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HOTEL REVIEWS

Panthea - Ksar Ghilane, Southern Tunisia

The Panthea is a hotel that has done away with the eyesore of bedrooms. All guests are accomodated in tents, whose taut swept lines of canvas form an undulating octagon, seemingly halfway between a spaceship and a nomad encampment. The elegance of these tented bedrooms fills the guests with a gentle pride as they amble along sandy paths. The only buildings above ground are the domed restaurant, an arcaded bar and a tall viewing tower (modelled on the watchtower's of Chad). These three buildings are framed by palm and olive trees as is the large swimming pool. The grounds are further defined by irrigation rills and the neat dry stone walls that are such a feature of the dry farming techniques of the Matmat hills.

Returning back from breakfast I noticed that all the footprints on the sand paths had been swept away by palm-frond brushes. The sand had been re-ordered into arabesque swirls while the fallen fruit from the ancient olive and palm had been swept into neat piles like some casual sculpture by Andy Goldsworthy. It was all of a piece with the meditative calm of the site.

You come to the Panthea to experience something of the surrounding desert especially at the magical hours of dawn and dusk. Just a half hours camel ride to the north stands the isolated Roman fortress of Ksar Ghilane. This oasis was technically beyond the frontier of Roman North Africa though a mounted squadron here kept a watch on the movements of the free tribes of the Sahara.

Think twice about coming here in July and August as much to avoid the summer season jeep-tours as the heat. May and September are perhaps the best months as far as the weather is concerned though I also love the winter months with their calm days and cold nights.

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
The Panthea lies on the edge of the oasis palmery of Ksar Ghilane overlooking the outlying sand dunes of the Great Eastern Erg. It is not accessible by bus, train, aeroplane or for that matter by hire-car. You have to come by camel or a four-wheel drive vehicle. There are three main approaches. The least used but most romantic arrival is on a five day camel trek across the northern corner of the Great Eastern Erg from Douz. The most direct route from the nearest airport (on the isle of Jerba) is a half day drive over the Matmata hills. Another approach is by following the rough but passable dirt road that leaves the market town of El Hamma and for 90km follows a buried pipeline.

Transport: the sandy tracks of the small oasis palmery start from the gates of the Panthea hotel. Local villagers provide camel-hire by the hour, half-day or day as well as evening rides on fiery Arab horses sold as "Balade a des Cheveaux", while another entrepreneur rents out dune buggies. However getting to Ksar Ghilane involves the substantial outlay of hiring a jeep and a driver. Usually cheaper and more effecient to go through a specialist Tunisia travel agent such as Wigmore Travel, 020-7836-4999. Time to International airport: from the British Isles you can fly to the national capital of Tunis in just two and a half hours on a regular weekly schedule run by Tunis Air and GB/British Airways from either Heathrow or Gatwick. At Tunis airport change onto the 35 minute Tuninter internal flight to the island of Jerba. Alternatively look at some of the European national carriers, especially Air France and Luthansa, who have direct flights to Jerba.

ARE YOU LYING COMFORTABLY?

Camping has never been this good. The tents are formed from sweptback pale canvas while you sleep within a seperate skin of linen. Apart from the large comfortable double bed the furnishings are kept to a safari like-minimum with a pair of camp chairs, table and a useful day bed set against the linen walls. The only colour allowed in the room is from the killim bedhead and a carpet made from the traditional clothe of a black nomadic tent. Tucked behind the bedhead steps lead down into a fully plumbed bathroom. Aesthetically I could have dumped the heater/air conditioner but it turned out to be vital in coping with the suprising extremes of temperature between a Saharan day and night. Those alarmed about insect ingress can be reassured by the zip door while the tent is actually pitched over a solid concrete floor.

THE BOTTOM LINE

A tent for two with breakfast is 126 Tunisian Dinars (about 65, or 55 if you book on the internet). From this September tents can be booked through the Paris office of Pansea at 7, Rue Alfred de Vigney 75008, tel 00-33-14227-5431, fax 00-33-14227-5434, e-mail "Boisse a club-internet. fr"

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