We’d first heard about the Kerkennah Islands from Paul Theroux’s book about his trip around the Med. Theroux is known as a crabby individual who seeks out places to visit where no one else goes – usually with good reason. He went to the Kerkennah islands for two days in winter and described them as desolate, flat and arid with dying palms and ratty fronds. However I also read the more charitable Rough Guide which informed me that many people return year after year and describe the place as the most beautiful spot they know. The clincher was the fact that our neighbour had been recently and had a very relaxed faraway look in her eye when extolling its quiet virtues. In any case we had seen pretty much the rest of Tunisia in our two years here and thought – why not. It would be excellent place to chill out for a while and there would be few tourists.
First problem however was getting there. We knew the ferry left from Sfax and presumably left from the port. We found Sfax and we found the port – but there was not a single sign for the Kerkennah ferry. Once we found the ferry we were told, ‘Sorry, this is the wrong entrance you need to go out of here turn left, turn left again and look for a small gate with no markings on it and you’re there’. This was Tunisia after all. Fortunately we had arrived in plenty of time. Although there was no timetable as such, we were told the ferry would be leaving in two hours time and amazingly it did and we were disgorged at the other end just over an hour later.
Our first view of the islands from the ferry was as a thin smudge on the horizon which later revealed a rather flat island covered in palm trees. We soon left the ferry dock behind and were driving through a rather arid, flat landscape noting that close up the palm trees were rather straggly and certainly not the fine variety most often seen on beaches in Bounty Bar adverts. Despite this there was a pleasant otherworldliness to the scene, as close to rural idyll as you can expect on land that is bone dry and which supports nothing but these frail palms and the odd fig tree.
There is only one ‘resort’ on the islands. Resort being rather a misnomer. What it means is a beach with four or five hotels strung along it. In fact two of these hotels are not even on the beach but curiously a kilometre or so inland as though shipwrecked in an area of windblown scrub. On the map, the area appeared built up but in fact there were only the hotels and nothing else. Anyway we decided that we would start with the first and then see which one we fancied. As it happened we stopped at the first, the Cercina, and went no further. It was just what we wanted. In Asian style, there was a restaurant building with a large shady terrace and then the accommodation block – maybe five or six rooms each with their own little balcony and the whole lot facing a picture perfect bay. The rooms were basic but spotlessly clean and you simply couldn’t beat waking up in the morning, throwing open the shutters and looking out over the placid waters of Sidi Frej bay. There was only one drawback to the place. The islands are very low-lying but that also means the water is extremely shallow. It only gets to thigh depth even quite some distance offshore. And it’s the same all the way around the island.
One of the reasons we came to Kerkennahs is that we wanted to chill and not do too much, but that doesn’t stop a little bit of exploration. The Kerkennahs are really just two islands – a small southern one where the ferry docks and a larger northern one, connected by a causeway apparently built by the Romans. We completed our explorations in a day. Lots of quite pretty sleepy little villages often near sheltered bays separated by the endless palms – it seems nothing else can grow on these barren low-lying islands. The small towns also seemed remarkably free of cafes packed with men smoking and drinking coffee which you see all over Tunisia. In fact, there were plenty of houses but where were the people?
Using the Rough Guide we spent some time trying to find the best beach on the island. We did find a nice beach but I don’t think it was the one mentioned as it was no better than any other, but also no worse, just extremely quiet, not a soul about. It didn’t matter. We didn’t even have the energy to find the one ‘sight’ on the islands, the Borj el Hissar, a ruined fort on the coast built a few hundred years ago. I think we had already switched into ‘Kerkennah time’.
Back at the hotel after our exertions we enjoyed cold drinks and some of the best food in Tunisia. Especially the seafood. The Kerkennahs are famed for their octopuses and indeed at the little ports you see plenty of the pottery jars used to catch them by luring them into a false sense of security. In addition to the restaurant in the hotel we also went to the Sirene, an excellent restaurant in Remla the main town on the islands and the only place with a petrol station and a bank. Here we dined on the seafood platter on successive days, it was so good.
After three short days and nights it was time to leave. Paul Theroux and the Rough guide were both right. It is a bit of a desolate place but also one of the most relaxing and somehow rewarding places in all Tunisia.
view from our room at the Cercina Hotel
beach at Sidi Frej