Sangho Privilege (Tataouine)

Aside from the photos we had seen online of our hotel choice, we really had no preconceived notion of what the town Tataouine would be like.  (We certainly knew it would not be as “otherworldly” as the planet with a similar name in George Lucas’s Star Wars.)  Surprisingly however, upon arrival to the Sangho Privilege compound just outside of town, we felt as through we had simply traveled to a slightly more remote neighborhood of Palm Springs or Phoenix.  This place was plush, not unlike one of the many resort hotels that cling to the sides of Camelback Mountain in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Entering through the lobby, we felt as though we had arrived at a deserted hotel.  We worked it out later that we must have arrived during some sort of daily “siesta” period; we were starving and there was no place open to get even a pack of peanuts!  So, naturally, instead of eating, we grabbed some ice cold beers from the bar which seemed to fill the gap for awhile.  The lobby and lounges of Sangho Privilege featured large installations of what are known in Tunisia as "sand roses."  These oddly-shaped chunky rock formations are actually an amalgamation of different pieces of gypsum.  The gypsum is dissolved from sand and then crystallized to form the spectacular, and sparkly, shapes.  Sand roses can be your souvenir for a price!  In truth, they are sold all over Tunisia as trinkets for family and friends back home.

Eventually, it was time to check out the hotel grounds and our room.  The main reception building spits you out onto an elaborately landscaped courtyard and pool that is surrounded by no less than 80 separate stone buildings!  Meandering up the paths to our quaint Tunisian cabana took about 10 minutes!  Once inside, we were pleasantly surprised by the fact that it was an actual detached dwelling.  And while we had all the modern conveniences on hand (A/C, shower and a private toilet), the decor suggested a stripped down Saharan experience that was perfectly fitting to the surrounding desert environs.  A nice touch was the terrace which overlooked the sumptuous succulent and cacti gardens of the hotel.

Resort amenities include tennis and volleyball courts, camel rides, bike rentals as well as a number of restaurant and bar choices.  Sangho Privilege is a chain in this part of the world, but the uniqueness of the resort layout made us feel as though we were staying in truly a “one-of-a-kind” place.  (If only they could remove that silly “Sangho” sign from the nearby mountain!)  While looking for dinosaur remains, the aliens aren't gonna use that as a landing strip!

Set of Drifters tip:  Be mindful of the fact that many restaurants (even at fine resorts like this) do not serve food all-day long.  We were not certain, but it may have something to do with local Muslim culture, and praying to Mecca at sundown.  Still, if you are typically hungry in the mid-afternoon after lunch and before dinner, make sure you have some rations to snack on instead (see "essentials").  For more information about dining at the at Sangho Privilege, see "cous cous" in "eats." 

Set of Drifters video:  Check out our YouTube channel for video from this event!

Sangho Privilege Tataouine - Route de Chenini, Tataouine, 011 (216) 75 860 102

Hôtel Sidi Driss (Matmata)

A seemingly nondescript outpost at the end of one of the main three roads in town, the Hôtel Sidi Driss is the most popular of the “troglodyte” hotels found in Matmata, thanks to its stellar affiliation with that galaxy “far, far away” (see “sights”).  The hotel consists of five different "pits" that are joined together by underground tunnels and staircases.  Each pit contains a series of rooms accessible off a central courtyard.

Upon entering the hotel from the street, visitors descend a staircase that leads to a very basic lobby.  Various articles and photos which depict just how Star Wars put Matmata on the map hang from the walls and behind the modest reception desk.  From here, there are several different paths that lead to the underground pits that, at some point, were dug from the earth.  Nowadays, the pits remain continuously exposed to the elements... and the tourists!

The main pit just beyond the lobby features some of the larger dining rooms created to contain the hordes of tourists that invade this modest-looking location each and every day.  Some of the Sidi Driss pits are better maintained than others.  The current state of "Pit #1" offers a nice glimpse at the effect water can have on the seemingly impractical inverted domiciles.  (Set of Drifter Brady was very intrigued by the patterns created by the dripping orange mud over whitewashed plastered walls as it reminded him of some of his earlier painting techniques.)

Off-limits “Pit #5,” accessible via the “Lars Family dining room” on the Star Wars set in “Pit #4,” is probably in the worst shape.  Stacks and stacks of furniture and linens bundled up in plastic wrapping suggest that this is actually the "service" quarters and storage for the hotel.  Of course, our favorite part about “Pit 5” was its cat population, hidden behind a crate of Celtia beer, but only for a moment!  Yes, the malnourished kittens of Tunisia have made all the way to the pit dwellings in Matmata!  The little babies just broke our hearts as they were so tiny and thin!

We found out from the man working at the front desk that we were the only occupants at the Sidi Driss that night!  This was somewhat unsettling considering that the hotel features upwards of 22 rooms between its two habitable pits!

We ended up staying in “Pit #2” and once inside the room were surprised to see four separate single beds competing for floor space!   (Clearly, this place is set up to accommodate large parties of Star Wars fans!)  The three “beds” against the back wall were actually just mattresses laid on top of slabs formed into the ground!  (The W Hotel Matmata this was not!)  And yet, after a long day of trekking through Chenini, Ksar el-Hencha, Ksar Hededa and Matmata (see "sights"), anything would have felt comforting and relaxing... that is until we realized that the linens were full of miniscule sand and dirt particles!  Oh joy!

The accommodations at the Hôtel Sidi Driss are basically just caves that have been dug out from the ground and then plastered and painted over in white.  The overall look is actually pretty chic and reminiscent of the Hôtel Ksar Hededa, a property that at one time had also featured interiors full of groovy alcoves and built-in furniture, yet had not been quite fully realized to its fullest potential.

Wooden doors that are secured by simple chains and padlocks are just some of the innate drawbacks at the Hôtel Sidi Driss.  Amenities are scare at best with communal bathrooms and showers your only option!  (Have no fear, while the contents of the toilets no doubt head downward, the bathrooms feature "natural" ventilation shafts which reach upward to the ground level above.)  Aside from the oddly placed “Popeye” and “Olive Oyl” welcome mat, the funniest thing about our room was the official tariff sheet attached to the door, something we never would have expected to see out here in this remote underground location.

Of course, your “Set of Drifters” know how to go with the flow, and can adjust our comfort levels accordingly.  We had brought some Celtia beers with us to unwind a bit before dinner, and though we were without a bottle opener, were able to use that simple padlock on our door to pop open the lids!  Later when our power converter prevented us from actually closing the door, we were able to enlist the amenable front desk manager to charge our camera batteries for us.  Ultimately, if the accommodations could have been kept cleaner, with air conditioning and modern bathrooms added into the mix, a casual stay at the Hôtel Sidi Driss would not be so bad.

The next morning, courtesy of some rather vocal birds, we had the opportunity to awake at sunrise.  Since the hotel was virtually empty, every nook and cranny was ours to explore by the light of day.  After taking some more photos, we managed to get a muted breakfast in one of the dining rooms not featured in the Star Wars films.  From a nearby kitchen, we heard a cook chopping heaps of vegetables and could not figure out why!  Our breakfast was bare bones, and there were no other visitors in sight...  It all made perfect sense when we strode back through Matmata a few days later and stopped off at the Hôtel Sidi Driss around lunch time to grab some magnets from one of the souvenir shops nearby (see “goodies”).

Busloads of tourists had descended on the town, clogging every pit of the hotel.  The vibe was really quite different when marred with travelers from around the world who didn't really appreciate the hotel’s main attraction it in the same way.

To be perfectly honest, the Hôtel Sidi Driss does not offer a good night's sleep.  The sand or dirt particles in the blanket were somewhat unnerving, and by 5:00 AM, the local birds were chirping so loud that you could not avoid their calls.  That being said, the Hôtel Sidi Driss is certainly a special place that you should check out, if only for lunch or a beer at the bar.  Even though it may not have been up to our usual comfort standards, being able to experience all of the leftover set dressings from the Star Wars films was truly extraordinary.  We even managed to re-enact a few scenes from the films in photos that turned fellow fans back at home green with envy!

Set of Drifters tip:  The white posts you will undoubtedly notice from above the Hôtel Sidi Driss are used to designate pit dwellings from the surface so those walking their donkeys, or dare we say it, driving in vehicles, do not fall in!!  We recommend that you too take some caution when walking around the rims of the cratered dwellings of Matmata!  Set of Drifters video:  For video from this event, check out our YouTube channel!

Hôtel Sidi Driss - C104, Matmatat-Al-Qadimal, 011 (216) 75 240 005

Hôtel Matmata (Matmata)

The Hôtel Matmata is one of the Sidi Driss' biggest competitors for tourist dinars in Matmata.  Of course, if you are a die-hard Star Wars fan there clearly is only one place to rest your head while in town!  That being said, we did scope out the accommodations here just before our sunset dinner at the hotel’s restaurant (see “eats”).

The exterior of the Hôtel Matmata is fashioned to appear more like a traditional "ksar" rather than a troglodyte home, a somewhat conflicting choice when your name is “Hôtel Matmata.”  Nevertheless, the orange adobe walls contrast quite nicely against the hotel’s white dome accents, detailing of the window trim and the furniture that encircles the aquamarine pool.  And trust us, when the brilliance of the nightly sunset casts its rays against the facade, you just may need a pair of sunglasses to ward off the almost neon glow that radiates from here!

Upon our arrival to the lobby, the manager of the hotel greeted us with warm excitement.  His enthusiasm easily sprang from the seemingly high vacancy ratio in town the night we visited.  To further lure us in, the manager took us on a complete tour of the property, showing off its "modern rooms" that were in stark contrast to the underground dwelling we would inhabiting later that night!

Vaulted ceilings and rose petals strewn atop the adjoined double beds certainly swanked up the room, yet still left us feeling somewhat empty.  The Hôtel Matmata provides accommodations that would have been entirely welcome anywhere else in Tunisia, yet here in Matmata, it seems a shame not to experience the real pulse!  On the flipside, no one really wants to stay more than one night sleeping in sandy sheets on an uncomfortable stone bed.  If you are planning on relaxing and kicking back by the pool for a few days in Matmata, then this is exactly the place you want to be!

Hôtel Matmata - C104, Matmatat-Al-Qadimal, 011 (216) 75 240 066 

Hôtel Marhala (Matmata)

According to the guidebooks we researched prior to leaving for Matmata, the nicest “traditional Berber pit dwelling” accommodations can be found at the Hôtel Marhala.  We scoped the place out while looking for decent dinner options on our only night in town.  We were somewhat taken aback by the odd lobby that reminded us of a European castle thanks to its disquieting darkness.  Still, when compared to the Hôtel Sidi Driss, the Marhala does appear more "put together,” if that is even possible in a location as exotic as Matmata.  The plastered mud walls, wooden shudders and benches have all been painted in one uniform terracotta hue, allowing the minimal plants and various throw pillows scattered about to act as contrasts.  Perhaps the most charming aspect of the Hôtel Marhala is its beautiful wooden doors that lead to interiors very similar to that of the Hôtel Sidi Driss, albeit cleaner.  (Yet, for $16 USD a piece at the Sidi Driss, we could not really complain.)

The concept of transforming indigenous Tunisian dwellings, like those at Ksar Hededa and throughout Matmata, into habitable hotels seems to have become popular in the 1970's.  Perhaps this is why the Location Scout for Star Wars was initially drawn to these areas in the first place!

We were hoping to grab some food from the restaurant at the Marhala, but guess what?  The kitchen was closed until "7:45 PM."   It was like there was some conspiracy going on...  All of the food in Tunisia was being cooked out of one kitchen that did not open until after sundown!!  We grabbed a couple of bottles of Celtia instead inside the hotel’s small bar.  The vibe was relaxed, perhaps a bit too relaxed for our liking.  Still, if you are traveling to this inverse landscape and want to experience the Berber culture without compromising your comfort too much, the Hôtel Marhala is probably your safest gamble.

Hôtel Marhala - C104, Matmatat-Al-Qadimal, 011 (216) 75 240 015 

Hôtel Diar el-Berber (near Matmata)

The Hôtel Diar el-Berber is one of the more striking hotels in the region.  Located outside of the main center of town on the road to Douz (see “sights”), the “ksar”-inspired facade is pretty hard to ignore.  While we did not stop to take a peek inside, online complaints suggest that the place is plagued by a foul sewer smell!  (This may be one of the times that the cover belies the contents of the book inside.)  Still, we hear that the views from the courtyard pool are stunning, so perhaps a drink at the bar here is worth a try!  (We’ll let you know the next time we’re in town!)

Hôtel Diar el-Berber - about 1.8 km. west of town on the route de Tamezret, 011 (216) 75 240 074

El Mouradi (Tozeur)

After zooming through “downtown” upon our arrival to Tozeur, we turned a corner and soon realized that we were no longer in a “one horse town” as so many of the other villages along our journey from the Djerba had been.  In fact, this was a multi-horse town, thanks to a coterie of calèche carriages (see “essentials”) that waited outside Tozeur’s large luxury hotel compounds.

Grand signed entrances of the many fortress-like resorts beckon from each side of the Route Touristique; it soon became evident that we would find our hotel, the El Mouradi Tozeur, without ever having to looking for an address!

Positioned at the top of a somewhat sharp curve of the thoroughfare, the El Mouradi Tozeur welcomed us down a steep driveway and deposited us into a adequate parking lot buzzing with athletes on bikes?  Huh?  Yes, unlike our stay at the Hôtel Sidi Driss back in Matmata (see above), we certainly would not be alone during our respite at the El Mouradi.  The resort was hosting hundreds of Westerners in town for some sort of cycling marathon!  (We later spent the evening in the hotel’s bar ear-wigging on the weird conversations coming from the French contingency a few tables away.)

After parking our, we entered through the hotel’s vast foyer where we were immediately comforted by its placid opulence, the decor of which was not quite as outdated as the retro logo circa 1985 out front.  No worries, as the offerings here were easily a great number of steps up from the subterranean digs of that dusty troglodyte spot in Matmata.

The front desk agent advised us on El Mouradi’s deklightful array of perks : an Olympic size outdoor pool, several bars, restaurants and lounges, indoor spa and massage treatments, etc.  It was apparently one of those places that had enough on offer for those who could simply not be bothered to walk outside and enjoy the town’s bounty of other attractions, eateries or shopping possibilities!

Part of a larger chain, El Mouradi Tozeur offers the all too rare combination of pleasant lodging situated within a superb location.  Its 89 air-conditioned rooms - and four junior suites - feature garden and/ pool views, with some offering more spectacular vistas that reach out to the palm grove and oddball “Belvedere Rocks.”  The free morning buffet breakfast is nothing to write home about, yet El Mouradi’s main restaurant is relaxed and clean, and when bustling with patrons, a nice spot to meet other travelers.

Set of Drifters tip:  Seeking some peace and quiet?  Make sure you check out the basement spa for a relaxing afternoon reprieve from the masses. 

El Mouradi Tozeur - Route Touristique BP 106, Zone Touristique, Tozeur, 011 (216) 76 453 500