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Reviews of Holidays and Hotels in Morocco - Have Baby Will Travel

The Observer, 22 June 2003

Have baby, will travel north Africa to the Max

Defying warnings of terrorists and germs, Travel Editor Jeannette Hyde and her eight-week-old son explore stylish, child-friendly Marrakesh

In the arrivals hall of Marrakesh airport I stare at the Moroccan landing card. I'm a bit puzzled.

Date of birth: 11 December 2002.

Place of birth: London.

Profession: Mmmm. Harder. I settle on 'baby'.

Eight-week-old Max has jetted off on his first holiday. He doesn't know it, but there has been a wave of opposition to his first trip abroad. 'How could you take such a young baby?' said the in-laws.

'You're not taking him in the souk are you - it's full of germs? And what about terrorism?'

Feeling slightly guilty I check with my health visitor, who looks rather irritated at another paranoid mum asking the usual questions. 'Fine,' she shrugs. 'Just make sure you sterilise your bottles. Have a nice time.'

Fortunately the Moroccans are like the Italians when it comes to children. As we arrive at the Caravanserai, a stylish hotel perched on the edge of a Berber village near Marrakesh, a kaftan-clad woman rushes up to us and starts kissing Max's feet. Any worries about bringing our baby boy to Morocco soon fade away. Market stallholders, restaurant waiters and tour guides click their fingers to entertain him, and the feet-kissing routine is something he gets used to pretty quickly. We're not the only ones bringing our children to Morocco; the French have been doing it for years, and they don't even give it a second thought.

And it's not as though we're slumming it. Morocco is not short of good hotels and we will be staying at three of them. Our only concern is keeping Max well shaded but at 25C, it's no hotter than the Canaries.

Max is quite happy to sit in the shade while we stretch out by the swimming pool overlooking the snow-capped peaks of the Atlas Mountains. The Muslim call to prayer echoes around us and the sounds of village life - cocks crowing, sheep baaing and children playing - are only interrupted by another hotel guest jumping into the pool.

Up the higgledy-piggledy staircase to our room off an open-air roof terrace, we find fresh rose petals strewn everywhere. Incense burns. The room is cool.

The Caravanserai is full of nooks and crannies. We retreat from the late afternoon sun and lay on red mattresses sipping sweet mint tea while Max guzzles his umpteenth bottle.

With just 17 rooms, Caravanserai is perfect for children. We dispense with the baby listening device, simply open the shutters and tiptoe downstairs for dinner by the pool, within earshot of Max if he wakes from his slumber. (He looks good enough to print on a greeting card planted in the middle of our giant bed framed by rose petals in the shape of a heart left by housekeeping).

Next morning, our guide, Khadija, is waiting to take us on our excursion to the Berber market at Asni, in the Atlas Mountains. We wind up treacherous roads, overtaking robed men in pointed hoods trotting along on donkeys. Khadija and I are the only women in the entire market. In the Berber community women aren't allowed inside the city gates, and it's the men who do the shopping. Men in kaftans, jellabas and gandouras, the local dress, sit on wooden boxes surrounded by straw as they are shaved at barbers' stalls.

My husband decides to have a Berber hair cut. After half an hour of careful crafting the barber holds up a mirror. 'Now', says the barber, 'you David Beckham'. Saddam Hussein, more like. (He's obviously not up to speed on Becks' latest hairdo).

Max's sunhat is too big so we buy him a tagia hat made of stretchy net. He looks cool. I sit on a pile of straw and feed him a bottle. A hundred eyes stare at this oddity.

Back in Marrakesh at Hotel La Mamounia, a favourite retreat of Sir Winston Churchill, it feels a million miles away from Asni. If you like tradition, La Mamounia is steeped in it. Bellboys are decked out in Lawrence of Arabia gear, and there's a rigid dress policy throughout (do not try having lunch in shorts on the terrace).

The hotel is Art Deco with a Moroccan twist. The lush gardens are superb. The pool is half empty. Americans, the hotel's biggest market, are nowhere to be seen because of their jitters about terrorism. Instead lots of British package weekenders are frying by the pool. There's also a sprinkling of elderly upper crust, reminding everyone they 'have been coming every year since 1972', as well as the private jet brigade.

So how does Max react? He sleeps through the raunchy belly dancer wiggling her way around his buggy as we sit on low cushions and dine on tiny bowls of lentils, cucumber, aubergines and lamb in the mosaic-tiled and columned traditional Moroccan restaurant. He also goes down well in Djemma el Fna, the chaotic Marrakesh square full of snake charmers, fire-eaters, Henna tattooists, child acrobats, male belly dancers, musicians and barbecues.

We push Max through the crowds, examining the bloody goats' heads and raw meat on skewers. Through the fog, a voice calls out: 'We have bloody good food. Lovely bubbly.' It's stand number 12. We sit on a wooden bench and feast on the hot kebabs, bowls of chillies, grilled green peppers, roasted aubergines, succulent pink olives and flat bread spread before us. Delicious.

The stallholder, Rushid, is now using us to show off his wares. He might as well have stuck up a sign on our backs: two tourists and a baby survive - you can too.

'I can tell just by looking at people their nationality,' boasts Rushid.

'Italia?' he shouts at a group coming towards us. 'Si' they reply. 'Oui, oui, oui, Bernadette?' he calls out to another woman. She smiles with a nod and passes by. Who's Bernadette? we ask. 'Madame Chirac.'

'Bloody good food, wicked.' He shouts. That must be the Brits again.

Our final stay is at the Amanjena, the cool, minimalist hotel, a retreat of the stars where the cheapest room (or rather, villa) is ???550 a night and the suites are the size of an entire riad. This is the kind of place where you never sign a bill - far too crass: they just present you with the total when you leave - and you can do exactly as you please. Have lunch in your bikini/go topless by the pool/eat Thai food for breakfast. It's all fine and a far cry from La Mamounia.

You can go for days without seeing anyone but if you want some company head for the pool. Our round villa is totally private, with its own courtyard and shaded deck area with mattresses. The staff are extremely attentive. Things appear and disappear as if they have been trained in mind-reading. And there are plenty of them (six staff to one guest was the ratio during our stay - so just 18 people to look after three of us, then).

They've thought of everything you never knew you needed: towels long enough to cover the entire sunlounger, a ripe lemon on a chopping board with a knife on the mini- bar, cool wet towels for your brow at the pool. I can see how you can get hooked on 'the Aman experience' - they aren't called Amanjunkies for nothing. Max could very well be an early convert. When we arrived at our villa a changing mat, wipes and baby shampoo were waiting for us.

So would I recommend taking a baby to Morocco? A three-and-a-half-hour flight makes it a manageable escape armed with all your baby clobber, from car seats, nappies and formula milk to buggy. With the current scares about possible terrorist attacks I felt less worried taking him to an Islamic country than to the centre of London.

And what about all those nasty germs? No problem. He'd had his first set of immunisations before we set off, but I hadn't waited until his second or third. In fact a bit of exposure to new surroundings could even have boosted his immune system. I haven't sterilised a bottle since coming back.

He seemed to thrive on all the Moroccan attention, especially as he wasn't competing with his big sister, who had gone with her grandparents to the Canaries. I even persuaded him at Amanjena to try a massage.

Marrakesh is a brilliant place to visit, baby, or no baby. As the old Johnson & Johnson baby shampoo ad used to say: 'Don't wait to have a baby to try it.'