I’d always wanted to go to Marrakech. I pictured myself walking through the North African city’s famous souks in a floaty white dress as the sun kissed my skin.
I’d sashay through the market to beats of traditional Moroccan drums as children waved and women in colourful kaftans smiled at me as they passed by.
Colourful spices like turmeric and cayenne powder would line every corner piled up high into pyramid shapes.
After tucking into one of the world’s sweetest oranges handed to me by a tiny trained monkey, I would then be whisked off my to my stunning riad by my charming Moroccan guide.
I know I’m not the only one who conjures up these kind of images at the mere mention of Morocco’s Marrakech.
It has successfully fostered this global image as the jewel of North Africa. Now while some visitors may live out that dream, my experience was slightly different…
Advised to just keep things practical, I wore a pair of shorts and a loose-fitting top as I walked through a seemingly endless labyrinth of claustrophobically narrow alleys to get to the famous markets.
These alleys should be strictly for walking, yet countless motorbikes appear out of nowhere revving by terrified pedestrians within touching distance.
You will breathe a sigh of relief when you finally make it into marketplace, but then another type of chaos ensues: people. Lots of people!
Especially in the main square, Jemaa el-Fnaa – the most famous part of the medina (Medina is a historic part of a North African town or city, accessible mainly through the former city entrances/gates, referred to as ‘Bab’).
For the army of traders that fill these souks, understandably, getting the visitor’s attention is the tenacious goal. This meant I was being (metaphorically) pulled from side to side.
From a lovely lady suddenly (albeit gently) taking my hand and starting to apply henna in hopes I would pay for the privilege, to my being pushed to buy jewellery from male traders – a couple of whom decided my ‘I’m good thanks’ was really me wanting to be followed around.
Marrakech’s medina is a vibrant tapestry of Moroccan culture – just not necessarily the stuff of postcards.
The only real saving grace was seeing an oasis amid all this. For me that was La Sultana. This cluster of 28 stunning riads, is literally in the middle of all the chaos, but somehow feels a world away.
It was the bit of that ‘Marrakech postcard’ that was realised with its ornate decor and beautiful authentic Moroccan artwork and architecture and peace.
My own personal riad was like nowhere I’ve ever stayed – totally fit for the most discerning visitor, and the stark contrast to what was just a stone’s throw away, just served to make it feel more magical.
I would’ve happily floated between these medina walls forever, but even dreamier moments awaited.
During a three-hour drive out of Marrakech, the driver abruptly veered to the right and I was suddenly on an off-road adventure.
The destination? Oualidia. A place that has been quietly, and happily, sitting on the sidelines of it’s superstar sibling Marrakech, waiting for its turn to shine.
If you haven’t heard of this coastal sanctuary, you’re in good company as many an experienced globetrotter has scratched their head at the mention of the place.
It also doesn’t make the ‘top spots to visit’ travel lists. But as much as it wants to be seen, it will not bring out the bells and whistles to achieve that.
No, you’ve got to accept its understated charm or simply turn the car around.
Sitting between the Atlantic Ocean and a saltwater lagoon, Oualidia is where seeing pink flamingos strutting their stuff is as common as seeing pigeons flapping around in London. If you’re into oysters – it’s also where oyster farms thrive.
As my vehicle meanders through the rocky terrain, a stone-clad fortress appears – the nicest accommodation in the village, La Sultana Oualidia.
Now, I wouldn’t normally stay at the same hotel in two different spots, but I was assured this was the nicest accommodation in Oualidia and a must-stay. It’s also totally different to the one in Marrakech.
And what a force of a building it is!
During the 1940s, King Mohammed V meticulously designed this property built from natural, locally sourced material as a summer sanctuary by the shoreline, creating Morocco’s first royal beachfront.
A summer home clearly means something very different to royals as to me, this is a palace of a building.
I was lucky enough to stay in the Treehouse suite, which is arguably the most special of the 12 rooms that make up this gorgeous boutique property.
Perched high above the ground amidst sturdy tree branches, it’s an experience within itself. Huge windows frame the suite giving panoramic views of everything from the lagoon to the lush surrounding greenery.
I tucked into delicious Moroccan sweets while lounging on a fortress of a balcony that made me feel like queen of the castle, well, treehouse.
But the most intriguing thing was the huge imposing tree shooting through the hardwood floor in the middle of the room.
During my stay, there was no need to get back into a car. I would trek nearby for a tailored beachside picnic where a personal chef arranged a delectable spread of fresh seafood and salads.
Oualidia is also known for its seafood. La Sultana Oualidia actually specialises in seafood, which is the main thing offered in its two restaurants, so if you’re not a massive fan of the cuisine, beware.
I also enjoyed swimming in a beautiful cove perfect for paddle boarding, bird-watching and surfing, just a short boat ride away from the hotel and cycled through on cliffs much of the length and breadth of the seaside town.
The areas surrounding La Sultana invite exploration.
Oualidia was also interesting as it works hard to preserve its natural beauty through sustainable initiatives. Even if you’re not an ‘eco-warrior’ you can’t help but feel like you’ve been a part of something amazing here.
La Sultana also thrives on this. It has a sanctuary that rehabilitates injured birds, a bottle recycling facility, and a garden providing the resort with fresh produce daily.
While Marrakech boasts a vibrant food scene, Oualidia brings its own unique culinary twist with its fresh catches that find their way from the lagoon to the plate in no time.
The slower pace of the town’s local markets also gave me that opportunity to engage with friendly local artisans and vendors and try their gorgeously pyramid displays of produce in a far more relaxed way.
So, as the sun set on my time in Morocco, as it turned out, I’d had my Marrakech dream after all. It just happened to be in Oualidia.
If only I’d remembered to wear my floaty white dress.
Rooms at La Sultana Oualidia hotel in Morocco start from £395 a night fordouble occupancy. Find out more at lasultanahotels.com and visitmorocco.com.
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