I was lying on a narrow bed while a young woman massaged my oil-covered back. I could hear ocean waves, coming not from a stereo but the Atlantic. The blue sky and hot sun combined to make Britain seem a long way away. In fact, it was only a few hours' flight; I had woken in cold London but was now at Paradis Plage, a spa, yoga and surf resort 30 minutes north of Agadir on Morocco's Atlantic coast. The long British winter was sapping the days of light and I ached for sunshine. I wanted to get far from it all, but my wife and daughter insisted on coming along, so we settled on a week in Morocco where sunshine is virtually guaranteed, the flight time is a child-friendly four hours and there is no jet lag.
Sun-seekers tend to migrate to Agadir, but on my last visit I had found it soulless: a main road stuffed with indistinguishable hotels, a beach congested with sun-loungers, and restaurants with laminated menus bearing flags of half a dozen nations. It was not my idea of fun, which was why this time I had skipped Agadir and decided to head north to this oasis of serenity amid a desert of bustle and distraction. The hotel feels pleasantly isolated – gaze beyond the 5km of golden-sand private beach and you are more likely to see fishermen in blue wooden vessels than jet skis and banana boats.
When travelling with a family, the best way to keep the peace is through compromise. After the spa, I took our daughter, Laila, to the hotel's near-deserted beach to collect shells and take a pony ride so my wife, Bridget, could have a surf lesson. Later, after a lunch of freshly caught grilled fish in the beachside restaurant, Bridget went for a yoga session in a glass-walled room facing the ocean, with birds chattering busily as the sun dipped under the horizon. She returned radiating a blissful inner calm (which may just have been because she had spent a few hours away from me). A campfire was burning by the beachside bar once the sun had gone down, and we sat on bean bags to watch the flickering flames.
Every evening the hotel screened a film in the outdoor cinema, so after dinner, while Bridget was putting Laila to bed, I settled down with Marley. It felt a canny selection, Bob Marley's sun-drenched reggae blasting out as the wind rustled through the fronds of the date palm trees, the roar of the ocean in the distance and the stars pricking the night sky.
Tourists most often come to this part of Morocco for the beach, some simply to sunbathe and others to surf. The area around Taghazout, a few kilometres south, is considered among the best spots for surfing in the world, something to do with awesome right-hands, apparently.
Rather than surfing or lounging on the beach, we left the following day for the mountains, in search of a place known as Paradise Valley. The story goes that it was given the name by Jimi Hendrix when he visited Morocco in the late Sixties. Like most stories, it is probably apocryphal but, regardless of whether Hendrix actually came here or not, the valley had long been popular among the hippie generation in the days before budget airlines and package holidays.
We drove south, past Taghazout, an endearingly shabby surfer town whose authentic charm is under threat from the staggering amount of construction work going on – seven large hotels and a golf course are planned over the next few years. We also passed through a village where it seemed every street-side was selling endless bunches of bananas. “Tourists call this place Banana Village,” explained our driver helpfully, gesturing towards huge plantations.
He weaved through the Atlas mountains, past clay-coloured beehives – this region has long been famed for its honey – and large piles of black olives that had been pressed for oil, before parking up for the hour-long trek into the valley. The walk was perfectly manageable, even with a four-year-old, with one or two rest stops for refreshing gulps from a gushing spring. When we reached the valley, it was a picture of still, blue-green pools cradled by mountains. We had it to ourselves and, seeing a ledge from which one could leap, Bridget decided to take the plunge. The shriek as she hit the water reverberated around the valley but it had soon become a yelp of joy. “This is amazing,” she yelled, a wild grin slapped across her face.
Searching for serenity in a hotel by a beach wasn't exactly a big ask, but how would we fare in Marrakech – a four-hour drive from the coast and an ancient city that has long been a byword for bustling, frantic energy? Happily, I had chosen the ideal hotel.
Les Deux Tours is a 15-minute drive north-east from the heart of the city in the Palmeraie, a boutique hotel with only 37 rooms, suites and villas spread out in a large, private garden. My strategy to enjoy Marrakech but not let it overwhelm was to dip into the mania before retreating for peace.
It is impossible – and possibly illegal – to visit Marrakech and not experience Djemma el-Fna, the square in the heart of the ancient, walled medina. We took a horse and carriage to the square and were dutifully assailed by the sound and vision of men brandishing monkeys in nappies, balloon sellers and snake charmers. It was entertaining, but I felt too sorry for the monkeys to enjoy it properly. It was more rewarding to watch the spectacle from a rooftop bar on the main square and reflect, as the sound of drummers bled into the call to prayer from the soaring, red-stoned Koutoubia mosque, that a version of this ordered chaos has been going on since the 12th century.
There were images of the square from the 1930s, also featuring monkeys, hanging on the walls of the Maison de la Photographie, a museum with a rooftop café, where we paused for a hibiscus tea. Having survived the square, we marvelled at the exquisite beauty of the Ben Youssef Medersa Koranic school with its geometric tiles and courtyard carved in cedar, marble and stucco with Arabic calligraphy, before delving into Marrakech's often forgotten Jewish history with a visit to a synagogue.
We then fled for some peace to the Majorelle Garden, created by French artists Jacques and Louis Majorelle and later bought by Yves Saint Laurent. Wandering through the giant cacti, bamboo groves and palm trees was an ideal way to recover from the hectic energy of the medina.
Before coming to Marrakech, I had been a little apprehensive. The current climate of terrorism paranoia has led to a fall in tourist numbers to Morocco. The number of French tourists, Morocco's largest market, fell by 15 per cent last year (although British visitor numbers have barely fallen) and I was worried that the city would be a ghost town. I had also heard stories about Western women being harassed. Happily my fears were completely unfounded – the welcome was warm, the streets bustled and the restaurants were encouragingly busy.
We chose to have lunch at Al Fassia, a restaurant that began life more than 30 years ago as a women's co-operative and is today considered one of the finest places to eat in the city. What makes Al Fassia unique is that it has an all-female staff. Surrounded by red rugs, red velvet drapes and cushions, we tucked into vegetable couscous with chicken tagine and seemingly endless bowls of salads.
We left the restaurant ready to hit the souks. This was no place to find serenity, you would think, and it was true that as we pushed our way through the labyrinthine alleys, dappled by afternoon sunlight falling from the wooden beams overhead, it was somewhat exhausting, not least as I was terrified of losing Laila in the throng. And yet, even among the amiably keen market sellers with their endlessly negotiable prices, we found a pocket of precious calm in Nomad, a restaurant perched on the top of a building. Sitting at our tranquil rooftop table, we were only seconds from the souk. It was hard to imagine a better place from which to see the city – but there was one ...
The ground was slowly disappearing under our feet. It was early the next morning, the sun had not yet appeared, but we were rising from the city by four metres a second, climbing until we were 1,000 metres into the sky over Marrakech. I should have been terrified, but I was too busy enjoying the view from our hot-air balloon perch: the laughing children below were racing to keep up as the sun slowly lit up the landscape. It was mesmerising to be flying so silently through the air, the balloon gently rising over the ground, its journey both thrilling and serene, relaxing and exhilarating, much like the city and country below.
Flights to Agadir are operated by easyJet (easyjet.com) from Gatwick and Monarch (monarch.co.uk) from Manchester. Marrakech is served by British Airways (britishairways.com) from Gatwick; easyJet from Gatwick, Manchester, Bristol and Glasgow; and Ryanair (ryanair.com) from Luton, Stansted and Edinburgh.
Lawrence of Morocco (01672 500555; lawrenceofmorocco.com) offers a one-week trip in Morocco from £715 per adult and £190 per under-11 sharing their room. The price includes three nights' B&B at Paradis Plage and four nights' B&B at Les Deux Tours, plus transfers. Flights not included. Hot-air balloon trips from £151pp.