Of all the places I’ve seen in my decade as a travel writer, none is as diverse as the North African country of Morocco. It is, after all, the place where the spice-trade caravan from Timbuktu met the West. Today, that blend of east and west and old and new is alluring to visitors. There are ancient palaces, historic gardens and brand-new attractions and hotels. The topography is just as varied, with the desert extending from the ocean to the snowy Atlas Mountains.
Although it may feel far-flung, Morocco is only about five hours from the East Coast. Direct flights from New York land in Casablanca. While it’s the kingdom’s largest city, there aren’t many cultural attractions. The biggest exception is the massive Hassan II Mosque. The awesome structure is made of local marble and granite. It boasts the largest minaret in the world, a sliding roof, and took nearly 10,000 artisans to construct. Tours are offered in various languages.
The awesome Massan Il Mosque in Casablanca. Photo Credit: Jenna Mahoney
Also known as the “Red City” thanks to the color of the walls of the medina (old city), Marrakech, about 140 miles from Casablanca, has long been popular with the jet set. Celebrated sites include the ornately tiled Saddian Tombs, the enormous town square at night—yes, there are snake charmers!—and gorgeous gardens (the Majorelle, cared for by the estate of Yves Saint Laurent, are especially impressive). The luxury hotels are another draw—the Royal Mansour is the most decadent I’ve ever seen (note: You need an appointment just to visit the common areas). And the famous La Mamounia has fantastic gardens and the exquisite Le Marocain restaurant. I prefer the brand-new Four Seasons Marrakech. Located within walking distance to Menara Gardens, the hotel is actually a resort complex complete with spacious accommodations, multiple eateries, a glorious spa and beautiful pool area (room rates start at about $435; fourseasons.com).
The Majorelle Gardens are often referred to as the YSL Gardens. Photo Credit: Dave Lewis.
Traditionally, every Moroccan village or neighborhood had five central structures: a spigot for water, a communal oven, a madrasa (school), a mosque and a hammam (bath). As you tour the various medinas, you still see these elements. Yet, the hammam has taken on a new identity as a spa treatment. Most hotels offer hammam services, which, depending on the location, can include steam-room therapies solo or in addition to a scrub treatment. The hammam at the new Sofitel Essaouira Mogador Golf & Spa features a series of tiled steam rooms at varying temperatures and a variety of pools that twinkle with the light from bronze candles.
Photo Credit: Sofitel Mogador
Shopping in the Souk
Every city has a souk (marketplace). Since bargaining is expected, transactions can take longer, so reserve a full day to shop. Moroccan-made lamps, ceramics, indigenous spices and beauty products, candles, leather goods, and of course, rugs are all on offer. The souk in Marrakech is the most famous, but you can get better prices in the smaller cities. If you want a rug, ask your hotel concierge to recommend a women’s cooperative store. These tend to have better quality items, take credit cards and provide work to single mothers. You’ll still need to bargain.
What to wear: In Morocco, modesty is expected. In fact, many men and women dress in full-body covering djellabas (hooded caftans). Keep your knees and shoulders covered when out touring. Reserve tanks and shorts for the hotel pool.
Spices on display in the souk. Photo Credit: Jenna Mahoney
In the Mountains
Set in the Atlas Mountains is the ecofriendly Atlas Kasbah, a castle-like hotel owned by the sweetest couple in Morocco. It’s a homey hideaway with sweeping mountain views and loads of quiet places. Here power is solar, beauty products are traditional (black olive oil soap) and much of the food is grown on property—even at the farmers’ market, I’ve yet to find eggs as fresh. Hiking around the area is popular, as are the evening tea ceremonies and pottery classes (room rates start at $92 and include breakfast; atlaskasbah.com).
The eight-room, three-suite Atlas Kasbah. Photo credit: Atlas Kasbah.
By the Sea
Of all of my stops in Morocco, the seaside Essaouria (about 150 miles from Marrakech) was my favorite. Fishing remains the main industry in this city of maze-like whitewashed walls. Tucked among the metal shops, spice stalls and other hawkers of the medina, are a series of boutique riad (formal homes) hotels. Riads have multiple stories and interior gardens or patios that are open to the sky. Guest rooms are in traditional decor. A favorite jewel box is the Hôtel Heure Bleue Palais, a 35-room hideaway with impeccable service and delectable food—go for lamb tagine. The location allows you to hear the hypnotic call to prayer (room rates start at about $395 a night and include breakfast; heure-bleue.com).