On a winter break to sunny Morocco, Roisin Burke is entranced by the exotic sights and natural warmth of its people
BREAKFAST on a sun-flooded terrace in November, under a cerulean blue sky. The temperature is 23 degrees. Our waiter, like many Moroccans, speaks fluent English, French and Arabic, but he also has a "cupla focal". He greets me with "Cead Mile Failte" and a warm smile. Welcome to Morocco.
This North African country is growing in popularity as a winter sun destination, putting it up to more well-known spots such as the Canary Islands. Morocco has a similar offering to the Spanish islands and can be a couple of hundred euros less expensive.
Daytime temperatures in winter stay in the early 20s. The coastal areas have miles of unspoilt golden beaches.
The culture is a mix of the European influences of France and Spain, and Arabic and Berber (the original African inhabitants). It's a country known for its hospitality, and it lives up to that. Moroccans are welcoming and friendly to visitors.
We started out in the resort town of Agadir. Having visited 10 years previously, it was interesting to see the big positive changes.
A long sweeping corniche, or promenade, has been built, leading on to an elegant new marina by the port. In the evening this is the place to be, and it's thronged with locals taking a stroll and socialising. There's a range of cafes and restaurants from which to watch all the activity and enjoy a sundowner.
For some delightful pampering, there's the Argan Phyto House on the outskirts of town, run by Touria Assbane. Here you can recline on sofas on a roof terrace and "profit from the sun" as Touria beautifully expresses it, while you sip mint tea and sample the sweet local pastries, before enjoying a treatment.
A traditional hamam is a Moroccan speciality. Stripped bare, you enter a tiled sauna room where you will be scrubbed and buffed from head to toe and bathed in warm oil and water. It is gorgeously invigorating and leaves skin peach soft.
There is a wealth of dining options in Agadir, from traditional to western. At the posh end of the scale, La Scala, near the corniche, offers excellent French-style food, including dozens of fish and seafood dishes, and a quality steak.
Prices for eating out in Morocco are close to Irish rates in tourist areas. Venture a bit off track and a tasty meal can be had for well under a tenner -- but alcohol usually isn't served in places that cater mostly for locals.
Moroccan wine is just one of many enjoyable surprises of the visit. The Domaine Sahari Reserve is worth trying. Local lagers are very good too.
Next stop -- Marrakech, Morocco's cultural capital, three hours north of Agadir. It's a journey that has been made hugely easier by the building of a new motorway, which is almost complete.
A heady mix of old French colonial, Arab and African influences, Marrakech is a city teeming with life, and has become an increasingly hip destination for weekend breaks.
Entering the city's main square, the Djemaa El Fna, your senses are bombarded by a riot of smells, sights and sounds. This is the hub of the city's life, and is where the famed snake charmers and fortune-tellers, acrobats, dancers and chancers of all sorts are found. It's best experienced at night for full effect.
The square is a magnet for foodies. The more adventurous can sample goat's head, snail broth, and myriad other street food. Stalls are laden with exotic-looking fruit, spices and snacks.
Beside the square is the souk, or market. It's a big rabbit warren of delights, from jewellery to cashmere and silk scarves, to metalware and beautiful leather goods. At Epices Avenzoar, a kind of natural pharmacy, you'll find spices, oils, perfumes and creams made from Morocco's abundant roses and oranges. You'll also find Argan oil, the beauty oil made famous by Sex and the City. Then there are the unguents that promise to treat everything from rheumatism to wrinkles.
We were lucky enough to have Mustapha Keddar as our guide. This is the man to represent you when haggling, attracting dagger looks from the market traders as he won us bargains. He's also a fascinating authority on everything Morocco has to offer.
For a respite from the buzz of the square and the souk, nip into the Cafe Glacier. From the roof terrace here you can have a coffee or a "Moroccan whiskey" -- the traditional mint tea made with bunches of fresh mint, and enjoy looking out on the square from high above the fray.
For traditional Moroccan food and entertainment, try the Palais des Jbilates on the outskirts of Marrakech. Built to resemble an Arabian palace, it is apparently a favourite wedding venue.
Vegetables flourish in Morocco, and at the Palais they were served in a dozen delicious ways, followed by fish, meat and cheese-filled filo pastry parcels.
While our tastebuds were being entranced, the entertainment began, first with a traditional "tray dancer". We watched with nervous fascination as she shimmied and swayed under a tray laden with lit candles and glasses. Then came a beautiful young bellydancer, whose hips seemed to move independently of the rest of her. "Is that what Argan oil and hamams and eating your vegetables does for you?" one female member of our party asked wistfully.
Next stop was the pretty fishing port town of Essaouira, a two-hour drive -- and a total change of gear -- from Marrakech.
Here the palette switches from the ochre-coloured adobe houses of Marrakech and Agadir to gleaming white walls and blue doors and windows. Even the fishing boats are painted a vivid blue.
With its strong trade winds, Essaouira is a surfing, wind- and kite-surfing heaven. Though hellraising rocker Jimi Hendrix had a house here, it's also a quiet spot, an ideal couples' retreat.
Walk along the 18th- Century battlements and feel the sea spray in the air. Underneath the battlements there are stone vaults with craft workshops selling rugs and ornaments.
Down by the port fishermen clean fish right off the boats. For dinner, your seafood tagine (a typical national stew dish) from one of the nearby restaurants couldn't be fresher. It was all our very own Desert Song made up of a thousands sights and smells and tastes, and we flew home laden with bargains and memories of warm sun and warm people.
Roisin Burke travelled to Morocco with Sunway Holidays (www.sunway.ie; 01-288 6828). Seven nights at the four-star Royal Atlas Hotel, Agadir start from €604, seven nights at the four-star Atlas Medina & Spa Hotel, Marrakech, start from €799, and seven nights at the fourstar+ Atlas Essaouira & Spa Hotel start from €899. Two-centre holidays to Agadir and Marrakech start from €816 and to Agadir and Essaouira from €877. Prices include flights, transfers, B&B accommodation, taxes and charges. For more information on Argan Phyto House see www.arganphytohouse.com; for details about Epices Avenzoar at the Marrakech souk visit www.epicesavenzoar.com; and to learn more about Palais des Jbilates, see www.lepalaisdesjbilates.com To hire the guide Mustapha Keddar call 00212 661281331.
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