Flushed with the success of my first family holiday organised by a single-parent specialist, to the Brecon Beacons, I thought it was time to do it again. This time I was tempted by the prospect of a trip to Tunisia run by Small Families, staying in the Hotel Méditerranée on the outskirts of the resort of Hammamet, with its thalassotherapy spa and kids’ club. However, a new trip introduced by the firm including a break at the hotel but also involving a three-day trip into the desert appealed to the adventurer in me. [Editors note: Small Families is no longer in operation – scroll down for other lone-parent travel firms.]
I ran the idea past seven-year-old Joe, who was instantly sold at the prospect of spending a night camping in the desert and of seeing some of the film locations for the first Star Wars movie. I was slightly apprehensive about the amount of travel involved over the excursion, but I talked to Small Families and found there were other kids around his age, including at least one boy, booked for the trip, which is aimed at ages seven and up. This was the deciding factor for me – I thought he would probably take the travelling in his stride if he had like-minded kids for company.
After a two-and-a-half-hour flight to Tunis, we were welcomed by Liz, our superb Small Families host, who lives out there with her Tunisian husband and daughter. She whisked us straight to the welcoming hotel. Our group of 10 adults and 13 children all seemed very relaxed and pleasant, but I was surprised to note there was only one dad in the group, and thought that if romance was on anyone’s mind, things could get interesting…
We had one day in which to chill out before setting off on out trip to the desert, so after an excellent lunch (the food was consistently good throughout the trip), Joe and I nipped to see Hammamet’s small medina (walled city) just as the muezzin was calling to prayer. We soaked up the atmosphere with delicious mint teas and then scooted to the top of the restored 15th century kasbah (fortress) for wonderful views.
Early the next morning, Liz and a tour guide led us bleary-eyed aboard our coach as we embarked on day one of our adventure. Our first stop was the Roman amphitheatre of El Jem just south of Sousse. Only slightly smaller than Rome’s Colosseum, this was an impressive start by anyone’s standards. The children loved scaling the upper tiers and walking through the underground passages where, the guide told us, the animals and gladiators would have been held before being thrown into the arena to fight for their life.
Back on the coach, the children were content in each other’s company and I relished the opportunity to sink down in my seat and enjoy the unfolding landscape and architecture. At the next notable stop, Matmata – recognisable as the location for the opening scenes of Star Wars – we visited a troglodyte home and stared out over the barren, lunar-like landscape.
By early evening, we’d been transferred by Jeep to the well-organised Mehari Zaafrane Camp on the edge of the Sahara. Joe was ecstatic seeing our Bedouin-style tent with its cosy beds and lanterns, and said he wanted to live there. I admit to being quite content with just the one night, but it was magical relaxing with a drink and taking in the sunset as the kids rolled themselves silly up and down the dunes.
The next two days were pretty full-on, although the kids, happy with each other’s company, didn’t mind the travel at all, even the three-year-old in the party. Highlights were the oasis town of Tozeur, lushly framed by thousands of palm trees, Chott el Djerid, the largest salt lake of the Sahara, its ghostly-white dried-up saltbed conjuring up mirages in the shimmering sun, and a spectacular ride through the Selja Gorge on the former Bey (governor) of Tunisia’s Lèzard Rouge (Red Lizard) train.
The third night we made it back to Hammamet in time for dinner. The next two days were spent mainly relaxing at the hotel again, although Joe and I did visit a rather faded but beautiful villa that was once owned by a millionaire who held open house to a string of high-profile guests, including Winston Churchill and Alberto Giacometti. It’s now owned by the Tunisian Cultural Centre, who stage summer concerts and events in the open-air theatre in the midst of its rather wild garden. The others in the party had all headed off to the zoo to ride the camels, which Joe didn’t seem that interested in.
Back at the hotel, images of places we’d discovered in southern Tunisia flooded my mind even as I submitted to a great thalassotherapy massage treatment. Joe and I had already earmarked several places we’d like to revisit, so we’ll no doubt be back before too long, possibly with Small Families, with whom I was very impressed, especially their response to a couple of small niggles I had and the feedback I gave them for their future desert trips.
Read more about family holidays in Tunisia and/or check out our tips for one-parent holidays, including recommended single-parent travel operators.