Today, however, tourists from as far as France and Italy are trickling into Nefta. The sudden influx can be credited to Dar Hi, an avant-garde eco-resort and spa located on the edge of the Saharan desert. ‘The idea was not to create a luxurious hotel, but a small one that is centred on notions of wellbeing, where you can slow down and take the time to reflect and go back to basics,’ explains Matali Crasset, the French interior and industrial designer who spearheaded the Dar Hi project.
Originally founded in 2010, the boutique hotel’s concept is the result of a collaboration between Crasset and French creative entrepreneurs Philippe Chapelet and Patrick Elouarghi. After the designer was tasked with decorating the partners’ first venture in Nice – the striking Hi Hotel – the forward-thinking businessmen were keen to develop their new design hotel model a stage further, by offering an alternative form of hospitality amidst the Sahara’s serene setting. Feeling the pull of his North African roots, Elouarghi, who is originally Tunisian, decided that his native land would make the ‘perfect’ location.
‘My father is Tunisian and for a long time I’d wished to develop a project in the country – to work with the locals and share experiences with them,’ he says, noting the lack of similar properties in Tunisia. The partners saw potential to fill the gap, and began work on an ecological retreat smack in the middle of the desert. After scouring Tunisia for a location for the project, the entrepreneurs fell in love with the small town of Nefta. ‘It’s the best place to retire from the stress of our lives. It offers a radical change in scenery and ample rest,’ says Elouarghi.
Loosely translating to ‘my house’, Dar Hi is aptly named. Following the style of a typical Arab townhouse, it’s designed to make guests feel right at home. To offer a degree of privacy, the entrance is marked by a discreet corridor. Upon entering guests are requested to take off their shoes and are given babouche or Tunisian slippers to wear.
Crasset’s first venture into the world of architecture, Dar Hi consists of 17 units composed of four different forms of living space. Inspired by desert forts, elevated rooms referred to as ‘Pilotis’ are raised on long concrete columns high above the ground. Inside, a turquoise-coloured mattress on a pine bed with orange pillows is set in front of a huge window, offering panoramic views of Nefta. A small table with two chairs and a cement sink adheres to the hotel’s minimalistic theme.
Below these rooms are the troglodyte suites, inspired by the traditional underground homes of the people of Matmata, a small town in south Tunisia. Ideal for a group of friends or family, these rooms are partially built into the ground and come with their own private terraces and outdoor showers, but are linked together by a circular lounge area. Here, windows are replaced with skylights.
At ground level are the spacious dune rooms, painted in sandy hues and designed to mimic the sensation of living on a sand dune. The Dar Malika takes the form of a traditional village house and is recommended for families who want access to the hotel’s facilities. As Crasset explains, a different concept for each room helps to create the illusion that guests are staying in separate hotels.
With her trademark bowl haircut, Crasset’s whimsical style as a designer is reflected in the vibrant and futuristic colours used throughout Dar Hi. The hotel’s dominant cinnamon tones are brought to life by splashes of vivid green, orange and other citrus colours. ‘Dar Hi is a retreat that is similar to a big house, a place where people can come and understand the culture of Tunisia and at the same time, learn how to live a simple life in an oasis. It’s a balance between Tunisian culture and contemporary space.’
Crasset was given carte blanche for the project and involved local craftsmen and artisans whenever possible. ‘As much as we wanted Dar Hi to be a contemporary hotel, we tried to remain close to the people of Nefta. Locals were employed to handle the building’s construction and instead of importing materials, we decided to use the materials available in Nefta.’
Locally-sourced palm wood can be found throughout the hotel, from the roof to the kitchen utensils, tables and chairs. ‘This was as much about creating job opportunities for the Neftians as it was about finding an alternative use for palm groves.’ The hotel’s commitment to preserving the environment has led to the establishment of an association called Palm Lab – a research network that studies new ways of using the palm tree. Crasset explains, ‘we want to show that Dar Hi is a contemporary architectural project that conforms to its surroundings and connects with the locals.’
An emphasis on sustainability is integral to the ethos of Dar Hi. The spa, hammam and pool are supplied with water by a natural hot spring that runs underneath the hotel. The spring is also used as the main source of water for the hotel rooms and for the irrigation of the oasis that surrounds the hotel in Nefta.
Food is factored into the price of a room and, with the presence of an open-plan kitchen within the hotel, guests can watch local cooks from Nefta prepare traditional Tunisian dishes using organic products sourced from the on-site farm. As Crasset explains, the hotel makes sure to hire local staff for the kitchen and guests can look forward to a different menu every day. The designer adds that guests can even try their hand at cooking some of the dishes, if they wish to do so.
In keeping with Dar Hi’s efforts to get back to basics and encourage a communal vibe amongst guests, the rooms are stripped of televisions, telephones and Internet access. Guests can instead watch films together nestled in the auditorium’s soft fuchsia chairs. Alternatively, those who wish to spend a quiet evening in the company of a book are free to drift into the library and sit by its open fireplace. ‘The idea is to break social boundaries and encourage guests to share common space, something that is not possible in a conventional hotel,’ says Crasset, happy that, so far, Dar Hi has achieved precisely that.
This article appears in the issue40Buy Now