It starts with yoga on the rooftop of a riad in Marrakech and ends with desert glamping. Larissa Dubecki finds a wellness tour with the lot – including cake for breakfast.
The Moroccan retreat where yoga is rewarded with cake
The road to wellbeing is paved with good intentions. Barely used gym memberships crunch underfoot alongside half-buried memories of Zumba, CrossFit and Yogalates.
That may explain why I’m in Morocco on a yoga and wellness tour when there’s a perfectly serviceable yoga studio 100 metres from my home. An extravagance? Maybe. But something about the combination of “Morocco” and “yoga” feeds into fantasies of personal fulfilment the way “suburban Melbourne” and “get home in time for the kids’ dinner” do not.
This theory finds me on the rooftop of quietly luxurious Riad Les Yeux Bleus boutique hotel (hotel.qantas.com .au/riadlesy euxbleus) in the ancient medina of Marrakech, shoulders planted on the ground as yoga master Perumal holds my body in the air at an impressive 90-degree angle in the pose known as sarvangasana.
Perumal is a yogic prince. A limber cat of a man clad in white linen pants, he (like Beyoncé) goes by one name only. It’s something of a moment, this first morning in the gloriously chaotic capital of
Berber culture. The sun is glinting off meticulously patterned tiles, birds chortle their songs and a pool burbles nearby. The illusion is broken when Perumal releases his grip and I collapse into the yogic pose known as felinasana, or “cat hit by car”.
There will be no backlit beach asanas, popularised by the likes of Gisele Bündchen, on this trip. “You have to decide if you’re going on retreat or if you’re going on holiday,” says Perumal, our instructor for this morning only. I can only imagine that two weeks with him would make anyone straighten up and fly right but the tour by small-group company Gypsian Boutique Tours (gypsianboutiquetours.com.au) is blessedly of the moderate school. Sorry, Perumal, but this is a holiday – albeit one with health benefits.
Wellness tours in Morocco take many forms. Some companies focus on mountain biking (bike-morocco.com), others on trekking (atlastrekshop.com). Candace Warner founded Gypsian Boutique Tours in 2012 after several years of living and tour-guiding in the Middle East. She leads the 11-night tours with a keen eye for combining yoga and spa treatments with cultural activities and local cuisine. As an added bonus for any frazzled member of the working-parent chain gang, she’s also happy to accommodate proclivities relating to shopping and sleeping in. One word: nirvana.
Any fears that we’re about to embark on a regimen of boot-camp drills and self-denial are banished this morning when our group finds that the typical Moroccan breakfast spread features a rich cake. Clearly, this is a nation with its priorities in order.
Post-Perumal, we retire to a luxury hammam to be steamed and pummelled into cleanliness by a team of cheerful women. It’s uncannily like being a child again, relinquishing control to a higher power who will scrub, coddle and occasionally scold.
As Morocco is an Islamic country, alcohol is hard to come by. It’s a bit like going to rehab but with better views and comfier beds. Going (mostly) booze-free certainly helps the wellness, plus the food – as intriguing and mysteriously spiced as the surroundings – is healthy without making a song and dance about it. There’s no place here for talk of Paleo or superfoods. At a cooking class at Atelier de Cuisine (atelier-chef-tarik.com) – less than an hour’s drive from Marrakech to a green village oasis – we make fragrant lamb tagine with apricots. I tell head chef Tarik Harabida about the Australian version of couscous: open the packet, add to boiling water, leave for three minutes and hey presto! He looks at me, puzzled, before it dawns on him. “In Morocco we have a fast method, too.” How long does it take, Tarik? “One hour.” There’s also plenty of time for sauntering. Candace and Berber man Lahcen lead us through a sprawling, serpentine souk, a hub of commerce where it would be entirely possible to get lost and emerge blinking and considerably poorer two weeks later. We walk through the fabled Jemaa el-Fna square, which is a bit like the intergalactic bar in Star Wars: a riot of snake charmers; Berber storytellers spinning yarns passed down for a millennium; magicians and women who will paint your hands with intricate henna tattoos. Charcoal, the cooking fuel of choice, sends edible plumes of smoke into the air.
Four-wheel drive vehicles take us bumping out to a desert camp in the High Atlas mountains, where glamping reaches a new stratosphere. Doing yoga early the next morning in the brisk desert air is almost transcendent, with a pink and blue sky showing off against the pale desert palette. The beauty is rivalled only by my excitement that I’m already much more bendy.
It reminds me of something Perumal said on the rooftop. “Sometimes, when people arrive, they can bend only to here” (he indicated his knees). “And when they leave, they can go to here” (his toes). What he meant, I think, is that everyone has their own battle to fight. The road to wellness is paved with self-acceptance and an awareness of what we have the power to change – and what we can only change momentarily before thoughts turn to breakfast cake.
The oasis-like Pool Patio courtyard at Riad Les Yeux Bleus (left); desert dunes south-east of Marrakech (below)