Coming attractions: Morocco

Morocco isn’t exactly off-the-beaten-path for many Europeans– in fact, this North African country lies only eight miles away from Spain across the Strait of Gibraltar. But it’s a world away in terms of culture, language, religion, geography, and just about everything else.

Americans, who are much more scarce in Morocco than Europeans, are missing out on perhaps the world’s safest Muslim country, a small but varied landscape filled with mountains, valleys, deserts, beaches, and the most hospitable people you’ll probably ever meet.

The best way to see Morocco is by spending time with the people who actually live there. Even more so than in other countries, Morocco offers a whole range of experiences to locals (and friends of locals) that are simply not available to casual tourists. The markets, for example, are notoriously labyrinthine, and only locals will know the best places to shop and eat. Going shopping with a local will keep you from getting out-haggled by a canny carpet vendor, and eating a traditional meal– with delicious bread, olives, dates, tajine, and couscous– in a Moroccan family’s home is an experience unlike any other.If you want to spend time with native Moroccans, I cannot recommend Couchsurfing enough. Over a thousand locals– in the imperial city of Fes, the booming metropolis of Casablanca, in spectacular Marrakesh, and dozens of other cities– are registered on Couchsurfing and they’re eager to show you around their country.

Whether you stay with a local or not, here are some of the places in Morocco you absolutely shouldn’t miss:

  • Marrakesh, with its one-of-a-kind Djemaa el Fna (pictured above), a massive central square that buzzes at night with snake charmers, impromptu boxing matches, magicians, and some of the best street food you’ll ever taste.
  • Chefchaouen, a northern hill town known for its light blue color (pictured right) and the kif (hashish) that grows in its surrounding fields
  • The imperial city of Fes, home to the mesmerizing medina of Fes el Bali
  • The intimidating, gritty, and still sorta’ charming port town of Tangier, where travelers just off the ferry from Spain disembark– and are confronted with indefatigable taxi drivers and touts.
  • The Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, the world’s largest mosque outside of Mecca and Medina. Daily tours (except Friday) offer non-Muslims a rare chance to peek inside the usually off-limits place of worship for Muslims.
  • Beautiful Essaouira and Agadir, coastal towns that offer visitors Atlantic beaches, wonderful weather, and tasty seafood. They’re also great places to begin an excursion into the Sahara Desert just to the south.


Ferries travel daily from Algeciras and Tarifa in southern Spain to the Moroccan port town of Tangier. The ride lasts about an hour and is inexpensive.

As for air travel, Morocco’s main hubs are Casablanca and Rabat. Flights are also available to Marrakesh, Agadir, Fes, and several other cities.

For more up-and-coming destinations, check out the rest of Gadling’s series “Coming Attractions” here.

Morocco by motorcycle

The guys over at Urban Daddy have been on a roll lately, unearthing some pretty cool packaged tours. First there was Urbane Nomads’ dive trip to the Great Wall of China. Now they’ve found an organized luxury tour of Morocco, by motorcycle.

Hispania Tours offers a 15-day tour through Morocco that features 13 days of riding on BMW motorcycles. The route starts and ends in Malaga, Spain, and includes stops in Marrakech, High Atlas, Fez, Erg Chebbi, and Merzouga in Morocco. At close to €4000, it’s not cheap. But for the price, you’ll get a guide who’ll lead your group of up to 8 riders along the route, a chase van that will take care of any breakdowns and transport your luggage from place to place, accommodations in 3- and 4-star hotels, breakfasts and dinners, all ferry tolls, insurance, and a camel ride at Merzouga.

The company also runs tours through Spain and Portugal, which range from €2000 to €3000 per person. Self-guided tours that include just hotel and motorcycle start at €1300 and motorcycle rentals only start at €75 per day. Pillions (riders who sit behind the motorcycle driver on the same bike) pay about 1/4 of the full rate and according to the website, routes can be tailored according to experience level.

La Mamounia in Marrakech now open

The only way to experience Marrakech is in luxury surroundings, especially after a day of wandering the medina. A new hotel promises to make this better than ever.

After three years of renovation, La Mamounia is open to guests. This property’s unique collection of amenities and activities allows the guest experience to be tailored, so you can make your trip to Marrakech exactly what you want it to be. La Mamounia is celebrating its reopening with a five-night program that includes a spa treatment upon arrival and several others during the stay, airport transportation, aromatherapy turndown service and several meals, including dinners at L’Italien par Don Alfonso, Le Pavillon de la Piscine and Le Français.

The culinary and spa experiences are supplemented with an array of touring alternatives, including a guided tour of Marrakech with a professional photographer (trust me, both parts of this are very useful), a “Flavors of Marrakech” tour and a Moroccan wine tasting with the hotel’s sommelier. Also, you can take a full day trip out to the Atlas Mountains.

Relax in style at the Hotel Hivernage

The greeting you’ll receive at the Hotel Hivernage is pure charm, but it requires patience. Instead of tapping your toe at the front desk while the guy in front of you spills his life story, you’ll be invited to sit in the lobby while you complete your check-in forms. The staff is not in a rush, so set aside your New York-sculpted expectations. This first taste will set the tone for your stay: relaxed, luxurious and high-tough.

When you visit Marrakech, you’ll be tempted to stay in the medina (i.e., inside the city’s walls). Trade proximity for comfort with the Hivernage. It’s a short walk to the medina, though a taxi is prudent (and cheap) depending on where you want to go. Being able to retreat from the craziness of the narrow alleys at the end of the day will be worth the seeming inconvenience. While the action inside the walls is fast and the environs confined, the Hivernage is spacious and clean.

No detail is overlooked, from the melon juice cocktail served at check-in to the rose petals scattered in your room’s sink and bathtub. Stretch out on the king-sized bed at the end of the day, or sip a glass of wine out on your private balcony.

Hivernage offers several dining options, including a bar, full-service restaurant and café (which is great for breakfast). Menus are available in both English and French, and the waitstaff can accommodate both languages (and Arabic), as well. The food is tasty, but neither adventurous nor exotic. Both local and western dishes are provided.

Be sure to block a day off to spend in the hotel’s spa. You can take advantage of a variety of treatments, including several traditional therapies. The contrast to the souks – the shops in the medina – is profound, but you’ll be too subdued to care when the stress of haggling with the medina’s merchants is kneaded from your back and shoulders.

This touch of luxury is not as expensive as you would expect. A comparable hotel in New York or Paris would cost you at least $500 a night. I spent just under $150 a night for the Hivernage … expensive by local standards but absolutely worth it.

Get a guide for the Marrakech medina

When I hit the ground in Marrakech, Morocco, last week, I wasted no time in passing through the gate and heading into the medina (the old part of the city). After all, I’m a seasoned traveler, and I know how to read a map. If I did get lost, I reasoned, I could see the Koutoubia Mosque from just about anywhere in the city — it’s the tallest building around (by law) at 77 meters high. Less than an hour later, I was in a covered, narrow alley and couldn’t see natural sunlight, let alone Koutoubia’s minaret. My map, which only showed streets, was worthless. Even on the streets, the map was little help, as there is a dearth of street signs.

Suddenly, I realized I shouldn’t have dismissed the hotel manager’s suggestion that I hire a guide for the day.

Several hours later, I found my way outside the medina, only to realize I was on the wrong side of the city, and walked around the outside back to my hotel. My wife was furious. I was irritated. And, I realized what my plan for the next day would be. It involved the experience of a local pro, Mustapha. I don’t regret paying the $25 for his extremely helpful services.

I know what you’re thinking … it’s what I thought. Guides are scammers. You feel that you can navigate a city on your own. If you’ve read any travel literature on Marrakech, you know that the guides exist only to bring you to the souks (shops) that pay them the highest commission. So, you’re being guided right into a high-pressure sales situation. In reality, all these perspectives hold a bit of truth.

As soon as I walked into the medina the first day, I was pestered pretty regularly by many “freelance” guides, some of whom claimed to work for major hotels. He was incredibly persistent, offering to take me around the city. Here’s a hint. If you don’t meet your guide in the hotel, he doesn’t work for one. As you get deeper into the city, they drop the hotel charade but have plenty of other stories. One explained that he just wanted to practice his English. In fact, when I responded to him in French, he kept going in English. I knew the situation but applaud his tenacity (now, at least). Avoid these guys. They will take you directly into the souks, and that’s all you’ll see.

When I met Mustapha at the Hivernage Hotel and Resort, he was clad in a jacket and tie. His English and French were heavily accented but more than sufficient. And, he smiled. He asked what I wanted to see. I listed off places like the Saadian tombs, Bahia Palace and Jemaa el Fna (the medina’s main square), and he dutifully noted them. When I finished, he added, “And the souks?” Yes, the souks …

Immediately, I saw a difference. Mustapha hailed a taxi and got us a good price. We went directly to the spots I wanted to see, and his explanations brought them to life. It turns out that I was near every major attraction on my list the previous day, but I never would have found them. With my guide, it was quick and painless. He also pointed out the differences among the people who walked by, providing some insights into the ethnic groups of Morocco. Buildings without exterior windows or balconies, for example, were from Berber inhabitants, while those with windows and balconies facing the streets were built by Jewish settlers. I never would have figured this out on my own.

The little touches were nice, as well. As we approached the Saadian tombs, Mustapha saw a large tour group approaching. Instead of taking us to the window to pay our admission fee, he nodded in its direction and led us straight into the building. He took us to the prized places quickly. When I turned around, I saw a large crowd behind me. I would have spent plenty of time waiting but instead had a prime position for as long as I wanted. On our way out, we went over to the window and settled up. If I had tried to pull this off on my own, I don’t think I would have gotten far (had I even thought to try).

When I saw what looked like rather ordered graffiti on the walls throughout the medina, all I had to do was ask. Mustapha explained that there are 32 political parties in Morocco, and each is allotted a specific space on the wall to use for campaigning. I didn’t understand the message at all, but at least I got the drift.

As we navigated Marrakech’s winding streets and narrow alleys, I did notice that fewer of the freelance guides approached us. A few of the bolder ones did make the effort, but Mustapha dismissed them quickly. Also, he let me know how I could break the rules. Most of the hard-core locals don’t like having their pictures taken, but he’d give me a look when their heads were turned, so I could get the shots I wanted.

Of course, you know where we wound up …

A good portion of our day was spent in the souks, which are intricate mazes of small shops located all over Marrakech. I don’t enjoy shopping, so I was bored to tears, but I did find some of the presentations (and that’s what they were) insightful. My wife enjoyed the experience thoroughly. I do think that these were Mustapha’s favorite spots — that’s just the cynic in me. But, since there was a trusted relationship, you didn’t feel worried using a credit card or having goods sent to your hotel (or shipped home) later. Morocco’s is a selling culture. You just have to accept that when you step inside the city’s walls. The trick is to find any advantage you can. In this regard, having a guide helps. A lot.

When I let Mustapha know that I was finished shopping, he brought us by Jemaa el Fna for some photo opportunities and then promptly back to Hivernage. The time had come to pay the piper, and like every interaction, it was a negotiation. I asked how much, and he replied that I should pay whatever I liked. Eh, I kicked the rate quoted by the hotel up 20 percent. He earned it.