Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Marrakesh beyond the medina

Picture the scene: an old house, a riad, full of beckoning arches and curvaceous carvings, with a cool pool and a picture-book palm in the courtyard. Orange juice and pancakes on the roof for breakfast, couscous and salads under the stars at night. And all this in the middle of the medina, the old town of Marrakesh, where the call to prayer rings out every morning and the sun shines all year round.

It’s no wonder we love Marrakesh, and no wonder that more than 400 riads offer rooms in the medina. Up to now, however, this has been very much a weekender’s city, overflowing with atmosphere, but a little short on diversions. Once you’ve seen the Saadian tombs and the Bahia Palace, excavated the souks and wriggled among the snake-charmers on the Djemaa el Fna, you’re done. What next?

Plenty, actually. There’s a host of activities on offer beyond the medina, more than enough to make a week’s break here a tempting proposition. Here are some of the best.

Take me to the beach: a few days in Marrakesh is bound to mean UV overload, and cooling off is compulsory. Until lately, you had to make do with a dunk in the narrow pool at your riad, or endure a 100-mile drive to the Atlantic coast at Essaouira. Now, though, in the city’s hinterland, the Nikki Beachclub complex at the Palmeraie Golf Palace (00212 524 36 87 27, www.nikkibeach.com/marrakech ) brings a touch of St Tropez to North Africa.

With its outsize pool, nubile young things and surprisingly tasty Mediterranean food (once it comes - the service is slow), it attracts Marrakeshis and visitors in search of chilled days and hot parties. All-day admission costs £17.

If that sounds a little slick, try Oasiria (Km 4, Route du Barrage; 00212 524 38 04 38, www.oasiria.com ), Morocco’s first water park. Hurtle down a water chute, catch a wave in the surf pool or just splash about, all for £12.50 a day (£7 for children). Usefully, Oasiria runs a free shuttle from the medina.

Head for the hills: it’s just an hour’s drive from the centre of Marrakesh to the cool kasbahs of the Atlas Mountains. Imlil is your obvious target. The approach, along a slinking valley road, is beautiful, and waiting at the end is the Kasbah du Toubkal ( www.kasbahdutoubkal.com ), where the rooftop restaurant dishes up traditional Moroccan tagines and immense views of Jbel Toubkal - at 13,671ft, the highest mountain in North Africa.

The same kasbah organises what it calls “a day with the Berbers”, mixing a stop at a rural souk with village visits, a walk in the mountains and lunch (£70pp, including your pickup in Marrakesh).

For proper treks, head for the city’s Bureau des Guides (00212 524 48 56 26) or contact the Atlas superguide Mohamed Aztat (00212 668 76 01 65, aztat.rando.free.fr ), who can arrange day trips and longer hikes into the mountains, with your transfers from town laid on.

Ride out: there is no shortage of stables in and around Marrakesh, but finding one where the horses are properly kept and the tack is up to scratch can be a headache.

Bensassi Ranch (Zaouiet Bensassi, Route de Fes; 00 212 661 43 74 79) stands out. Swedish-born Jenny Angman and her Moroccan colleagues work to the highest standards and have collected a stable of fine horses. By all means join them for a short ride in the country (from £17 for 90 minutes), but their full-day expeditions are much more fun - they’re proper back-country adventures. Prices start at £50, which includes a picnic lunch.

Go clubbing: we don’t mean the down-and-dirty kind of urban clubbing, though you can find that close to town at the enduringly hip Pacha (Boulevard Mohamed VI; 00212 524 38 84 00, www.pachamarrakech.com ), where the Michelin-starred Pourcel brothers recently took over the Crystal restaurant.

For something more serene, try the Beldi Country Club (00212 524 38 39 50, www.beldicountryclub.com ), amid rose gardens and olive groves, a 10-minute drive from the medina. The club welcomes all-comers for a set-menu lunch: served on the fringes of its garden, it tends to feature light and fresh salads, grilled fish and a tagine or couscous dish. That costs £17, or £24 if you’d like to use the pool as well.

Ourika: A 45-minute drive from the medina, the Ourika valley is not as close to the High Atlas peaks as Imlil, but it has long been a bolt hole for Marrakeshis seeking a day’s escape from the city. Its principal attractions are the village of Setti Fatma, with its line of roadside stalls and simple restaurants, and the Jardin Bio-Aromatique d’Ourika.

The garden (00212 524 48 24 47, www.nectarome.com ) nurtures some 50 varieties of aromatic plants and herbs - you can stroll and sniff on your own (£1) or take a 45-minute guided tour (£4) and learn about their traditional medicinal uses. Either way, be sure to visit the shop, which sells home-grown Nectarome essential oils and organic beauty products.
by Anthony Sattin for The Sunday Times

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