Shops, sun and spice: Marrakech is the perfect winter weekend getaway

HAVING spent a bit of time in Morocco before, I was bracing myself. Six years ago, on a lone voyage on a rusty old ship from Algeciras in Spain to Tangier, I was accosted by three tipsy artifact sellers on board, before getting my camera pinched on arrival at the dusty old port. Further into the trip I spent a stomach-churning few hours in the tanneries of Fez. Needless to say, I was a little wary of what I was to find on my return to this fabled land of spices, souks and snake charmers.

In fact, I needn’t have worried, and my arrival into Marrakech’s Menara airport could not have been more pleasant – admittedly because I was hardly roughing it, this time. There on the tarmac was the Four Seasons VIP rep – ready to whisk my husband and I into a special room with sweetmeats and iced juices all laid out to enjoy. After being thrust straight to the front of every queue we left the airport already bathing in the glow of a very different kind of Marrakech.

The new Four Seasons is a purpose built Moorish-style resort. Located on the outskirts of the city, it is comfortable and well laid out, with a great pool and cosy library, which was, to my surprise, heated by a log fire every night we were there. I had forgotten about the cold desert nights. The hotel does lack the opulence and charm of the palace hotels, but it’s a place to escape from the brouhaha, and good for those with children – there are kids clubs and distractions all day (and thankfully, a separate adults and children’s pool).

Food is one of the main reasons I have come to Marrakech, and we go to the famed Mamounia hotel on the first night – Churchill’s alleged “most lovely spot in the world.” It is all jazzy bar, complete with leopard skin upholstery and $35 cocktails, lush gardens and elaborate sculptures of lions catching their prey: it is a hotel on heat. The restaurant is beautiful and we are shown to our private room around a central atrium: for romantics, the perfect spot for a proposal. For us, a pig-out, so we order the 14 salads that come as a starter, pulling straws for who is going to try the sheep’s brain first (not me). The lamb and preserved lemon tagine is exquisite, the local wine so-so, but with the strict import controls and high taxes, it is far cheaper than other wines.

After our fancy dinner, including a musical serenade, we decide to embrace the edgier side of Marrakech and head into the night food market in Djamaa el Fna square. Something of an apocalyptic scene greets us: great clouds of smoke from the charcoal grills billow into the sky; sheep heads lie askew on wooden tables next to bubbling cauldrons of cumin-scented broth. We saunter between stalls selling pots of snails, fragrant chicken tagines and great mounds of dried fruit. The stallholders are generally good natured, except one who tries to drag me forcefully to his mutton stall. It is time to leave.

The following day we spend a very worthwhile €100 taking a guide hired through the hotel for the half day. We are taken to the incredible Saadian tombs, a refuge from the bustle of the kasbah. Stray cats play under quince trees laden with fruit, and we admire the intricate cedar wood ceilings of the graceful buildings. Next stop is the elaborate 19th century Bahia palace built for the prime minister’s concubines. Here, whole wings are dedicated to his ladies and the peaceful gardens are bathed in birdsong and sunlight. Not a bad place to be one of his 28 lovers.

We then venture headfirst into the souk. I enquire about local dishes and our guide tells us about the tanjia – a clay pot of marinated meat given by workers to their local Hammam keeper. The lunch is then cooked in the embers of the fire used to heat the hamman. We visit one and it is like stepping back to another age – a man is crouched on all fours is stoking the embers, moving the clay pots around, surrounded by Berber instruments. His friends have popped in to hear him play, and he drums up an energetic song on his fiddle.

The shopping is not as wonderful as I had imagined: if I had more time I would have hired a personal shopper, however I do come away with some jaunty straw bags and hats for my nieces, and some pretty bowls. We are inevitably shown some kilim rugs, which are beautiful, but many thousands of pounds. Winding past conical mounds of turmeric, sandalwood and cinnamon, past men selling chameleons and terrapins, we wheedle our way back to the main square where we gorge on fat dates. Final stop on the tour is the beautifully bonkers Yves Saint Laurent gardens, plush with gargantuan cacti, bright yellow buildings and a memorial to the great troubled man himself.

We arrive back to find our room still not cleaned from the day – this and other service niggles (such as it taking an hour to get our baggage to the room on arrival) let the Four Seasons down a bit. However it was the day before official opening so perhaps it was teething problems.

That evening, after a tasty Italian meal at the Four Seasons restaurant, we venture out into the night, chancing upon a fabulous place called Cafe de la Poste, an old post office all decked out in colonial finery, serving food downstairs and drinks and a DJ upstairs. We pop our heads into some other heaving venues, but a day of sight seeing and haggling has taken its toll, and we head back for the night.

The final day is Eid which means a city in shut-down. My plans to walk in the Atlas mountains – glistening temptingly in the distance – are thwarted, however it means a wonderful Marrakech massage at the hotel spa, followed by a day spent tanning under the fierce African sun. Not bad for a long winter weekend from London.

Bed and Breakfast package from €400 per night in a Superior Room. For other rates and package, see www.fourseasons.com/marrakech. www.fourseasons.com. Bmi flights operate on Monday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Fares are available from £138 including all taxes and charges. www.flybmi.com.

BA, Royal Air Maroc and Easyjet also fly.

WHERE TO EAT | MARRAKECH

La Marocain at Le Mamounia (hotel is pictured): delicious upscale Moroccan food. Choose a private room and prepare to dig deep. www.mamounia.com/uk

Solano at Four Seasons: excellent Italian and a welcome break after three days of a non-stop tagine fest.

Riad el Fenn: To experience a bit of boho luxe riad dining, snack on Moroccan salads in the moody dining room and feast your eyes on contemporary art by local artists www.riadelfenn.com

Cafe de la Poste: housed in a former post office, this colonial villa has fabulously funky original geometric floor tiling and comfy sofas, DJs and a good cocktail list www.grandcafedelaposte.com.

Le Comptoir: at this heaving restaurant, bar and nightclub, it’s blingtastic attire for the ladies and anything, just as long as it’s black and preferably silky, for the men. comptoirmarrakech.com/en.