Stylist’s editor Lisa Smosarski takes her family off to Tunisia and enjoys the very warmest of north African welcomes...
When I was nine, I had a falling out with my best friend. I had submitted a piece of homework of which I was very proud – a fantasy story about a long-lost country. It was accompanied by a (hand drawn) map, weathered by time (or perhaps soaked in tea) which revealed how to get to the mythical land of, wait for it, Tunisia. After handing the work to my beloved teacher, my friend turned to me and, with a grin, told me that Tunisia was, in fact, real and that I hadn’t invented it at all. She was clearly jealous.
But there comes a time in one’s life when you have to forgive and forget. And that time came, for me, 26 years later, when I got the chance to hop on a plane and stay at The Residence – a five-star child-friendly spa hotel on the Tunisian Carthage coast.
OK, so there were no mythical monsters but, that aside, first impressions didn’t let Tunisia down. After a two-and-half-hour flight, I found myself in the pristine reception of the hotel, sipping sweet mint tea and relaxing in a snug corner of the candlelit domed entrance hall. That’s when I realised I might have been wrong to hold a grudge against Tunisia.
ABOVE: A view of the pool at The Residence, Tunis
The 164-room hotel is huge by anyone’s standards, and focuses around a spa, big outdoor pool, a private beach and six restaurants. This isn’t boutique but it is personal. From our arrival, the staff were helpful yet relaxed, fun yet efficient. They were especially welcoming to my young son, always stopping to say hello or play.
We’d booked a deluxe sea-view room for the stay, but after arriving fairly late and tucking straight into dinner (creamy artichoke soup and sea bass with dauphinoise), we didn’t really begin to explore our surroundings until the next morning when I awoke to a misty sea-view from my bright and extremely spacious room. Our bed was indulgently huge and the marble bathroom, complete with its own waterfall shower and an adjoining walk-in wardrobe gave the room a truly luxurious feel. I soon discovered that The Residence isn’t a hotel for those who want to dash about – this is the perfect fly-and-flop destination. I am famously unrelaxed, packing in far too many activities for the hours I have in the day, but this hotel forced me to stop. I made a small area of the poolside my home for the duration, taking time to read, sunbathe and nibble on the free fruit kebabs. I only really moved to swim, eat or spa.
ABOVE: One of the 164 rooms at The Residence
And it is the Thermes Marins de Carthage spa that really is the hotel’s highlight. Taking up an entire wing, it’s a maze of domed rooms, lantern-lit hallways and soothing water features. I tried a number of the treatments on offer including a pregnancy massage, a soothing facial, and an exfoliating polish (I should have rearranged this – let it be known that sunburn and exfoliator are not friends). All of them were lovely. The spa also has an indoor seawater pool with hydrotherapy jets, a hammam, a healthy eating restaurant with a Dukan menu and a small gym which was empty enough that, when my husband fell off the end of the treadmill, there was no-one to point and laugh. Although clearly I did when he told me.
I was less interested in the gym and the Dukanites, but indulged myself frequently in the resort’s other restaurants. The buffet breakfast offered an international spread – traditional eggs, fruits and pastries served alongside freshly made crêpes – while Tunisian flatbreads were cooked in a Moorish tented area. We ate lunch at the pool restaurant, Le Zembra, most days, tucking into huge servings of salads, pasta and pizza and then rotated between the three ‘themed’ restaurants by night. The food in the hotel was surprisingly good, particularly at the Mediterranean restaurant L’Olivier. We also tried the Chinese restaurant Li Bai (the deep fried ice-cream is curious but worth a shot) and El Dar, the traditional Tunisian restaurant where we tucked into tasty mezze.
ABOVE: Sea views and ancient ruins at Carthage
By day three, I had itchy feet and needed to explore, so we booked a taxi and headed off to the nearby Roman-era city of Carthage. Our taxi driver acted as tour guide – it certainly wasn’t the most thorough tour I have ever been on, but our whistle-stop route showed us the Roman baths, amphitheatre and other historical sites. Keener tourists should also visit the National Museum of Carthage to see the local archaeological discoveries. We also visited the famous bohemian village of Sidi Bou Said – it’s absolutely beautiful, a sea of white-and-blue buildings perched on a hillside. Admittedly, it was very touristy, but the village and Moorish cafes were charming and definitely worth a visit.
After our road trip, we decided to spend the rest of our stay at the hotel (actually, let me rephrase that, I stayed at the hotel, the other half excused himself to go for a round of golf at the hotel course). I didn’t want to move, though. I’d become accustomed to all the pampering and lounging, and the trip was working wonders on my harried body. I needed the full fix before heading back to reality. As we landed back in London, tanned, relaxed and a few pounds heavier from the huge amounts of food we’d been eating, I realised that my battle with Tunisia was finally over. Tunisia had won. We were now friends.
Essential Escapes offers a seven-night holiday at The Residence Tunis from £1,160 per person based on two sharing including BA flights, transfers and accommodation in a Deluxe Room with breakfast; essentialescapes.com. For family holidays to The Residence Tunis, please visit totstoo.com
Additional images: Getty