The search for seren­ity

Pock­ets of peace among the crowds in Morocco

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - SAR­FRAZ MAN­ZOOR

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

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