Golf in arid north Africa? Not such a crazy idea after all – as long as the course belongs to the King, writes Jason Cowley
‘Make sure those clubs get some use,’ my wife said as she dropped me off at the airport. My oldest friend Mike and I were heading off golfing in Marrakech, and her remark was a sly allusion to Brokeback Mountain, the poignant Annie Proulx short story (adapted for Hollywood by Ang Lee) about two gay cowboys who struggle to accept the truth of their love.
To be together, the cowboys go off on occasional weekend fishing trips – but, as one of their wives later discovers, the rods are never used. Mike lives in Glasgow and dislikes the long, wet, dark Scottish winters. He’d been agitating for us to get away to the Caribbean to watch some cricket. In the end, we compromised on Marrakech, where we planned to play some golf in the winter warmth.
We stayed at the Mandarin Oriental, a short 20-minute taxi ride from the famous Medina, which nowadays feels more like a theme park. A few months earlier, two young Scandinavian women had been murdered by a group of Isis affiliates while camping in the nearby Atlas Mountains, and there was a heavy police presence in the square as we moved through the warren of alleyways, relishing the hustle of the spice sellers and snake charmers.
Tourism matters to Morocco, especially as so much of the Islamic Maghreb is unattractive to European travellers because of terrorism. There have been notable al-Qaeda-inspired attacks in various cities, including Marrakech (though not since 2011), but the pro-Western King Mohammed VI operates an uncompromising security and surveillance state, and the long border with Algeria is closed.
Certainly, the security presence at our hotel was not oppressive. One feels guilty playing golf in parched north Africa (summer temperatures are as high as 40°C in Marrakech), and the first course we played on was patchy and arid, with semi-desert incorporated into its layout and design.
The next day we played at the Royal, which is close to the hotel and owned by the king. The fairways were thickly lined with trees and the greens were as lush as any I have putted on. There was a fine drizzle, it was warm, and Mike and I – we have known each other since we were six – happily wandered the course, hitting erratic shots while reminiscing. Back at the hotel, we shared a villa with its own heated pool, and an electrical system so complex I struggled to turn the lights on.
I took the huge bed and Mike was banished to an adjacent room, which he turned into an office – he’s a professor of biochemical parasitology and had work to do. The hotel had a lovely understated elegance, combining Moorish, Berber and Oriental design influences. The restaurant, the Mes’Lalla (named after an olive) – which also doubled as the breakfast room, where an open fire burned in the mornings – was beautiful. The service was excellent but never oleaginous.
We ate the local dishes – mostly tagines and fresh fish – and drank some good Moroccan red wine. One night we dined in the hotel’s Asian fusion restaurant, Ling Ling, part of the Hakkasan group. The food was generically good, and the background music was loud; we could have been in Dubai – or Las Vegas!
We didn’t have time to use the spa – we were there only for three nights and played golf twice – but were taken on a short tour of it and did swim in the heated indoor pool, with its views of the abundant gardens. Perhaps I will try the full ‘Berber spa experience’ if I return with my family (children are most welcome). And next time I might even leave the golf clubs behind.