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Authentic Morocco

written by | Posted on January 9th, 2013

Authentic-Morocco

Africa…on so many bucket lists and so often the call is southern, but we headed north instead to experience Morocco. The country certainly has an abundance of luxury product, as has been written about in the pages of Recommend for years. You are all familiar with and sell Marrakech’s La Mamounia, and you may have sold the brand-new Delano Marrakech, and if it’s truly luxury you are selling then you’ll want to know about the city’s newest gem, the Taj Palace Marrakech (as of press time scheduled to open Jan. 15). This desert palace has stunning views of the Atlas Mountains and boasts 161 well-appointed, spacious guestrooms, including 25 luxurious suites, spread between the main Palace and four
exclusive riads. The hotel’s Jiva Grande Spa has 14 treatment rooms and two extensive traditional hammams. In Rabat, meanwhile, the recently renovated Sofitel Rabat Jardin des Roses is a great recommendation for your high-end clientele,as is the brand-new Sofitel Palais Jamai Fes in Fez.

But as alluring as these properties are we went to Morocco seeking the authentic side of the country—to experience it from its interior, as opposed to its glittery exterior. We toured this north African country a la experiential-style, which is what many of your clients are seeking nowadays.

To get it right, we called on Toronto-based Goway Travel to organize a private guided tour and leaned on the extensive experience of Moira Smith, Goway’s Africa product manager. We decided to customize a version of the company’s Imperial Cities tour, arriving in Casablanca, but rather than ending in Marrakech, we were curious to experience Richard Branson’s Kasbah Tamadot as an add-on (ok, so a little luxury included).

“We see Morocco as a unique destination that offers influences of Africa, Arabia and Europe,” points out Smith. “Its scenery, culture, cuisine and people make it a compelling destination. For those wanting an authentic Morocco experience, a stay in a riad (traditional Moroccan home) is perfect as they’ve remained true to their roots. If your choice runs to five-star luxury, however, Morocco also offers hotels with world-class standards.”

casablanca—economic capital
The interesting thing about this city is the blend of modern and ancient ways. Here, BMWs share the road with donkeys carting vendors’ wares.

Authentic-Morocco2

Outside Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca.

CASABLANCA TOUR HIGHLIGHTS:
Hassan II Mosque (toured on foot)—This mosque defies beauty. It is built right on the Atlantic Ocean and is the second biggest mosque in the Islamic world.
Habous Charter (toured by car)—This Old Jewish quarter is in the oldest part of Casablanca; today, the souk is not worth the visit.
Royal Palace (toured by car)—The palace is beautiful, but visitors cannot walk about and the guards wouldn’t let us take pictures.
Mohammed V Square (toured on foot)—Located in the city-center, the square is set around a central fountain and is home to the Palace of Justice, the Prefecture and other government buildings.
Ain Diab Corniche (toured on foot)—This is Casablanca’s “Riviera.” Clients will find nice beach clubs and restaurants—a scenic walk along the Atlantic Ocean and a bite to eat is all they’ll need. Usually the driver has three hours allocated, so do your clients a favor and talk to the tour operator about shortening the visit.

ACCOMMODATIONS: ART PALACE AND SPA 5* (ONE NIGHT)
This 25-themed suite hotel is the perfect resting spot after the long trip from the States. The suites are cleverly decorated, paying tribute to celebrities and international icons; whether you get the Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe or Napoleon suites, they are all luxuriously appointed in a funky boutiquey way. The beds are sumptuous and the bathrooms are spacious, those being the key ingredients for much-needed post-Transatlantic flight rest. Let clients know Art Age, the hotel’s restaurant, turns into a lively club at night with traditional Moroccan music and full bar.

rabat—political capital
On the drive to Rabat, we stopped at an old kasbah where we were free to walk around on our own.

RABAT TOUR HIGHLIGHTS:
Oudaya Kasbah (toured on foot)—Oh my, the original medina! This self-supported city within a city is home to roughly 2,000 residents and contains its own mosque, communal bread oven and hammam. Oudaya’s residents grow their own food, and run their markets and artisan quarters. The homes are extraordinary and all boast decorative doors, one more beautiful than the next.
Traveler’s tip: Your client’s driver is not permitted to enter the Kasbah to tour with them, so tell them not to be caught off guard when one of its citizens “offers” to show them around and then expects a tip for this service, usually 200 dirham (approx. $25).
Royal Palace (toured on foot)—Located in the heart of Rabat, a must is a walk around the entrance to the Royal Palace with its massive doors, well-decorated buildings and lovely gardens.
Mohammed V Mausoleum (toured on foot)—Burial ground of the two late Alouite kings, Mohammed V and Hassan 11. Visitors are able to look inside at the inner chamber and marble sarcophagus.
Hassan Tower (toured on foot)—This Rabat landmark is one of the oldest mosques in existence.
Medina/Souks (toured on foot)—We got our first taste of Morocco’s unique marketplaces here.
Dine-out: We went to the newly renovated Sofitel Rabat Jardin des Roses and ate at Al Warda, offering a sophisticated Moroccan and French culinary experience. The hotel is beautiful and if clients aren’t interested in staying inside the medina, this is a great recommendation. Here, Rabat’s elite and tourists meet and mingle at the resort’s restaurants and bars.

ACCOMMODATIONS: RIAD DAR EL KEBIRA (ONE NIGHT)
This riad in the heart of the medina in Rabat is lovely. The owner greeted us warmly and our request for wine was fulfilled immediately. However, the room was extremely small and windowless and the air conditioner wasn’t working. Even though it was cool out, it made us uncomfortable. Aside from the room being quite small, the TV isn’t modern and while nice to have, the robes and bath towels smelled like cigars. The riad has a terrace with views of Hassan Tower 11 and the city of Salé, but however great its location, we wouldn’t recommend it.

meknes—second imperial city
From Rabat, we drove to Meknes.

MEKNES TOUR HIGHLIGHTS:
Bab El Mansour Gate (toured on foot)—While you cannot walk through the gate, it’s one of Morocco’s most beautiful and elaborate; completed in 1732.
Harri Souani Stables (toured by car)—This imperial stable was once home to over 12,000 horses, but unfortunately, there was an agricultural convention and the roads were closed so we didn’t get to visit.
Royal Palace (toured on foot)—Visitors can’t go inside, but they are able to take pictures.
Tomb of Moulay Ismail (toured on foot)—Elaborate mausoleum; Ismail is said to have built Meknes in the image of Versailles.
Medina (toured on foot)—Smaller than Rabat’s with a little less aggressive vendors.
Jewish cemetery (toured on foot)—The cemetery is still in operation for the few Jews that still exist locally today.

As part of the tour, clients have lunch at a typical Moroccan restaurant before continuing to Fez. Along the way, highlights include…

  • Volubilis (on foot with guide)—Roman ruins, a UNESCO Cultural Heritage for Humanity Site.
  • Moulay Idriss (toured on foot)—Explore the souks here in this small town, which is named for the Sultan who founded the city of Fez; his tomb is here but only open to Muslims.

fez—spiritual + intellectual capital

FEZ TOUR HIGHLIGHTS:
Royal Palace (toured on foot)—Fez tours typically start here. Visitors can’t go inside, however the gates are stunning.
Mederssa Bouanania (Koranic University) (on foot)—Open to the public, architecturally thrilling with a beautiful courtyard; 19th century.
Jemaa El Karaouyine (toured on foot)—World’s first established university.
Ibn Danan Synagogue (toured on foot)—Built in the 17th century and restored in the 1870s, this synagogue still stands today as a symbol of the city’s once-thriving Jewish community.
Mellah/Old Jewish Quarter (toured on foot)—Adjacent to the synagogue.
Medina/Souks (toured on foot)—We loved the winding narrow markets; the medina here is the oldest in the country.
Artisan quarters (toured on foot)—From carpets to pottery, many of these artists still use the ancient practices to create their wares. Let clients know that artists are there to sell and prices are not listed. If they are easily intimidated, they won’t feel comfortable. Our rule of thumb was to offer 25 percent of asking price, although there was very little we were interested in purchasing.
Quartier des Tanneurs (toured on foot)—Unless your clients have a burning desire to see how hides get tanned (and, surprisingly, there are people who are curious about this), steer clear of this tourist trap. The goal here is to sell you a leather jacket, and guess what, “Fez ain’t Florence.” Tell clients to save their patience for other hostile haggling opportunities.

ACCOMMODATIONS: RIAD GHITA IN THE ROYAL SUITE (TWO NIGHTS)
This guesthouse built in the seventh century inside the medina of Fez is family-owned and -operated. Our hosts greeted us warmly as if we were family visiting from the States. Traditional Moroccan breakfast and dinners are prepared from scratch, and while the owners do not drink or keep alcohol in the house, they were gracious enough to chill our wine (which needs to be purchased outside the medina) and let us serve ourselves.

We stayed in the Royal Suite lalla Zineb, which was spacious and traditionally decorated with an ornate and elaborate mosaic ceiling. Windows open onto the riad, as well as to the outside.

The drive from Fez to Marrakech takes almost a full day. Along the way, highlights include…

  • Ifrane, “Morocco’s Switzerland” (toured on foot)—Small ski town with chalets.

Not sure why, but on the road and on foot, there are plenty of monkeys that had no problem coming right up to us.

  • Beni Mellal (toured on foot)—An old Berber town where we stopped for lunch. We loved the authentic food on the streets of the town here, however, the proprietors of these streetside eateries don’t necessarily go by the U.S. FDA standards when it comes to meat handling and preparation, so while the lunch can be fun and delicious, clients might pay a bit of a price for it—wink, wink.

Did we mention how long the ride to Marrakech is?

marrakech—“capital of the south”

MARRAKECH TOUR HIGHLIGHTS:
Jemma El Fna Square (toured on foot)—This is everything you heard it was; urge clients to eat at one of the many cafes with second floors overlooking the square.
Koutoubia Minaret (toured on foot)—Beautiful 12th century mosque.
Bahia Palace (toured on foot and with guide)—Nineteenth century structure set on beautiful gardens.
Saadian Tombs (toured on foot with guide)—Discovered in 1917 and restored.
Old Medina/Souks—At this point, it had been one too many souks for us, but every client has a different vision and that’s where you step in with your expertise.
Marjorelle Garden (toured on foot)—This 12-acre botanical garden is magnificent. In 1980, the late-designer Yves Saint-Laurent bought it and restored it. The garden has exotic plants and flowers, fountains, waterways, varied architecture, an array of bird species, and a memorial to the late designer. Nearby is the new city, Gueliz, which is modern and filled with high-end shops and cafes. It’s a fun way to spend a few hours and the shopping here is more civilized, think actual price tags!

Go out: We wanted a taste of Marrakech’s nightlife and went to bo zin, a chic restaurant and bar filled with hipsters, great music and full bar.

ACCOMMODATIONS: RIAD SLITINE (TWO NIGHTS)
This 17th century guesthouse located inside the medina of Marrakech, a 5-minute walk to Jemma El Fna Square, is a beautiful mix of traditional and modern decor. The centerpiece of the property is a gorgeous pool patio where breakfast is served open air. The Arfoud room is spacious, with a separate living area and modern bathroom and is set within an open-air courtyard. They do not serve alcohol, but the rooms have mini-refrigerators so clients can bring their own. No TVs in the rooms.

asni—foothills of the atlas mountains

From Marrakech it’s a relatively short drive to Asni (Atlas Mountains). On the way, clients should stop at the Berber Women Cooperative, which is toured on foot. Surely your female clients know about argan oil, here they’ll see how it is made from argan nuts through a complicated handcrafting process. This woman-owned facility is a pleasure to visit and they sell the precious oils they produce for a fraction of what it costs in the States.

ACCOMMODATIONS: KASBAH TAMADOT (TWO NIGHTS)
Leave it to Sir Richard Branson to deliver one of Morocco’s most luxuriously appointed kasbahs. Twenty-seven beautiful suites are located throughout the kasbah, or clients can rent one of the nine luxury “Berber tents” (recommended!). The landscape is magnificent and we don’t think we’ve ever seen a more beautiful sunset than that of the sun setting on the Atlas Mountains.

Relaxation is an order here and a stay without having the traditional hammam treatment is criminal. We paired ours with a massage and felt the stress of all of the travel melting away. Food here is no joke. Carefully prepared traditional Moroccan food and other world cuisine is available on the terrace, dining rooms or the magical reflecting pool. Active clients can play tennis, swim in either the indoor or outdoor infinity pools and there is an onsite gym. For the lazy (like us), curling up by the fireplace and stargazing in the telescope room on the roof is divine.

Treks can be arranged by the hotel or, in our case, by our driver who is Berber and from Asni. Recommend a half-day trek through the mountains, viewing streams and waterfalls, and, like us, your clients might end up being invited to lunch at their trail guide’s home.

Just beyond the tennis courts is a local Berber shop, part of Eve Branson’s foundation and commitment to the local people in Asni; this was probably the best shopping in all of Morocco. The ride from Asni back to the airport in Casablanca is about three hours.

getting there
Royal Air Maroc has daily service from JFK to Casablanca. While clients may want to fly through Madrid and then on to Morocco, the connections in Europe are not a solid option.

tips for travel agents
If your clients are going in the early-spring months, the weather fluctuates between 50-70F degrees and rain is common.

WHAT TO PACK:

  • A lined raincoat is a lifesaver and eliminates the need for an umbrella
  • Weatherproof hiking pants/shorts
  • Hiking shoes
  • Remedies for stomach illness
  • Wet wipes—while all of the hotels have paper items, the truly local restaurants and most road stops don’t have toilet paper that is recognizable, or hand soap, for that matter. Tell clients to bring plenty of wipes
  • Sunscreen—even when it’s mild, the sun is strong
  • For clients who like sugar substitutes, tell them to bring their own Splenda; most places serve only sugar or the old saccharine tablets

When changing dollars at the registered exchange agents throughout Morocco, tell clients to save their receipts, otherwise they will not be able to change dirham back to dollars at the airport. In fact, tell themto try to not have any dirham by the time they are leaving the country.

contact information
Goway Travel: (800) 557-2841; goway.com or gowayagent.com

Archived related articles (available on recommend.com):
Out of Africa Come Romantic Retreats (June 2012)

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