The tour was a bit more "coach tour" than I'd expected of Exodus - there was little time available for exploring on your own and meals were all set menu (no choice) or hotel buffet (which I try to avoid), group meals, even the ones not included - we were not encouraged to "do our own thing" for meals or sightseeing. However the tour leader was very knowledgeable about Tunisia, but the disadvantage of a local guide who has not left their own country, is that they often can't understand what outsiders find fascinating (the every day stuff of life!) - and much of the tour focuses on history and monuments while how people live, what they can afford, etc is sidelined.
- What was the most inspirational moment of your trip?
The group had a great dynamic and the canasta challenge is already scheduled to continue one weekend soon. Most of us felt El Jem, at the end of the tour, was the best of the sites/monuments, but it was towards the end of the longest travel day that started on a camel so we may not have seemed as enthused as we might have been.
For me the highlight was the evening in Le Kef (apart from getting stalked walking home), where I wandered round town with one of the others - we were given cake at a cake factory, I bought a CD of 106 Tunisian MP3s for 75p at a DVD store, had shop staff insist we took their photo, talked to some old men playing cards, and generally just saw Tunisians out and about living life.
- What did you think of your group leader?
Sonia had good knowledge of Tunisia, and a history degree, but I wondered if she really "got" the Exodus customer - and she hasn't travelled outside Tunisia herself - the "coach tour" style was a bit much for those of us who have travelled to many countries either independently or on other tours - for instance she didn't establish how many were familiar with Roman sites, and then was put out when some preferred to wander (within the time parameters) rather than have it all explained by her at length & at a very slow pace.
She was very concerned for our wellbeing but this extended itself to insisting that only official tourist restaurants were safe. We should have all been given credit for having the intelligence/experience to make that sort of call ourselves.
Our driver Hedi was delightful (and a good driver) and I learnt a lot about Tunisian life and values from conversations in broken French.
- Do you have any advice for potential travellers?
Don't expect Tunisia to have the "wow" factor of many other Mediterranean countries, however if it's your first Muslim/Roman/North African experience, you'll probably think "wow" as it's fairly safe (aside from the walk to the remote hotel in Le Kef), cleanish, food is flavoursome (if you avoid the set meals) and the pound goes a bit further there than in Europe.
If you go in the winter, prepare to be very, very cold at night. Make sure your sleeping bag is 4 season as the tents in the desert all had broken zips so that was a most cold and unpleasant night at 2 degrees.
Brush up on your French as only younger people have been taught English in school. It's useful for shopping, meals etc.
- Is there anything else you would like to add?
I thought that the itinerary was too prescriptive and tried to pack too much in, and not all of it fascinating. After a few days, many of us were trying to find a bit of free time to wander/people watch, but the itinerary really didn't have time built in to do that, for instance in Sidi Bou Said we trailed about after Sonia, then she led us to a tea house for an expensive cup of tea (the bill was £50 for 14 tiny teas!) instead of letting us wander to take photos & admire the architecture. I ended up skipping the train activity in Tozeur in order to get a half day free, & verdict from the others was that I'd made a good call as the train doesn't have enough seats, so it's a bit like a South East England commuter train!
The meal situation was also poor - evening meals shouldn't have been included - all meals should have been one's own choice as in the whole week, we didn't get to order off a menu once, it was pre-determined and one mad day we were taken to the same place for lunch as dinner (when many other suitable places were literally metres away). I skipped some of these meals so I could chose my own food but Sonia wasn't happy about that.
We also had an unpleasant experience leaving the Sahara "desert" (think sandy outskirts of town rather than big dunes, 1 hour on a camel, hardly a trek) when the camel drivers dumped the camp rubbish on the ground and left it - our group picked it up and carried it out. Tourists will not want to go there if the Tunisians don't respect their environment and allow it to become a rubbish tip.
I have used Exodus 4 times now, and this was the least enjoyably structured tour, thankfully it was the most enjoyable group which made up for it somewhat.