“To visit Morocco is still like turning the pages of some illuminated Persian manuscript all embroidered with bright shapes and subtle lines”
If I were to bottle the magic of Morocco the vessel would be amber glass filled with the aromas of orange blossom, coriander, frankincense and leather. Inside you’d see a saturation of color, metallic carved archways, stretching desert, dusty highways, handwoven baskets, terracotta pots and many cats. You’d smell & taste sweet mint tea, savory bread, salty olives and dry wine. You’d hear the hum of the desert breeze and the steady call to prayer…present in luxury riads and desolate mountain huts, unending and strangely comforting…
When anticipating my first trip to Morocco, I had no idea how much my already high expectations would be exceeded.
To travel and to take a vacation are two entirely different things, and a visit to Morocco will allow you to do both. My 7 day trip, in true travel advisor fashion, was a whirlwind adventure which included stops in Marrakech, Essouaria and the Atlas Mountains and stays in no less than 6 luxury riads. I don’t recommend this pace to the average traveler looking to properly experience the offerings of this dynamic country.
Located on the northwestern side of Africa just below Spain, Morocco seems a world away from North America, yet it is not! In under 7 hours you can fly direct from NYC via Royal Air Maroc to Casablanca and then drive to your desired destination (Marrakesh is just over 2 hours by car and Fez is 3.5 hours). You can also transit through Europe via several other airlines to fly directly into other Moroccan cities. I transited through Lisbon on Tap Airlines to fly to Marrakesh.
When to Visit?
For much of the year, the weather is very mild and warm—and even in the winter months when it snows in the mountains, daytime sun will be pleasant and temps can reach into the high 60s in cities like Marrakech & Fes. Spring and Fall are most ideal as the weather will be warm but not scorching. Avoid late June, July and August if at all possible.
First Stop: Marrakech
Those in search of luxury will be well suited to the beauty, extravagance and hospitality of Marrakech. Home to many luxury riads that are works of art in and of themselves, it is difficult to narrow down the best of the best.
We were lucky enough to spend our first two nights at the incomparable Royal Mansour, a palace hotel built by the King himself, with no budget. Just steps from the famous Jemma El Fna square, each of its 53 accommodations is a 1-4 bedroom stand-alone riad, most of which come with full butler services. Our 3 story, two bedroom riad encompassed a living room, dining room, study, den, several cozy nooks and a rooftop pool & terrace. Referred to as a ‘medina within the medina’, this 5 hectare estate boasts an award winning spa, 4 signature restaurants, lush gardens, indoor & outdoor pools and a state of the art fitness center.
For those looking to lay their heads in smaller but no less charming setting, stay at the lovely La Villa des Orangers, a Relais & Chateaux Property. Also located in the heart of the Medina and at the foot of the Koutoubia Mosque, it’s 27 rooms and suites create the perfect sanctuary among the bustle of the city. It’s other attributes include a Nuxe spa, hammam and traditional, gourmet Moroccan restaurant.
With no shortage of historical sites, delicious restaurants and adventurous activities, one could easily spend a full week immersed in Marrakech and in 3 days we didn’t scratch the surface. Here are a few of my highlights.
Visit the Medina & Shop the Souks
Getting lost in the maze like Medina with its many vibrant souks is must do activity and can easily be done in two (or more) days. The shopping opportunities are endless—here you’ll find home décor items like poufs and rugs, stunning light fixtures, pots and intricate ceramic plate ware, an amazing assortment of leather goods including sandals, purses and jackets, spices, argan oil, tea and the best olives you’ve ever tasted. The list goes on! My recommendation is to spend your first visit window shopping to scope out you’d like to buy and your second executing the purchases. Negotiation is fully expected here and if you don’t feel comfortable with it, find someone to haggle on your behalf. Your pocketbook will thank me later.
Very important to note—the Medina can be an overwhelming experience and possibly unsafe without good personal awareness and ideally, a guide. We traveled with our incredible guide Mohammad who not only kept us safe but also made sure we were able to locate the best shops to cater to our shopping desires.
Jaemaa el-Fnaa Night Market is a cultural delight and while not for the faint of heart, certainly shouldn’t be missed. Every night for as long as anyone can recall, the night market promptly springs to life at 7pm in Jaemaa el-Fnaa square. Here you’ll encounter food stalls with savory varieties of kebab, fried bread, fresh squeezed OJ, tasty snails, Tagines, harira soup and some other eats set aside for only the most adventurous sort. Snake charmers, henna artists, musicians and actors can be found entertaining among the plumes of smoke and buzzing energy that will keep you on your toes, in the best way possible.
Side Car tour
Is there a better way to see the city than speeding through it from the side or back of a vintage side car? I think not. My personal highlight was our ride through the Palm Grove at sunset—once a desert oasis with an important irrigation system, now an up market neighborhood known as the Beverly Hills of Marrakech.
While visiting the Hammam is a weekly ritual for every Moroccan, it is a luxury indeed. The best way to recover from jetlag and to scrub off layers of unneeded skin or simply just relax, hammam should be experienced at least once during any trip to Morocco. Spas here can range from the simple to the extravagant and perhaps the most indulgent of all hammam experiences can be found at the Royal Mansour.
Ideal length of stay: 4-6 nights
Next up: Essaouira
From Marrakech we headed to the Atlantic Coast to the chilled out city of Essaouira. Known for its Bohemian vibe, Portugese architecture, African influence, tasty seafood and beautiful medina, it makes for a lovely counterpoint to the intensity of Marrakech.
Heure Bleue Palais, a Relais & Chateux property, is our top pick as a 5 star full service riad hotel with an excellent culinary program and all the creature comforts including a panoramic rooftop terrace with pool. Those looking for a smaller more boutique experience will love the charm and quirky design elements of Villa Maroc…the roof top breakfast here is not to miss.
Buy a Berber rug—the selection was incredible here, wander the walled medina, taste hyper fresh sardines, explore the medieval fishing port (a GOT filming spot!) or get adventurous and take a kitesurfing lesson. I quite enjoyed shopping in Essaouira—the medina is super easy to navigate and the sellers here are friendlier and less pushy than in Marrakech. In many cases, prices are set although for those who love the haggle, you can still barter in some shops & stalls!
Ideal length of stay: 1-2 nights or a day trip from Marrakech
Onward to The Atlas Mountains
For our final stop, we woke at break of dawn to travel from the coast to the High Atlas Mountains, and it was indeed worth the long journey. Scenic and spectacular, the Atlas Mountains are also home to the Berber people, Morocco’s original inhabitants. Few roads permeate these mountains so the main means of access is by foot or donkey.
At the foothills of the mountains in Asni, sits Kasbah Tamadot, owned by Sir Richard Branson and one of the few places to stay in the region. Pure magic is the phrase that kept circling my mind as we toured through its gardens & farms, passed a few on property peacocks and toured through its colorfully varied rooms and tents which make up the resort- each with their own special character, vintage art & relics. The resort is home to large (over 100) and warm staff— all of which are Moroccan and come primarily from the local community. Kasbah Tamadot is a destination in and of itself.
After an afternoon of major relaxation and bliss, we woke up early again the next day to trek through the mountains to visit the Berber villages and partake in a traditional tea ceremony. For those in sound physical shape, our hike was not strenuous but for the less ambulatory, donkeys are easily dispensed upon demand and can assist with the full journey or provide some intermittent relief. As we made our way through valleys, switch backs and small villages, we were greeted by babbling streams and shops with giant colorful rugs. I couldn’t help but wonder how the rugs themselves got there but then I realized, they were made there. Finally we reached the home of our Berber hosts where we sat for our tea ceremony, freshly baked bread which was cooking on the hearth when we arrived, and snacked on the freshest walnuts I’ll ever consume. All of his on a terrace with sweeping views of the mountains, above and below. Words fail me here but as I write this passage the goosebumps I had that day return.
Ideal length of stay: 2-3 nights
Morocco touched and delighted me in a way I didn’t expect. While the streets of Marrakech can be overwhelming at times, the foods can be rich and the sun hot, the colors, kind hospitality and warmth of its people, won’t leave you. And if you are anything like me, you’ll crave more Morocco. I will be back – next up: Fes & The Sahara Desert.