|ON Tunisias eastern shores, British holiday-makers escape to the sun, sea, soukhs and snake-charmers. In contrast Tabarka, a resort on the rocky north-west coast not far from the Algerian border, rarely sees a visitor from this country. The tourist board, keen to attract more sterling, describes it as one of Tunisias best-kept secrets. |
It might not be a secret beyond mans wildest dreams, but on the evidence of a recent exploratory trip Tabarka has its attractions for British divers seeking somewhere new in the Mediterranean.
Tabarka is no secret to Continental divers. During our visit the town was packed with French folk enjoying Coralis III - the third International Festival of the Underwater Image.
Tunisia is French as well as Arabic-speaking. The French pulled out of their former colony in 1956, by which time the once-rich resources of red coral that had given the north-western shores the name the Coral Coast had been seriously depleted.
Today the French are back, a quarter of a million Gallic tourists every year, so the photographers and film-makers celebrating the festival clearly felt right at home.
The towns four dive centres are not geared to English-speakers, so at the one we used, Dive Centre Le Crabe, there were none of those time-consuming briefings to detain us!
Everything else did seem a bit time-consuming, however. With the festival on, life was unusually busy in Tabarka, but laissez-faire seemed to sum up the centres approach. If a party missed a boat, never mind - there would be another one along in half-an-hour.
The guides did move fast underwater, admittedly - in many cases rather too fast for their less wary charges.
This carefree approach seemed to extend to checking qualifications and equipment. I came across far too many dodgy cylinder O-rings in the short time we were there. But we are assured that dive centres will have to sharpen up their acts in the future, and that English-speaking staff will be provided if and when you start booking.
And why should you do that Well, in its campaign to gee-up the British, Tabarka has two big Gs up its sleeve - Groupers and Geology.
Despite comparatively poor visibility, which provided a false impression of what was to follow, we spotted a number of unflappable groupers among the rocks on our introductory dive at Cap Tabarka, 20 minutes from the harbour.
If these fish seemed extrovert, their well-fed relatives at nearby Grouper Rock were pure showbiz. These hefty specimens come halfway up the anchorline to meet, greet and guide you onto the sand. They all but shake your hand and give you their card.
They do a spot of polite mingling until you break away to visit the rock itself. Here the more elderly groupers - they grow up to 40kg in these waters, they reckon - glide up close to you in the corridors to see whether you are their sort of person.
Grouper Rock is 50m long, rises from 33m to 17m and, like many of the rocks you find on these dives, is decorated with anemones, gorgonians and abundant algae.
We arrived in the wake of Jean-Michel Cousteau and a flotilla of Coralis III competitors, so had half-expected there to be little left to see. But even after hosting a celebrity party on this scale the groupers, ably assisted by various large bream, could hardly do enough for we tail-enders.
The G for Geology refers to the networks of tunnels and swim-throughs that make several of the sites within easy reach of Tabarka harbour a sort of underwater adventure playground.
If you like poking around in holes you will thoroughly enjoy yourself, and never do the same dive twice.
One site called The Tunnels boasts 20 passageways, the deepest around 24m. Up to 30m in length, some are so sharply angled and their walls so sculpted as to look almost man-made. Dramatic jagged pillars ensure that others are easy to remember.
Most are just wide enough to take a diver at a time. In places they are constricted or involve a tight turn, so your first stage could take a few knocks. This is where a DIN-fitting has a distinct advantage over a yoke.
If your budget allows, there are several high-quality hotels at Tabarka that probably offer enough facilities and activities to satisfy those seeking a family-plus-diving holiday.
Tabarka has expansive sandy beaches, and water temperature while we were there in mid-September was in the mid-20s - warm enough for shorties, even at depth, though by January it will drop to around 15C.
Air temperature ranges from 12C in January to 30C in high summer.
The bad news is that Tabarka is awkward to get to, involving a 100-mile transfer from Tunis that takes at least as long as the two-and-a-half-hour flight from Heathrow.
The mountain road between Beja and Tabarka is a suspension-wrecker - our minibus had clearly made the trip before, judging by the protesting shock absorbers.
There are inexpensive 20-minute flights between Tunis and Tabarka but only twice a week, so you would be lucky to tie in with the eight weekly flights from the UK to Tunis.
But on the strength of the exploratory trip Premier World Travel of Rugby is planning to offer four-night breaks, including six dives, from£435 and seven nights (ten dives) from£574, flying with GB Airways from Gatwick to Tunis and staying half-board at Tabarkas four-star Mehari Beach Hotel. Call 01788 560233/34.