Private beach, health spa, visits to souks ... the Tunisian resort had everything. But Severin Carrell's daughter wasn't impressed

It has grown to become one of those magical phrases in a holiday brochure: "child friendly". Two words that run a very close second to "en suite" on the checklist of essentials on a family holiday. Two words that don't always survive translation. In Tunisia, we discovered, "child friendly" seems to mean "we like kids". But it does not necessarily mean "crèche" and it never means "baby changing room".

It has grown to become one of those magical phrases in a holiday brochure: "child friendly". Two words that run a very close second to "en suite" on the checklist of essentials on a family holiday. Two words that don't always survive translation. In Tunisia, we discovered, "child friendly" seems to mean "we like kids". But it does not necessarily mean "crèche" and it never means "baby changing room".

We had flown to Tunis as confident, experienced travellers. It was our first holiday in North Africa and our first holiday abroad with Saba, our inquisitive two-year-old daughter. We left with that confidence pretty much dismembered.

In the magical, sun-kissed world of Wigmore's Holiday brochure, we saw ourselves heading off for a dream holiday for a late-30s couple with a lively, gregarious child - who loves cafés, loves exploring and loves the beach. So a week-long break at one of North Africa's premier resorts on the Mediterranean, should have been just about perfect.

The Hotel Hasdrubal has outdoor and indoor pools; its own private stretch of beach, complete with waiter service; two restaurants; a shabby gym; and a new five-star health spa. And nearby was the medieval walled town of Sousse, famous for its roofed souk, its museum, its beautiful Great Mosque and the fortified ribat - the Islamic equivalent of a soldier-monk's monastery.

Just to ease the transition, the Hasdrubal is in one of north Africa's best appointed resorts - Port el Kantaoui. Built largely with Kuwaiti oil money and based around an exclusive marina to ersatz Moorish architectural themes, it offers mini-markets, tourist shops, a small amusement park, nightclubs, a mini-zoo and more than a dozen pizzerias, cafés and fish restaurants.

As the experienced travellers we claim to be - veterans of reporting assignments in Northern Ireland, Guatemala and Kosovo, and holidays in pre-Buena Vista Social Club Cuba - we should never have set foot in the place. Port el Kantaoui, the Rough Guide cautioned, was "Tunisia without tears ... artificial, soulless, even anaemic". Even the Neos/Michelin guide warned that it gave a "very falsified image of Tunisia: an artificial paradise which has nothing to do with its surroundings".

Port El Kantaoui itself was more ethnically diverse than most other Mediterranean marinas: young Arab, Tunisian and Pakistani families would promenade around each evening, mingling with the Germans, French and Brits.

The Hasdrubal, however, is a hotel built for adults. A place where the German, French and Italian clientele prefer not to trouble the swimming pool, where breakfasts feature a diététique buffet of cucumber and vegetable juices and fat-free yogurts alongside a diverse Franco-Tunisian array of cheeses, olives,breads, cakes, yogurts, fruit and cereals.

Saba was welcomed, and quickly smothered by the Tunisian fondness for children. At breakfast, the waiters ruffled her hair, greeted her with grins and treated her like a little princess. This was being "child friendly", Tunisian-style, but unfortunately her delight at being pampered quickly evaporated. After eating out every mealtime, even the novelty of breakfast on the terrace wore off, to be replaced by boredom and mounting irritation. The breakfast table became littered with discarded yogurts, cakes and fruit.

This was not a hotel built for boisterous infants. Thanks to its health spa, most of its overwhelmingly middle-aged guests were there to be pampered with expensive sea water therapies, treatments, saunas and massages.

The place, then off-season, had the surreal air of a sanatorium about it. Docile guests quietly wandered about in the spa's regulation-issue white towelling robes and plastic flip-flops down the hotel's austere corridors, past trellises draped with lush bougainvillaea. It was often library quiet - Saba's screams of delight as we splashed in the pool would be the only sounds echoing around the grounds.

Ambitious guests sunbathed on the hotel's narrow strip of beach but it simply did not suit a toddler. Sandcastle building was made too difficult by the tideless Med. At the sea's edge, the beach sloped suddenly into shallows dark with shreds of woody seaweed which made paddling unpleasant. For a two-year-old, the beach quickly became a bore.

On our day trips into the winding streets of Sousse, tiny terrapins placed by shop doorways came to our aid. Trapped in little plastic crates amid lettuce leaves, the terrapins diverted Saba from the tedium of watching her parents scrutinising yet another shelf-load of crockery, artisanal jewellery and spices.

In Sousse, shopkeepers have refined the art of hawking - it was witty, multilingual and startlingly precise. Apparently "Londoner" was tattooed on our foreheads, and here was us, a couple proud of our Pakistani, Black Country, Irish, Scottish and Wearside roots. "You've got black hair, I've got black hair. Come'n'av a butchers," shouted one man at my wife, his arms stretched out in welcome.

Compared with souks elsewhere, however, Sousse's is of modest proportions. It is bustling, typically claustrophobic but ultimately disappointing. It is a medieval tourist trap. The clock-menders and tobacco kiosks are being squeezed out by shops selling the same painted pottery, cheap prayer mats, sachets of saffron and shoddily made marquetry boxes.

Crucially, our holiday rep Nicole had given us some smart advice: enter the medina from the unfashionable western gate of Bab el Gharbi and head down the cobbled Rue Souk el Caid, where every wooden surface seems to be painted that intense shade of Berber blue. There we found a shrewd old jeweller. After taking a tactical break from negotiations for several hours, we bargained down an intricate old silver necklace from close to £150 to £40. Several doors down was the Aladin boutique, richly draped with Arabian carpets, heavy cushions, hangings and latticed lamps. Its covered rooftop café had hand-painted carved furniture, cushioned benches, low tables and the air of a Bedouin tent. Its balcony offered a rare view eastwards across a cascade of flat roofs and tiny neighbourhood mosques, over to the docks. It served fantastic chocolate crêpes and coffees.

What we had failed to do when planning this trip was see through Saba's eyes. The Hasdrubal's rooms are too small for three. She quickly tired of eating out for every meal, and since most two-year-olds march on their stomachs, dysfunctional mealtimes meant an irritable child. There were no other kids at the hotel and the three-hour boat trips to watch dolphins were too long for her to endure.

Two-year-olds, we now know, like to keep it simple. We found ourselves longing to repeat our far more modest little holiday in west Cornwall. We had rented a self-catering cottage, explored remote beaches and mooched around St Ives. And, to our chagrin, we will be doing exactly the same again this year. Glamorous foreign spas will have to wait.

Give me the facts

How do I get there?

Severin Carrell and family travelled to Tunisia and stayed at the Hasdrubal Hotel courtesy of Wigmore Holidays (020-7836 4999; www.aspectsoftunisia.co.uk) and Hasdrubal Thalassa Hotels in Tunis (00 216 71 860 622). A seven-day break at the Port El Kantaoui Hasdrubal starts at £499, based on two sharing, including return flights and b&b. Half-board costs £8 more per day. Under-twos pay £40 for the whole trip. Wigmore also offers excursions, including Tunis, Carthage and Sidi Bou Said, for £35 or the Muslim Holy City of Kairouan for £15.

Where can I find out more?

Tunisian National Tourist Board (020-7224 5561; www.tunisietourisme.com.tu).

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