Marrakech and Atlas Mts

Sarah Bolton on 09 December 2012
II decided I needed a break at the end of the year, and chose Morocco as somewhere close to home that I wanted to explore. Morocco has culture, scenery and clear distinctions between the old town medina in Marrakech, the new Palmeraie area, and the beautiful mountains. I knew of several places I wanted to see, and ended up staying in three places over four nights - hardly a relaxing holiday!

The first two nights were spent at the Angsana Riads Riad Blanc, situated 10 minutes’ walk from the main square, Jemma Al Fna in the old town of Marrakech. The riad was in a great location for exploring the city, and yet giving the perfect oasis. As riads are old houses within the city walls, there is only so much that can be done to adapt them to a demanding visitor, however they are traditional, interesting, individual and more than adequate. Don't expect 5* luxury with all the mod cons as you may be disappointed, however riads are a great way of experiencing Moroccan living, close to the action.

For those who may never have experienced the madness of an Arabic souk or an African market, the old medina can appear daunting. There is no such thing as a map of the rabbit warren, however "all roads lead to Rome" or in this case, most roads will lead to Jemma Al-Fna. When it comes to the persistent shopkeepers or Henna women, be friendly but firm and you should get by just fine. Do remember, ladies that this is a Muslim country and in the old town it is sensible not to reveal too much if you don't want too much attention. Haggling is a must - and is expected. Morocco is well known for its spices, leather goods and ironwork (especially the Moroccan lanterns), and good quality items can be purchased for reasonable prices. Different areas of the town specialise in different items, although the main tourist souvenirs can be found everywhere. If you require assistance in getting around, finding the best places and showing you the best of Marrakech, a local guide can be booked - just make sure you get one of the registered ones, and don't allow yourself to be "picked up" by someone offering to help - who will then demand payment after you thought you'd made a friend!

For one night I had the privilege of being one of the first to try a new hotel, opening fully in January. It is in the resort area on the outskirts of Marrakech, the Palmeraie area, the Taj Marrakech. This 5* hotel is the height of luxury, set in an excluded area, with rooms in buildings within the gardens. The bedrooms are enormous and decadently furnished, with the most comfortable beds you don't want to get out of. The grounds are beautiful with a huge swimming pool in the centre. The food and service in the restaurants is outstanding.

Following this I headed up to the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, to a property that I've long dreamed about going to - Richard Branson's Moroccan retreat - Kasbah Tamadot. This turned out to be everything I thought it would be - stunning. Greeted on arrival with champagne or traditional mint tea, the view was to die for - bright blue skies, beautiful architecture, well-kept grounds and inviting pool area - all with the snow-capped mountains in the background. This is a small hotel that treats all its guests personally, and has an ethical ethos, employing local people and selling local crafts (including some great pashminas - of which I bought several as Christmas presents!) Each bedroom is individually decorated, and for something exclusive and quirky you can stay in one of the Berber tents located in the gardens (think along the lines of a luxury African safari tent, rather than something you have to pitch yourself). Although this was the most expensive place I stayed at, it was definitely excellent value, and now near the top of my list of places to go back to for more than one night - definitely worth saving up for.

I really recommend a trip to Marrakech - either a long weekend or a week, and I would suggest a twin-centre with two or three nights in Marrakech itself, followed by a few nights in the Atlas Mountains. If you want somewhere to just relax, then the Palmeraie area is best, with easy access to the town.