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Tempted by Tunisia

Looking for winter sunshine, a vibrant culture and good-value golf? Look no further than Tunisia, suggests James Mossop.

With names such as Tenacity, Rigour and Audacity you might expect a pack of hunter submarines. But, no, these are holes on one of Tunisia’s newest golf courses, a Robert Trent Jones II creation, The Residence, that borders the Mediterranean Sea.

It is a course that befits Jones’ standing as one of the leading golf architects of the modern age. He has managed to construct a distinctly links-type layout using the sea and the salt lake to invade the golfer’s mind on no fewer than 13 of the eighteen holes. The course was opened as recently as October 2008 and appears remarkably mature.

The Residence, a Robert Trent Jones III creation
near the Med.

If you have time to look around there is interesting bird life populating the inlets – terns, waders, gulls and so on – as well as the Tunisian landscape itself. The course is just 15 minutes from Tunis airport and close to the ancient sites redolent of Berber, Carthaginian, Roman and Ottoman eras.

A five-star hotel in the centre-piece of the Residence, a bold symbol of Tunisia’s desire to make the country a golfing destination to rival anything in Southern Europe. With Heathrow and Gatwick airports just two and a half hours away it must have a chance.

The country plans to add ten more golf courses within the next ten years – Jack Nicklaus is putting his name to the design the proposed course at Yasmine, near Hammamet. All of this belongs to a land of contrasts. Luxury hotels on one hand, trading in the ancient souks on the other. To the south there is the Sahara Desert; to the north there are 800 miles of white sandy beaches. In between you will find interesting and challenging golf.

The game is relatively new to Tunisia, the oldest club being Carthage with its La Soukra course which was opened in 1927. It is a traditional parkland layout with the fairways meandering among 100-year-old eucalyptus trees. The borders are partly defined by orange, mandarin and lemon trees. El Kantaoui – above the port of that name – I would suggest is another ‘must’. It has hosted several Tunisian Opens and its attractions were obvious. There are two 18-hole courses on the complex, the Sea Course and the Panorama Course. Both register pars of 72. We chose the latter and were not disappointed. Panrama is a gloriously attractive test with a couple of tees so elevated you feel you are driving from a cliff-top. There are lakes and so many brilliantly vivid plants and shrubs that you could be in a garden. It is also the habitat of wild hares and that attractive, crested bird, the hoopoe.

Preceded by a mixture of dips and meats, and accompanied by a local beer, lunch was a marvellous post-round experience. The main course, lamb, came to the table in a sealed, earthenware urn. The waiter produced a silver hammer, knocked the top off the urn and poured the chunks of lamb into a wok along with the sauce before inviting us to smell the aroma from the urn.

Much of the attraction of Tunisia is that history is everywhere and driving from one town to another there are shepherds, often women, tending small flocks or a few cattle. Storks nest on pylons and the sun always seems to shine. Winters are mild, summers very hot and the golf is, unquestionably, well worth a visit. Golf Citrus, for instance, is the country’s first 45-hole complex at the resort of Hammamet and is served by five hotels that have agreements between tour operators and the course.

Golf Citrus, a 45-hole complex on the outskirts of Hammamet.
A round here would cost in the region of €42

For value alone, Citrus will do well. A daily green fee through a tour operator would cost you somewhere in the region of 75 Tunisian dinars – and with one dinar equating approximately to 45p, that equates to around 42 euros.

Those behind the growth of golf in the country see it as offering better value than some of the resorts in Spain and Portugal and they may have a point. Golf in those traditional short-haul havens has become expensive in places. There is value at Citrus, where you can play Les Oliviers or La Floret as well as the par-3 course. The complex, the first in the country to boast with 45 holes, was designed by the American Ronald Fream and opened for play in 1992.

Tunisians like to refer to their country as the ‘jewel of the Mediterranean.’ They are proud of their heritage and keen to show off the many attractions. Golf is an obvious hook, and if the quality I encountered is maintained, golfers will come.

There are two very attractive courses at Monistir – the Flamingo and Palm Links. Here, alongside white beaches, Fream has moved away from the bustling towns to create something of a sporting oasis. The Flamingo takes its name from the birds that populate the surrounding wetlands and are frequent visitors to the fairways. It adds to the colour. The course is built on a plateau, with seven holes running along the cliffs. It’s spectacular, but you’ll need a caddy on your first outing – local knowledge is a distinct advantage.

Monistir has its own airport with direct flights from the UK. With more and more tour operators offering playing holidays in Tunisia I recommend giving it a shot. I was there in May. It was pleasantly warm, shorts-and-socks weather with glorious displays of flowers everywhere, especially the flaming red geraniums and the jasmine, the country’s national flower.

Tunisair operates four flights a week from London Heathrow to Tunis, starting at £177, including taxes.

The original set of Star Wars – ‘Nightland’ – has been left exactly as it was
and attracts visitors in their thousands

What would you expect to pay for a decent hotel? Bearing in mind that one Tunisian dinar equals approximately 45p, two hotels worth noting are the Ramada Plaza Hotel, Gammarth, where double rooms start at 180 dinars, and the Vincci Taj Sultan Hotel, Yasmine Hammamet where doubles start at 130 dinars. A round of golf at the Residence costs 155 dinars. At El Kantaoui it’s 95 dinars, while at Carthage you’ll pay around 68 dinars. So not only is Tunisia a fascinating country of culture and contrast, it’s terrific value for money, too.

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Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine

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