By Ross Starkey
Morocco has established itself as a serious contender for a golf holiday and as Ross Starkey discovered, this ancient land with an agreeable climate is easily accessible and affordable, and it’s not just the golf that’s good, the food is too!
I last visited Morocco twenty-two years ago. Then there was just a handful of golf courses and every new encounter was brokered with a cup of mint tea. Now there are forty-four and, if you ask, you can still get a glass of mint tea before you tee off, so it’s fair to say both a lot and very little has changed in Morocco.
There’s a lot of energy behind golf in Morocco right now and there are five factors driving it; it’s a three and half hour flight away; the weather is perfect; huge capital investment for golf from the Emirates; an embarrassment of 4/5 star hotels and; more cultural delights than you can shake a spitting cobra at!
An early morning flight into Marrakech means plenty of time to stretch the legs and, for the golfer, the souk offers a heady diversion. By day the main square (Djemaa el-Fna) is alive with hawkers selling orange juice, snake charmers offering more bite and musicians providing your Marrakechi soundtrack. When night falls, it transforms to become one of the world’s biggest food stall markets.
During the day suitable eateries to escape the haggle aren’t easily found; some of the best cafes and restaurants are located on the rooftops, deep in the souk, through discrete doorways and up flights of narrow steps. They overlook the square and the great mosque, the main point of reference for lost tourists and locals alike trawling the maze of shops crammed into the medieval medina.
Ten minutes from the city-centre, giving wide berth to the horse-drawn carts still popular here, and away from the leather jackets, burkhas, beige Mercedes taxis and tree-lined boulevards dripping oranges from their branches, the desert welcomes with palm trees and luxury hotels.
Slightly further out is Assoufid, the newest of the fifteen golf courses in Marrakech. Designed by a Scot, Niall Cameron, in 2014 it was immediately awarded Africa’s Best New Course in 2014, probably due to its fair share of spectacular holes; including the dogleg 10th; a palm-splitting fairway on the par-5 14th; and the 16th, its signature hole, a dramatic downhill par-3, played over a dried riverbed to a narrow green. Behind almost every green, 40 miles away (but looking closer) are the snow-capped Atlas Mountain range.
They should look much whiter, but the rains haven’t arrived and water levels have suffered, though you couldn’t tell from the lush greens and fairways.
After being warned of the dangers of out of bounds on the opening two holes, a canyon closer than it looks on the 7th and the riverbed on the 10th, I suffered all four fates as well as the laughingthrush calling me out from a shady branch somewhere with a mocking that golfers here are probably familiar with.
There are no residential areas at Assoufid (yet). So we stayed at the sumptuous 6-star Beachcomber Royal Palm Marrakech. It’s fair to say that the Royal Palm is so vast - the curtains in reception were over 20m tall - that our porter the next morning could be forgiven for not knowing where the golf course was.
When we found it, it was beautiful. The Cabell Robinson design, along the banks of Ghord’s wadi, is like an oasis. Water hazards are present on 11 holes and each feels like a unique test, separated by clever use of topography and centuries-old olive trees. The par-5 curling around the lake is a good test as is the stroke index 1, 200 yard par-3 that follows with a green pushing into the lake that borders three sides.
Perhaps even better than the golf, here was the food. Tagines for every taste, you’ll want to try them all. Which is exactly what we did, from the kofta meatball to the fragrant couscous and fish tagines alongside chicken mouhbrey and tender ossobuco.
A few hours from Marrakech is Essaouira (pronounced ‘essa-weera’) a coastal retreat and UNESCO world heritage site, whose culture is richly woven with Arab, French, African, Portuguese and Roman influence. Traders have arrived here ever since the Romans found the murex violet (a type of snail) was a perfect dye for colouring their royal togas purple.
It is now the resort of choice for those wishing to get their hands (and feet) wet with some high octane watersports. Wind and kite surfers rejoice on the long beaches and north-easterly wind. For those less inclined to sweat for their lunch, Essaouira just happens to be one of the more laid back hangouts in Morocco.
It offers something a little different to the typical beach lounger and bikini; you are more likely to be wearing surf shorts and haggling the price of a body board! The area is known in Portuguese as Mogador, also the name of the Gary Player-designed golf course. Here desert palms change to eucalyptus-pine forest and dusty desert becomes verdant hibiscus shrubbery and fragrant bougainvilleas alive with the sound of crickets and small birds.
It was a breath of fresh air, as was the 20mph breeze that greeted us as we arrived on the 1st tee. Utilising sandy soil, sea views and hilly terrain to good effect, Player offers wide fairways and raised greens that weave through the forested estate. The breezy conditions make for a stern golfing examination, made difficult because of the tough green complexes, many of which are perched on plateaus, exposed to the coastal elements. The wind had evidently blown away the mocking birds too, because no one was laughing as I four-putted the plateau green on the 7th, a feat repeated on the 9th green. Hitting the last four in regulation seemed a pyrrhic victory considering their severity.
There’s a certain breed of golf course in Marrakesh: avenues of palm and olive trees, desert scrub, flowers and a picture- perfect vistas of the snow-topped Atlas featuring on nearly every course. The coast offers spectacular Atlantic sunsets, perfect for drawing the curtain on your Moroccan adventure. Where Marrakesh differs from its Mediterranean neighbours is through an alluring mix of 5 star hotels, resort golf courses and medieval charm of the medina with its shopping and cultural delights. Oh and the food here is way better than the Algarve!
Discover Luxury With A Difference In Portugal. Read More