Tunisian winter sun for £235 per person, including flights from Gatwick, 15kg of checked baggage, plus seven nights half board and transfers? This last-minute deal seemed too good to be true – and I intended to find out if it was.
Last month, The Independent reported that Tui was selling a package to Tunisia at a 54 per cent discount on the full price of £506. This worked out at an impressive £1.40 per hour for room, flight and both breakfast and dinner.
But such deals aren’t called “last-minute” for nothing and, depending on your circumstances, might involve a mad scramble to arrange matters at home and work. In my case, this involved having a little over a week to organise dog walking, childcare and meeting deadlines ahead of time (never my forte).
Departure time is another factor. In this instance, the flight left at 6am, requiring passengers to either book an airport hotel, airport parking, or early morning car service, any of which will heft up the overall price considerably. Alternatively, you face sitting up/passing out in the terminal overnight. In addition, the “bargain” price was based on two sharing, which leaves solo travellers to pay a single supplement – in this case, around £7 per day.
But these are only tiny flies in what was, for the most part, a deliciously silky, scented ointment. A seamless check-in process via the app and a timely departure (along with a charming Scottish captain, who thanked the passengers for being on time for an early start) was just the start of it. We arrived at Enfidha-Hammamet International Airport, located the easily-spotted Tui rep and boarded the transfer, which dropped passengers off at various resorts en route, before arriving at the four-star Phenicia Hotel.
Feedback from other guests throughout the course of the week was nothing short of rapturous. “A fantastic deal”, one told me. “Couldn’t have asked for better,” said another.
“I’ve never done a package holiday before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect”, said a third, “But I’ll definitely do this again.”
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Granted, travelling in low season brings limitations. The sea was decidedly fresh and, while the outside temperature hovered in the twenties, the air was often chilly, although there were several sheltered suntraps in which to bask with a book.
Another minor drawback was that only one hotel pool was heated (although low occupancy meant that it never felt crowded) and some off-site excursions – available at an additional cost – weren’t running. That said, my day on the Highlights of Sousse and Monastir trip (priced from £53) was fantastic, with visits to the magnificent Bourguiba Mausoleum, the ancient Ribat fortress and dizzying Sousse medina (as well as lunch at the exceptional L’Escargot) providing a break from resort life, as well as fascinating insights into Tunisia.
Not that resort life wasn’t action-packed. An onsite “animation team” wandered the grounds promoting the day’s free activities, which included yoga, archery, pétanque, pilates and Zumba. By night, this team became performers in the lobby, demonstrating their dancing and circus skills, and occasionally plucking out audience members to participate – which is how, one night, I found myself putting all of my bodyweight behind a sword, the tip of which was digging into a man’s throat.
Other on-site activities, such as horse-riding and spa treatments, will hike up spend, but still represent great value for money. One couple was delighted to have booked a series of three massages over the week for 600 TND (£150) working out around £25 per treatment.
Inexpensive, independent exploration is also possible. Sisters Karen and Lisa, from Birmingham, caught a taxi to Hammamet’s New Medina for 15TND (£3.80) and whiled away hours in a teashop with unlimited biscuits, tea and shisha for 43TND (£11) between them.
The hotel itself is in need of a few cosmetic upgrades but the rooms were spacious, clean and comfortable, and the staff were flawless. Nothing was too much trouble and a request, once made, was never forgotten – for example, on asking that my drink be served without a plastic straw, I wasn’t given one for the rest of the week, no matter who was serving me.
Food within the package was fabulous. Half-expecting endlessly recycled menus, with yesterday’s mains blended into today’s soup, I was blown away by the freshness and variety each mealtime. The salad bar was bursting with colour and Tunisian flavours abounded for adventurous eaters. For the less so, there was plenty in the way of pastas, stews, cooked vegetables, and grilled fish. There was also a “show cooking” station where, each day, a different meat was prepared in front of you. Meanwhile, the dessert cart was best described as a temple of gluttony.
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I was told by repeat Tui guests (there were many) that summer sees even more cooking stations lining the large dining area. Personally, I don’t fancy eating in crowds and cacophony; the low season numbers lent themselves perfectly to conversation and, by the end of the week, many groups were joining tables.
Breakfast was no less impressive, with a pancake and omelette station, fresh juices, cheeses, pastries and cereals, plus strong coffee and a range of teas. Indeed, Raffaele and Wendy, from Kent – neither of whom could praise the package highly enough – found they could easily skip lunch. If you’re peckish at midday, walk ten minutes to the main road. Here, you can buy a foot-long sandwich, stuffed with tuna, salad, harissa, and olives for 2.5TND (63p), or dine in on steak frites for 16TND (£4.05). Several small supermarkets also sell crisps, drinks and biscuits at a fraction of UK prices.
In fact, savvy traveller Nick, from Hampshire, utilised the trip to beat the UK’s cost-of-living crisis: by departure, his 15kg of hold luggage contained only household products and non-perishables - including a kilo of pasta for 0.87TND (22p). His clothingwas all stuffed into his carry-on.
Walking along the beach for one last painted-sky sunset, I thought of Wendy’s delighted remark of “cheaper than Primark!” Well, not quite. But undoubtedly better value – and much, much better quality.
Top tip: Cover your package wristband when exploring independently. Locals often claim to be off-duty hotel staff who recognise you, and then try to entice you to their friends’ shops and restaurants.
Although the £235 deal is no longer available, TUI is currently offering a seven-night holiday to Hammamet, Tunisia, staying at the four-star Phenicia Hotel, on a half-board basis from £289 per person based on two adults sharing a twin room with garden view and balcony, flights departing from London Gatwick on 1 March 2024 and transfers.