RICH AND STRANGE?
Morocco: the very name conjures images of sand dunes and mountains, vibrant markets and hidden courtyards. Just across the Straits of Gibraltar, Morocco is now easy to reach from Europe thanks to a range of cheap flights. Yet it remains a world apart - at once African and Arabian, with a dash of French colonial glamour thrown in for good measure.
A decade ago, Morocco was regarded principally as a backpacker destination: charming and cut-price if a little short on comfort. (You can still find cheap digs: Simon Calder recommends the shacks on the roof of the Hotel Farouk in Marrakech - £5 a night including breakfast). But accommodation options have been transformed by an explosion of style - notably riads, the traditional houses in Morocco's old towns, or medinas. Built around a courtyard where the womenfolk could have access to fresh air yet remain unseen, these retain a sense of beauty and mystery. Meanwhile, away from the towns you can find oasis hotels, tented desert camps and seaside hideaways.
GIVE ME GLAMOUR...
Publically vibrant and privately elegant, there is nowhere quite like Marrakech, with its magnificent backdrop of the High Atlas Mountains. For all its hippie-chic image in the Eighties, it is now regarded as a cosmopolitan centre of cool. The hub of the city is the Djemaa el Fna, the main square of the medina, within which you can get lost in a labyrinth of alleyways and converted riads.
The city has oozed glamour ever since the French artist Jacques Majorelle bought land here, turned it into a garden, and opened it to the public in the Forties. The Jardin Majorelle was restored in the Eighties by Yves Saint-Laurent, whose ownership adds more than a touch of prestige to the city. The Jardin Majorelle is off avenue Jacoub el Mansour, open 8am-6pm daily, admission 30 dirhams (£1.80); the garden also contains a small museum of Islamic art (DH15/90p).
More recently, other foreigners have been transforming Marrakech. Vanessa Branson, sister of Sir Richard, bought Riad El Fenn in 2002 and has turned it into a wonderful six-bedroom boutique hotel (00 212 24 44 1210; www.riadelfenn.com). It boasts a hammam - a steam-driven relative of the sauna - and fine dining in the courtyard or on the terrace. Doubles from €275 (£196), including breakfast. In 2004 the British hotelier Jonathan Wix, creator of 42 The Calls in Leeds, opened Riad Farnatchi (00 212 24 38 49 10; www.riadfarnatchi). It offers five sumptuous suites, candlelit dining, a roof garden and indoor swimming pool with hammam. Doubles from DH3,100 (£189) including breakfast.
CAN SOMEONE ORGANISE IT ALL FOR ME?
Certainly. Traditional tour operators offer a wide range of options. For example, Marrakech's Riad Mehdi is on offer as part of Cox & King's Riad Short Breaks programme (020-7873 5000; www.coxandkings.co.uk). Riad Mehdi (00 212 24 38 47 13; www.riadmehdi.net) is an exquisite, nine-bedroom outfit, its terracotta walls hung with glass lanterns and its floors scattered with Berber rugs. A four-day trip to Marrakech starts at £575 each (based on two sharing, as are all packages below unless otherwise stated). The price includes flights from Gatwick to Marrakech, transfers and three nights' accommodation with breakfast.
A recent addition to the Marrakech scene is Boutique Souk (00 212 64 99 05 07; www.boutiquesouk.com), a firm that specialises in bespoke trips.
While a great many of Marrakech's riads provide spa services alongside their hammams, La Sultana Marrakech has facilities for serious sybarites. Created out of four historic riads, the 21-bedroom hotel has a beautiful swimming pool as well as sauna, Jacuzzi, hammam, plus hydrotherapy, massages and other treatments. Erna Low Body & Soul Holidays (020-7594 0290; www.bodyandsoulholidays.com) offers three-night breaks here from £830, which covers return flights from Gatwick to Marrakech, transfers, accommodation with breakfast, and three treatments.
This autumn La Sultana will open a hotel at Oualidia, a fishing village and resort north of the better-known town of Essaouira. La Sultana Oualidia (00 212 24 38 80 08; www.lasultanaoualidia.com, website under construction) will have indoor and outdoor pools and and extensive spa.
ANY RURAL RETREATS?
On the outskirts of Marrakech, the oasis of Palmeraie ("palm grove") is a calm contrast to the bustle of the city. This is the setting for the only African venture of super-luxury hotel group Amanresorts. Behind high earthen walls, the Amanjena (00 212 24 403 353; www.amanresorts.com) is a pink and palatial world unto itself. Accommodation is in 32 pavilions and six maisons whose Moorish design also nods to the Berber villages of the High Atlas. With huge beds, butlers, two restaurants, swimming pool (as well as private pools for much of the accommodation), tennis courts, spa and even three boutiques, the temptation is simply to stay put. Harlequin (01708 850 300; www.harlequinholidays.com) arranges five-night breaks here from £1,570 each including flights from Heathrow or Gatwick to Marrakech, transfers and accommodation with breakfast.
Meanwhile, near the Berber village of Asni in the High Atlas Mountains is Kasbah Tamadot, a lavish hideaway with magnificent views and superb food. The property was bought by Sir Richard Branson in 1998. After extensive refurbishment it opened as a hotel last year (0800 716919; www.virginlimitededition.co.uk/kasbah). It has 18 spacious, antique-filled rooms, spa, infinity pool, tennis courts and even its own hot-air balloon.
During September and October Seasons in Style (01244 202 000; www.seasonsinstyle.co.uk) offers seven-night breaks here from £1,235, which covers flights from Gatwick to Marrakech, transfers and accommodation with breakfast.
Yet stylish stays near Marrakech do not necessarily come with a serious price tag. Between the city * * and the foot of Jebel Toubkal, the highest of the High Atlas mountains, is the Ourika Valley, which is home to a glorious campsite, Les Jardins d'Issil. "Tent" is perhaps a misnomer for the accommodation here - 15 or so pavilions set around a large infinity pool. These are partly walled and topped with Moroccan fabrics. Inside are comfortable beds, silk cushions and floors covered with bright rugs. In September and October a week costs £360 for two, including breakfast, through Fleewinter (020-7112 0019; www.fleewinter.co.uk). Flights and transfers are extra. The company can also arrange car hire (from £22 a day) or airport transfers (€25/£18 each way for two people).
I'D LIKE A PLACE OF MY OWN
Morocco boasts some sensational villas that are impeccably staffed. CV Travel (0870 062 3415; www.cvtravel.co.uk), for example, has a small portfolio of properties to rent. One of the finest is the sublime Kasbah du Lac about 20km from the southern town of Ouarzazate, now a popular film location. The villa is on the edge of a spectacular lake and is close to many oasis villages. It has six bedrooms, a heated swimming pool and tennis court. A week for 10 guests here costs from £3,250. The company can also arrange return flights from Heathrow to Ouarzazate via Casablanca on Royal Air Maroc from £288 each.
SOME SEASIDE STYLE?
The laidback fishing town and fortified port of Essaouira has managed to avoid the package tourism of Agadir further south. Sure, Essaouira has fine sands and lovely curving beaches but it also gets a lot of wind, hence its popularity with the windsurfing brigade rather than sun-worshipping hordes. It has been a hip destination for independent travellers since Jimi Hendrix visited in the late Sixties. In 2001 Unesco declared its unspoilt medina a World Heritage Site (a status also shared by the medinas in Marrakech and Fez).
The most elegant hotel in town is L'Heure Bleue (00 212 44 78 34 34; www.heurebleue.com). A member of Relais & Chateaux, this riad has 35 guest rooms, a swimming pool, hammam, spa and cinema. Kirker Holidays (0870 421 1201; www.kirkerholidays.com) offers three nights here from £821, including flights to Marrakech from Gatwick, transfers and accommodation with breakfast.
Other accommodation options in Essaouira include Madada Mogador (00 212 24 47 55 12; www.madada.com; doubles from €100/£71 including breakfast), a chic maison d'hôtes, or guesthouse just outside the medina. It has seven rooms decorated in taupe and cream, and offers panoramic sea views from its roof terrace.
CAN I STAY OFF THE BEATEN TRACK?
Yes; there's a treat in store. Best of Morocco (0845 026 45 85; www.morocco-travel.com) has a knowledge of the country that is second to none. For a complete retreat, the firm recommends the Ksar Massa Hotel at the edge of the Souss-Massa National Park about 40km south of Agadir. The 10-room hotel (00 212 61 28 03 19; www.ksarmassa.com) is wonderfully peaceful, being set on 8km of empty beach. Decor is a colourful mix of local fabrics and facilities include a superbly situated swimming pool, hammam and massage room as well as terrace and indoor dining. Meanwhile, the park offers good hiking and is home to the greater flamingo, crane and ibis. For September, Best of Morocco can arrange four-night breaks at the Ksar Massa from £785, including flights to Agadir, transfers and half-board accommodation.
A NORTHERN TREASURE?
Despite its sights and a host of romantic associations, the north is relatively undervisited. Rabat, the capital, contains gracious boulevards as well as a 12th-century medina. Glorious, crumbling Fez is the world's largest surviving medieval city. Casablanca boasts the Hassan II Mosque, the largest religious monument outside Mecca. Volubilis is the site of one of the Roman Empire's furthest-flung cities. And Meknes was once the Versailles of Morocco, an imperial city of pomp and palaces. You can also call in at Rick's Café at 248 Boulevard Sour Jdid (00 212 22 27 42 07; www.rickscafe.ma), open seven days a week for drinks, food and assignations. Audley Travel (01869 276 220; www.audleytravel.com) can arrange independent tours of the north. For example, a trip taking in Casablanca's Hassan II Mosque, two days in Rabat and four days in Fez, with trips to Meknes and Volubilis, costs from £1,250 each. The price covers flights, accommodation, transfers and guided tours.
WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?
First, listen to The Independent Traveller in Marrakech - the latest podcast from The Independent, launched today. Listen online at www.independent.co.uk, or download the 15-minute podcast to your MP3 player. Next, contact the Moroccan national tourist office, 205 Regent Street, London W1R 7DE (020-7437 0073; www.visitmorocco.com).
I NEED AN EXPRESS TO MARRAKECH
British Airways (0870 950 8950; www.ba.com) flies from Heathrow and Gatwick to Casablanca, Marrakech and (from next month) Fez. There are also flights from Heathrow and Gatwick on Royal Air Maroc (020-7439 4361; www.royalairmaroc.com) and its offshoot, Atlas Blue ( www.atlasblue.com).
No-frills airlines have also moved in; easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) now flies to Marrakech from Gatwick. Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) starts flying there from Stansted on 31 October, and Thomsonfly (0870 1900 737; www.thomsonfly.com) from Manchester and Luton from 3 November.
Travelling long-distance in style is possible in first class aboard the excellent Moroccan Railways. Fares are low: the four-hour trip between Casablanca and Marrakech is £8 one way.
A week's car hire with Hertz (08708 48 48 48 www.hertz.co.uk) costs from £267. Through the Holiday Autos website ( www.holidayautos.com), you can book a week's rental for £159.
WHEN TO GO?
September and October are ideal, with the oven-like heat of summer lifting. But bear in mind that Ramadan, the holy month of fasting, starts this year on 23 September and runs until 22 October. This is arguably a good time to visit, since the country will generally be less crowded, although of course shops and some restaurants will close earlier than normal and you'll need to ensure that you don't eat (or smoke) in the streets during daylight hours.