Marrakech might be best known for its souks, but the golf courses are pretty good too says Chris Stratford.
It had been a long-held ambition of mine to explore the sights, sounds and smells of the labyrinthine souks of Marrakech. There was no hesitation, therefore, in accepting an offer to take a trip not only to walk the souks’ narrow alleyways but also to experience the wide open fairways of two golf courses in Marrakech and a third in Essaouira, on Morocco’s west coast.
Okay, not all the fairways are wide at Royal Palm, Mogador and Assoufid, but even the slimmest of these under the Moroccan sun beats the widest under Yorkshire rain.
The exotic North African setting offers almost guaranteed sunshine, a fact you could have guessed, but also enjoys low humidity and is closer to hand than you might think, just over three and a half hours’ flight from Manchester.
Close enough for an early-morning flight to enable the visitor to have the choice on day one of playing golf or plunging into the souks. Our party chose the former, visiting Assoufid, a course opened in October 2014 that offers a true taste of desert golf, in that rather than use rough to punish a wayward tee shot it utilises large swathes of sandy wasteland.
This means it is difficult to lose a ball, save for the few holes involving out of bounds, but the challenge lies in effecting a recovery shot from areas where small stones and sand abound.
The 17th, a downhill, 135-yard par-3, is the most stunning of many aesthetically appealing holes on a course that is overlooked by the imposing Atlas Mountains. It demands an accurate tee shot across a levy to the green, which is reached by a walk across a bridge that allows time for the sense of achievement to set in after finding the putting surface.
The drive back through Marrakech during evening rush hour to the Royal Palm Hotel offered a brief glimpse of the manic nature of commuting on roads where the scooter driver is king – or thinks he is and seems to expect all other traffic to show due deference by moving out of his way. This harum-scarum tableau was played out against the blare of vehicle horns, but travelling up towards the majestic serenity of the Royal Palm Hotel offered a swift and relaxing counterpoint.
The scent of oleander bushes filled the air and a warm welcome awaited us at the hotel entrance. Walking into the lobby, the visitor is faced by a massive picture window affording a view of a swimming pool, the hotel gardens, our old friends the Atlas Mountains and the Royal Palm golf course.
There was some difficulty rising early the next day to decant from the comfort of my palatial suite, but the course – like Assoufid, only in its infancy – justified a bleary-eyed breakfast. Here water has to be negotiated on several holes, most of which are framed by palm and olive trees. The 13th is a strikingly impressive hole, with two tongues of sculpted bunkers licking their way up either side of the fairway, those on the right extending in front of the green and those on the left behind it.
Many of Royal Palm’s greens are multi-tiered, as is the case at Mogador, Essaouira, where its creator, nine-times major champion Gary Player, has ensured that even someone with his famed putting prowess will need to apply 100 per cent concentration.
The front nine of the North Course is absorbing and an appetiser for a splendid back nine, replete as it is with a number of dog-leg holes where the walk to your drive pulls back a curtain on tree-lined vistas to the green. Its short holes are also engaging, as exemplified by the 13th, which features a cockpit green with a stacked boulder feature at the rear.
Post round, sitting on the terrace of my room at the Hotel Sofitel Essaouira overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, my mind wandered back to the frantic theatre of our walk through the souks of Marrakech.
Neither the narrowness of their alleyways nor the throng of pedestrians proved a deterrent to scooters driven at speeds varying from gentle perambulation to just a few notches below Steve McQueen’s audition for The Great Escape.
Men pulling heavily-laden carts are forced to walk more slowly, but still with a sufficient degree of impatience that people step hastily aside. Card games are commonplace, with the emphasis on killing time rather than making a killing.
The merchandise is a colourful and fascinating melange of anything from spices, vegetables and fruit to artwork, craftwork and textiles, through to huge hand-fashioned sinks and baths. Marrakech’s souks offer a microcosm of Morocco’s many charms: colourful, enticing, vibrant, beguiling, intriguing and friendly.
Chris Stratford is a member of the International Golf Travel Writers’ Association.
His parking and overnight airport accommodation were organised by Airport Parking and Hotels. aph.com
For general tourist information go to muchmorocco.com. Other useful websites include domaineroyalpalm.com, golf-mogador-essaouira.com/en/, assoufid.com/en/, sofitel.com/