Brendan O'Connor: The secret to a stress-free break in Morocco
You get to a certain stage with the kids where you feel you might like to try something a little exotic holiday-wise.
Since having kids, we have become great devotees of being cocooned in a family resort where there is a pool and kids' club so everyone gets to relax. But you come to the point where you would like to feel you are actually travelling too.
And so we found ourselves on a stress-free break in Africa for the weekend, the secret to it being that we were having our city break in the comfort of Club Med in Marrakech.
In our pre-children life, my wife and I had been to Marrakech twice, and I got it into my head that I wanted the kids to experience the city's famous city square, Djemaa el Fna. I am not sure my wife felt as certain that they could cope with the sounds and the smells, the monkeys and the snakes, but the regular Club Med shuttle service meant we could scuttle back to the club whenever we wanted.
As we wandered the souk with our guide, Abdel (a tenner plus tip is well worth it to make sure you are not bothered too much), it was the blacksmiths' market that proved too much for the kids. Certainly for the older one. And I did not blame her. Everything was alien, but the smiths were the strangest thing yet, expressionless as they banged away on metal. There was a smell of hash that would knock out a horse: not the mellow smell of grass, but the deep, sticky, heady, dark aroma of resin.
We skipped out of there quickly and on to the dyers' souk. Being a Friday afternoon, it was quiet in the markets.
Almost despite themselves, the kids enjoyed the stalls, the walls of colourful shoes, the strange smells and sounds. The older one went quiet at times, and I could see her mind was being quietly blown. Twenty-four hours earlier we had picked her up at school, and now she was here in another world.
As we emerged out of the dark close quarters of the souk into the relative normality of Djemaa el Fna, we breathed a sigh of relief, got some orange juice from one of the endless trucks and looked at some snake charmers from a safe distance.
The older one begged to get a horse and carriage ride, so we paid 20 quid to be driven through the streets, taking in the sights and smells, the kids' eyes out on stalks as they shyly waved at the locals, who were staring at their blonde hair.
And then we were back in Club Med, back at the pool, still very much in Morocco, but in a less alien, more child-friendly version.
We were staying in Le Riad, which is a hotel within a hotel on the Club Med complex. And actually it had the feel of a real riad (a traditional Moroccan house with a courtyard), only a posh one, where everyone is very nice to you all the time.
Indeed, being Irish, we were a bit suspicious of the friendliness at first. This is part of the reason we had perhaps avoided Club Med until this point in our lives. My wife and I are not really joiner-inners. And we had this notion that at Club Med you would have people jollying you along to do activities all the time. I am allergic to activities and most forms of organised fun.
As it happened, we were wrong. You could be running around doing tennis and archery and there seemed to be a lot of French snowbirds playing golf, but really, all the Club Med people care about is that everyone is enjoying themselves. They are very deeply committed to this, and part of it is a friendly chattiness.
Once we had got over our initial suspicion, we realised that there was a genuine warmth behind it all. They really just want everyone to be happy and to feel included, if indeed they want to be. And my kids did want to be included. They seem to have got a rogue joining-in gene from somewhere. So they were gagging for the kids' club, delighted to be coaxed on to the dance floor at the disco, and excited to see their favourites performing in the circus show on Friday night. Many of the staff have been to circus school for two years, and kids can learn circus skills along with their tennis lessons and art.
And Mum and Dad? Well, we could relax by the pool in Le Riad, ordering coffees, fruit juices and wine to our hearts' content, with no judgment at all. These people were actually encouraging us to sit on our backsides and be waited on hand and foot while they minded our children.
The upside of the place being very French and having mostly French guests is that the wine is good. We drank the Moroccan wine they handed out, though you could opt to pay for finer, but it was perfectly good. Another legacy of the French was that the food was fabulous and there was incredible bread at all times and proper butter - proper salted butter in big blocks that you cut chunks off to plaster on your proper French bread. We wanted exotic, but sometimes home comforts are good too.
The buffet in the evenings was quite French in tone too, with everything from duck liver on brioche to steak frites. There was a different international cuisine every night, and we scratched the Moroccan itch with delicious tagines and couscous that tasted way better than anything you would get at home.
In general, the place was a heady mixture of Frenchness and Moroccan. It is probably handy if you have a bit of basic French with some of the staff, though the kids fared fine at the club with the international language of craic.
But the feel of Morocco is everywhere: in the decor, the rose petals strewn around and the general ambience. The Moroccan culture that can seem quite alien in the city centre manifests in Club Med as a gentleness and a playfulness, always a smile and a joke and a bit of messing with the kids.
After only three days we arrived back into a storm-blasted Dublin last Sunday night, feeling as if it might all have been a dream. It is only three hours away but another world, a perfect marriage of western resort comforts with the exoticism of Africa and the Arab world.
The kids tell me they want to go back. The real travelling has begun.
Packages with Sunway (01 236-6800; sunway.ie) to the all-inclusive Club Med Marrakech, Morocco, start from €1,259 per person based on twin share or a family package of €2,998 for two adults and two children under six, departing May 29 for one week.
The package includes direct flights, transfers, club room accommodation on an all-inclusive basis, choice of outstanding gourmet restaurants, unlimited premium drinks and snacks throughout the day, family resort welcoming children of all ages, with club facilities from two-years-old, sports activities and tuition and nightly entertainment.
NB: Prices subject to availability.
Sunday Indo Living