Mark Warner is asking bloggers for their family travel tips as part of their bloggers’ challenge.
As a family travel journalist this is something I have written about MANY times, and indeed an entire book.
But looking back through the various articles I’ve written, and after a few false starts at this post, I think the most important tip is to take the holiday that you want to take. If you plan carefully and are realistic in your expectations, you don’t need to let travelling with children limit your options very much at all.
We’re not generally uber-adventurous in our travels, but one of our most memorable trips was Marrakech when the kids were aged three and five. It’s not an obvious family destination, but it worked really well.
The city is not child friendly in the traditional ways – you will find very few restaurants with children’s menus, high chairs or baby-changing facilities and there is not much in the way of attractions specifically for children – but the pure experience of being there is likely to be more exciting for them than the best playgrounds.
The Moroccans absolutely adore children and you will need to get used to having your children kissed and cuddled very quickly – which may sound alarming but somehow just isn’t. The Moroccans are tolerant of children being children as opposed to many other “child-friendly” countries seem to love children as long as they are behaving like adults. If your children are nodding off in a restaurant the waiter will probably bring extra chairs so they can lie down and later carry them out to the taxi, if they are dancing around the table chances are the waitress will dance with them.
The epicentre of Marrakech is Jemaa El Fna (“La Place”) – a huge square around which most of the city life revolves – and there is plenty here to keep children occupied both day and night. During the day they have their pictures taken with snakes around their necks, get their hands painted with henna, watch an impromptu dentist pull teeth and buy freshly squeezed orange juice or sweets from the many stalls in the square. At night they can choose one of the many bustling trestle tables to sit and watch while their food is freshly grilled before watching the rovinng entertainers. Day or night, every time you look away someone will have thrust a wooden snake, balloon or toy drum into their hand so it is worth explaining in advance that they will have to give most of these back as they all need to be haggled over and paid for.
To the north of the square the souks are fascinating to children with their myriad of colours, smells and sounds but you will need to keep a firm hand on younger children – they can be very crowded and you are sharing the narrow lanes not only with people but also motorbikes and mules pulling carts. Try visiting in the morning when they are generally less crowded and frenetic.
There are several parks – the Majorelle Gardens, owned by Yves St Laurent, are beautiful – full of cacti and bamboo offset against vibrant blue and yellow walls but are somewhere to walk and admire the plants rather than run around. If you kids want to let off steam, there is more room in the Menara Gardens which also has a carp pond where they can buy bread and feed the fish.
For animal-loving children there are two main options for rides in Marrakech – you can hire a caleche (horse-drawn carriage) and take a ride around the ramparts – or head out to La Palmeraie and ride a camel through the palm trees. Leroy’s Kfé at La Palmeraie Hotel makes a good place for lunch before your ride – it does great tapas and is one of the very few places with a children’s menu. If you have time you might like to visit the Spana animal sanctuary in central Marrakech which cares for mistreated mules and also runs programmes to ensure working animals are treated humanely.
While traditional accommodation is a Riad within the Medina, if you are travelling with children you will probably be better off choosing a hotel in the Hivernage area (about five minutes taxi-ride from the Medina) or La Palmeriae (about twenty minutes.) Here the hotels are more spacious, tend to have larger pools and don’t have the same tranquillity of the Riads which might make children unwelcome. The Medina is extremely frantic, especially for children, and it is worth having somewhere a little calmer to retreat to at the end of the day. La Palmeraie Golf Palace also has a kids’ club and children’s pools for guests if you feel like a little time to yourself.
There are several excursions which can be made from Marrakech if all the noise and bustle gets too much. The Atlas Mountains are just an hour and a half away in a taxi and well worth the trip. The air is cooler, the pace of life is slower and it is extremely tranquil. Even the pressure to buy slippers and plates is reduced, although chances are you will still come away with some souvenirs. If your children are too small to walk for three to four hours along mountain paths and through tiny Berber villages, hire a guide and a mule. Once they get used to the rocking-motion of the mule they will love it, and end up best friends with the guides who will probably spend most of the ride tickling them and making them laugh. At the end of the trek you can have a traditional lunch on a terrace at a guesthouse, enjoying the incredible views of the mountains.
Marrakech gets extremely hot in the summer, so the best time to visit, especially with young children, is the spring or autumn. If you feel like cooling off there are a couple of “beaches” – Plage Rouge (about 9km south of the Medina) and Nikki Beach in La Palmeraie. Both have large swimming pools with comfortable loungers and restaurants.
Even though there are very few restaurants with dedicated children’s menus in Marrakech, eating out with children is not a problem. If you want something familiar there are several pizzerias and even three McDonalds, but you shouldn’t encounter too many problems with typical Moroccan food. Most Moroccan restaurants have a set menu with several courses and between the cous-cous, kebabs, Moroccan salads, tagines, fruit and biscuits, there is almost invariably something that even a fussy child will eat. Most restaurants are happy to let two or more children share one meal and with the multi-course extravaganzas, this will be plenty.
It is worth taking rehydration salts in case your children get “Morocco tummy” but with some simple precautions such as not eating fruit you haven’t peeled and not allowing them ice in their drinks chances are they will have no problems at all. And even though they may not get to eat a single ice cream the whole time they are in Marrakech, your children will certainly have a holiday to remember.