Terrific Tunisia: Kate Garraway finds mint tea and Mediterranean magic in north Africa
The nearest my husband and I usually get to a week flopping on a beach is an evening at our local Italian, where paintings of the Mediterranean hang on the walls. Nowadays, it all comes down to planning far ahead and relying on doting grandparents.
History at hand: The ruins of ancient Carthage sit just beyond the modern city of Tunis
On this occasion, Derek and I were looking for somewhere hot and not too far away; somewhere relaxed, but with stylish accommodation so we could enjoy some glamorous dressing-up; somewhere with plenty of culture for when we would be tempted to leave our sunbeds.
We found all that and more in Tunis, or, more specifically, at The Residence, ensconced in one of its suburbs.
The hotel reflects the city itself, a blend of laid-back Africa and the elegant Med. Designed with a Moorish-Arabian feel, everything was cool cream with flowing open spaces and an endless perfume of neroli and jasmine. No gold taps or wall-to-wall gilt, thank goodness.
After a two-and-a-half hour flight and a short taxi ride, we had left the cares of parenthood behind. Any pangs of guilt about leaving our two children were quickly assuaged by the sumptuous spa, great food and the blissful feeling of lying by the pool in the 26-degree autumn heat without worrying that a little person might be about to fall in or upturn a bucket of water over your newly applied sun cream.
The truth is that we could have spent all of our three-night stay within the walls of the hotel grounds, but we also wanted to get out and about and see Tunis and ancient Carthage. Oh, and do some shopping, of course.
The Residence is just 20 minutes or so from Tunis and slightly less to Carthage, one of the greatest cities in the ancient world, founded in 814BC by the Phoenicians. You can get up close and personal with the ruins. Maybe too much so. I began to wonder if we were damaging them.
It's worth hiring one of the official guides who can bring the place to life, and the attached museum has some extraordinary mosaics on display, a replica of one of which now has pride of place in our garden.
The next day we headed to Tunis, which looks African one minute, continental the next.
The capital is bisected by the Avenue Habib Bourguiba, resplendent with a fabulous art nouveau theatre, lots of pavement cafes with names such as Cafe de Paris, French-style patisseries and some lovely manicure salons. Yet just as you get used to the Mediterranean vibe, the end of the tree-lined avenue holds an exotic surprise. Suddenly you are plunged into a scene straight out of The Arabian Nights - the Unesco-listed Medina.
Into Africa: Kate found sunshine and adventure in Tunis
This was once a walled city-within-a-city with a population of more than 100,000. Today, just a small proportion of the population lives here. It is a maze of twisting lanes and narrow alleyways, and you really need to have a guide with you.
At first, the stalls seemed to offer standard tourist fare - leather slippers, bags and such like - but you need to persevere and go deep into the heart of the covered rabbit warren.
There lie the souks or marketplaces, each one with its original trade. We found the hat-makers' alley, the wool weavers, the copper-beating sector and the carpet-makers street.
We came back with a runner for our hall, but I have to admit we probably paid way too much for it.
Bartering is not my strong point. At first, we were pleased to have got 20 per cent off the original asking price, but that night some friends we made at the hotel told us we should have stood firm and got a proper bargain.
They also advised us that we should shop wearing our most causal clothes and leave any jewellery or watches behind. Apparently, the merchants are expert at judging the wealth of a potential customer and set their prices accordingly.
We consoled ourselves with the thought that it had been a great experience - and that we did get some lovely fresh mint tea thrown in.
Much less intense is the beautiful village of Sidi Bou Said, which you reach by hopping on a fabulous little train that trundles along happily for the 20-minute trip. When we got off we could have been in Greece, for this is a picture book- beautiful replica of many Greek villages - all brilliant white and blue.
Named after a saint who came to write poetry, the village attracted painters and writers from across Europe in the last century who soaked up the views and the heady cafe society.
Despite coaches of tourists, there was still a magic about the place. The striking Tunisian doorways, mostly blue, and the ornate window frames and balconies with endless trailing bougainvilleas made this a not-to-be missed part of the trip.
Up and over the hill we stumbled upon the Cafe Chabaane and enjoyed more mint tea with pine nuts served in small decorated glasses. We watched the boats bobbing in the tiny port below and felt a million miles away from our normal hectic lives.
Derek has long talked of taking up golf, so when he heard that the hotel had just opened a golf course, designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr., he dragged me along for a look.
We were shown around by the golf pro, a Tunisian named Tarik, who had something of Enrique Iglesias about him. He told us that more and more women were signing up for golf lessons. This seemed to please Derek and, to my surprise, when he began hitting some balls, he actually showed some promise.
The Residence's sales director is a woman from Yorkshire called Helen Ben Salem who met and married a Tunisian 30 years ago.
Pool your resources: The Residence hotel is an ideal hideaway for tired (celebrity) parents
It was she who suggested we drop in to Sadika, a shop within walking distance of the hotel and which I would definitely have passed by without a second glance.
Sadika herself welcomed us into this emporium of beautiful blown glass ornaments, jugs and glasses and told us she had trained in Venice. And it showed.
Suffice it to say I had a very carefully packed little box to take home. That beautiful glass ornament now sits on our mantelpiece in North London to remind me of our precious long weekend away. And, so far, the children have not yet managed to break it.
British Airways has return flights from Gatwick to Tunis from £135 return (0844 493 0787, www.ba.com).
Rooms at The Residence from around £270 a night B&B, www.theresidence.com.
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