Lucy Corry's winter break is not for lounging on the beach, but hitting the rooftop bars of taros café.
WHEN the ad campaigns are full of dazzling blue skies and sun-drenched desert, it's easy to feel cheated when we arrive in rain-soaked Marrakech, but doom and gloom soon disappear when we push through the battered blue door of Dar Azul, a three-storey riad in the heart of the city's labyrinthine casbah district.
While Dar Azul's charming tiled interior and luxurious furnishings are immediately appealing, the best thing about arriving on a wet, cold February night is the dinner waiting on the stove top.
We are immediately torn between exploring the riad or devouring the succulent lamb tagine and Moroccan salads prepared by the saintly Khadija, the shy student who works as the riad's cook and housekeeper.
This kind of battle became a constant factor during our winter sun escape, with so much to see and do, being a tourist is an exercise in effective decision-making.
After two days of exploring Marrakech, we headed out of the city, relishing the idea of a dose of sea air. Friends had waxed lyrical about the seaside charms of Essaouira, a fortified port some 110 miles away. This pretty town is a refreshing alternative to the dusty mayhem of Marrakech. A favourite stop on the hippy trail since the 1960s, Essaouira remains remarkably untouristy. Most seem to visit on day trips from Marrakech, drawn by the Unesco World Heritage-listed medina, the wild Atlantic coast and the outlying countryside.
The beach isn't recommended for swimming, but strong winds make it a magnet for windsurfers. Landlubbers can stroll the beach, which gets turned into a series of football pitches before and after school, or try their luck at riding camels or donkeys. Time it right and you can watch your lunch being hauled out of a rickety wooden boat before being delivered to one of a group of open-air restaurants.
Early evening is a good time to poke around the medina. There are plenty of stalls selling the obligatory leather slippers, but go a little deeper and you'll discover where the locals buy bushy bouquets of fresh mint and strawberries the size of golf balls.
When the sun goes down, head for the rooftop bars of Taros café, cool and impossibly romantic, yet welcoming. The restaurant downstairs is a great place to eat - try the traditional bastilla pastry, a richly
flavoured filo parcel of dark pigeon meat, dusted with icing sugar.
As seductive as Taros and its myriad spaces are, we were keen to return to our luxurious temporary home, the sumptuous Villa Maroc, created from a network of four adjoining riads. Family groups might prefer the DIY approach, and the pretty riad of Dar Qawi is a great option in the heart of the medina.