Words Jo Hollingsworth
Last October half term, with only a long weekend free, we were presented with a (nice) dilemma. Where could we escape to that was a relatively short flight, but culturally and geographically different? We had long wanted to visit Morocco, and on paper it appeared that Marrakech ticked all the boxes.
Booking flights and accommodation at the last minute meant that the more sensible plan to do the city first then escape somewhere more relaxing didn’t work out, and we had to do it in the reverse order… and so we found ourselves taking the short taxi ride from the airport to The Beldi Country Club. This however turned out to be a good thing…
The Beldi Country Club
Driving from the airport, rose hued buildings melted into the pink sand, the Atlas Mountains rose in a distant haze, olive trees grew twisted and gnarled by the side of the road, and the soft call of the muezzin calling people to prayer drifted on the sultry air – it was difficult to believe that this was only three and a half hours from London!
Our taxi bumped along a dusty unmade road before turning into an unassuming gateway marked by an old car and a stack of vintage suitcases, which gave a hint that this was no ordinary hotel. Anyone familiar with Petersham Nurseries, a rustic nursery, romantic restaurant and shop just outside Richmond (and now in Covent Garden) might just feel at home in the Beldi’s similar but more exotic version of shabby chic, with its bohemian beauty, sprawled across a thirty five acre site making it the perfect place to escape the crowd.
The Beldi is a photographers dream, winding paths lined with lanterns lead from shady gazebos to sun dappled courtyards where citrus trees laden with limes and oranges jostle for space, flowers tumble from huge turquoise terracotta pots, their glaze crazed and faded in the sun, and every twist and turn of its winding paths reveals another carefully curated scene.
After checking into our rooms we wandered through the gardens and the vast rose garden with its blowsy scented roses, explored the on-site souks selling Moroccan homewares, bohemian clothing and children’s wear, and the florists where flowers fresh from the cutting garden were being arranged, stopping only by a lily pond for a refreshing mint tea served from a huge silver pot.In the black tiled swimming pools ,tiny birds fluttered at the edge to dip their wings in the shallows, oblivious to the refreshingly cool water and the guests.
During the day you can lounge around the pool within your own private courtyard as there are a myriad of separate intimate areas , and in the evening eat in the outdoor restaurant with its vine covered roof . If you don’t want to check in and stay or prefer somewhere with a heated pool, you can buy a day pass and spend a day lounging, swimming and exploring the beautiful grounds, children are welcome and have acres of space to explore.
The next day we headed to the Agafay desert where we had booked to stay overnight in La Terre des Etoiles, a desert eco tented camp. If you have plenty of time, the Sahara on the other side of the Atlas Mountains is the ultimate desert experience , but the eight to twelve hour drive makes it impractical for most short stays, the Agafay desert in contrast is less than a one hour journey from the centre of Marrakech, and although the landscape is rocky and ‘semi lunar’ rather than pure sand, it was the highlight of our trip
Lodge Interior at Terre Des Étoiles
At the camp a collection of cream Bedouin style tents perched on the hillside overlooking the desert. There were 2 small salt water infinity pools to dip in (don’t expect resort style pools) and a number of activities when we were tired of the solitude and down time. We took a guided trek to a local Berber village where the local people live simply and in harmony with their harsh surroundings. The children were fascinated to explore a garden lovingly nurtured and irrigated in the desert, and to join the family eating bread baked over the wood fire and deliciously strong olive oil, from the huge olive pots stored in the cool stone rooms. We communicated in broken English and sign language to learn more about each other’s customs and lives – possibly the best geography lesson we could have wished for!
Back at the camp there is also an eco garden – an oasis where pomegranates, oranges and figs as well as herbs and vegetables compete for space and are used in the kitchen (you are very welcome to wander into the kitchen and help prepare your own tagine). Children will love meeting the camp’s animals including baby goats, rabbits , chickens and of course the camels.
But it was really the night time that we had come for and it didn’t disappoint. We took an evening camel trek, the baby camels gambling alongside their parents, to the top of the hillside to watch the sunset. The setting sun streaked the clouds with quicksilver and the sky turned slowly to orange as the silvery lights of Marrakech and Agafay curved into an arc in the distance. As our camels plodded slowly back across the dusty terrain, the camp came into view, now lit by flaming torches and flickering candle light.
Star Gazing at Terre Des Étoiles
Sitting after dinner around the blazing firepit watching the dancing flames, and the Milky Way unfold above us was the stuff that memories are made of. Eventually , sleepy children gathered up, we made our way back to our tents. When the lanterns were turned out, the night was as thick as treacle and we felt insignificant underneath a thousand stars scattered like sequins on the black velvet sky.
Later that night we woke up to an eerie grey light, and crept out of our tents to see that the moon had risen and the inky blackness had given way to moonlight, bathing the desert in a silvery light almost as bright as day , it was one of those rare sights that is definitely worth waking sleeping children to see.
At breakfast we feasted on Moroccan bread pancakes (a definite hit with the children ) with sweet sticky honey from the desert hives, amber apricot jam and freshly squeezed orange juice with eggs from the camp’s own hens. Somehow it tasted better than any hotel breakfast.
The next day we headed back into Marrakech to stay just outside the medina, olive groves gave way to dusty roads, washing strung to dry along balconies marking the transition from countryside to city. There is a wide range of accommodation from luxury hotels like La Mamounia, to simple and inexpensive Airbnb rooms. Possibly the most authentic place to stay is a traditional Riad house with high walls around a central courtyard, often with a pool.
The Pool at Jemaa el F’na
From our Riad, it was a short walk to the medina. We had heard stories about the hassle factor in the medina but in reality we found that a polite ‘no thank you’ and smile went a long way. In Jemaa el F’na, the main square, snake charmers, story tellers, and acrobats jostled for space with henna tattoo artists. Inside the medina’s walls, narrow lanes wound past open shops piled with colourful spices, baskets and traditional baboushka slippers in the colours of the rainbow.
Be prepared to barter (it’s mostly good natured and is expected) and if it all gets too intense, escape to one of the many rooftop cafes to see the medina spread out like a colourful carpet beneath you as the rhythmic drumming and pipes of the snake charmers drifts up on the breeze (except when the muezzin calls and everything else simultaneously falls silent).
Keeping a close eye on children can be exhausting and stressful, so if you want to see more of the city at a relaxed pace you can take the hop on-hop off bus or charter a horse and carriage ride ( we didn’t do this and also avoided the snake charmers and men with monkeys doing tricks – Morocco is not high on animal rights!) Le Jardin Majorelle designed by Yves St Laurent , with its exotic plants, huge cacti and brightly coloured buildings is a relaxing way to pass a couple of hours , and the Bahia and El Bada Palaces offer a chance to escape the hustle and bustle and allow children the freedom to burn off some energy. The Yves St Laurent museum and Maison de la Photographie (which has photos of old Marrakech) are both interesting to visit.
Stall in Medina, Marrakech
In the evening we visited La Maison Arabe, a lovely old hotel and restaurant which was the first restaurant catering for foreigners in Marrakech and a haunt of Winston Churchill, the piano bar is worth having a cocktail in even if you don’t stay for dinner. The hotel also has a spa at its own country club that you can buy a day pass for , and is reached by a shuttle bus service, and it’s possible to have a traditional Hamman massage (to be found everywhere in Marrakesh) with a traditional salt scrub with black salt and geranium oil, followed by a massage… but La Maison Arabe is most famous for its cookery school where you can take a cookery course, shop accompanied in the market for herbs and spices then learn to prepare traditional Moroccan cuisine, there are cookery course all over Marrakech including family ones that cater for children too.
In just four days, we were limited in what we could do, but we would definitely come back for longer and explore further a field. On the list would be Essaouira, a relaxed coastal town with a beautiful beach and fresh fish restaurants, or Oualidia with its sheltered lagoon and surf school. We would definitely build in time for a 2-3 day trek in the Atlas mountains, many of these are suitable for slightly older children and have mules to carry equipment (and tired children), and of course the Sahara and its huge sand dunes would be high on the wish list, and all the more reason to come back to this magical place!
Morocco is an exciting destination which offers a fantastic combination of coast, desert and mountains, it’s a short, easy flight and in the same time zone. There is no doubt that it can be a culture shock, and may not be for families with very young children (or the faint hearted) but on the flip side it is exciting and wildly different – older children will love camping in the desert and sleeping under the stars, slithering down sand dunes, camel trekking and playing in the surf and sand- throw in a visit to the medina, a cookery course (and a couple of grown up treats) – just remember to build in some down time!