Our Tunisia aha moment comes at the top of the main street in the impossibly picturesque village of Sidi Bou Said.
After being hassled by aggressive street vendors and making the climb in the sweltering 42-degree mid-day sun my wife and I catch our first peek-a-boo glimpse of the blue-as-blue Mediterranean Sea.
A few more steps toward the edge and the view opens up into an expansive panorama.
It’s fortuitous that we’re in need of a cold drink and the cliffside Cafe des Detices is right there with a canopy of bright blue umbrellas and a killer view.
We order the local specialty of cloudy lemonade with almond juice and learn there are 300 ways to prepare the Tunisian national dish of couscous.
We then contemplate our first visit to Africa and consider ourselves fortunate to glimpse the big continent on an excursion from the Noordam Holland America cruise ship.
A quick trip to the small north African nation of Tunisia we agree is the perfect introduction to Africa.
Being north Africa the vibe is more camel, desert and Middle East than the sub-Saharan black tribes and lions Africa that most people envision the continent to be.
And Holland America knows just how to package up Africa for first timers in bite-sized pieces.
The stop in the port of Tunis, Tunisia’s capital, is part of a 10-day Mediterranean Enchantment cruise that also includes forays to the Med’s better known destinations of Rome, Barcelona, Sicily, Naples, Pisa and Mallorca.
The half-day excursion we pick features a swing by the 2,000-year-old Phoenician ruins of Carthage and then time to sightsee, shop and dine in Sidi Bou Said.
Carthage, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is awe-inspiring for its intact columns, arches, walls and pathways.
Sidi Bou Said, another UNESCO site, is almost Greek-like with its white and blue homes and shops clifftop.
Tunisia has long been a favourite of holidayers from France and Germany for its beaches and exotic locale and culture.
But after a revolution in January 2010 returned the country to democracy, Tunisia is on the hunt for North American tourists too.
Tunisia certainly has pristine UNESCO sites and beautiful beach clubs, but North Americans will probably be shocked by the amount of litter that’s scattered everywhere else and the plethora of half-finished and run-down homes and shops.
So far most North Americans are arriving by cruise ship only for the day.
But that’s bound to change as cruisers get a sample and decide to come back for a full vacation some day.
Our tour guide Wassel Bouzid did his best to bring us up to speed on 2,800 years of history without overwhelming us.
The nomadic Berbers traditionally inhabited the land before a long line of rulers ranging from Phoenicians, Romans and Byzantine to Arab, Ottoman and more recently France.
“We are a nation of mostly Muslims who speak Arabic, but we are not Arabs,” Bouzid stressed.
“We are a country where state and religion are separate. So our laws are not religious laws. We are a land of many mosques (the Muslim place of worship) and many bars” (a contradiction to the fact that most Muslim countries outlaw alcohol because the religion forbids it).
Women are considered equals and don’t have to cover up the way most Muslim countries require they do.
Without the oil riches of neighbouring Libya, Tunisia’s No. 1 industry is agriculture—it’s the world’s third biggest producer of olive oil behind Spain and Italy, as well as an exporter of citrus fruits, dates, wheat and wine.
No. 2 is tourism, thus the push to attract more international visitors.
Recognizing that Tunisia is a quick stop for cruisers, the Port Terminal organizes for camels, falcons and live Berber music to be available for people getting off and on the ship.
IF YOU GO
Tunisia is a featured stop on the Holland America 10-day Mediterranean Enchantment cruise aboard the 2,100-passenger Noordam.
Cruise starts at about US$1,200 for stateroom and food per person based on double occupancy. See HollandAmerica.com. The half-day Carthage and Sidi Bou Said excursion is US$60.
More info at TourismTunisia.com