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by Sarah Finnan
29th May 2024

From sunrise over the Agafay Desert to the lap of luxury at Club Med La Palmeraie, Sarah Finnan debriefs her last visit to the colourful north African city of Marrakesh.

Floating thousands of feet above the desert, Marrakesh looks like a tiny, red dust-covered Legoland below. It’s just after sunrise and I’m surveying the city from a hot air balloon, the sun hanging like an orb over the Atlas Mountains. 

It’s exceptionally peaceful up in the clouds – a sharp contrast to what it’s like down on the ground – and though peeking over the edge makes my tummy feel a bit wiggly, it’s strangely calming too. Our pilot is Daniel Penet, the owner of Ciel D’afrique, a company that has been hot air ballooning since the early 90s. He’s been certified for almost 10 years now, and is a fountain of knowledge on the topic, no question too silly or outlandish.

After what feels like hours (but in reality is somewhere between 20-40 minutes), our balloon begins to descend. We’ve been briefed on what to do for landing which could go one of two ways; today, we have a “sporty landing” which involves the basket tipping backwards upon touchdown (it’s not as scary as it sounds).

A carload of staff rushes to meet us and pack the balloon back up to return to camp. After our trip, they’ll prepare to go back up again – they have to make the most of the early morning temperatures. Breakfast is a traditional mix of Moroccan delights, including pancakes, fresh fruit and mint tea. I appreciate the cert of completion we’re given and wield it proudly as proof of my bravery. 

This magical experience is just one of many excursions offered by Club Med La Palmeraie – my home away from for the past two days (much better than my actual home). Fresh off the back of a brand-new renovation, the resort – hidden away in Morocco’s oldest palm grove – has also added a new oasis family space complete with swimming pools, a stylish bar and upgraded rooms. While some of the press group stayed there, I was lucky enough to be housed in Le Riad, essentially a hotel within the hotel (part of the resort’s exclusive offering). My apartment spanned two floors and included a rooftop terrace with its own outdoor shower… it’s a tough life. Special mention to Abder who greeted me every day by name (I’ve never felt more like a VIP) and at the end of my stay, bid me adieu with a plastic-wrapped bouquet of roses he assured me I could bring back to Ireland. 

For those of you unfamiliar with Club Med, it’s a luxury French resort group specialising in all-inclusive holidays. The French are definitely ahead of us in this department but it’s slowly becoming a more popular option here in Ireland too. Having never gone on an all-inclusive holiday before, I probably went into this with my own preconceptions of what such a thing might entail but there’s a lot to like about the model – namely, everything is already paid for ahead of time. All meals, drinks and on-site sporting activities are included. You can pay an additional fee for premium drinks brands but I survived just fine without.  

The Club Med experience is what you make of it; everything is there for your enjoyment, it’s up to you what sparks joy. Activities on offer range from trapeze to archery to tennis (with padel soon to be added). There’s a kids club for little ones, regular yoga classes and agua gym too. You can languish by the pool for hours on end or work up a sweat on the golf course, the choice is yours. Most staff speak French and English with a few other languages thrown in for good measure – “Je ne parle pas français” is a handy phrase to have in your back pocket if your Leaving Cert oral prep escapes you. 

By night, the resort lights up with twinkling fairy lights and flickering candles. Most evening soirées have dress codes (e.g. white, boho chic etc.) and the majority of people abide by them, so check the website before packing your suitcases or risk being the odd man out. Live music is a regular occurrence and staff get heavily involved – taking to the stage to show off hidden talents, leading the choreography and encouraging enthusiastic dance battles at the upstairs nightclub. If you’ve seen Dirty Dancing or High School Musical 2 (the one where they all work at a country club) then you’ll already have a pretty good understanding of what Club Med is like. It’s very much a community vibe and you need to lean in to fully enjoy it. Like most Irish people, I’m allergic to organised fun but there’s something endearing about joining a bunch of strangers in doing the Macarena.

Both the decor and food are locally inspired, with French threads running throughout. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served buffet style (unless you dine at El Kebir which is à la carte) with everything from fresh bread to grilled veggies, tagine, pizza and salad on offer. Multiple servings are needed to sample everything but the avocado butcher (a name we anointed him with) warrants daily visits. Elsewhere on the grounds is the Cinq Mondes spa, should you need some extra TLC though the pools – particularly the private one at the Riad (only guests staying at the Riad can use the facilities there) – are pure bliss.

Beyond the resort’s walls, the city itself is an assault on the senses. There’s chaos and colour at every turn and it can be quite overwhelming at times – especially in the main square, Jemaa el-Fnaa, where you’re likely to spot anything from cooked lamb heads (a Moroccan delicacy) to snake charmers and men selling fake designer wares. It can be fun to revel in the unpredictability of it all, but have your wits about you. Don’t take pictures (many locals prefer not to be photographed or will ask for a tip), be ready to haggle, and take out some cash before you brave the souks (most stalls will accept euros or Moroccan dirhams and there’s an ATM in the hotel reception). Having been to Marrakesh before, I had a pretty good idea of what to expect but the sight of monkeys being led around the square on chains was still pretty affecting, so be prepared. 

The Medina, the historic old town, is a UNESCO World Heritage site and you’ll find several architectural and artistic masterpieces located here. This time around, we visited Bahia Palace –  a 19th-century palace, consisting of rooms decorated with stunning stuccos, paintings and mosaics – and Jardin Majorelle. The latter is a botanic garden northwest of the Medina. It was created by the French artist Jacques Majorelle (he invented a specific shade of cobalt called Majorelle Blue which you’ll see plenty of there). Designer Yves Saint-Laurent and his longtime business partner (and later, husband) bought the property in the 80s. There’s a Yves Saint-Laurent museum nearby and he had his ashes scattered there after his death. Expect to see plenty of very fashionable people milling about here waiting to get in.

Morocco is more liberal than most other Muslim countries, but you should still dress appropriately. Shorts to the knee are fine, but not hotpants and bring a scarf or something to cover your shoulders. Avoid crop tops or anything too revealing and you’ll have a much more comfortable time (bikinis etc. are fine at the resort but I was still conscious of being modest so as not to offend). 

Our excursion was organised through the hotel and whilst you probably could try to plan your own trip, I’d recommend going with a guide – there are no informative placards at the Palace so you’d be lost otherwise. It also means you can skip the queue and transport is included too. There is a free shuttle bus that runs between the resort and the main square daily if you’d prefer to go it alone or need a bit more browsing time. 

In the souks (traditional marketplaces or bazaars found within the Medina), beautiful things abound. Everyone wants you to come to their market stall and if you’re unaccustomed to bargaining, you’ll probably find it a bit intense. From my experience, Marrakesh shopkeepers are usually willing to negotiate prices… so long as you don’t take the p*ss. 

As I mentioned before, this wasn’t my first time in Marrakesh – my first trip entailed a nine-day bus tour of the country, on which I stopped off at 11 different places, was traumatised at the border (that’s a story for another day) and had pretty consistent food poisoning. I loved (almost) every minute of it. This visit was much more luxurious, though every bit as enjoyable. Decision fatigue is a very real thing and it was nice for most of that to be eliminated here. I’m not sure if I’ve been fully Club Med-ified just yet though, might need to trial a few more resorts to be sure…

Sarah Finnan was a guest of Club Med La Palmeraie Marrakesh.

Prices for a seven-night all-inclusive stay at Club Med La Palmeraie in June start from approximately €1,882.50 per adult (based on double occupancy) with flights from Dublin and transfers included.

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