From stays in the Sahara to treks in the Sinai, Joanna Booth looks at what North Africa's deserts have to offer tourists
The beaches of Morocco, Egypt and Tunisia aren’t the only places tourists get to enjoy the sands of North Africa. The region’s deserts are grand adventure playgrounds, where clients can burn over the dunes on a quad bike, stay among them in a Bedouin tent or even float over them in a balloon.
Sunseekers on Egypt’s Sinai peninsula may find it difficult to tear themselves away from the treasures of the Red Sea or the comfort of a sunlounger, but they won’t regret a day in the desert.
Add-ons specialists have a wide range on offer, allowing you to bolt trips on to sun-and-sea packages. Popular options for Do Something Different include Quad Biking in the Sinai (£33) and a Desert Jeep Safari with a sunset barbecue dinner (£23). Attraction World’s range includes a Camel Ride and Bedouin Dinner (£32) and Moses Mountain and St Katherine’s Monastery (£55). The latter allows clients to climb Mount Sinai for sunrise and later visit the monastery in its shadow.
Tui has a Sinai by Starlight afternoon/evening trip available from Thomson and First Choice Red Sea resorts for £39 per adult and £20 per child. It begins with camel riding, continues with dinner at a Bedouin camp and concludes with stargazing through telescopes to spot Jupiter and Saturn as well as thousands of stars.
From Taba, Longwood Holidays offers a £50 Coloured Canyon Jeep Safari, taking travellers to one of the Sinai’s natural wonders, where the sandstone glows in hues of magenta, purple, yellow and red.
For those who want to spend longer in the Sinai, suggest one of The Adventure Company’s tours. There’s an eight-day family-focused Active in the Sinai option. Based in Dahab, it offers camel trekking, jeep adventures and camping under the stars from £939 including flights.
The Sinai isn’t Egypt’s only desert. In the country’s west, 340 miles from Cairo, are the Black and White deserts. The names come from the rocks found in the sand – black basalt, iron pyrite and white limestone – and spectacular shapes formed by wind erosion make it a photographers’ paradise. There are also oases and desert villages to explore.
Several operators feature this area. Cox & Kings’ eight-night private tour (from £1,495) combines the area with the famous sites of Cairo and Luxor, while Explore’s Egyptian Nile Cruise and Desert Oases (from £1,444) includes a four-night river cruise. Intrepid Travel’s 15-day Explore Egypt Tour and On The Go’s 13-day Sandblaster head into the White Desert to camp under the stars without tents.
For those who want to visit this area in style, Mosaic Holidays recommends the eco-luxury hideaway Al Tarfa Lodge & Spa, a secluded oasis on the edge of the Sahara from which guests can take camel rides, jeep drives and adventures to the Dakhla Oasis.
Whether clients are families staying in Agadir or couples weekending in Marrakech, there’s a desert add-on to suit. Do Something Different offers camel riding in the Souss desert from £19 from Agadir hotels, and Tui’s two-day Sahara Adventure from its Marrakech resorts includes an overnight experience camping in the desert, from £158.50 per adult and £79.50 per child. Kuoni offers a day trip out of Marrakech, driving through the Atlas Mountains to the desert Kasbah of Ouarzazate, from £30.
For those who have already done a short break in Marrakech, why not suggest one in the Sahara? Explore has a five-day long weekend Saharan Escape which includes visiting Ouarzazate, camping under the stars and exploring the desert at Chegaga, home to high sand dunes. With departures through autumn and winter, the break starts from £666.
Tours of Morocco usually include some time in the desert. Anatolian Sky has a new programme in Morocco, including a seven-night Marrakech, Desert Adventure and High Atlas Mountains itinerary (from £899) that is packed with kasbahs, camels and oases.
The Adventure Company has a family trip taking kids from six years and older, plus the eight-day Desert Adventure, which takes clients across the desert on a caravan of camels, sleeping in nomad tents, from £829.
Exodus has a challenging cycling trip through the desert and Atlas, the seven-night Atlas Descent (from £999) and a 10-day volunteering trip supporting Berber communities (from £979).
Tunisia’s deserts are stars of the silver screen, so excursions are great suggestions for film buffs. Tui has two trips available from all its Tunisian resorts. The Desert Discovery day trip (from £44.50/£22.50) visits the troglodyte caves at Matmata that were home to Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: Episode One, and includes a camel ride in Bedouin costume. The two-day Simply Sahara trip (£84.99/£44.50) gives more time for exploration, also featuring the Star Wars set at Onk Jemal, the gigantic Roman amphitheatre El Djem, which was digitally remastered for Gladiator, and the oasis town of Chekiba, featured in The English Patient.
Tours combine Tunisia’s historical sights with its desert wonders. Exodus has a leisurely eight-night tour visiting Matmata and Douz for desert camping from £939. Explore has a longer 12-day option with more time in the desert from £901. Cox & Kings’ seven-night Southern Tunisia Explorer private tour (from £1,995) can be taken to coincide with the International Festival of the Sahara, a four-day event in Douz in December featuring music, dance, poetry and horse racing.
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