Sunday, 5 June 2016

MARRAKECH: A HOLIDAY MED IN HEAVEN

All-inclusive holidays are all the rage as budget-savvy sun-seekers strive to get the biggest bang for their buck. It’s an option that initially costs a bit more than half-board, but because you’re not forking out for food and drink and coffees and ice-creams all the time, it can ultimately work out cheaper, especially for families. All-inclusive makes for a carefree, cash-conserving escape, which is exactly what we’re all looking for – and exactly what I found at Club Med Marrakech.

Beautiful, lovingly-tended gardens and pools abound in Club Med Marrakech
A musical blast from the past
It’s 1.45pm in late November, the temperature is 23C and I’m enjoying my daily half-asleep half-hour siesta on the rooftop terrace of an extremely des-res duplex apartment in Club Med Marrakech.

Sparrows chirrup and doves coo, water tinkles in the fountain in the garden below and a gentle breeze rustles the palm fronds. I hear an unseen orange from a nearby tree land on the pristine lawn, though it could be a lemon. All is blissfully peaceful, until . . .

From the speakers by the pool, a familiar overture rents the air, startling the sparrows and the doves, who shoot the crow. It’s Italian pop princess Sabrina Salerno’s 1987 splash hit Boys (Summertime Love), the signal that very shortly the Name That Tune quiz will begin.

Determined to improve on my pathetic performance in the previous day’s general knowledge quiz (it was in French, and I speak only the Del Boy version), I hot foot it to the packed poolside terrace and grab a free beer.

Looks like a wedding reception, but it's lunch alfresco on the lawn. Below, those with a sweet tooth will be tempted at every meal time. Bottom, mint tea and all sorts of alcoholic and soft drinks are available all day and night long at no charge


Well worth the weight
The four-star Club Med Marrakech, set amid gorgeous gardens, is an all-inclusive year-round resort where every snack, gourmet meal and drink is free. Being a one-dish-a-day man at home I find the lavish buffet spreads intimidating at first. However, given a free run at fabulous and unlimited gratis grub, I soon get stuck in and end up having to loosen my belt a couple of notches, eventually returning to Dublin half-a-stone heavier after a week in the north African sun.

An omelette, fruit, pastries, orange juice and coffee are delivered to my door every morning. Lunch leaves me semi-comatose, hence the early siesta, and dinner – an epic undertaking – is decadence gone daft. There’s a different cuisine each evening, including Moroccan, Asian, Italian and Oriental, and I’m up and down like a fiddler’s elbow to the serving stations.

A word of warning: go easy on the delicious but volatile lentil and bean tagine – although hot during the day, it gets chilly at night in winter and you won’t want to sleep with the windows wide open.

In July and August the temperature often hits the melting mid-30s, with 10 hours of sizzling sunshine daily (in August 2009 the mercury touched 56C one afternoon). The Ambre Solaire in the Club Med shop only goes up to factor 50, so redheads should bring their own axle grease or bed down in the shade of a parasol or palm tree, where seemingly telepathic waiters will deliver a cooling drink within 30 seconds of you simply thinking about it.

The resort's riding school is a huge favourite with children. Below, if you're not a skilled horse rider, you can go for a leisurely tour of the grounds on a camel

Clip-clip, hooray!
Name That Tune starts well, and I’m four points in the lead at the halfway mark. Then, as the songs become progressively more obscure, I start to slide. Meanwhile, the elderly French couple two tables away are forging ahead. Fair play, I think  until I notice that the husband is sneakily googling under the table. Mange tout, mange tout!

Quiz over, I set off for the gym at what feels like a brisk pace, but am passed by a camel train and a little girl on a Shetland pony from the resort’s riding school. I’ve already declined the offer of trotting out on one of the school’s magnificent white horses  as Im eating like one, Id probably break the poor creatures back or leave it bandy-legged.

The gym’s attached to the Cinq Mondes spa, where the fancy-sounding treatments include the Taoist Fountain of Youth and Radiance Facial, the Ko Bi Do Imperial Youthfulness Ritual, the Divine Lightness Ritual (in my case, the Divine Heaviness Ritual) and the Brazilian Slimming Treatment which, according to the brochure, “restores firmness and elasticity to the buttocks”. I’ll take their word for it.

I opt instead for a neck and back massage that leaves me nearly comatose. The manicure and pedicure that follow shave only a fraction off the weight I’ve put on as the beautician clips and files my nails. As I slip my feet back into my flip-flops, it strikes me that I should have a pedicure more often  Id have fewer holes in my socks.

Club Med Marrakech has its own golf course. Below, 11-a-side ping pong by the pool

Happy children, chilled-out parents
One of the great joys of a Club Med holiday is that it can be as lively or as lazy as you wish, or a mix of both. There are sports and leisure facilities galore, including tennis and golf, and daft games too  11-a-side ping-pong is mayhem but great fun.

Couples relaxing by the pools rave about the kids’ club run by 19-year-old multilingual Frenchman Valentin (the children adore him) who has two little sisters at home and whose ambition is to be an author. In chilled-out parents eyes, hes already a best-seller.

In the evenings the free top-class entertainment, especially the spectacular Cirque show, would demand a big ticket price elsewhere. It’s weird to note on staff cabaret night that the guy who only a few hours before was teaching tennis is now performing magic tricks and the fitness coach is Freddie Mercury.

Le Riad is a fabulous  five-star resort within a resort. Below, Le Riad ground floor apartment with its own shaded sun terrace and garden


Dream team
In the bar in Le Riad, the five-star resort within a resort where I’m lucky enough to be lodging, young Moroccan staffers Simo and Chafik – the Ant and Dec of the cocktail-shaking world – ask me every evening how my day has gone and wonder if I’ve ventured into the city or gone on an excursion. On my last night but one Ive run out of excuses for doing nothing, and doing it very well, and tell them Ill be exploring Marrakech in the morning. They’re delighted, and mark my card on what to see – and what to avoid.

Simo and Chafik, who join me most days for lunch, epitomise the importance that Club Med places on hiring the most professional, personable and helpful staff, which is why it gets so many repeat visitors. Italian resident manager Kary, who leads a dream team, tells me that an elderly French couple who were here the previous week have been holidaying at different Club Med properties around the world every year since their honeymoon in 1970. If that’s not the stamp of approval, I don’t know what is.

The massive Jemaa el-Fna square just after sunset. Below, one of the square's many snake handlers seems to know what he's doing

Cobras, carpets and kebabs
There’s nothing charming about the snake charmers’ pesky pals in Marrakech’s Jemaa el-Fna square. Point a camera at a cobra and they’ll pester you for a “photo fee”. Ten dirhams (€1) will get rid of them, and you can chuckle as people taking selfies who don’t have any change get chased around like Benny Hill’s scantily-clad beauties.

Morocco is a lot more liberal than most other Muslim countries, but scantily-clad women in public places are a no-no, so dress with local sensibilities in mind. When you return to your hotel poolside (Marrakech is 170km from the sea), you can slip back into bikini mode and nobody will bat an eyelid, unless youre a big fat hairy fella.

Jemaa el-Fna is fascinating but chaotic, a World Heritage Site full of peddlers, performers, astrologers, henna tattoo artists, tellers of tall tales, craftsmen, countless cooks, a smattering of crooks and even a couple of dentists performing extractions alfresco in front of curious onlookers. (At sundown the square, which is celebrated in the Crosby, Stills and Nash hit, Marrakech Express, becomes one big barbecue spot as scores of kebab sellers fire up their bottled gas grills and feed thousands of people.)

At the taxi rank opposite the 12th-century Koutoubia Mosque with its 60-metre-high minaret, where the hotel shuttle buses stop, ‘official’ guides sporting homemade buckshee badges will offer to show you the sights. For sights read carpet shops, perfumeries and homeopathic pharmacies as you’re led, heart sinking, from one to another.

After half-an-hour it feels like you’ve been kidnapped, so pay the guide the 100-dirham ransom and he’ll disappear, leaving you to soak up the spectacle, sounds and smells of the souks (markets) at your leisure.

One of the umpteen carpet shops into which you'll be steered by the 'official' tour guides. Below, the city's souks are worth exploring

Not to be sneezed at
Don’t be a smart alec when it comes to haggling or you’ll run the risk of offending the stallholders. Just about every price in the souks can be negotiated, but be realistic  this is a city where a barman, for example, has to house, clothe and feed his family on the equivalent of around 500 a month. Thats not exactly living the life of Reilly, so dont bargain as if youre in the marketplace in The Life of Brian.

Terracotta tagines, colourful slippers and leather goods including handbags, purses and wallets are popular buys, as are silk scarves and jewellery. Colourful spice stalls do a roaring trade, but if you’re in any way prone to hay fever don’t get too close as a sneeze could prove embarrassing  and expensive.

If you do buy spices to take home, make sure the bags are securely sealed and pack them in your checked-in luggage  the sniffer dogs at Dublin airport go nuts at the merest whiff of anything aromatic in hand baggage.

You’ll definitely want to take photos in the maze of alleyways that house the souks, but while a picture paints a thousand words, 10 pictures could cost you 100 dirhams, so make sure you have a handy supply of coins.

Spices and, below, tagines are among the most popular tourist buys in the souks

Adam and Yves
A day’s sightseeing in Marrakech would be incomplete without a visit to the enchanting Jardin Majorelle (www.jardinmajorelle.com) and the blue-painted Cubist villa that overlooks it. French landscape painter and amateur botanist Jacques Majorelle (1886-1962) spent 40 years creating this latter day Garden of Eden, but when he hit hard times as the result of two debilitating accidents he was forced to sell it off parcel by parcel. By the late 1960s it had fallen into woeful neglect.

In 1980, French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent (1936-2008) and his partner Pierre Berge were horrified to hear that a hotel was to be built on the site. They had fallen for Jardin Majorelle during many visits to Marrakech and determined to save it from the wrecker’s ball, so they bought it. Their restoration of the garden and the house (it was originally called Villa Bou Saf Saf, but they renamed it Villa Oasis and moved in) was a labour of love that visitors will adore.

The beautiful Jardin Majorelle is one of the must-sees when you venture into the city
Damn you, Boney M
All good things must come to an end. At the reception desk, ever-smiling Eva, from Malaga, and front-of-house manager Raphael, from Paris, bid me a cheery adios and adieu as I check-out. With time to kill, I sink into a big leather couch to wait for the airport taxi and soon nod off.

Raphael rouses me from my reverie. “Your car is here,” he says, in an accent straight out of ’Allo, ’Allo, “and Eva tells me you’re flying to Dublin. Do you happen to know Fagan’s pub in Drumcondra?”

I happily happen to know it very well. Raphael says he lived just around the corner for three years when he worked for Hertz, and Fagan’s was his local. ”Do you know what I miss most about Dublin?” he asks, and mimes pulling a pint. “Smithwick’s ale.”

Raphael kindly carries my bag to the taxi. A hundred metres away, the poolside pop quiz is in full flow. As if to rub it in that my winter week in the sun is over, Boney M are singing Gotta Go Home. I sigh and roll my eyes. However, halfway to the airport I chuckle at the memory of a mad moment from my visit to Jemaa el-Fna when a shoe-shine guy tried to entice me into his chair. I was wearing my flip-flops.


GET THERE
I travelled to Club Med Marrakech with Morocco specialists Sunway. Club Med has 64 all-inclusive sun and ski resorts in Portugal, France, Sicily, Florida, the Maldives, Cancun and many more destinations worldwide.

All offer superb accommodation, gourmet food, endless snacks and drinks from the bar, fantastic children’s clubs for tiny tots to early-teens and an impressive selection of sports, activities and entertainment.

Children under six stay free on selected dates, and short-stay options are available. Family packages at the all-inclusive Club Med Marrakech cost from €2,749 for two adults and two children under six, departing Dublin on September 7 for one week. Call 01 236 6800 or see www.sunway.ie

TOP TIPS
When you visit the airport bureau de change on arrival in Marrakech, be sure to get some 20-dirham notes and 10-dirham coins for gratuities and “photo fees”. Bureau staff will, not unreasonably, hand you 100-dirham notes. While this delights taxi drivers – it would be mean not to tip, even though the transfer is free – it will leave you €10 down before you’ve even collected your room key.

If you intend using your debit card at an ATM, it would be wise to let your bank know you’re going to be in Morocco. For security reasons, many banks will suspend a card after one ATM withdrawal if they haven’t been informed it will be used abroad.

Decisions, decisions: rest on my rooftop for a bit or take a dip in one of the pools?