Dare to be different (just beware the donkeys): Marrakech destination guide

‘Casper, where are we going on holiday?’ ‘Coco!’ came the enthusiast reply. Marrakech, the jewel in Morocco’s crown, might not be the most obvious place to take a toddler, but whether it be getting hopelessly lost in the labyrinthine medina, haggling for carpets in the Atlas Mountains or defending our breakfast from mischievous donkeys, our trip had it all, writes Trunki Files contibutor, Lynsey Van Foreest.

Why we booked it

With less than seven days to go before we were due to depart, mum (i.e. me), who is accustomed to months of meticulous planning before every trip, ended up in a blind panic. At the beginning of March things weren’t looking too hot on the Med and we only had a week to play with, so didn’t fancy putting our 18-month-old (or ourselves) through far-flung-destination-induced jetlag. So where could we find a touch of the exotic without having to fly half way around the world?

Where we stayed

We decided to combine three nights in the heart of Marrakech with four nights of relative relaxation (everything is relative with a toddler in tow) on the outskirts of town. When we arrived in the medina after dark, it was like being taken back in time. We were led through a maze of alleyways to our first destination, Zamzam Riad, a former fortune-teller’s house tucked away in a tranquil and authentic corner of the old town.

The welcome was a friendly one and within no time we were sampling the delights of the Moroccan kitchen. The friendly and courteous staff are more than obliging when it comes to catering for little people, with smaller portions and earlier meal times easily arranged. We decided to have Casper share our food and he devoured it! You soon realise how fond the locals are of children and there were plenty of ‘bisous’ for little Casper, who wasn’t in the least bit fazed by all the attention. The riad also provides cots (although check beforehand because not all rooms can accommodate one). One of the highlights was breakfasting up on the roof with views over the city and the Atlas Mountains in the background. With all the lovely furnishings and lighting, the owners have obviously put a lot of thought into making it an atmospheric place to stay.

Because we were about 15 to 20 minutes’ walk from the souks and main square, we headed into town early each day so we could get back for Casper’s afternoon nap. We soon started to find familiar landmarks on our daily walk, but if you do find yourself lost you can call the riad and they’ll come and fetch you – a reassuring thought but luckily not a service we had to resort to. Getting around with a folding buggy was fine, although you need to have your wits about you with all the mopeds whizzing around the medina. Casper enjoyed all the sights, sounds and smells of the souks and we rarely found ourselves being hassled. There are plenty of eateries around, so no problems there either.

For convenience’s sake we had our evening meals in the riad. Quite romantic, even with a toddler. As you might expect, by their very nature riads are very intimate places, often with a plunge pool in the courtyard (keep an eye on those toddlers!) and not a lot of space for playing. With our room right next to the courtyard dining area, I don’t think we’d have felt as comfortable if there had been lots of guests staying at the time (I’m not sure candlelit suppers and toddler bedtime protests really go hand in hand), but by chance we hit on a few quieter days so no worries for us.

To give our little boy more room to run around – after donkeys, guinea fowl and peacocks or so it would emerge – we spent the next four nights at a wonderful out-of-town oasis going by the name of Villas Fawakay. Spacious and tastefully decorated villas, pretty gardens, lawns and a lovely pool area complete with bar provided the perfect antidote to a few days in the thick of things. Each villa is split into two living areas, although we had ours to ourselves. The owners even offered to drain the little plunge pool, but we didn’t think it was necessary. This is not a self-catering establishment and you’re pretty much out in the sticks, but that wasn’t a problem at all. Simply sit back outside your villa and your delicious food will come to you. The only thing you should be aware of is Doris the donkey. A sudden rustle of bushes and before you know it she’s stuck her nose in the freshly made marmalade. And we learnt to keep the pantry door shut too after she raided the minibar and scoffed half the Pringles. We were delighted to find that we had baby monitor reception by the pool area so were able to sneak in the odd G&T while the little man was snoozing. Because Fawakay naturally attracts families, Casper had a few friends to play with. He loved the peacocks, donkey and guinea fowl too, but I’m not sure the feeling was mutual.

Being 15 to 20 minutes out of town with only a tiny hamlet in the vicinity, you’ll be relying on taxis if you want to go anywhere, but these are easily arranged through Fawakay. However, because we’d already explored the medina we pretty much stayed put and relaxed, except for a brief foray into the gorgeous Atlas Mountains for a taste of Berber culture…and yes, we came back with a rug after some pretty impressive haggling on my husband’s part.

Things not to miss

  • The souks – practise your bargaining skills, get lost – it’s part of the fun
  • Jemaa el-Fna Square – fortune-tellers, henna tattooists, snake charmers, musicians, poets and dancers, you name it. (Unfortunately we didn’t make it to the night market).
  • Ben Youssef Medersa – a former Koran school with beautiful mosaic tiles
  • Bahia Palace – a lovely old palace with peaceful courtyards
  • Jardin Majorelle – quirky botanical gardens once owned by Yves Saint Laurent
  • Kosybar – a rooftop chill-out zone for a break from the busy streets
  • Café des Épices – a nice place for lunch on a pleasant square

Things to consider

If Casper had been a bit older, I may have dared to go the pongy tanneries and maybe tagged on some time on the coast as Essaouira or spent a few nights in the Atlas Mountains (donkey trekking is popular among older kids). But we’d already squeezed a two-centre holiday into a week and thought that was enough upheaval for an 18-month old. Fawakay can arrange a taxi to a big water park on the outskirts of Marrakech, which slightly older children might appreciate more – a chance to cool off and have some fun when things get hot in the city.

As far as food is went, we had no real hygiene issues – just make sure you always have a pack of wet wipes at the ready. We ate at our accommodation and at a few fairly westernised cafes in town and avoided street/market food just in case. We also stuck to bottled water. Both hotels were British-owned and well run so I feel confident there would have been someone to help us out if we needed a doctor or hospital. We can’t really comment on baby changing facilities around town as Casper miraculously managed to stay dry during our morning outings, but I think you’d have to improvise in most cases.

Transport was somewhat of an issue. We had four taxi rides – from and to the airport, between the two hotels and into the mountains. In all cases we were promised a child seat and every time they had actually brought one along, only it turned it to be one for a 6-month-old and far too small for Casper. They didn’t really understand the concept, so it would probably be a good idea to take your own seat to avoid having to sit your child on your knee as we had to resort to.

In summary…

…would we do it again? A whole-hearted ‘yes’!


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