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Souks, spas and stunning views, Morocco has it all

THE HELICOPTER&rsquo;S blades crank into life. Beneath us, sand is scattered across the sun-baked earth. Soon we are zooming towards the majestic, lunar slopes of the High Atlas mountains, and the lush glory of the Ourika Valley which guards its foothills, gleaming like the proverbial diamond in the rough beneath us. By foot this would be a magnificent sight &ndash; from the air, it is jaw-dropping.<br /><br />The expedition was the highlight of a weekend that also included motor-racing, sampling the exotic delights of downtown Marrakesh and relaxing in the idyllic surroundings of our hotel and spa. <br /><br />All were arranged by luxury travel agency Morocco Experiences, which offers a range of packages based around Marrakesh. It&rsquo;s a good way to see the city &ndash; it can be a bewildering place and anything that helps you get the most from a trip is welcome. Set trips last from three to six nights but they also specialise in bespoke breaks for those who want to dictate their own itinerary. <br /><br /><strong>ATLAS MOUNTAINS</strong><br />Among the possible activities are flying over the Atlas mountains in a hot-air balloon; staying in the desert; or if you prefer, riding motorbikes off-road through it. In fact, they say, absolutely anything your heart desires. <br /><br />I was fortunate enough that my trip coincided with the arrival of the World Touring Cars travelling circus &ndash; the first time it had stopped in Africa &ndash; and included a day at the specially constructed race track in Marrakesh&rsquo;s crane-dotted outskirts. Watching the daredevil drivers hurtle around the narrow circuit in souped-up vehicles quickened the pulse despite the heart-stopping heat; sipping a glass of chilled champagne in the VIP lounge afterwards was the ideal antidote to the noise and excitement.<br /><br />While that experience may not be available every week, the other treats on offer are altogether more reliable. A meander &ndash; for there is no other way &ndash; through the souks is sure to fascinate, whether you want to haggle with street traders to fill that extra suitcase with leather goods from the pungent tannery or simply prefer to browse.<br /><br />Architecturally Marrakesh is also a wonder. The imposing Koutoubia Mosque is a towering landmark, while the countless courtyards of the intricately tiled Bahia Palace are a perfect antidote to the bustle of the medina. The Menara and Majorelle gardens, meanwhile, are two oases of calm away from the beating heart of the city. <br /><br /><strong>FOOD STALLS</strong><br />At night the infamous Djemaa el Fna square, which marks the main entrance to the souks, is transformed into a rumbustious collision of food stalls, peddling local wares that range from the rudimentary and tasty (kebabs, grilled fish) to the more outlandish (sheep&rsquo;s head).<br /><br />So hectic is the medina that it pays to stay out of town, a short drive from the chaos. That is where I found L&rsquo;Hotel by Beldi, whose brand new rooms are at once luxurious, tasteful and faithful to their setting. The style is a mixture of French chic and Moroccan grandeur with the emphasis is on relaxation &ndash; the kind of place where breakfast is followed with a therapeutic dip in the slate-lined pool, where the water is still pleasantly cool.<br /><br />And after the more hectic delights of a helicopter ride or trip to the souks, I was happy to unwind with a eucalyptus-scented hammam treatment and massage at the hotel&rsquo;s spa, a short stroll through gardens which, with a field of some 13,000 roses, make as beautiful a spot as any to bask in the north African sun.<br /><br />For more information on Moroccan travel visit the websites www.moroccoexperiences.co.uk and www.helisud-maroc.com.