Tunisia Five Years on
Five years ago I visited Tunisia and wrote about how I was struck by the determination and fight of the golf courses and tourist board to overcome any negativity of the country and what it can offer. Money was clearly tight in places back then and the lack of tourism was evident when you looked beyond the facade. Now five years later, and I’m back – but has Tunisia and golf in Tunisia flourished or sunk further behind better established golf destinations without Tourism boosting the economy due to the added negative impact of the covid years?
As a week long trip produces lots of content – this piece is split over two smaller articles – so I don’t bore you to death but also to help you with the geography and what is achievable when visiting Tunisia. Just a three hour flight with Air Tunisia from Heathrow makes Tunisia easily accessible from the UK.
Staying in the Magic Hotel Manar in Hammamet was a big improvement on the hotel when last in Hammamet! A welcome fruit plate in the rooms followed by a late dinner was served by way of a buffet. The food and service certainly had improved if this was anything to go by, the diet was surely going to be tested! A comfortable, large suite with good bathroom facilities, Hotel Manar is a great place for the couple of nights we stayed. Directly outside the room and shared with the neighbouring room was a small pool for added holiday luxury and privacy. Hotel Magic Manar is a large family friendly hotel with multiple large buildings centred around a communal pool and entertainment area close to the beach. Being on an all-inclusive basis meant pre-dinner drinks and a place to meet was a relaxing start to the evenings. The large lobby area with clean lines and traditional style artistic mosaics adorning some walls for added authenticity.
Being a golf and wellness trip I visited the 5* La Badira, a Leading Hotels venue, for some spa treatments whilst most of the group went to play golf. To be honest, I was torn between golf and spa all week, but think I managed to balance it out to benefit both. La Badira draws you in as soon as you walked through the first automatic door into a dark corridor with ‘floating’ white model fish at varying heights against the black background. Underwater scenes set the mood of relaxation before popping out the other end through the second set of automatic doors to a stunning view from the reception area and beyond to the ocean. Modern artwork, water features and lavish, but not over the top, decor greets you. In to the spa, and being given the one size fits all paper thong, (not flip flops for my Australian readers!) a wonderful massage ensued after a body scrub with salt. The most stressful thing about the whole experience was trying to figure out which way round the disposable thongs went on!
Hair on end, flushed in the face but feeling relaxed, a spot of lunch in the Citrus clubhouse before playing 9 holes in the late afternoon sunshine. Just a quick nine playing Les Oliviers front nine then quickly scooting around the back nine stopping to play the odd hole as time allowed. I did play both courses at Citrus last time, but it was great to see that the few holes I played this time hadn’t suffered the cruel covid fate of no investment, although it could benefit from better irrigation in places. With a gentle come and get me opening hole you could the hear the rumble of traffic. The olive trees dominate the course adding some depth and worth. As it meanders around the course flourishes in its maturity. The irregular shaped bunkers were good to play from and the easy rolling putts meant the design had allowed it to evolve with time. Hole four is a good example of the bunkering which was very much in play from the back tees, but sadly not so much from the forward tees, but I guess being a par 3, SI 17 (131/69 meters), its meant to be reasonably easy! Quite a pretty course with huge aloe vera plants growing freely in the bunkers for extra texture and of course, difficulty! A fairly flat front nine draws you in, with the back nine coming into its own as a more undulation, arguably interesting nine. I could kick myself I didn’t remember this with only having time to play 9 holes!! The 10th hole, a par 4 with elevated tiered tee boxes dropped down 358/322 yards to an inviting green. As the sun sets, the hazy images take on a romantic image of golf. Even the sporadic watering of the greens became part of the dying days twilight ritual as we plotted our way around to the 19th – a welcome end to a hard days golf and spa.
The next day took us to, it has to be said, a course that has not flourished in the covid years – well maybe it had flourished so much it had actually gone to seed. Yasmin Golf Club certainly showed signs of lack of love, attention and most likely money- shame really as it could have been good with a little TLC. As a holiday golfer, Yasmin might be perfectly fine, certainly its layout was good, nothing at all wrong with the holes and their design, but sadly the condition did let it down. As one stood on the first tee, all looked well, but as you got into the belly of the course, the grass wasn’t grass- more a mat of weeds. In some cases the weeds had turned into flowering weeds – and whilst quite attractive off the tee, it was a nightmare to find the ball – white or yellow – on the fairway. Happily not all of the holes were like that – some had been mowed some had not – the bunkers contained little sand, some had weeds taking over the bunkers, affecting their definition. It was all very sad to see as I did remember it better five years ago. So looking at the positives – the greens had been mowed and ran very quickly, the edge of some of the fairways had allowed flowers to establish which outlined the fairways but were a bit of a nightmare if you went off piste. It was also lovely to see a tortoise wandering along the back of the green. If their desire was to re-wild and benefit the flora and fauna – they did it well. We were given a caddy on this course as they only had a couple of buggies, and whilst a good caddy, I don’t believe a caddy should tell you how to play your game, more give you directions for lines where necessary or when asked. That said, he turned out to be such a nice chatty man who did indeed have lots of knowledge of the course and how it played. In all I have mixed feelings about this course, as it really could be something much better but it did give me the opportunity to develop a new category of golf course – we have parkland, heathland and links – this one was in the newly developed category of meadowland.
Being whisked off immediately after golf to the Hasdrubal Spa Hotel I was treated like royalty in this highly regarded beautiful spa hotel. Two treatments ensued with with me being plonked into a salt flotation tank – again wearing the obligatory paper thongs – which by now I’d got the measure of as to which way round they went on!! A warm feeling overtakes the body as you gently get pummelled and rocked back and forth in this massage water bath. In another treatment room I’m wrapped up after being smothered with a body detoxifying ‘mud’ – lying there thinking I could get used to this, I must have dozed off as the next thing the water is being drained from underneath the ‘mattress’ and I’m unwrapped – all sticky like a toffee which had been left out in the sun. The cleansing shower at the end meant I was ready once again feeling great but heaven knows what I looked like!
On this elastic schedule week long trip the next day I’m back on the course. El Kantaoui in Sousse . There are two 18 hole course here, the Sea Course and the Panorama Course. Starting on the Sea course, I found it amazing how quickly my memory returned from playing here previously. The take you away first hole, a par 5, SI10 450/372 meter hole begs the question why a par 5? I have the theory that it was just being kind to get you going with ease. I really liked the way the course appeared to have embraced the natural landscape and palm trees, which looked good splitting the fairways plus the odd white buildings of yesteryear made for a pleasant Tunisian scenes. Residential buildings edge the course in places, without themselves being intrusive, the road noise on the opening holes provided a buzz, until a lorry came along that is! But once you’d played a live game of ‘frogger’ to cross the road after the 4th, the road noise soon faded. Good greens, narrow entrances to some of the greens and some deep sided bunkers. El Kantaoui, Sea course was shaping up to be a good thought provoking course to play. Water in play, eucalyptus and olive trees make you realise you’re in a nice warm country enjoying some golf.
The Sea course takes on a different appearance once you’ve taken the tunnel under the road to the 12th hole – this is the start of the sea views with 12 leading you towards the Mediterranean ocean. Whilst your eye is drawn to the blue sea, the course slips gently away for the next few holes. Before you realise it, you’re heading back down the 15th with the ocean behind you. These few holes did show signs of heavy play or maybe in need of some water. I thought hole 14 was a hole of stand out hole. A par 4, 370/304 meters the tee box sits with the sea to the left. A slight dog leg left, the drive is important to place centre right. Too far left and the inside of the angle is fraught with danger by way of palm trees and a bunker to the raised green which in itself takes a slight turn left closer to the sea.
Despite these few holes being ocean side, it was a shame the high fencing was a little tatty and giving you the feeling of being locked up.
As mentioned, I did love the huge palm trees taking centre stage on the fairways, but I also noticed that playing the forward tees actually put these palms in play, so think about the best tees for you and your game so you can just enjoy the experience.
Quick lunch and onto the Panorama Course. Of a similar condition the the Sea course with big structural olive trees and the same great tee box boards showing the hole ahead in clear detail. Although more built up with residences the course is worth taking some time to play – time wasn’t something we had, so a quick round was needed once again!
I recall the 7th a 371/312 meter dog leg right to a narrowish olive tree lined fairway, bunker right to a nicely elevated green. Despite the warm weather turning the grass brown, both courses played well although there were a few bare lies. That said the greens weren’t too bad and did play well. Also worth a mention is hole 17, par 4 312/269 meters SI13) with its panoramic elevated tee. The fairway makes it way around the water in the shape of an orange segment with water on the inside of the crescent. Visually it was a pretty hole to play. A small stream runs across the front of the green, so a decent tee shot and a careful approach shot is best for an easy two putt par. The 18th – SI1 par 5 hole (576/474 meters) is fairly wide off the tee box, but narrows as the water shrinks the approach into a narrow entrance to the green. The Panoramic course is slightly shorter than the Sea Course by approx 300 meters, depending on which tee box you play from. This could mean you’d leave your driver in the bag for a few holes.
As the week hots up, so does the quality of the golf, next stop The Residence. This Robert Trent Jones II course is one I enjoyed previously. Quite open in its design, I found it harder to see the RTJII usual design go to’s- not such a bad thing to show his diversity of design. Again the grass was quite brown, but this didn’t detract from its playing ability. Water was in play for a few holes, and playing around that water bought in the inevitable narrowing of the fairway. Playing 6285 from the back and 4804 meters from the front tees, it is a fair test of golf. Hole 5 was the start of the water side holes. A pretty par 3, 153/80 meters, SI7 had water cutting in from the right, the water was planted with high reeds and beyond that, a green side bunker – clever in design and clever in aesthetics. The par 4, hole 6 kept the water expanse to the right before moving away with the water behind us as we played hole 7, another par 3 of only123/82 meters. These were some of the holes I stepped back to play them slightly longer. Three pretty holes in succession with a huge beach just beyond the reeds. The openness of the course is ever more apparent on these few holes. Arriving at the 11th, one can see the string of bunkers guarding the green and again narrowing the landing spot of this par 4. I also liked the 15th hole a 176/116 par three hole with scrub to hit over and little bail out. Funnily enough the tee signage showed the shrub as water, so maybe during high tide it is water? The day we played it was shrub, a little like heather with patches of sand between. With many undulations across the course, playable bunkers weren’t in short supply, great putting surfaces and water either in play or picture framing the fairways – I thought The Residence is a course of beauty and one I’d like to return to again. Great food too!
A journey North towards the Algerian boarders to play a new course for me – La Cigale in Tabarka. A grey day met us to play this little, but arguably the best course in Tunisia. The course was set in amongst trees with wonderful elevation changes throughout. Being North near the Algerian border the temperatures aren’t always as high as in the South. But the damp air did not damped the course, its condition or our spirits- maybe having more rain enabled the course to shine? Unfortunately the course had been hollow tined on some of the fairways, leaving small plugs dotted along the fairways but this wasn’t on all of the holes, and as I’ve said before, I’d rather see maintenance than see the course not being managed or invested in. Besides the greens were the best I’d played in Tunisia. I understand that the signage was being upgraded, so the tee box boards weren’t as helpful as they will be when the new ones have been installed. That said, the course and its strength in design carries off any anomalies with ease. More like playing an established course in the UK any other Northern European country, the lush greens against the white sandy bunkers and imposing trees was a pleasing sight. The topography of the course did mean it was up and down hill a bit, but in truth, it encapsulated the changes in elevation and worked with it. Hole 3 with its elevated tee and the sweep of the green fairway swishing around to the distant far reaching views of the ocean and drew the eye towards the flag stick just before the ocean. This par 4, SI 18 measured 301/275 meters and was as inviting as some of the best with the waves crashing against the back of the hole – well the sea was actually a bit further away, but the visual effect was that of the waves crashing agains the back of the green! Lovely.
Sadly the rain came in and my game went to pot! It came back a few holes later, but not without pulling some horrible shots left almost into the ocean then having to recover over a wire fence – but an image tells that story better!
So taken with this course that a few of the holes remained me of Kawana in Japan or Whalsay in Shetland with their oceanside holes – different oceans, different parts of the world but all similar in terrain and appearance.
The 8th took you away from the Ocean and into a parkland style of course again. I particularly liked the bunkers at La Cigale, the sand was gritty and the club came through with ease to pop the ball out.
A big tree is in play the par 5 9th which forces a strategy of careful play – I’m not best known for safety shots. But you need to keep the ball fairly left on the 494/428 meter hole.
For a pleasing vista view, take stock on the 14th tee with its through the valley far reaching views framing the ‘castle’ in the distance. Deceptive off the tee the 18th, with its floral tee exit looks difficult with water in play, another sign of a good well thought through design lends itself to a great finishing hole with a water fountain marking the end of this wonderful course. A course that transports you from natural beauty to the modern designed club house which weirdly sit in harmony with each other.
There are plans for La Cigale to be changed; more bunkers added and of course new signage, so watch this space to see how these new improvements also benefit the overall experience on the course.
Obviously travelling so far North, you need to stay somewhere and the luxury La Cigale Hotel is only minutes to the golf course. Comfortable beds with each room being given plenty of water bottles to go about your day, not to mention the evening meal being superb, sadly the breakfast was a little sparse but did the job. This hotel and course are, in my opinion, worth the journey North, but allow yourself some time to enjoy it.
Travelling back to Tunis didn’t take as long, but we did take a slight diversion via Sidi Bou Said – the picturesque ocean side village painted in strict blue and white shades offset against the blue ocean was a welcome stop over.
As I had time to reflect on this latest trip to Tunisia, I came back to my original question – has Tunisia sunk or swam during a global torrid time? I guess, a bit of both. Some hotels and golf offerings were not up to par, others offered the same good experience and one stood out as a must visit. The hotels were, in the main, better than five years ago, with the exception of one which was dated and tired, the others were upbeat, clean, welcoming and modern or traditional in equal measures. Could it be a golf destination to rival other more established ones? Most likely but not yet – however, it could be a great destination which has golf. A destination for all the family and who knows one day, with some investment and cohesive thought, it could well be one to watch in the future.
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