Travel: A refreshing drop of lemon aid

If Britain still feels cold, head to the summery citrus groves of Tunisia. By Nicola Kurtz
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The Independent Culture
LEAVING THINGS to the last minute is not always a bad thing. I had one week to go until my holiday but nothing was packed, planned or even booked. I did have a list of what I wanted: it had to be warm and quiet but with the possibility of things to do, have good food and be within a reasonable flight time and budget.

Sitting in a busy central London travel agent on a grey Saturday afternoon, I was starting to feel that I was asking for the impossible. Holidays in the Caribbean suited all the crit-eria, except the budget. Holidays in the Canary Islands offered tourist metropolises with all-night discos and traditional English food - and a free bottle of sparkling wine for honeymoon couples - not the sort of week I was hoping for.

I was beginning to panic until the extremely patient travel agent suggested Tunisia - warmish, within budget and with a choice of four hotels in Hammamet. I chose the Sheraton, handed over my credit card and arranged to collect my tickets the following Saturday at Gatwick Airport.

One in three British holidaymakers who visit Tunisia chooses Hammamet. Anyone hoping for the English Patient experience should look elsewhere, south into the Sahara. Anyone just wanting a lazy holiday need look no further.

I'm not really a Sheraton sort of person, but I could get used to the idea. Scattered within the ample grounds that led down to the beach were the bedrooms: white, blue-shuttered buildings with balconies that look out onto neat gardens and palm and olive trees, or towards the sea, peace and space.

Sporty types can use the hotel's tennis courts and buses provide a shuttle to two nearby golf courses. I stuck to water sports - you could even get a glass of fresh orange juice, or a more dangerous tipple, in the swimming pool's bar.

The town itself is very tourist-driven, with stuffed toy camels available on each street corner and most of the stalls and shops between. The old walled town, the Medina, is more interesting, though avoiding the carpet sellers is more of a challenge than attempting to maintain a sense of direction among the labyrinth of narrow streets. You can walk into Hammamet from the hotel, either along the road or the beach. If both options sound like too much effort, the hotel provides a minibus for a two-hour visit each morning, and unless you are a hardened trinket hunter, two hours will probably be more than enough.

Stretching away from the Medina along the sandy coast are 30 or more hotel complexes. But none of the hotels are higher than the tallest local tree, and the leafiness of the coastline keeps the tourist zone inconspicuous.

In spring the weather can be overcast and occasionally cool - ideal for visiting some of the sites around Tunisia. A visit to the Berbo museum in Tunis, with its vast collection of Roman mosaics, is a must.

Back in Hammamet, halfway between the town and the hotels, is the International Cultural Centre. Don't be put off by the name. The house and grounds were acquired by the government from the US millionaire George Sebastian in 1962, and the place is a haven. Built in the 1930s in traditional Tunisian style, the house is built around a marble courtyard and some of the simple bedrooms have been left intact. Rommel stayed here during the Second World War, and later Churchill began his memoirs here.

Outside is a cloistered swimming pool where you can sit and sip a Turkish coffee or tea or stroll in the wild gardens past lemon, pine and eucalyptus trees and look out over the bright blue sea.

Not yet in high season, Hammamet was still quiet and the surrounding countryside was green and lush, not yet scorched by the summer heat. Had I had months in which to research and plan my holiday, I could not have chosen a better destination.

Nicola Kurtz paid pounds 299 for flights and a week's bed-and-breakfast at the four-star Sheraton Hammamet hotel with Panorama (01273 427777). The evening buffet is an extra 15 dinars (pounds 8). Entrance to the International Culture Centre: 50p

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