Reining in Morocco: A fantastic family adventure in Marrakech and the Atlas Mountains
Suzanne Campbell and Philip Boucher-Hayes take their kids on a whirlwind adventure
I just put our six-year-old on a white Arab stallion and sent her off with a man called Ibrahim, who doesn't speak English.
Further up the trail, our eight-year-old, Anna (above), is on another stallion, not on a lead rein, and trotting off frequently to where views widen out from a deep red gorge on one side to a vast plateau edged by ragged peaks.
We're riding towards Mount Toubkal; the highest mountain in North Africa, and as the sun grows hotter, a wet sheen dampens the necks of the Arab horses.
I'm in turn thrilled and horrified at the scene. This is the Indiana Jones movies we love at home come to real life, but with the dangers not confined to a television screen. What if one of the horses spooks and stumbles at the edge of the gorge? But as Anna turns out of her saddle, grinning as she points out the snow-topped peaks in the distance, I think - no. This is worth it. This is fantastic!
Bringing our children off the beaten track in Morocco has seared so many memories to my mind. Having breakfast on the ochre-coloured terrace overlooking distant Berber villages, while a peregrine falcon chases sparrows through the colonnades. Anna pouring herself freshly squeezed orange juice while Robin (the six-year-old) asks for more pancakes, saying thank you in Arabic.
Later at the Hockney-blue pool at our eco-lodge, the children's laughs echo over the landscape as swallows dip through the lavender to wet their beaks on the surface of the water. And as evening falls, the lights of Marrakech slowly glow across the desert sands 60 kilometres away, like little jewels on the horizon.
Bringing our children to Morocco had not been a difficult decision... but bringing them away from the main tourist centre of Agadir took a little more thought. Up until this year, family holidays had been in a relative's house in a Catalonian village of Cadaques. But we felt it was time to venture further afield.
My husband Philip has reported from wars in Iraq, Lebanon and Bosnia. In our 20s, we lived in Asia, and travelled extensively there, as well as in Africa and India, clocking up risky situations and wildlife adventures wherever we went.
Once children came onto the scene, of course, these adventures came to an end. But did they have to? I have a dread of child-centred holidays, but how do you combine the needs of adventurous adults and small children safely?
The answer seemed to lie in a country we'd been to before - Morocco, adding newer experiences like coming here to Terre d'Amanar, a French-operated resort in the low Atlas mountains, where you can camp in Bedouin tents or stay in stone lodges by the aforementioned pool.
This was a find of a place, and the day we arrived the children just did not want to leave. As well as great horse riding and hiking, there's a forest with a 165-metre long zip line crossing one of the red gorges (which I forced myself to do), and excellent lower level lines for children. Between swimming, hanging out at the stables and zooming through the zip line forest, there was plenty to do. An hour from Marrakech, we weren't too far from medical care if it all went wrong, either!
As a food writer, it was a surprise to find an adventurous location with gorgeous food. Breakfast was typical of the Maghreb; goat's cheese, pancakes, honey, olives and really good orange juice. At lunchtime, we'd walk down the track to another pool open to day guests. Here were more stunning views and a great nicoise salad for all of €3.50. Western food, tagines and good salads were in abundance at this café and of a really high quality.
Back on the terrace at night, the French-based menu delivered some amazing dishes. There was an honesty bar for spirits, and good enough adult company for chats around the two log fires in braziers surrounded by chic jute outdoor sofas.
Leaving the mountains, we spent a few nights in a riad in Marrakech. The girls loved the beautiful courtyard garden and pool, and the narrow streets full of North African life; street sellers, bicycle fixers, tiny bakeries in back alleys and donkeys pulling carts piled high with mint and herbs.
For our final few days we opted (nervously) to go to a luxury all-inclusive outside the city in the Marrakech suburb of La Palmeraie. The Pullman resort (pictured above) had caught my eye as good for families and it delivered on all counts. There was a kids' club with its own mini zoo of animals. After saying they would not go near a kids' club, I couldn't get my (very independent) girls out of it, including in the evenings when they put on plays and even a Moroccan wedding with Robin as the bride.
This left us parents amazingly with little to do only sunbathe by the second 'Quiet' pool, have conversations of the type we had before small voices and interruptions, and actually even begin to miss them. But they even went to lunch with the kids' club monitors rather than their boring old parents.
It was a perfect way to wind down from an active trip and the verdict from both children and adults is - let's do it all again, the sooner the better.
What to pack
Temperatures in Marrakech can hit the mid-30s by July. It's best to be up at a higher altitude or down at the coast by then. Don't forget travel insurance to cover you in private hospitals. The public systems can be very rudimentary and with children it means you can go straight to top-level care.
Where to stay
Terres d’Amanar, an eco-lodge sleeping four in Tahannaout (terresdamanar.com) costs from €125, with Bedouin tents from €60 B&B. In Marrakech, we stayed at Riad le Perroquet Blue (riadleperroquetbleu.com; doubles €75). The Pullman Marrakech La Palmeraie Resort and Spa (above, pullman.com; suites from €150) is another option.
Air Arabia (airarabia.com) flies Dublin to Agadir, while Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies to Marrakech. The Atlas Mountains are roughly two hours from Agadir and three from Marrakech — private minibuses and cars with drivers are available in both. Operators like Sunway (sunway.ie) and Cassidy Travel (cassidytravel.ie) also offer packages to Agadir.