My first trip to Morocco felt very unlike anywhere in Africa I’d been before. On the twisting mountain road into the High Atlas Mountains, the main apple crop looked brighter than my blemished ancient cider orchard back home; storks nested atop the telecoms masts; cars zipped by in the hot, dry air, reminders of days gone by – Fiat Unos, Mk1 Golfs, even Renault 4s.
I’d been drawn to these mountains by the possibility of fossil finds, an indulgence of mine after a stint filming Dinosaur Britain on ITV.
The geology of the Atlas range is varied, deposited millions of years ago under a warm, shallow sea teeming with life that covered the region. Trilobites scuttled along the sea floor and huge schools of Orthoceras, squid-like nautiloids with cone-shaped shells, swam above. When these animals died, their shells were preserved in the mud of the sea floor. Today, their long extinct forms are there to be rediscovered as treasures in the mountains.
It’s almost impossible to comprehend, as we speed by in our flash-in-the-pan existence. There are rocks here containing the fossils of animals that became extinct even before the very first dinosaurs evolved more than 300 million years ago. Great discoveries have been made here: trilobites, crinoids, Cretaceous dinosaurs, ancient sharks and crocodiles.
Kasbah Tamadot sits proud in the wonderful Toubkal Massif, the craggy mass of rocky peaks and deep valleys that contains the highest summits of the Atlas chain. Arriving here and spilling out into a courtyard full of jasmine, palms and striking plentiful antiques, feels like being invited to the lavish home of a welcoming artist friend.
There are tortoises creaking around the gardens between patches of shade; peahens and their chicks bobbing around the flowers; iridescent peacock feathers that have moulted, ready to be found and prized by the small hands of my daughters, aged six and five; and friendly camels waiting patiently to be sated with carrot kebabs. It’s the sort of place that appeals because it is intimate, a one-off and fun. The rooms are characterful, full of Moroccan patterns as well as a well-stocked minibar.
Move over Marrakesh – the secret Morocco where the cool set go
How to visit the real Morocco with children
The suggestions of the hosts are also wonderfully sociable: “Let’s all dine on the roof this evening”, for example, or “We’ll play a movie on a big screen by the pool tonight” or even “How about a watermelon smoothie now?”
It was time to get the children into fossil hunting. In these mountains trilobites (an extinct arthropod that superficially resembles the common woodlouse) are the most common find. One afternoon, with hopes high, we struck out on a “nature walk”.
In the dry heat along stony paths, guided by the gentle-natured Mohammed, the shorter legs among us managed a 90-minute trot, discovering bigger vistas than we’d seen before, all the while scrubbing around in the rocks in hope of an elusive fossil. For more serious Paleo enthusiasts, tours to fossil digs come highly recommended. Atlas geotours (atlasgeotours.com) offers the opportunity to meet local fossil diggers, as well as buy trilobite fossils, ammonites and geodes.
There were dozens of false alarms in the unfamiliar geology, but the very act of fossil hunting as a mindful practice would give adult coloring books a run for their money. This time, even without a find, we loved the process of connecting deeply with the detail of the landscape. Then, with our heads down and eyes scanning, a call out, a triumphant find – a shed viper skin – today’s life on Earth. More treasures to add to the peacock feathers.
A few days later, we headed back down from the mountains to The Royal Palm in Marrakesh, a place of unimaginable luxury. The hotel has space in abundance. The main rooms have vertiginous ceilings with elegantly chosen French and Moroccan designs framing the cavernous proportions. The bar is a mint-condition version of an exclusive London gentleman’s club, while the restaurant’s tables are styled classically and elegantly, making you want to rethink your entire crockery, glassware and cutlery set at home.
It was all too rarefied for children on my first inspection (or would be wasted on them at least). But the hotel assured me they would like this place to be for families – and they clearly mean it. The private villas are spacious, sleek, comfortable and very private. If you are likely to wince when your children are doing underwater handstands in the main hotel pool (or indeed if you wish to reunite the sun with your own palest parts) then this is the place.
Our villa garden was large enough for olive and palm trees to grow there, but enclosed and safe. There was also a children’s club, which offered the chance for my offspring to drop in any time from 7am until midnight and stay for 10 minutes or 10 hours. My daughters tend to want their own little friends to play with rather than 24 hours of family time, and the club had carers who continually helped with playtime: dressing up, face painting, mocktail making. There were also tortoises to look after and two miniature tennis courts.
“Don’t get used to this,” I reminded my daughters as they scooted off to dance with Omar and Selma.
Once your children have left your side, you can indulge in the huge gym, squash and tennis courts, a boxing area, weights and yoga rooms, a 25m swimming pool and a fitness coach if you need it. As enormous is an all-singing spa beyond the olive trees. The final attraction is more glamorous still: the villas come with their very own butler, who is as present or invisible as you wish. Not a stitch of clearing up is required; there’s no lighting your own fire pit, or turning up your own private garden hammam, or laying out your poolside towels or restocking the conditioner in your outside shower. “Don’t get used to this,” I reminded myself.
Wandering back to the villa, I thought about who Morocco would appeal to. For families in Britain, guaranteed good weather is important and after plenty of time standing on uplands moors in icy winds for Countryfile, I can’t get enough. Plus, there’s the chance to practise GCSE-level French on willing, generously spirited fluent Moroccans. And one final thing, if you weren’t already convinced: children are always made very welcome. Often when I turned around I’d catch one of my daughters receiving a kiss on the head, or good-natured lesson on how to shake hands. At a charitable workshop in the High Atlas Mountains, established by the brilliant Eve Branson to support local women who leave education at 12, my daughters were dressed up, whirled around and had photos taken.
“Some Europeans don’t always seem to like other people’s children,” said Abdul one day as he entertained my girls with trinkets and tricks, allowing me time to browse a souk in Marrakesh. We could all get used to this.
Easyjet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com) files direct to Marrakesh from Gatwick and Manchester; Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) flies direct from Stansted and Luton; British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies direct from Gatwick.