cappucino or an equivalent. They don't usually offer a Turkish coffee (small, black and very sweet) unless you ask or point to the menu.
We found good coffee at a very new and clean cafe just north of el Kantaoui between the two tourist supermarkets. Well worth a visit if only to use their super-clean toilets, complete with air fresheners and towels. Prices are very reasonable (about £1.50 for a coffee, &poound;2.50 for a baguette) and quality is OK.
In Sousse they serve good coffee at the very end of the road where the Noddy Train route ends. Just keep walking towards the Medina (about 500 yards) and on the corner just before you hit the main square you will find a cafe serving a selection of cakes, pastries, ice creams and a decent cafe au lait. Nothing special to look at, but also serves Kebabs from an attached kiosk. Unfortunately we asked the waiter for just the (warm) bread used in making the Kebab (with nothing in it at all) and he still insisted on charging us the full 4.5TD that the Kebab costs. Total rip-off and shows that you must ALWAYS establish a price before buying (including a Taxi fare).
In short, coffee can be had anywhere, priced from 1.5TD to 3.5TD per cup/glass but we found the tourist places understood our tasted in coffee the best.
As an alternative to the ubiquitous coffee, try their mint tea but for goodness sake ask for it sans sucre (without sugar) unless you want your entire sugar ration for the day in that one drink! Tunisians like their coffee, tea and pastries really sweet, so watch out!