The search for serenity
Pockets of peace among the crowds in Morocco
I am lying on a narrow bed while a young woman massages my oil-covered back. I hear ocean waves, and not coming from a stereo. I am at Paradis Plage, a spa, yoga and surf resort 30 minutes north of Agadir on Morocco’s Atlantic coast. Sun-seekers tend to migrate to Agadir, but on my last visit I found it soulless — a main road stuffed with indistinguishable hotels, a beach congested with sun-loungers, and restaurants with laminated menus bearing flags of half a dozen nations.
It was not my idea of fun, so this time I skip Agadir and head north to this oasis of serenity amid a desert of bustle and distraction. The hotel feels pleasantly isolated — gaze beyond the 5km of golden-sand private beach and you are more likely to see fishermen in blue wooden vessels than jet skis and banana boats.
I am travelling with my family and the best way to keep the peace is through compromise. After the spa, I take our daughter, Laila, to the hotel’s near-deserted beach to collect shells and for a pony ride so my wife, Bridget, can have a surf lesson. Later, after a lunch of freshly caught grilled fish in the beachside restaurant, Bridget goes for a yoga session in a glass-walled room facing the ocean, with birds chattering busily as the sun dips under the horizon. She returns radiating a blissful inner calm (maybe because she has spent a few hours away from me). A campfire is burning by the surfside bar once the sun has gone down, and we sit on bean bags to watch the flickering flames.
Tourists most often come to this part of Morocco for the beach, some simply to sunbathe and others to surf. The area around Taghazout, a few kilometres south, is considered among the world’s best spots for surfing — something to do with awesome right-hands, apparently.
Rather than surfing or lounging on the beach, we leave for the mountains, in search of a place known as Paradise Valley. The story goes that it was given the name by Jimi Hendrix when he visited Morocco in the late 1960s. Like most stories, it is probably apocryphal but, regardless of whether Hendrix actually came here or not, the valley was popular among the hippie generation in the days before budget airlines and package holidays.
We drive south, past Taghazout, an endearingly shabby surfer town where authentic charm is under threat from the staggering amount of construction work going on — seven large hotels and a golf course are planned over the next few years. We also pass through a village where it seems every streetside vendor is selling bunches of bananas. “Tourists call this place Banana Village,” explains our driver, gesturing towards huge plantations.
He weaves through the Atlas Mountains, past claycoloured beehives (this region has long been famed for its honey) and large piles of black olives that have been pressed for oil, before parking for the hour-long trek into the valley. The walk is perfectly manageable, even with a four-year-old, with one or two rest stops for refreshing gulps from a gushing spring. When we reach the valley, it is a picture of still, blue-green pools cradled by mountains. We have it to ourselves and, seeing a ledge from which she could leap, Bridget decides to take the plunge. The shriek as she hits the water reverberates around the valley but it soon becomes a yelp of joy. “This is amazing,” she yells, a wild grin slapped across her face.
Searching for serenity in a hotel by a beach isn’t exactly a big ask, but how would we fare in Marrakech, a fourhour drive from the coast and an ancient city that has long been a byword for bustling, frantic energy? Happily, I have chosen the ideal hotel, Les Deux Tours, a 15-minute drive northeast from the heart of the city in the Palmeraie. It is a boutique hotel with just 37 guestrooms, suites and villas spread across a large, private garden. My strategy to enjoy Marrakech but not let it overwhelm us is to dip into the mania before retreating for peace.
It is impossible (and possibly illegal) to visit Marrakech and not experience Djemaa el-Fna, the square in the heart of the ancient, walled medina. We take a horse and carriage to the square and are assailed by men brandishing monkeys in nappies, balloon sellers and snake charmers. It is entertaining, but I feel too sorry for the monkeys to enjoy it properly. It is more rewarding to watch the spectacle from a rooftop bar on the main square and reflect, as the sound of drummers bleeds into the call to prayer from the soaring, red-stoned Koutoubia mosque, that a version of this ordered chaos has been going on here since the 12th century.
The beach at Taghazout, main; Les Deux Tours hotel, Marrakech, top right; Nomad restaurant, above right; in the souk of Marrakech, above