Magical Morocco - golf near Marrakech
Snow-capped mountains, palm trees, stunning golf courses and the odd camel. Sounds exotic? Then why not head off to Marrakech and find out for yourself.
What a treat - off to Morocco just as it starts getting cold and dark in the UK! I fly out with British Airways on a three and a half hour flight. It's not long before the Atlas Mountains are looming up ahead. I'm here to cover some of the excellent golf resorts and see what other delights can be found in the old city of Marrakech.
La Palmeraie. I am met outside the airport by a driver from the Palmeraie golf resort - my first port of call. Now anyone who has been to Marrakech will sympathise with me when I say that - depending on your frame of mind - being in a car here is either a thrilling or a nerve wracking experience. There seems to be no logic to the road system, and people work on the assumption that others will get out of their way if they drive straight at them. My driver seems perfectly calm and manages to weave his way through this chaos without any damage to us or the car. Within half an hour we are passing through the entrance to La Palmeraie golf resort. Palmeraie by the way is French for Palm Grove. Legend has it that the palms grew from the pips spat out onto the ground by the all conquering army of Youssef Ben Tachfine who arrived here in 1071. This really is a large resort. There are several hotels in the complex, with a total of 1,500 rooms along with a conference centre, spa and of course the 27 hole golf course. I'm booked in to stay at the clubhouse. My room is authentic, but with all the mod cons of a modern hotel. My first plan of action is to see if I can get some pictures of the golf course with the Atlas mountains in the background. It's the perfect light at this late stage of the afternoon so I go to try my luck. The humidity has dropped and the mountains are visible, it's a wonderful sight and I really am looking forward to getting on the golf course.
An early start. Its standard practice here in Morocco to go out with your own personal caddy, and they are all very keen to be of service. But due to the fact that I'm here to work and take pictures, which therefore means that I will take my time, I decide to go it alone. This is a nice course in a beautiful setting. The original 18 holes were designed by Robert Trent Jones, with the addition of 9 holes added later.I tee off early in the morning with dew still on the ground. The sun is up and it's another beautiful day. One of the more unusual sights that I see while playing my round, is a nomad who has made a shelter out of grass beside the golf course and is grazing his three camels, not actually on the course itself I hasten to add. November is a great time of the year to be here and I am rewarded with a good mornings golf. What I really notice is the lack of visitors from the UK, most guests are French with a smattering of Germans. Whether it's the fact that French is the main alternative language, I don't know, but I can say without a doubt, we Brits are missing out on some good golf.
Exploring the city. In the afternoon I head into town, there's nothing that I like better than trawling around interesting city centres and the Medina is awaiting my attention. The old red walls that surround the Medina are something to behold. It's worth being a little prepared for the organised chaos that will greet you if you visit any of the Medina's in the cities of Morocco. You enter a place far different from whence you came. The sights, sounds and smells hit you all at once. The roads and squares teem with locals and tourists alike. Beware, many locals will want to offer you their services, but for a price. I spend a good hour or so exploring the squares and back alleys of this vibrant area and then head off to the new city centre to let my senses recover from the all out assault that they have just been subjected to. The new centre I find to be the perfect place to sit and watch the world go by, its late afternoon and people are on their way home from work. The roads are awash with scooters, motorbikes and taxis. I sit and enjoy my coffee and let the world revolve around me.
Lost. For my return to La Palmeraie, I decide to walk. I'm convinced that the journey was not too far and this will be the best way to see the city. It takes me over half an hour to reach the road going north and out of town towards the resort. After another hour of walking, I am beginning to get just a little desperate. The road is empty and I start to wonder if I possibly have gone the wrong way. Ahead I see a sign for a roundabout, I remember that there was one on the journey into town and my spirits lift. If I'm correct, La Palmeraie will be to the right, my journey will be over and I can give myself a pat on the back for being so ingenious. As I get close to the roundabout, the sign comes into view. Soon I am close enough to read the words, the sign says Casablanca 220 kilometres! My heart sinks, I'm sure that Casablanca is a wonderful place, I just don't want to go there right now, especially on foot. I pass over the roundabout and keep going. Will I end up lost in the desert with no water? I can see the news headlines, "British golfer found dead in the desert, the authorities are baffled as to why he ended up there, and why he had neglected to bring his clubs" To my utter relief there's a turning to the right and lo and behold the sign here does say La Palmeraie. I arrive back at my room exhausted.
Marrakech Golf Club Assoufid. A trip to Marrakech would not be complete without visiting the newest golf development, Marrakech Golf Club Assoufid, located just 10 minutes drive from the city centre. I arrive mid morning and am met by the golf director, Guy Maxwell. We have a chat in the porta-cabin that serves as his office while the development is going on. I soon realise just how special this resort will be. The golf club is named after the village of Assoufid, where an ancient waterway (known locally as a shaaba) has etched its way into the landscape over the centuries. We take a trip in a buggy to view the progress so far. The course is dominated by two key features; the Atlas Mountains which in clear weather provide a hugely impressive backdrop to the course, and the natural ravine that comes into play on several holes. Niall Cameron, the course designer has said, "This is not a golf course born from a computer to be fitted into a predefined location, we spent many days playing an imaginary course with real clubs and balls to the astonishment of the locals. Step by step a real course appeared, moulded into the landscape". Guy is passionate about the whole development and I can see why, although there is still a lot to be done.
The Course. The first hole is a relatively short par 4, followed by a long uphill par 5. Beware, the fairway slopes to the left and the green runs off into the rough. The ninth hole is a par 5 which dog-legs left, followed by a short but tricky par 3 which is protected by bunkers to the left and a steep run-off to the right.The start of the back nine offers no respite with a treacherous approach shot over the ravine.
All four of the final holes require careful strategy. The fifteenth requires a drive over the ravine which meanders along the right hand side of the hole, but a bunker awaits on the left hand side of the fairway for those who play too safe. At the sixteenth, an uphill par 4, it's important to keep the tee shot to the right, as the fairway slopes down to the left where the ever present ravine awaits. The seventeenth is the highlight of the back nine, a par 3 of around 150 yards over the ravine with large bunkers at the back to capture wayward shots.Along with the course, clubhouse and luxury villas, a hotel is planned which will be managed by Rocco Forte.
Samanah Country Club. My time in Morocco was coming to an end, but I just had time to visit Samanah Country Club before my return to the UK This exclusive club is situated 14 km from the centre of Marrakech and 8 km from the international airport. To play here, you have to be staying at the hotel, own one of the golf properties or be a guest of an owner. This 18 hole Desert course is the closest to the mountains and so has fantastic views. So, if you want space to play in stunning surroundings, this is for you. Designed by the world famous Nicklaus Design Company, this championship course is worthy of a visit. The flight back to Gatwick with British Airway is pleasant and relaxed. My abiding memory of my trip to Marrakech will be the fact that within the space of just a few hours, it is possible to visit a land that contrasts so dramatically to my daily surroundings. After all, I have yet to find a camel on any golf course here in Kent!
British Airways flies 3 times a week from their newly refurbished state-of-the-art home at London Gatwick to Marrakech. Prices start from £69 one way.
Morocco Golf Vacations can be booked through;
Menara Travel Ltd (UK Head Office)
Tel: + 44 (0) 207 371 2030
Fax: + 44 (0) 207 785 9236