In Morocco, they call it liquid gold: argan oil, a lusciously hydrating by-product of the argan tree, is used to treat everything from frizzy hair to wrinkles. Drizzled on salad, poured into the bath or slathered on at the hammam, argan oil is the number one beauty essential of Moroccan women.
Praised and treasured in the North African nation for at least a thousand years, the oil is now also a pathway out of poverty for women. At the Assous Argane co-op, located on the road linking Marrakech to seaside Essaouira, I stop to meet some of the women who have found work extracting oil by hand. They sit on the floor, chatting to each other as their hands and feet deftly manipulate archaic nut-cracking devices.
The oil slowly pools into buckets, not a drop wasted. It's then sold in the co-op shop – mixed into cosmetic creams, massage oils and face masks – for a fraction of the price charged by international beauty brands.
It's a great opportunity to meet locals while picking up useful souvenirs, and I have my tour guide Soufiane to thank. As part of the By Prior Arrangement team on the ground in Morocco, Soufiane is full of tips, insights and the best suggestions for where to stay, eat and shop. He explains that most of these women are widowed or abandoned by their husbands; this work is a lifeline for them.
My Moroccan adventure had started at La Sultana Marrakech. A serene retreat in the middle of the lively city, the hotel is a dreamy oasis of shaded courtyards, Berber antique furniture and a rooftop breakfast that is the perfect indulgent start to the day.
La Sultana's spa is the crown jewel in the hotel's offerings; forget notions of a sterile, white beauty salon with piped Celine Dion tunes and anti-ageing facials on the menu. Here you'll find a glorious jewel of a spa, decked out with signature Moroccan tiles to the exotic soundtrack of the distant call to prayer. Mint tea is offered and the sensual aromas of Arabian essential oils fill the air. Hammam treatments involve a good lathering in black soap and a thorough scrub with a loofah mitt, followed by a relaxing massage with scented argan oil.
For most Moroccans, regular visits to hammams in the old medina marketplace for a steam and scrub are a routine part of everyday life. Traditional, simple hammam practices have been luxe-ified for international tourists, and La Sultana does it best.
Later, shopping for black soap and argan oil in the souk marketplace, I visit a herbalist. Enormous metal drums heaped high with colourful spices mark the entrance to this Aladdin's cave of health remedies, beauty enhancers and wonderful potions you never knew you wanted until you saw them.
Ever suffered from nervous anxiety? There's a herbal cure for that. The common cold is no match for Moroccan potions, and natural henna lipstick is even kiss-proof.
As the herbalist paints my eyelids with inky black kohl, he explains that it's been used by local women for centuries. I'm showered in rose essence, offered fennel toothpicks (surprisingly more effective than dental floss) and given instruction on henna hand painting. There is argan oil au naturel, or with ache-soothing arnica, or mixed with fragrant sweet orange oil.
I leave the store with bulging shopping bags, parting with what seemed to be just a few dirhams. In Morocco, beauty is within reach for all.
Qantas flies from Australia to Marrakech via Singapore and Paris; qantas.com.au
La Sultana Marrakech offers luxury accommodation in a chic riad, just steps from the medina. Enjoy top-notch spa and hammam services, or cool off in the swimming pool; lasultanahotels.com
To get the most out of a visit to Morocco, enlist the services of a guide and driver. Expert local knowledge really does make all the difference in this destination; bypriorarrangement.com
Kristie Kellahan travelled as a guest of By Prior Arrangement.