It's hard to believe that just 48 hours ago I was sat in the sunshine on a sandy beach in Agadir Morocco, watching as the surf crashed and enjoying a drink in the pleasant 23 degrees the locals here call 'chilly'.
While Spain and Portugal (and maybe even Turkey these days) are the obvious choices for golfers seeking some winter sun, the one destination that is little spoken of is Morocco. Yet at just three and a half hours direct flight from London it offers everything the holidaying golfer could want - great weather, fantastic courses and first-class hotels. Little wonder it was voted Golf Destination of the Year in 2010 by the International Association of Golf Tour Operators.
I was invited to play in the Moroccan Golf Press Trophy over two of Agadir's five courses: the brand new 27-hole Ocean Course and the more established Golf du Soleil. The latter is home to an impressive golf academy (great for sharpening up your technique in the winter) as well as offering 36-holes of golf. There is the 18-hole Blue course, a typical resort course that caters for all levels, plus two championship nine-hole loops to choose from - the long and challenging Yellow Course or the shorter and more strategic Red where the signature par 3 18th hole is over 200 yards from the tips and played almost entirely over water! These two nines host the European Ladies Tour annually when the top female professionals battle it out for the Lalla Meryem Cup.
If you are planning to tee off on the Yellow Course first then make sure you take a leap out of the professionals' books and warm up on the driving range beforehand as it really does have a stern start. The par 4 first hole is a baptism of fire, long and narrow, requiring an accurate drive and leaving a long second shot into the green. The second runs back parallel to the first and is even tougher (the stroke index 1) with a raised green that's hard to hit. By the time you've holed out at the evil par 3 fourth, where the green is guarded by tall trees and the putting surface slopes devilishly, you'll be wondering why you've chosen to play the Yellow, but trust me the going does get a little easier after that. One piece of advice I do give you is to listen to your caddy at the 5th . This par 4 is virtually a 90-degree dogleg, and believe it or not, the best line is actually straight over the trees.
Talking of caddies it is worth mentioning that they are compulsory at Golf du Soleil unless you choose to take a buggy but considering they are only charging 100 Dirhams for 18 holes (around £8) they are well worth it. My caddy Mohamed spoke excellent English and was great company. His caddying skills may not have been good enough for the world's top golfers (some of the putts he read were a bit dubious) but he was extremely efficient at cleaning my clubs after every shot, replacing divots and pitch marks and polishing the ball on the green.
On my visit to Golf du Soleil the condition of the courses was a bit rough around the edges as the grasses were changing - the summer grass dying off and the winter grass growing through as is the case in hot countries - but this only takes a few weeks and if I had returned in January the courses would have been totally transformed.
Less than a mile along the coast is the newly opened Ocean Course and it was in perfect condition. As the host venue for the European Tour's event in Morocco, the Hassan II Golf Trophy, the Ocean Course is everything you expect from a championship layout. The course certainly isn't the longest the Tour players will encounter on their hectic schedule but the design is really well thought-out with tall eucalyptus trees defining every hole, placing a premium on driving accuracy. There are water hazards galore and big fairway bunkers come into play in all the right places. The greens are superb, smooth, true surfaces and the practice facilities are first-class. Once again caddies act as your bag carrier and course guide and my bag-man Fayed proved to be the encyclopedia of yardages, it didn't matter whether I was five yards or 255 yards away, he was always spot-on and such a gentleman, every time I thanked him for passing me a club he said 'you're welcome'.
If you have some time to spare after your round then a trip into Agadir is a must. This is an intriguing city to explore; the Muslim culture is very evident with mosques on many street corners, explaining why the sound of the call to prayer is prominent from the fairways as you play your round. I took a taxi to do a bit of shopping in the Souks one afternoon and the driver insisted on giving me a guided tour, waiting for me to browse the shops at every stop without the metre running and only wanted 50 dirhams (a mere £4) for his services - of course I tipped him handsomely.
This is clearly a country that is really trying to change itself. Yes there is still poverty and street sellers but the city is becoming more cosmopolitan and growing fast as the tourism industry is booming. There were hotels under construction everywhere but there was certainly a wonderful big, deserted beach to cater for them. In fact 9km of sandy shores extend from the Agadir bay along the coastline and hotels are dotted all along the newly made promenade where guests can enjoy a leisurely stroll or bike ride all the way into the marina.
We stayed at the four-star Tikida Beach hotel, one of a selection of hotels owned by the RUI group in Agadir and it really was an excellent choice. The rooms were clean, spacious and modern, with great sea views and really comfortable beds. The hotel boasted a heated outdoor pool (ideal for the winter) and quality indoor spa where a massage cost as little as £25 and was the perfect antidote to those aching post-round muscles. The best part of all was the food. I've stayed at many all-inclusive hotels all around the world and the buffets vary from Ok to barely edible - not the case here. The food is absolutely fantastic and virtually impossible to fault. It was freshly cooked and very tasty. The drinks were of the same high quality, the local wine was very quaffable and the beers and spirits were served in abundance. Every single one of the hotel staff served me with a smile on their face, from the friendly maid who dressed my bed every day with flower petals to the waiter who delivered drinks from the bar after dinner in the evening and always remembered my favourites!
To cap it all off I went home with a brand new trophy for the mantelpiece - the 2011 Moroccan Golf Press Trophy, for winning the Scratch ladies prize. What more could a golfer want!
GETTING TO MOROCCO IS EASY...
BMI operate direct flights from London Heathrow to Agadir twice weekly every Tuesday and Saturday, with good regional connections. Fares start at £129 return, including taxes and charges. And best of all your golf clubs travel free of charge! Visit www.flybmi.com to book.
Other airlines to choose from include Royal Air Maroc, EasyJet (direct flights from London Gatwick to Agadir), Thomson Fly (direct flights from Manchester and London Gatwick to Agadir) and Aer Lingus (direct flights from Dublin to Agadir).
FANCY A LAST-MINUTE GOLF BREAK?
PACKAGE 1: £689 (based on two sharing)
PACKAGE 2: £749 (based on two sharing)
PACKAGE 3: Weekend break: £425 (based on two sharing)
For further details or to book contact Mohamed at Menara Travel on: 0207 371 2030, or visit www.menaratravel.co.uk