I ’m floating above the Moroccan desert, a canopy of early-morning blue above me and parched brown land, with a speckled patina of goats grazing in herds, below. The grey UK skies seem to belong to another lifetime.
The sunrise hot-air balloon ride is courtesy of Ciel d-Afrique. After a four-wheel drive into the desert, I watch the 35m canvas unfurl and leap nervously as the burners fire up. As I weigh up the merits of what feels like a mis- guided venture, suddenly it is all go and we are in the basket. As one of our party hesitates, balloon owner and pilot, Frenchman Maurice Otin asks in wonderfully accented English, “Do you really want to spend the rest of your life regretting you didn’t do this?”
She doesn’t. It is a serene experience, and a wonderful way to see the landscape beyond Marrakech. All too soon the jeep following our progress picks us up and takes us to one of the houses we have just flown over.
Owner Fatima welcomes us into her one-roomed home and serves us sweet verbena tea with freshly baked crepes that we dip in olive oil and honey. It is a brief insight into a life far removed from our own.
My 48 hours in Marrakech began on a Friday afternoon with a 20-minute drive among jockeying trucks, mopeds and donkey carts. Dusty roads soon gave way to the exclusive Palmerie district, home to diplomats, royals and boutique hotel Mosaic Palais Aziza and Spa.
Weariness fell away as we were wafted through the fragrant lobby, past a fountain full of rose petals and a swimming pool shaded by palm trees. Cocktails at the poolside Citrus bar were a perfect sundowner as light flickered from myriad lanterns.
Despite being newly built, the hotel feels well established. With 18 rooms in the main Palais, there are six pavilion suites in the garden and four garden villas in the five-acre grounds. Interior designer Raja Kabil’s personal take on Moroccan style means that no two rooms are the same.
My pavilion comprises an open-plan suite with huge fireplace, oversized lantern chandelier and private terrace. The bathroom features a steam shower and enormous jacuzzi bath, and still leaves room to twirl around in your Egyptian-cotton bathrobe. I lie down on my ridiculously comfortable feather bed and decide never to leave.
Luckily, I rouse myself for dinner on the outdoor terrace of the hotel’s Maroliano restaurant. A mix of Italian food by executive chef Daniele Turco (formerly executive chef at Venice’s renowned Gritti Palace) and Moroccan food from resident chef Abdelaziz Elmendili.
Waking to birdsong the next day, I wander along the pomegranate tree-lined path to a poolside breakfast. I’ve already forgotten what a grey sky looks like. Despite eating my body weight in freshly baked flatbread, I bypass the gym and make for the spa instead. Tadelakt plaster walls uplit with candles, scented corridors and muslin-draped alcoves make me feel as though I am stepping back in time. Designed to de-stress body and soul, my traditional hamman scrub uses local products made from argan oil and shea butter, and I float back to my room in a sweet-scented haze.
Suitably relaxed, I finally feel ready to tackle the medina, Marrakech’s densely packed old town. First stop is the 19th-century Bahia Palace, with its wealth of mainly Moorish architecture and, according to our guide, 150 different painted cedarwood ceilings that are still surprisingly vibrant.
Leaving the secrets of the sultans behind, we head into the souks that spread out in a tangle of alleyways from the large communal square, the chaotic Djemaa el-Fna. A seemingly endless warren of tiny shopfronts are packed together, and locals and tourists navigate the narrow passages while sidestepping bikes and scooters.
Bartering is the way to buy, and is so much a part of the souk experience it would be a shame to miss out, even if all you go home with is a miniature toy camel. We are advised to offer 25 to 30 per cent of the suggested ‘best price’ (every vendor will have a different one) and meet somewhere in the middle. Somehow it works.
Clutching our hard-won wares, we carry on down pink-walled alleys, past jostling locals and overripe drains, until a nondescript door admits us to another world.
The Dar Fakir riad is a revelation. A traditional Moroccan house with an interior courtyard open to the skies, many riads are now used for tourist accommodation. We climb to the top-floor lounge, where a fez-clad waiter servs us gin and tonics as dusk falls.
Dinner afterwards at le Salama sees us step into a fairytale setting of flickering candlelight. The top-floor terrace has stunning views over the rooftops, and the equally impressive food is served by belly dancers who sashay between tables, balancing trays bearing silver teapots on their heads.
Spilling out into the balmy night, we head back to Djemaa el-Fna. Busy during the day, when locals with snakes or monkeys try to lure you into having your photograph taken, the square at night is a spectacle. The area resembles an enormous outdoor restaurant, as stallholders spread their wares on the ground, while children run in and out, and henna artists try to catch your eye.
Groups huddle around storytellers and musicians, and it feels as though everyone in Marrakech is there. The atmosphere is relaxed and we wind our way through, heading for the imposing Koutoubia Mosque, our landmark.
The next morning we have our ballooon trip, then a reviving couple of hours by the pool before a trip to Jardin Majorelle, a series of gardens in the heart of the city created by French painter Jacques Majorelle in the early 1900s. Later owned by Yves Saint Laurent, giant bamboos bear the carved initials of couples who once used the gardens as a clandestine meeting place.
The 48 hours are almost up and Marrakech has proved a tonic against the winter chills at home. Our final dinner is taken in the hotel’s open-air Pergola restaurant. I think we finish off with a digestif that involves gin and garden-grown mint, but to be honest I’m not too sure. Total relaxation has set in. What I am sure of is that I, and the rest of my party, are thinking, “Let me stay another 48 hours. No, make it a week.”
Mosaic Palais Aziza & Spa, Mejjat 3/38, Cercle Ennakhil, Commun Jnanate, Marrakech, Morocco (+212 524 32 99 88, www.mosaicpalaisaziza.com).
EasyJet Holidays (www.easyjetholidays.com, 0843 104 1000) offers stays at Mosaic Palais Aziza & Spa from £645pp, based on two sharing a three-night stay in a Superior Room on a B&B basis, with return flights leaving London Gatwick on 26 February.
EasyJet Holidays offers a choice of flights to Marrakech from Manchester and London Gatwick. There are EasyJet flights to Manchester and Gatwick from Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Le Salama Restaurant, 40 Rue des Banques, Djemaa el-Fna, Marrakech (+212 524 391 300, [email protected]).
Dar Fakir Luxury Riad (+212 524 44 11 00, www.darfakir.co.uk).
Jardin Majorelle, Rue Yves Saint Laurent, Marrakech, (+212 524 31 30 47, www.jardinmajorelle.com).
Ciel dAfrique (+212 524 432 843, www.cieldafrique.info), From 2,050 Dhs pp (approximately £145pp)
For further information contact the Moroccan National Tourist Office (020 7437 0073, www.visitmorocco.com)