With a passion for travel and particularly Morocco, I own and manage Sun Trails.
Vaccines are here. Is Morocco ready to welcome visitors ?
Update 7/06/2021: Since last night, Morocco's borders are now open to EU countries, meaning you can book your flights to/ from Morocco with a layover in major European airports. France and Spain are allowing visitors from US and other countries, without the need for on- site Covid testing or quarrantine. Direct flights from the US to Morocco have been open and operating since last September.
Presently, there are no Morocco travel restrictions in place. Those currently flying to Morocco are asked to present a less than 48 hour PCR test when embarking and upon arrival at the airport in Morocco together with a hotel booking. There is no obligation to quarantine upon arrival in Morocco.
Gorges and palm grove in the Anti Atlas mountains
VACCINES AND TESTS
After a gruelling wait, the much- anticipated vaccines are finally making a difference, not least in the way people are booking up travel again. Some countries, like Greece, are already open to tourists. Major airports have introduced already on- site fast Covid tests and airlines are making it easier for tourists to test before traveling. In Morocco, the first country in Africa to start vaccination, the campaign started on 29 January and intends to vaccinate most of the adult population by end of summer . What's more, 9 out of 10 Moroccans have declared willing to take the vaccine. You can see here the evolution of the vaccination campaigns around the world.
Fortress - granary in Morocco's south
HOW DOES MOROCCO COMPARE TO OTHER COUNTRIES ?
Having started end of January its vaccination campaign, Morocco is trailing just behind Portugal and France ( see graph below). After an explosive start of the campaign, the efforts were somewhat thwarted by India's case outbreak in the last few weeks. Since the beginning of May, Morocco is back on track with an average of 200.000 vaccinations a day, for a population of roughly 30 million. On 13 May, Morocco has started to vaccinate its population under 50 years old. Already last September, Covid testing facilities opened up in major cities and a PCR test would set you back about 500 Dirhams ( 50 USD/ 45 euros). In some locations, like Marrakech, for a little extra, you can have a specialized professional coming to your house and giving you the test for a cost of about 800 Dirhams ( 80 USD). In November, private clinics in Morocco were finally allowed to treat Covid patients, assuaging the over- burdened public health system.
Presently, the daily Covid cases in Morocco are at an all- time- low, with an average of 63 new cases per week per million persons, about 10 times less cases than Spain or France ( see graph above).
IS MOROCCO READY TO WELCOME TOURISTS ?
While Greece is already welcoming tourists from abroad, carrying a vaccine certificate or a PCR test, Spain and France have declared being open to American tourists and tourists from other countries starting in June. Morocco maintains its borders closed with most European countries until at least 10 June, most likely to dully get ready for the summer season. Flights from US and Golf countries are operating normally. Royal Air Maroc flies into Casablanca from New York and Washington, with connections also in place from Dallas, Miami and Boston. Given the actual circumstances, we recommend booking direct flights to Morocco and avoiding connecting flights.
[ Read: Book a summer private tour in Morocco ]
TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS INSIDE MOROCCO
Presently, travel between regions within Morocco is allowed, subject to a permit relatively easy to obtain from local authorities. Wearing a mask is compulsory nation- wide in public spaces. A curfew is still in place in large cities from 8 PM to 6 AM. Public monuments are still closed to public, although Majorelle Gardens, Dar El Bacha museum, Le Jardin Secret or Kasbah des Oudayas ( most privately- owned tourist attractions) have been now open for months. Most of our partner guest houses, riads, desert camps and eco lodges have been opened since last Christmas.
Jemaa El Fna square, Marrakech
WILL IT BE SAFE TO TRAVEL INSIDE MOROCCO ?
We expect the vaccination campaign to only gather more and more steam in the next few months. Although Morocco is a country where still many people live in remote regions, previous experience indicates that a vaccination campaign will be successful: 11 million Moroccans were vaccinated in 2013 against measles in only 4 weeks. The success of the vaccination campaign largely hinges on vaccine supply and it appears that Morocco has now managed to stream a steady supply of vaccines into the country.
[ Read: Trek in Morocco in 2021 ]
Considering the above, we estimate that traveling within Morocco should be back to normal by September. With the vaccination campaign in full swing and the new- cases rising curb bent, mask wearing and curfews should be wavered, public monuments open and free movement within the country possible by September.
Presently, there are no Morocco travel restrictions from the US. Those flying to Morocco are asked to present a 48 hour PCR test when embarking and upon arrival at the airport in Morocco together with a hotel booking. Presently, there is no obligation to quarantine upon arrival. Naturally, most of the travelers will already have a booking confirmation whether booking just their accommodation or more comprehensive travel arrangements, such as a private tour to include accommodation, transport, activities, guides, etc.
BEST TIME TO VISIT MOROCCO ?
Perhaps it has never been a better time of year to book a Morocco holiday. Avoid the crowds: We estimate that it will take some time before Morocco's visitor numbers will return to a 'normal'. How does that translate for those wishing to visit soon ? Popular sites, such as Jemaa El Fna square, UNESCO world site Ait Benhaddou or the picture perfect village of Chefchaouen will see much less of the usual hustle and bustle, rendering them all more genuine and picturesque (yes, you can actually walk around Jemaa El Fna without being pestered by a monkey...). So, no danger of confining yourself into people- packed spaces. What is more, booking a Morocco private tour will include a lot of travel to remote, off- the- beaten- track areas, such as Draa Valley, the Sahara desert or the Gorges of Dades. No chance there of being jostled. A private tour could, or rather should, include a traditional hammam and body scrub treatment or a cookery class, both of them private experiences. All our local guided tours are private, your only escort being a local, well- informed guide.
Discounted rates and flexible cancellation terms: It is no secret to anyone that everyone working in tourism in Morocco has toiled and strained from March 2020 until now, from the spontaneous food stalls on Jemaa El Fna square to the booking department of uber- luxury hotels such as La Mamounia or Royal Mansour. Therefore, you are likely to be offered last minute and/ or early- bird discounts, part of a nation wide effort to attract tourists back and ensure a more than necessary money flow to a depleted trade.
Help local populations: The pandemic has hit everyone, that is true, but unevenly. Before the pandemic, populations in remote areas of Morocco, where climate change and rural exodus are contributing to social inequalities were helped by the slight, yet constant passage of visitors. The few teas with the nomads, guided tours, bread- baking classes and the likes helped making ends meet. These populations living on a day to day basis are currently the most affected. Each of us can make a small difference in our own way by inspiring people to travel again to those areas.
Sunset over palm grove
We've all been through a lot in 2020. I can't think of a better place to put it all behind, than the top of a dune in the Sahara, soaking in the oceans of saffron- couloured sand, while the sun rises on the horizon. Here is to a 2021 full of hope and traveling to that once- in- a- lifetime destination.
Right past the next boulder. And what about that one over there ? Could it be ?... Springing over clefts from rock to rock, I crave to uncover the most impressive rock engraving of the ridge. Moustapha and Majid are leading the charge ahead, with Leila somewhere abreast of us in the distance and even Boujeema, usually so composed, fallen victim to the enthusiasm of the group and is earnestly gushing water from a bottle on a stone, hoping to win this spontaneous yet imaginary competition. The engravings are etched on the surface of the rock - the dust and the slanting of the sun rays shroud them partially to a non- expert eye. If someone were to watch us, he'd probably think we're looking for gold. Now and then, I raise my head and squint around, weary of an army vehicle. We were warned by our 'source' that the ridge we are currently treading on lies right on the border with Algeria. On the top of the opposite ridge, past the sandy hollow, a rudimentary military vantage point scrutinizes the horizon. A few steps too many and we could be in trouble. From time to time, I hear afar Leila's voice signalling her sundry trophies, beckoning us to come and see for ourselves.
Someone's loud and persistent laughter pulls me back to the present. It's Majid and as usual, he's making fun of something. It's the beginning of November and we've gathered to, well, take stock of things, sitting around a table in a cafe in Marrakech. Although, to my discredit, my mastering of Moroccan derija is still quite limited, by now I can discern his habitual sense of humour which consists of a language game whereas he talks in ironies that do not seem ironic: of turning a question back on the questioner, mostly when the conversation is about a predicament or a disagreeable obligation. He's always been a bit of a joker. Just like the good old days, I almost hear myself thinking out loud. Leila, Majid, Daoud, Moustapha and Boujeema. More than the Sun Trails team, and the sum of its constituents, I look around me and what I see, ultimately, beyond personality, sense of humour, qualities and faults, is people I could always rely on. It fills me with hope.
The 10 months elapsed from our expedition back in January, now in retrospect seem years. Who could have foretold in those days the tsunami that was going to take over the world just in a few weeks ? Naturally, back then we already had heard of the few cases in China, but just like the ebola or malaria, something distant, something remote, a vagary that is not supposed to spill over a country's or a continent's border, a plight circumscribed to people less lucky than the average you and me. And yet. The first cancellations in February. The swell of them in March. Getting myself stranded in Spain for almost 6 months, when initially I was visiting a friend for a week, not being able to return to Morocco, away from my daughter, my friends, my colleagues, my home. Because yes, I wasn't born here, in Morocco, but I've lived for 14 years and so it's somewhat reasonable to call this home. Or is it ? Facing emotional seasons, from the shock of being imprisoned in your own house to resignation, to rage and finally to hope again, now that the much talked- about vaccines are on their way to being mass- distributed. Months and months of learning how to live with constant uncertainty: what next ? Is this it ? Are we bending the curve ? How am I going to make a living now ? When will the things be the way they were ? Get a 9 to 5 job ? Do I have to ? Do I want to ?
Reality is grim: in a country that depends considerably on tourism, most restaurants and hotels in Marrakech are closed. People on the street strike me as gloomy and tense- and who can blame them ? Many companies have shut down, lacking the resources to outlast the crisis. The government has offered some assistance to the employees but little, if any, to businesses. Sun Trails has also felt the toll of the pandemic: since March the only thing we've incurred is expenses. Back then, I had told my staff that whatever happens, there will be no layoffs until at least September and I kept true to my word. We're now in November and with what we've haemorrhaged so far, we could have added 2 brand new 4x4 vehicles to our fleet. Even with the vaccines around the corner, no one can guarantee that business will return and it's almost certain that if it does, it will take years to return to 2019 levels. Yet, did I loose someone dear to this pandemic ? Have I become one of the 100 million people that were pushed into extreme poverty ? And what to say about doctors, nurses and all other medical personnel that continue to put their lives at risk every day to save others' and some of them lost it in doing so ? So no, I do not see the glass half empty.
'So Majid, is it not better to have your own business ?' I ask, half jokingly. Majid has launched himself into the business of restoring houses and businesses with a team of a dozen workers. He looks tired. The extra kilos and random working hours are visibly starting to affect him. His countenance changes and with a sorrowful voice he retorts: 'If only I could go back to driving around Morocco...' He follows that statement with a tirade on how construction work in Marrakech is a whole different world from taking foreign visitors around Morocco, lavishing them with the most beguiling landscapes and local experiences. Alas, this is the same person that would take a detour from his route just so he can impress a couple of Australians with the desktop- saver view of a field of just- in- bloom poppies. Next to him, Boujeema, having gotten his state licence just a couple of years ago, had tried working as a local guide in the medina of Marrakech. In vain. The only tourists , and a scattered few, are Moroccan. Daoud is doing his own thing and wittingly asks Majid if he doesn't need someone to hold and push his ladder, when painting. Everyone's laughing. Moustapha wasn't reachable for a few weeks and when I finally managed to have him on the phone, he confessed he had been away for two months out in the desert with his people. He needed to disconnect. Or rather, reconnect. Leila had joined me for a while in southern Spain this summer and we indulged ourselves in some serious treks around Sierra Nevada, reminiscing about the High Atlas mountains of Morocco and how similar they are. Lately, with no hotel bookings or accounts to look after, she has been busy applying for a part time job, without any luck so far.
And myself ? With no work for the last 9 months, it has crossed my head to start applying for a job, of course. Yet, I can't get myself used to the idea of working as an online sales rep for Amazon, Google or the likes. I've only worked in travel and hospitality, since becoming a bartender in Portugal at 21. I'm now 42 and before Sun Trails, I managed a boutique hotel ( riad) in Marrakech for almost five years. Which should make me reasonably good at what I'm doing. Hence I'm not jumping ship. As a matter of fact, I've worked for the last three months on rolling out a new updated version of our website. I also hired a young and dedicated team from Casablanca to work on our search engine optimization. After New Years Eve, once the vaccination campaign in Morocco gets on its rails, I envision touring the south of Morocco, all the way from Tiznit on the Atlantic coast to Zagora, on the edge of the Sahara desert, checking on our partners.
Beyond purely financial concerns, our travel agency is exposed to the risk of more disruptive patterns. Since we focus on experiential travel around Morocco, most of our 'local' guides are mainly local residents proud of their area, culture and heritage. Most of these areas are blighted by rural exodus where local youth emigrate to big cities where they work in construction or grocery stores and send money home. The much talked about panacea of tourism making a difference in thwarting rural exodus has obviously lost plenty of steam in the actual context. I've never thought that local populations should rely 100 percent on tourism and abandon agriculture or crafts. And at Sun Trails we never endorsed that either. But I am aware that the more this crisis endures and no tourists visit the areas, the more likely is for these local guides to fend by traveling to a big city where the chances of faring well are much higher. Thus Moroccan countryside needs travellers even more than before the covid.
A couple of weeks ago, I received a WhatsApp call from Colombia. Dan and his wife are from Mexico but have lived in Colombia for a few years and were quite interested in booking a private tour of Morocco for next May. The half hour we spent talking on the phone ( mostly me) slipped by so naturally, and I surprised myself of how easily I could recall everything: routes, activities, cooking classes, treks, guest houses, Nelly from Wild Junket. I was going to get back to Dan with an email which would include a sketch of a suggested itinerary. And the moment I hung up, I also became aware of how swiftly I could glide back into the skin of my old life. There was a pang of adrenaline riding on top of that, since this would be the first booking in more than six months. Six months where every day you sit in front of a screen filled with all but spam emails, it was hard to stomach in the beginning but you eventually grow numb to it. Or almost.
Reverting to our tour of Morocco in January, just the day before we had spent the night in the dunes of Erg Chigaga. Next morning, we drove through the desert, sped up on the dry lake Iriki, with Moustapha in the back of the car constantly abetting me to pick up speed and forget the breaks, as he would put it: 'brake pads are expensive, so better not wear them out'. I was looking forward to this team adventure and introducing Leila and Daoud to the rest of the crew. They only had been with us for a little more than 2 years and although it seems a long time, my drivers don't cross each other much, being most of the year on the road or else back with their families, a long way from Marrakech. Leila is a very good friend and I was glad to finally get her on board to help me with bookings and accounts. A hard worker, brisk and companionable, that made everybody laugh, she blended in from the first day. Daoud came in to replace Walid and had been strongly recommended by Majid. After a few tours he's proven himself more than worthy. Originally from Zagora, conscientious, discreet and loved by his guests, he fitted right into the team.
The fruition of 11 years of offering private tours in Morocco was coming to this trip. I felt that we had a stronger team than ever before and this was the trip to celebrate it. Each and every day we'd have one or several round tables to discuss what and how we should approach the area ahead of us, what's worth exploring, what we should leave out, how long will it take to get there, etc. We've lit bonfires in the dunes, found new trails to explore amongst lush palm groves and barren ridges, we raced our 4x4's on virgin beaches of Plage Blanche, we taunted and teased ourselves and downed dozens of glasses of atay, all the way besotted by the intangible beauty of a land that won't stop enchanting us. And it's those memories that help me keep the faith. And being reunited to them in this cafe around a cup of tea. And all those hundreds of people that weren't quite the same after having toured Morocco with us. And all those other ones here, in this country, making such a difference, conferring a meaning to the word: hospitality. I never grasped the meaning of that word until I arrived here. I will forever be in debt to them.
Presently, it's not easy to not give in to the deluge of gloomy news that we're being bombarded with every day, among rising curbs of new cases and economic downturns. Not easy to tell yourself that things will get better. We'll have to get used to being ourselves again. Normal. Forget the fear. The virtual concerts and museum visits and the instant prophecies of how the world will be so different. I don't know if we'll be better travellers once this is gone. What I'm sure of is that travel is intrinsically part of human nature. It's one of those last resorts that keep us sane. No pandemic will change that.
P.S. In the meantime, Dan and Carla have booked their holidays with us and we're expecting them next May.
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Morocco honeymoon: the ideal getaway destination in 2021.
The one trip you will remember for the rest of your marriage. Why Morocco ? Riads straight out of 1001 nights. A small plane ride to land you next to the Sahara. Tea with the nomads. A lunch on top of the dunes just you, your loved one and your private butler. More than mere glamping. Village markets and secret kasbahs. Romance complimented by authenticity- that's our idea of a honeymoon in Morocco. Picture yourselves watching sunrise over the Sahara dunes: there's no better place to forget all about travel bans, mask wearing or loosing someone close.
Our idea of a honeymoon tour in Morocco doesn't follow a set itinerary. Think of it rather as connecting different private local experiences and encounters with secret, intimate, authentic accommodations, within your budget and time available. Naturally, we offer a few sample itineraries on our website, to help set some kind of initial structure. Yet, for such a special occasion, why not tailor and customize each and every detail ? While favoring the privacy, remoteness and unique local experiences ?
To begin with, you should know that Morocco is, above all, an assault on your senses. Here, nights smell of cinnamon. Here, what looks like a crumbling abode from outside, turns out to be a pasha's palace once you stepped in - the riads. Here, on the back of a camel across the saffron dunes, time expands. Bazaars packed with Ali Baba caves of hand woven carpets, lamps, incense, ivory- embedded chests, Syrian tea tables... Sounds like the setting for 1001 nights ? Romance ? You bet. Not a coincidence that in more than 10 years of offering private Morocco tours quite a few of our guests proposed to their loved one on the top of the dunes of Erg Chigaga.
But where does the honeymoon originate from ? The tradition may or may not have been handed down from the ancient custom of “bride kidnapping.” Some people say that it referred to the period between abducting a woman and the moment her family stopped looking for her. By some accounts, the phrase “hony moone” first surged in the mid-16th century. Some connect this to a supposed Babylonian practice of giving the bride and groom a month’s supply of honey wine and dispatching them for a cycle of the moon to conceive a child. A lot has changed since then.
In more recent times, honeymoon associates with romance. And there's hardly any romance in sight when looking at the various offerings on the internet when searching for 'best honeymoons in Morocco' on Google and the likes. Widely speaking, you are offered the same itinararies and local experiences offered to retired couples, families with children, group of friends traveling together. But then, if you embark on a private tour of Morocco on your honeymoon, you should get much more than just moving around the country and ticking a few boxes out of your travel list. You don't want to rub shoulders with thousands of other visitors. Being taken to gigantic carpet shops where you'll spend your afternoon trying to escape a hard sale. When on a honeymoon in Morocco, there's a few things that can't miss from the mix.
Relaxation. Even if you hired someone else to organize your wedding, you still must have gone through quite a lot of stress. Whether it is a hammam while in Marrakech, adding an extra day/ night along the way or just enjoying the premises of your lodge in Taroudant, extra time should be accommodated to ensure that fragile balance between discovery and the time you need to take it all in. Visitors take 6 days for a private tour from Marrakech to Taroudant through the desert ? Take 8 days.
Local encounters. Bake bread in the village oven. Discover the medina with a local university teacher. Have lunch inside a Berber home and learn how to prepare a tagine. Be invited to tea by the nomads in the Anti Atlas mountains. Tread on millennia old rock engravings. ( And some luxurious ones- fly privately to the Sahara in a small propeller plane to land by the dunes). Yes, walk in the Todra Gorges and marvel at the story tellers on Jemaa El Fna square. But you don't need to rub shoulders with thousands of other visitors to Morocco. Why ? Because you know better. Because you're not likely to return to Morocco soon, if at all. What if we told you that at Sun Trails all the above experiences are private ? Ah. Privacy.
Privacy- the one ingredient that can’t be missing to ensure romance ? Just you, your spouse and your guide/ hostess. And no, we can't arrange to empty the medina of all other visitors. But all our addresses are hand picked to avoid as much as we can mass interaction. Most importantly, privacy translates into staying only in those guest houses that almost no one knows about. How do we know about them ? Because we’re curious by nature. We scout Morocco a few times a year, our eyes set on anything that stands out of the ordinary. And we test accommodations, guides, local experiences, music festivals, spas, trekking routes, etc. And when we say privacy, we don’t mean driving secondary roads and only coming out at night. You’ll have tea with the locals, bargain in a village market, trek the High Atlas with a Berber guide. With the main focus being on avoiding all mass tourism. And touring Morocco on a custom off- the- beaten- track tour while staying only in unique, intimate locations.
Below, we have selected a few of those addresses that we think best embody this spirit. You can select all or a few of them and have us design a private customized tour around these properties and some hand- picked experiences. They are not limited to honeymooners only. Some couples just want to get back to finding themselves again and reconnect with each other. Cut out the white noise around. Yes, that includes social media and being ‘connected to the world’. But that's entirely up to you. The only limit is your budget and the time you can take off to travel around Morocco.
The house of dreams. And it will certainly fulfill some. More than that, it will consistently leave you rapt. As Hicham, the manager, likes to put it, this is not about functional luxury. After all, you don't have square meters of Carrara marble of bathtub. Neither the latest plasma Full HD television. Actually, there's no TV at all. You do get underfloor heating and French- chef desserts, but if you're looking for value for your buck, look elsewhere. You'd be missing the point. Wonder. Experience. Enchant. The French owner used to create fantasy events in Paris, so the last thing he wanted to create is a 5 star resort inside a palm grove. What if someone knew your favorite color was purple and you'd arrive in your room to find everything is purple ? What if you didn't know where or what your next meal is going to be ? Perhaps it will be a candlelit table in a tiny room in the labyrinth that you didn’t know existed. Or a set up dining area showing up out of nowhere, complete with your butler, up in the High Atlas, by the riverbed. This 14 room hideaway sits at the foot of the High Atlas mountains, nested within the 4500- acre palm grove of Skoura. Part of the wonder of staying here is learning the way back to your room. With a staff of 100, you can get an idea of how personal the attention and service is going to be. In the image- based world we live in, where information is instant, this is a world of secrets. A house of dreams. It would make little sense staying here less than two nights, arriving late evening and departing early after breakfast the next day. Magic needs time to operate.
DAR ZAHIA GARDEN
Marc Belli has just realized his dream: to build sleeping cabins in the rural plot he owns facing the Atlas mountains. If he shares with many of his contemporaries a desire to get back to nature, Marc, a French photographer and art director, is also victim to a certain nostalgia for the ‘paradise garden’ of his youth: that of his grandmother’s villa, where he spent his holidays.
Covering nearly 4,000sq m, this narrow plot is enclosed by a rammed-clay wall. It is reached by a dusty track edged by thorn bushes and cacti. There is nothing to suggest what can be found behind the walls, and no-one could guess that through the main gate is a field of roses and hibiscus by a patio in which jacarandas, euphorbias, palm trees and acanthus are reflected in a huge mirror. Another surprise awaits beyond the patio: an electric-blue raised swimming pool that seems to stretch as far as the eye can see.
Picturesque pathways dotted with garden seats wind through the fragrant, bushy undergrowth, opening the way through the eucalyptus, pomegranate, citrus, olive and fig trees, aloes, succulents and more. At the far end of the garden, buried among the vegetation, are the five cabins open to guests. Wooden cubes, the cabins are reminiscent of Balinese gazebos or small Japanese tea houses and have been fabricated out of local materials.
South of Essaouira, on the Atlantic coast and north of Agadir lies the small village of Tafedna. This feels remote and at first, it's hard to see the sandy beach, tucked among the Argan cliffs that makes any encounter with the waves of the Atlantic uniquely memorable.
Therein lies Tasgua- Yan, a charming 14-room guest house overlooking the sea, its walls forged out of local stone and timber. The white washed walls and blue framed windows reminisce of the Greek islands rather than Morocco. You come here to disconnect from the world. Take long walks along the deserted beach or through the argan forest. Sit by the fire place or the turquoise pool with your favorite novel. Swim in the ocean. Linger on for dinner over fresh fish and a glass of vin gris. Let time pass. By the Atlantic, in the middle of nowhere. Literally.
If one could have only one thing, one reason only to visit Morocco, this would be it: a night at Azalai Desert Camp in the dunes of Erg Chigaga. Let your driver arrange for a camel ride just before entering the dunes so you arrive in style at the camp, right about sunset. Four large white canvas tents and three slightly smaller ones, complement each other so that one might think he's on his own in the desert. Two VIP tents, further away, come with their own dedicated butler, club leather armchairs and lounge- library. Inside you'll find king-sized wrought-iron beds, quality mattresses, finest bedspreads, mosquito nets and Fes - ceramic water basins. Berber rugs cover the uneven rattan floors. King-sized beds are heavy with blankets and brocade covers – necessary in the winter – and light is provided by tin battery-powered lanterns. Bathrooms are provided with eco- toilets and pump showers with hot water. Dinner is served by candlelight, encircled by lanterns placed meticulously around the dune. The four course set menu regularly starts with harira soup, Moroccan briouates, continues with a hearty beef or lamb tagine and ends with a French desert. The hardest is to leave.
AZALAI BEACH COTTAGE
You really have to know your way to get here. About 20 minutes drive from the dreamy village of Oualidia, the road overhangs the tomato parcels juxtaposing the beach. An unassuming turn and a few miles of off- road take you to the gates of Azalai Cottage. Strong on the heels of Azalai Desert Lodge, arguably the smartest guest house south of Ouarzazate, Bouchaib, the French- born Moroccan owner, an accomplished architect himself, entrusted Helene Bartholdi to create something altogether different. The Out- Of- Africa feel was replaced by something much more Mediterranean, almost Aix-en- Provence vibe, with the occasional Berber carpet thrown- in. Five rooms, two suites and two bungalows all face the Atlantic and the gradient makes it that everyone gets a sea- view. Between the villa and the beach, a generous pool blends smoothly with the garden’s palm grove, near a shaded beach hut providing a bounty of fine shell fish cuisine to be enjoyed under the cool swaying shade of the palm fronds. The well stocked library and board games make up for the lack of any TV or wifi.
TOUR DES FAUCONS
In the 1960's, long before budget airlines and Trip Advisor, Morocco started to attract a particular kind of crowd. Fashion moguls, actors, artists and writers, settled here or had a secondary home, a Paradise Lost retreat from the disenchantment with a more and more mechanical Europe. Their villas were the epitome of design, mixing the Moroccan- inspired carpets, zellij, fountains or woodwork with modern European arts, African masks, Andalusian gardens and Italian chandeliers. La Tour des Faucons is such a place, located just outside Taroudant, but Karl, the very down- to- earth German owner, doesn't throw any opulent parties. What he likes to do nowadays is welcome guests and have good company. The art collection on display should be protected with infra- red laser at night. But don't think for a second that you'll be spending the night in a museum. The suites are immense and fully functional with floor heating and reversible A/C. The bathrooms seem to come out of Architectural Digest. There is a 30 meter long pool to keep you fit, if you manage to not get lost in the gardens. Be there at the right time of year and you can join in to harvest the olives or oranges.
Short on time while in Marrakech and you don't want to miss the desert experience ? Well, you have Agafay desert, just 45 minutes drive away. In all honesty, Agafay desert is not really a desert. It's a startling revelation, as one is surrounded by nothing but biscuit-colored waves of rock that stretch as far as the eye can see; an isolated palm tree flapping its fronds and a couple of camels grazing peacefully add to the illusion. La Pause is a rustic retreat where you can both get back to nature and keep your comfort intact. And what better example than the wood burning stoves that stand guard keeping the chilly air of those winter nights away from the open fronted rooms ? There is no electricity and scarcely any mobile reception. But perhaps snoozing, stargazing and staring into space are not your thing. Well, worry not. Camel riding, buggy racing, Arab caligraphy, massages or a cooking class can all be arranged on site. The rooms are built of pisé (adobe and straw mix) and the stylish lodges are sublimely illuminated by candles and oil lamps. You will find a sumptuous king sized bed, a strong shower, low sofas, rugs and cushions, plus fireplaces and a patio sun-lounger for morning mint teas. Their comfortably arranged Berber tents let you enjoy magical moments and beautiful evenings under the stars, whilst listening to the captivating and hypnotic rhythms of traditional Gnawa music.
Juan, an international photographer, wanted to blend his love of photography, India and the Sahara and Casa Juan is the offspring. In the middle of nowehere, this is as remote as you can get, on the edge of the Sahara. Given the coordinates, it is hard to imagine you'd find a manager that speaks fluent English. Or refined Moroccan cuisine. Finding the place is like a treasure hunt. You will sometimes be met by Juan himself and get your luggage carried to your room by donkey. You will truly appreciate having a 4x4 here as you'll need to cross a few small dunes to make it to the house. I've hardly ever stayed in a hotel where the names of the rooms encapsulated this well their respective names: Africa, India ... From the rooms and the public areas, it is clear that the owner has travelled all over the world and has decorated the spaces with some sublime photos and very rare artfacts. Abdel , Hamid and the rest of the team could not make you feel more welcome. Just go up those stairs and come out on the roof terrace to awe at the setting sun over the palm grove and the dunes...
Not only cooking Moroccan food, but also with locals. In their home.
So here we are on a beautiful day in May, just a few days before the starting of Ramadan and nothing seems to foretell it. It’s 10 AM and we are crossing Jemaa El Fna square in the company of Oumaina, our hostess for the day. The vendors are as busy as ever, enticing us with exotic juices, their stalls piled with heaps of oranges and grapefruits. Oumaima, whose English is sublime, is a student at Cadi Ayad university in Marrakech where she studies tourism. Part- time she hosts cooking classes, but also handicraft workshops in zellij, babouche, tadelakt or pottery. She sounds very enthusiastic about the day ahead and her job in general. As we are stepping off the square she muses about her dreams to become a licensed guide in Marrakech, one of the first, if not the first female guide.
After a few twists and turns around the derbs of the bustling medina with its tourists, shop owners luring their clients in and donkeys pulling carts loaded with carpets, tagines or rubble, we make it to the small riad where the cooking will actually take place. When I say riad, I don’t mean the fancy guesthouses of Marrakech so popular with tourists nowadays. This is literally a local’s home where the lady of the house is preparing the tea, while her niece which is visiting from Spain, is on her way out, leaving her 1 year old baby in the capable hands of the house ladies. There are two common areas on the ground floor where the women spend most of the day, together with the kitchen. On the first floor, one can guess there are two or three more rooms which most likely are dispatched to young married couples. The men would have all gone out to their work earlier and probably would come back home late afternoon.
After passing on the invitation to tea, we head out back into the streets. Our next stop on our Moroccan cookery class? The butcher. Aicha, our cook for the day, joined us for the shopping. While Oumaima is busy describing every day life inside the house, Aicha stands in line waiting to purchase some good chicken thighs. Once the chicken purchased, we slalom past the crowd into the open air souika, the colourful local market. We’ll need onions, lemons, parsley, tomatoes and aubergines. Aicha knows her providers and so she sorts the ingredients out. Some guests would prefer skipping taking photos of the exotic stands and instead bargain for vegetables themselves…
Back on our tracks and across Place des Epices, where slave auctions used to take place in the not- so- distant past, we are heading towards the square, more precisely just behind it, where the preserved vegetables market takes shelter. Once our olives purchased, we are pressing on to the riad, just when the heat starts stifling.
Now it’s time for action. Aprons on, we are handed the necessary kitchen ware and off we go. It seems that I will be in charge of preparing the chicken tagine while Leila will supervise the zaalouk, a popular tapenade made out of smoked aubergines, tomatoes and garlic. I’m a fiend for zaalouk so I will certainly peep over. Before anything else, Aicha sets about by rinsing the chicken parts… with lemon juice. By her account, the juice not only kills all the germs but also renders the chicken tender throughout the cooking.
I start with placing the chicken thighs inside the tagine. Then, it’s the turn of the garlic which I chop really slender and sprinkle it over the chicken. Leila gives me a hand with chopping the parsley which is sprinkled next. Tears run down my cheeks thinking of the chicken that had to be sacrificed for our lunch… I’m kidding, of course. I’ve sliced so much onion that it completely shelters the chicken by now. Next, it’s time for decorating with olives, spice it with a little saffron powder and lastly, pour a good ladleful of olive oil over. Our cook tells us there’s no point in using water as the chicken will let out liquid while cooking.
We place the tagine over the fire, not before wedging a metal plate in between to help diffuse the heat of the direct flame and avoid cracking the adobe tagine. TIP: never expose the tagine stewer to direct flame and settle the flame as low as possible.
While the tagine is cooking, we place the aubergines next to the fire and turn them around so that they don’t burn. Once ready and pulled from the flame, Leila will sit down and peel them, before chopping them as fine as we can. We grind the tomatoes and the garlic and we mix it all with a good pinch of paprika, cumin, salt and pepper. We then place it all on the fire in a pan and slow cook it while mixing with a spoon occasionally. When I thought I played my part, Aicha showed up with a tray and informed me it was time for making Moroccan bread.
After sifting two kinds of flour and working the dough ( don’t ask me how to shed the dough off your fingers) it’s getting somewhat tricky to turn those lumps into perfect circles which are then to be shoved inside the oven, not before puncturing them with a fork.
While the tagine and zaalouk are cooking and the bread is baking, we are being served a Moroccan tea. And it feels well deserved. Some half hour later everything is ready and lavishly spread on a table in the patio. Out of the two, I find the zaalouk to be the better. Bread chunk in hand we dig into the tagine, traditional way. The onion has completely sunk and caramelized and the chicken is as tender as it gets. I can finally brag about knowing how to make zaalouk, one of the staples of Moroccan cuisine…
Please note that such a class would take about 5 hours, lunch included. Cooking with the locals in Marrakech is offered as a choice of activities while on one of our bespoke Morocco tours.
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