Sahara Desert

Ages 6 & up
Destination: Ksar Ghilane, Tunisia

Some 4.5 million Europeans, mostly French, vacation each year in Tunisia, offering their oiled bodies to the sun on the white sands of Djerba. This North African island has some of the most spectacular beaches in the world -- but it's a pity that few tourists bother to travel on to the desert landscapes to the south. They're missing the thrill of setting foot on the dunes of the Sahara, and for kids, there's even a movie tie-in: exploring towns that helped inspire the Star Wars movies.

Granted, it's a long, thankless drive -- 3 ½ hours from Djerba to Ksar Ghilane, an oasis at the very edge of the Grand Erg Oriental, one of the Sahara's two great sand seas, and it's best to hire a driver so you don't lose your way on these deceptive desert tracks. But when you arrive, the kids will immediately get the concept of an oasis: Rising up out of the desert, a hot spring here feeds a swimming hole and a greenness of tamarisk trees.

As befits the desert, you'll stay in tents, although quite luxurious tents, air-conditioned and with a private bathroom -- it certainly beats a Motel 6. The highlight of your stay in the oasis is a 2km (1.2-mile) walk through the shifting dunes, following a trail of camel turds to an abandoned fort worthy of Lawrence of Arabia. Plan to wear turbans to protect against the blowing sands, or you can arrange for an all-terrain vehicle to meet you and drive you back; doing the trek on a camel is a more exotic option.) Tour packages often combine the Ksar Ghilane expedition with a trip around the amazing Ksour district to the east.

"Ksour" is the plural for "ksar," a traditional mud-and-stone structure built by the ancient Berber people -- communal granaries, where every family in a village had its own chamber for storing grain. In later times, the villagers turned these granaries into forts against foreign invaders.

Most of these ksour are crumbling and abandoned, haunting relics left in the desert when their inhabitants moved to modern towns. You can visit several ksours in the course of a day's desert drive around the modern town of Tataouine -- a name borrowed by George Lucas for an entire planet in Star Wars. The nearby village of Ksar Haddada (on C207) was the setting for Luke Skywalker's hometown in the first Star Wars movie, A New Hope; head up north to Matmata (at the juncture of C104 and C107), where scenes from both A New Hope and Attack of the Clones were filmed: It's a village full of troglodyte cave dwellings, carved out of the desert rock, where people still live -- some have even been turned into hotels, cramped and dank and utterly exotic. Scoring an overnight stay in Luke Skywalker's house -- now that's a parenting coup.

Information: Tunisia Tourism (

Nearest Airport: Djerba, 3 ½ hr.

Accommodations: Pansea Ksar Ghilane, Ksar Ghilane (tel. 216/75/759-330; Hotel Sidi Driss, Matmata (tel. 216/75/240-005).

Organized Tour: TunisUSA (tel. 800/474-5502 or 484/754-0086;