The sun is setting on the west coast of Morocco and evening prayers are being said – a signal that those who have been observing the daytime fast during the holy month of Ramadan can now eat, drink and be merry. The narrow streets of El Jadida and its marketplace are filled with the delicious smells of food being cooked, while hotels and restaurants are a hive of activity as evening falls and locals prepare to break their fast.
While Ramadan is a time for abstinence during daylight, the evenings bring a festival atmosphere and as darkness falls, people are getting in the holiday mood. I'm in Morocco for a long weekend at the Mazagan Beach and Golf Resort, a luxurious five-star hotel complex sitting in 250 hectares and bordering a 7km stretch of white, sandy beach overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
The Mazagan Beach and Golf Resort sits on the west coast of Morocco
I had been a little apprehensive about coming here in June, expecting it be uncomfortably hot, so I'm pleasantly surprised to discover that the climate here on the coast is very different from inland cities like Marrakech. With the temperature hovering at a pleasant 23 degrees, it’s perfect for either sitting on the lush beach, swimming in the pool or indulging in the fun activities I have planned.
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This area in the north-west corner of Africa is the perfect tourist destination, offering a combination of culture, history, sunshine and luxury. Just an hour's drive from Casablanca airport – which in turn is only three hours from London – it’s great for a weekend break, or longer holiday, and summer is the most popular time here.
The five-star hotel borders a 7km stretch of white, sandy beach
The US$370 million Mazagan resort, which opened in 2009, is part of an ambitious plan by King Mohammed V1 to develop the region into a major tourist destination. Built by Kerzner International, which runs luxury destinations around the world, including the famous Atlantis, The Palm, in Dubai, Mazagan has 500 rooms and suites – including two Royal Suites - 14 restaurants and bars, a spa, fitness centre, 18-hole Gary Player golf course, two football pitches and the biggest casino in north Africa.
Built in an Arabic-Moorish style, the vast resort encircles a Grand Riad (courtyard) and features plenty of pretty mosaic tiles, ornately carved doors and ceilings, pillars, archways and lanterns. Rooms are modern and air-conditioned and many overlook the sea.
The royal suite at Mazagan Beach and Golf resort
A holiday here can be as busy or relaxing as you like, with plenty of sporting and sightseeing activities on tap as well as a big pool surrounded by palm trees and the immense beach, where you can have surf lessons, play beach soccer or, like I did, try your hand at quad biking and horse-riding along the shore.
I hadn't ridden a horse in years so was a little apprehensive when I arrived at the resort's stables and climbed into the saddle for an hour-long trek along the beach. But I soon got into the rhythm and trotting along the wet sand as the waves splashed at my horse's hooves was exhilarating.
Horse riding is one of the activities on offer
The same was true of my first attempt at quad biking, which was great fun and easier than I'd anticipated, giving me a chance to explore the length of the fantastic beach. There was time to relax too, and after our activities we headed to the on-site spa, which has a fitness centre and classes including yoga and pilates, for a relaxing massage.
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While that sounds like fun for the grown-ups there is also plenty on offer for the children, who not only have their own swimming pool but a kids club and teen club running a programme of activities including forest biking, horse riding, archery, discos and video games. There is also a football academy and baby club, as well as a farm, which has goats, chickens and other animals to keep youngsters amused.
There are 14 restaurants within the hotel
I had been a little concerned about travelling to north Africa in light of terror attacks around the world, but security at the resort was tight, with guards and metal detectors at the entrances, and I felt very safe. There was also a relaxed multi-cultural feel, with the Muslim staff welcoming a group of Israeli guests and serving them with kosher food.
Inside the vast, sprawling hotel, which has long, open corridors connected by courtyards, my plush room had all mod cons and a balcony overlooking the ocean. Mazagan is a foodies' delight and mealtimes are always a treat, from the relaxed breakfasts we enjoyed in the sunshine overlooking the pool, to the array of international dinners in the hotel's restaurants. There are 14 on site, including Morjana, which serves traditional Moroccan fare like lamb tagines, lemon chicken and harira (Moroccan soup) and the Beach Barbecue and Chiringuito Beach Club, where we enjoyed delicious lunches of meat, seafood and salads whilst gazing out at the ocean. Inside the hotel there’s an international buffet, a sushi bar, seafood and French restaurant, while up at the farm there's authentic outdoor dining in a Berber tent, where guests are entertained by belly dancers.
The bar within Mazagan Beach and Golf resort in Morocco
With all this luxury, it was hard to tear ourselves away from the resort but just a short drive took us to the old port town of El Jadida, a UNESCO world heritage site and former Portuguese fortress dating back to the early 16th century and originally called Mazagan – the inspiration for the resort's name.
The old town within the fortress walls is a world away from the luxury resort just down the road, with its tiny cobbled streets, modest houses and shops. Also here is the famous cistern, a cavernous underground chamber that used to supply the town with water and has become a favourite location for film directors because of the way the midday sun streams through a hole in the roof and reflects off the wet floor.
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Outside the fortress there is a bustling souk and the smell of spices and cooking meat fills the air as locals prepare for their evening feast. This reminds us that it’s probably time to head back to our hotel for a cocktail and dinner and now comes the most taxing decision we will have to make all day. Where will we eat tonight?
Rooms at the Mazagan Beach & Golf Resort start at £175 in low season for a double, with breakfast. Go to http://www.mazaganbeachresort.com/