Olivia Gunning Bennani heads to south west Morocco where she takes the path through Paradise Valley on a restorative family break.
Walk among cool green pools and waterfalls in Paradise Valley
Once upon a time, an ageing, ailing couple from Germany set sail for Morocco in search of renewed vitality. For six sublime months, they took refuge in the creeks and crevices of Paradise Valley. It was here that they camped in rough bamboo shelters, roofs improvised with palms and wide banana leaves, bathing in and drinking the pristine mountain waters, lunching on local fruits, dining on nuts and honey and absorbing as many African sunbeams as possible. Suffice to say, well-being was reinstated and ailments chased away within a matter of weeks.
Truth or fable, my husband and I are still not sure, but on hearing the tale during a dinner party in Casablanca, where we live, the whole idea of chasing away city-bred nasties from our tired systems was no less than irresistible and so, Birkenstocks firmly fitted, we took off in search of Paradise Valley. It would have been the most romantic of trips had we been alone, but since our son had his third birthday to celebrate we thought it only right that he come along too. Either way, the region just north of Agadir can be as fitting for families as it is for friends or couples. Famed for its honey, there is also an abundance of date palms, bananas, argan and almonds.
Agadir is the easiest city to start out from. Unless big hotels, new buildings and a tourist-slash-business-dominated atmosphere are really your thing, there's not much to stay for in a city whose ancient heart was destroyed by the 1966 earthquake. The beach is a lovely sweep of sand and the marina is pretty, but pretty new, and there are discos and restaurants. Full stop.
The environs are a different story. The coastline is no less than a glut of glorious beaches, often devoid of humanity, the sands thrown to the mercy of seabirds, Atlantic breezes and those aforementioned African sunbeams. We headed north, out of town.
At the banana village of Aourir, the road to Imouzzer leads away from the ocean and up the river, which allows Paradise Valley to be just that. Follow through the modest country hamlets-cum-villages of Alma and Tamzargout. It's here that the almost tropical-seeming scenery commences. Natural plantations of date palms and banana trees abound, almost falling over themselves into the road from the waysides, all thick, green and succulent. The river, a rather unassuming trickle as rivers go, showed itself to be a grand life-giver in a year that has seen Morocco plagued from top to tail by drought, with the country's waterways, and thus its crops, parched and sorrowful.
The Valley of Paradise unfurls from the village of Aksri whose serpentine road winds from one idyllic spot to the next. At every turn we spied three or four locals atop a rock or bank, just staring out. Above their heads are the nodular trunks of the region's mascot, the argan. This rare, evergreen grows profusely and uniquely throughout southern Morocco, where it seems to delight in the generally arid terrain. In one of those splendid magic tricks of nature, the goat and the argan tree live in perfect symbiosis. The goat climbs into its boughs - yes, literally climbs, our three-year-old emitted enraptured squeals upon seeing them perched like giant squirrels in the branches - and munches away at argan nuts. Later on, as nature would have it, the digested nut appears in the dung, is recovered, ready for the press, through which the argan fruit produces oil with fantastic cosmetic and culinary attributes.
Arriving at the hotel La Bonne Franquette, we were greeted by Ahmed Zouaki who led us to our room. "Be ready for a good breakfast," he warned. And he was right to do so. The spread contained local bread, as well as amlou, which is a speciality we limit ourselves to eating only when in the south of Morocco for the sole reason that we're frightened we wouldn't eat much else if we had it at home. It's a supremely rich melange of crushed almonds, local honey and argan oil used as a kind of spread - or if you become savage, just dip your bread into it, eventually fighting over who will wipe the bowl clean. I wondered if the German couple (who, incidentally, nobody we asked had even heard of) survived wholly on amlou like Winnie-the-Pooh and his honey, or Paddington and his marmalade.
Breakfast was done and it was time to work it off. We headed down into the gorges towards water. It was a bit of a scramble but we managed it with our son firmly seated on his dad's shoulders. The sun was beating and air dry. Pointing fingers of a few men who serve drinks in makeshift stick shacks and the belchy voices of frogs led us to what we were looking for; slabs of the smoothest pale orange rock bordering a series of natural pools whose waters are as intensely green as they are clear.
Of course we had to jump in, all three of us, which in reality was an inelegant slither-and-plop due to slippery rocks. Be warned, the water is not always the warmest. Apart from a few annoyed frogs and some transparent fish we believe that nobody saw or heard us, which is sometimes the nearest feeling to paradise one can hope for.
Eden for the tourist is not always the same thing for residents. "It's a hard life and a poor life," says Mohamed, who sells canned drinks to passing tourists. "There's not much work at all. "People manage to sell a bit of honey, argan or olive oil, but very little." He pokes the ground with his knotty makeshift walking stick. "There aren't any hospitals nearby, apart from in Agadir and the route is bumpy with lots of bends, which is hard in emergencies. People live on bread, maybe a few vegetables and hardly ever any meat."
But what about the flowers, the sunshine, the warmth, all under the blessing of the river? "Oh yes," he smiles, "Thank God, we've got that. Thank God, we've got water."
Next, we take the honey route. Flowers run thick all around, stem and branch, and bees gather like faithful pilgrims. The route leads to the village of Imouzzer Ida Outanane, an unassuming settlement that climbs up a hill while tremendous waterfalls tumble down it. It is also home to the annual honey festival, which takes place in early summer - due this year a couple of weeks before Ramadan begins.
Hives pop up throughout the valleys - both the customary wooden type and also an ancient genre made out of baked earth, which is quite stunning but apparently a little less practical as fewer bees can fit in it. Our son delights in playing eye-spy-something-beginning-with-H, which is either for honey or for hive, whichever one we didn't guess first. We're impressed by his vocabulary.
Beekeeping for professionals is, of course, not as simple as installing a box in the garden and waiting. Lahoussine and Ahmed Aberhouch are brothers native to the village of Imouzzer. They have an apparently modest stock of 40 hives and explain how apiculturists are as busy as the bees they keep.
"We move the hives around, according to the time of year," they tell me. "From July to October, bees feed on thyme, producing especially medicinal honey. It's a great healer, a digestive aid and combats respiratory viruses. You can even put it on certain wounds.
"After that, carob flowers are in season and then the euphorbia cactus, which makes a kind of spicy, prickly honey. Almond trees blossom in February and then the orange flowers in March. It's a year-round job." Both for bees and humanity alike.
"But this year was different. It's been very hard," says Lahoussine, his voice falling. "There has been no rain. Even the waterfall is dry and that never happens."
Beekeeping will nonetheless be celebrated this year, as it is every year. The festival, organised by the local authorities from Imouzzer and Agadir, witnesses streams of beekeepers who organise stands and quite luxuriant tastings. To accompany them, herbalists also participate, while traditional Berber music and dance from the region is ubiquitous.
"It's an important event these days," says Abdellah, a waiter born and bred in Imouzzer, "bringing Caids and Pachas from the region." We stayed at Hotel des Cascades, Imouzzer's only proper hotel, an elegant place that was once a colonial house. It sits on a hill over the village's famed cascades, its terraces below bearing splendid gardens, fountains, tennis courts and a pool, all with a distinct retro feel, untouched by the paintbrush of franchise hotels. We lunched outside on the patio in the daytime while the staff entertained our son, and huddled around the open fire in the evening, while the staff entertained our little boy. And in the morning, our son entertained himself with spoonfuls of local honey and amlou while we quietly ingested some African sunbeams and felt just fine.
If you go
The flight Return flights with Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) to Agadir from Abu Dhabi cost from Dh4,230, including taxes
The hotel Double rooms at La Bonne Franquette (www.moroccotime.com/agadir/hotel/hebergement-maroc-agadir-et-sa-region-hotel-la-bonne-franquette-situation.htm; 00 212 66 674 9453) cost from 700 Moroccan dirhams (Dh307) including breakfast and an evening meal
Double rooms at Hotel des Cascades (www.cascades-hotel.net; 00 212 52 821 8808) cost from 572 Moroccan dirhams (Dh250)