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Reviews of Holidays and Hotels in Morocco - Morocco Camels Kasbahs And Kids

The Times, 20 June 2009

Morocco: camels, kasbahs and kids

Jane Knight takes her three-year-old son to Morocco to find real adventure

As the air turns fragrant with the smell of wild thyme, and we waft through little scent pockets of rosemary in the scrubland, we spy the perfect 'baddie' hideout.

The ruins of a Berber mud house, a scramble up the red hillside of the High Atlas mountains, make the perfect lookout for a game in which we shoot the goodies who are trying to catch us.

No goodies come, no baddies either . . . we are totally alone in the hills, and totally happy: my son, Christian, because this walk is full of hidden streams for throwing stones and boulders to clamber on; me because it's such a long way from our other holidays.

Not in distance, Morocco being just a three-and-a-half-hour sparrow's hop south from England (and a child-friendly hour's time difference), but in spirit.

Until now we have done little more than the flop-and-drop break but, if I'm honest, the beach and pool thing bores me silly. This is our first taste of soft adventure together and it's heaven.

It is our second stop in the Atlas Mountains, in Ouirgane, our first being at Kasbah du Toubkal, a 1,800m-high eyrie and a 90-minute curling drive around the mountainsides from Marrakesh.

Beyond Sir Richard Branson's Kasbah Tamadot, it offers a far superior view, surrounded by a horseshoe of rugged mountains where houses that look like they're straight out of the Bible cling to stony slopes, a gush of water escaping from the snow-capped peaks down to the huge open valley below.

Run in partnership with the local Berber community, the kasbah is also more authentic, its rustic bedrooms full of woven rugs and blankets, the courtyard complete with a Berber woman making bread in a clay oven.

Here, Christian, who is allergic to walking at home, sprouts goat's legs in the hills and, with a little help from me, the guide, and a bottle of Coca-Cola, manages a two-hour mountain hike. Up, up we go, not as high as Jbel Toubkal, at 4,167m (13,600ft) the highest peak in North Africa, whose snowy cap towers over us, but high enough for Christian to exclaim: 'Look, Mummy, we're nearly touching the sky'.

There's an ingenious irrigation system going on with the snow-fuelled streams. We also spot numerous satellite dishes, stark white circles standing out from the brown houses, and electricity pylons climbing the slopes at impossible angles - electricity came here as recently as 1997, while the road was surfaced six years later.

Perhaps unfairly I wish that modern life hadn't arrived here and that the kasbah's slogan - 40 miles from Marrakesh, 1,000 miles from anywhere - was really that.

But from the number of locals who ask if I remember them or if I can visit their shop in the village of Imlil, 15 minutes and many more metres down the slope, past a home-made sign proclaiming 'Asda prices', it's obvious that the tourist trail is well trodden.

A procession of mules cross us on the rocky paths, some laden with gravel for building, others with straw or shopping - ten different brooms poking out from the panniers at different angles - and one hefting a very ample tourist, a gaggle of giggling guides in her wake.

When Christian is whisked up into the saddle of a mule by a Berber on our way down from the kasbah, the wail of protest I'd expected makes way for a huge grin.

It is the start of four-legged riding taking over from piggy backs; over the next week Christian tries horses, wobbly camel rides and even strikes out on his own on a donkey in the western side of the Toubkal National Park in an hotel called La Roserie at Ouirgane.

Here, the contrast between the hotel's 23ha (60 acres) of tended gardens and the surrounding reddish-brown mountains and scrubland is amazing. It feels as if we are in the Beast's garden before Beauty turns up.

I know we are because there are thousands upon thousands of roses, with signs everywhere warning that it is forbidden to cut them (or else the Beast will arrive) and barely another human being in sight. We follow pathways over bridges, admire fountains with rose petals scattered in the water, see frogs' throats balloon as they croak, then take the rosemary-infused 'aromatic walkway'.

It's hard to tell where the gardens end and the village cultivation and raw mountain slopes begin but, as at the kasbah, we feel quite safe as we head out on our own over the slopes.

The only people we see are gardeners: there are at least ten times more gardeners than guests - we are the only visitors one night - and you can't help thinking that, economic crisis aside, if as much care were lavished on the faded grandeur of the rooms and service as the gardens there would be more.

The food is tasty, though - olives from the surrounding trees, vegetables straight from the gardens, and the tenderest of meats, served in an amazing Moroccan-style restaurant with its low sofas, arched doorways and carved ceiling.

The tastiness of the food here and throughout our trip is a surprise - as it comes from smallholdings where old-fashioned farming methods prevail, it is delicious and fresh. We munched salads and fruit without fear, while the anti-diarrhoea medicine I'd popped pointedly into our toiletries bag before the trip went unused.

But by the time we get to Essaouira, a drive through a flat palette of warm colours to the western coast, we are ready for a change from meats and tagine. We follow wheeling seagulls to the fish market, where tourists and locals alike are reeled in by the stallholders. Ali, at No 33, hooks us, and for a tenner we feast on fresh prawns, squid and grilled fish.

It's easy to see why this wind-lashed sea bastion built among the cliffs was so attractive to Jimi Hendrix and the hippies. The single night we have there isn't enough for all the hanging out we want to do, first on the beach watching the windsurfers, where the equivalent of 15p gives us the run of the beach playground.

Then we amble through atmospheric alleys lined with whitewashed houses and coloured shutters to the ramparts, where couples canoodle in cannons, undeterred by either the drop on to the rocks below or our games of guns.

Here, too, are the woodworking workshops where beautiful juniper handicrafts are made for a fraction of what they cost in Marrakesh. Of course, we pay over the odds, but a large hand-carved jewellery box for �35 still seems a bargain.

A word about bargaining when you're with a toddler - it doesn't work. I learn the hard way at the kasbah when my feigned walk away from a pair of shocking yellow babouches Christian had set his heart on is scuppered when he bursts into tears. After I explain that he has to pretend not to like things, he clutches each item he wants, saying loudly: 'When can I say I don't like it, Mummy'?

When we return to Marrakesh and hit the lively square of Djemaa el-Fna, where snake charmers vie with stands selling mountains of snails for our attention, the problem heightens as traders descend on us, thrusting toy snakes and drums into my son's eager hands.

And as we head into the souk's endlessly weaving alleyways that get me lost every time, Christian's eyes grow huge at the Aladdin's cave of presents that opens before him. Past the slippers and the scarfs, the brass and the wood, through the crowds of djellaba-wearing locals, motorcyles zipping perilously close to the m�l�e of humanity with even the odd donkey and cart caught up in the moving picture, we head for the spice souk and the apothecary.

There I buy argan oil for moisturising and Christian examines the chameleons, whose eggs, I am reliably informed, are a cure for psoriasis.

There's so much to see, we don't know where to look - at the man making cedarwood spindles as anti-moth devices with his feet; at another drawing shoe shapes over sheets of leather; or at the welders making fancy fences.

Between a fish stall, whose owner flicks away flies with a leaf, and the butcher, where cows' hooves hang in the open, stands a donkey and cart laden with mountains of mint, its heady smell fresh and earthy.

As I inhale, the smell mingles with the memory of other scents we've enjoyed - the juniper, the pungent sea air and the mountain thyme. They have become, for me, the real smells of holiday adventure.

Getting there

Best of Morocco (0845 0264588, www.realmorocco.com) has a seven- night break, including flights and transfers staying in Marrakesh, the High Atlas Mountains and Essaouira, mostly on a B&B basis.

Where to stay

Marrakesh: Riad Les Yeux Bleus, a wonderfully authentic riad, where heavy arched doors and small alcoves open on to a courtyard with a small pool. Riad Noga, close to the Djemaa elfna square in the medina, which blends authenticity with luxury. Les Deux Tours, in the Palmeraie, about 20 minutes from the centre, has elegant rooms strung through a garden full of secret passageways.

High Atlas Mountains: Kasbah du Toubkal, where rooms are rustic but comfy.

Essaouira: Dar Loulema, simple but chic. All accommodation can be booked with Best of Morocco.