Souk up the good life in Marrakech
As we walked into the stunning villa I felt like a Hollywood star.
The staff at Ezzahra were lined up to greet us as if we were Lord Grantham and family returning home to Downton Abbey.
But we were a long way from Highclere Castle. In fact we were in the outskirts of Marrakech, Morocco, in a beautiful private property which has brought comfort and elegance to a new level.
Ezzahra – Arabic for orange blossom – is an oasis of calm and tranquility on the edge of this hustling, bustling city.
There are no TVs, no phones and no stress. (There is wifi – well, some people simply can’t live without it!)
What it certainly does have is a terrific staff of 17, led by manager Maria, who are there to cater to your every whim.
Fancy a cocktail by the pool? Well it’s as good as yours. Feeling tense? Well, how about a massage at the water’s edge or in the wellness centre.
Manicures and pedicures can be ordered outdoors or indoors, or you can have your hair done by the villa’s resident beauticians.
And as we are in Morocco, what about one of those famous hamman or gommage massages? The water and steam treatments, which involve all-over exfoliation with a coarse brush to invigorate the flesh, are something you will never forget.
Sounds a bit too hectic? Fine. Just sit in the shade and take life as it comes.
One of the undoubted pleasures of staying in this Moroccan palace is simply walking through its rooms and admiring the beautiful décor and the intricate furniture.
Mass-produced cupboards here are as alien as a Picasso in an IKEA store.
Everything is handmade by artisans and you can see the love and pride in every detail. Visit the local souks at night and you can see some of these craftsmen at work in the humblest of workshops, one of the great attractions of coming to this country.
The villa is owned by hotelier Brian Callaghan, from Gibraltar, who in 2012 was awarded an OBE for his services to tourism and chess – he holds a giant international event every year in his Calet Hotel on the Rock, attracting hundreds of players from over 40 countries.
Ezzahra is his baby and he is still expanding it and turning it into the ultimate luxury holiday destination.
I said I felt like a Hollywood star and a quick look through the guests’ book showed that James Bond himself, actor Daniel Craig, stayed there shortly before us.
And it’s easy to see why. The owners have turned this gorgeous villa into a home rather than an anonymous hotel because it was built as a family retreat.
And one of the main advantages is that if you come with friends or family – it sleeps up to 16 – you have the place to yourself.
As one travel magazine put it: “Staying in Ezzahra is like staying in a top hotel but with no other guests.”
Tatler called it “one of the most glamorous villas in Morocco.”
Jim Gallagher relaxes poolside at Ezzahra
Another villa next door, Alkhozama, which sleeps four, can be rented with Ezzahra or as an independent property.
Ezzahra’s grounds include a gym as well as the pool, a wellness centre, a giant outdoor chess set, a paddle tennis court and extensive gardens.
What makes the villa unique is that the price includes all the facilities, meals, treatments, laundry and airport transfers. Obviously it is not cheap but it is the perfect romantic setting for a wedding or major anniversary.
Two days after we left it was booked for the marriage of two wealthy Arab family members who were even bringing their own chefs.
The secure and gated property – situated in the plush Palmeraie area of the city – is next to a villa belonging to a Saudi prince which means there is plenty of security in the quiet cul de sac.
Ezzahra is also the perfect base to explore the exotic wonderland of Marrakech itself.
At the heart of this beautiful city is the huge Djemaa el Fna square which comes alive at night with singers, jugglers, snake charmers and entertainers.
Crowds flock round the musicians and tradesmen who deal in everything from used false teeth to aphrodisiacs.
The old town, the Medina, is also home to one of the most famous souks in the world while the modern French-built Ville Nouvelle offers chic restaurants, pavement cafés and trendy boutiques.
One of the highlights for our group was a trip to the Majorelle Garden, a botanical haven in the centre of the city built by the French artist Jacques Majorelle over 40 years.
It also contains a museum dedicated to the Berber people of Morocco and a collection of posters designed by Yves Saint Laurent
With a flight time of three hours and forty minutes, Morocco is one of the nearest locations to Dublin where you can truly experience another way of life on a different continent. Unlike some holiday locations you know you are abroad every hour of the day.
It can get incredibly hot in the summer…but the pool is waiting for you.: