With a passion for travel and particularly Morocco, I own and manage Sun Trails.
|Riads in Marrakech were sprouting like mushrooms a few years back when the economic crisis hadn’t yet touched Europe and USA. The debate of the day was: what makes a Riad a Riad ? Why some places are called ‘Dar’ and others ‘Riad’ ? Is it the shape of the house ? The number of rooms ? Does it have to have a pool ? A fountain? A garden ? Some people think that a pool inside the patio of a Riad is an affront to the traditional architecture. And they're probably right. Most Moroccans wouldn’t, if they owned one. But then, not many do nowadays. And that is due mainly to many of them leaving the Medina (old town) in the 70’s and the 80’s when residential space was getting scarce. They chose to live in the new town and rented their old houses by the room or simply put a padlock on the door. That is until when in the 1990’s the ‘riad craze’ arrived and with it Europeans looking to have a second home in a city that was safe, close to home, where sunshine was guaranteed and cost of life very cheap. A French couple decided to buy an old house close to the royal palace, belonging to a former judge and turn it into a luxury guest house. A few years later, they added more rooms and joined the very select list of ‘Relais & Chateaux’ properties. Villa des Orangers has become since then a bastion of excellence. Around its manicured gardens, pools and fountains, staff discreetly attends to guests’ each and every whim, completely secluded from the outside chaos of a bustling city. Elegant, intricate, exquisite, opulent, it has managed to never become pretentious, in a city where luxury usually goes hand in hand with flashy. Jean- Paul Compagnon has arrived here in 2003 as general manager and … the rest is history. He was kind enough to share with us some of the secrets behind the success of this underrated palace.|
|Sun Trails: When did Villa des Orangers open and what was the building before becoming a guest house ? Can you share a few details about the actual owners ?
Jean Paul Compagnon: “Villa des Orangers” is a riad, a traditional Moroccan townhouse built in the 30s by a judge of Marrakech whose family lived there until 1998. Pascal and Veronique Beherec discovered the house during a short trip to Marrakech. Already
|owners of two hotels in Paris, it was the beginning of a new project: the creation of a luxury hotel, combining tradition and sophisticated decoration, within the walls of this residence, located in the Medina. Nine months were necessary to restore the house and local craftsmen worked there in the total respect of the traditions. The perfect integration of the hotel within the framework of the Moroccan culture creates
a charming palace of 27 rooms and suites.
ST: What about yourself ? Tell us a little about your career and how did you come about working for VDO.
JPC: I worked for many years in Geneve, some of them at the ‘Beau Rivage’ and then as assistant manager at the Relais & Châteaux ‘Hotel de la Cigogne’. I was looking for a new challenge and I had the opportunity to visit a friend in Marrakech. I fell in love with the city and I
|came back a few more times to visit the country when an ad for a management position at the Villa des Orangers was published. I applied right there and then and when the owner contacted me to organise an interview in Paris I told him that I was already in Morocco! That was in 2003 and since then, surrounded by a team of loyal employees, I am happy to say my motivation hasn’t lost an inch!|
|ST: The villa has added a few spaces since it was open and it now has 27 suites and rooms. How do you manage to keep the Riad spirit alive, that privacy and personal approach to each guest, that makes people want to stay with you ?
JPC: The Villa has 6 rooms and 21 suites of different types on approximately 3000m ² with 3 pools, different lounges, private terraces and many other private spots. The service is personalized and special attention is paid to every customer whether by my assistant or myself.
But to keep alive the spirit of the Riad we rely on a few details: for example we leave the choice to the guests to have their breakfast or lunch wherever they wish, by one of the pools, in the shadow of the orange trees in the main courtyard or in the garden under the pergola. Moreover, our rates include all non alcoholic drinks - so the guest does not have to sign for a drink taken around the pool. It thus provides the sensation to live in the Riad like in a private home, more than in a hotel.
|ST: Tell us a little about Relais & Chateaux for those who are unfamiliar with the name. Is it that hard to join as they say it is ? Was it worth joining for you on the long term ?
JPC: Relais & Châteaux is an association unique in the world of hospitality, built on the individuality of the properties and the people who make up its membership. To be a member of Relais & Châteaux one must share some passions and give the strength to promote a particular art of living.
|The properties must comply with the 5Cs: Courtesy, Charm, Character, Calm, Cuisine and share the spirit and the soul of the chain. Belonging to R & C requires us to constantly review our quality objectives, to excel so that each guest lives a unique experience and that is reason enough to join that prestigious brand!|
|ST: These last few years have seen an explosion of boutique luxury hotels each trying to outdo each other. Amanjena, Palais Selman, Delano, Palais Namaskar, Four Seasons come to mind. Do you see them as your competition ? Why would someone choose to stay at VDO instead of staying with one of them ?|
|JPC: All these new prestigious addresses can only attract more visitors to Marrakech, so I do not see them as competitors. Moreover we propose a different experience, the unique way of life in a traditional Moroccan Riad with a Moorish architecture built on two levels around three verdant open-sky patios with water fountains surrounded by galleries of chiselled plaster and a garden. An intimate haven of peace and although located within the medina, you can easily reach the front door by taxi.|
|Marrakech is filled with interesting sights and Villa des Orangers has a great location for exploring the city. It’s a very special place to stay where you can enjoy sunbathing on the private rooftop terraces – for most of the rooms or suites located on the first floor of the house. Or experience the Private Riad composed on the first floor of two bedrooms with bathroom and a large terrace.|
|On the ground floor, a winter lounge with fireplace and outside in the patio a small pool in the shade of banana trees. The treatments in our Nuxe Spa are inviting you to immerse yourselves in the exotic fragrances of rose petals, orange blossom and Huile Prodigieuse®. In this dream setting, with five massage rooms and a majestic traditional Hammam, the Nuxe Spa draws on all its expertise to bring you detoxifying treatment rituals.|
ST: Marrakech has also changed immensely over the last few years. The cost of living has gone up and some have even said it has lost its soul, by becoming too mercantile. Do you think that is the case ? What are your favorite sites in Marrakech, both inside and outside the Medina ?
JPC: I find it positive that the cost of living increases and I am not one of those who say that Marrakech has lost its soul.
|Of course attitudes have changed but the charm of the red city is still there. As for the Badi palace - meaning the incomparable palace, we can easily imagine what that magical place was even if it is nowadays a ruin. And when the city is overwhelmed by heat it is so pleasant to walk in the Majorelle Garden, in that enchanting place along shady lanes, in the midst of trees and exotic plants and among all the fountains.|
ST: Let's say you have friends / family visiting Marrakech and they decide to stay at VDO for a weekend. What would you recommend them seeing/ doing considering the limited time they have available ? What is they can't miss ?
JPC: In addition to the above sites mentioned I would advise them to visit the Douiria Mouassine, a jewel of architecture in Marrakech, the Ben Youssef Madrasa, an ancient Islamic school, and getting lost in the souks!
|ST: Initially VDO only had a Moroccan restaurant. Then you decided that it is only natural to have a French one as well. Tell us a little about the menu and the chef. What is a dish that stands out ?
JPC: As a Relais & Chateaux member, the gastronomy is a key element. We offer seasonal Mediterranean cuisine and traditional Moroccan dishes. Our French chef Jean-Claude Olry has started at la ‘Ferme Saint Simeon’ in Honfleur and he joined us after a 3 year experience at the ‘Balthus’ restaurant in Beirut where he learned how to marry oriental spices with the French cuisine. One will not miss the ‘Sea Bass carpaccio with its sauce vierge and the seasonal flowers’ or the ‘Candied lamb with spices, caramelized quince and honey’
ST: What nationalities can one expect to meet at VDO as guests ? Do they only come to Morocco to see Marrakech or do they often combine their stay in Marrakech with the Sahara desert, Atlas Mountains or Atlantic coast ?
JPC: Our customers come mainly from England, the United States, France and some other European countries. The European customers come most of the time for a long week-end to enjoy the sunny Marrakech. The American clients are mainly on a circuit including Imperial cities, Sahara Desert, the Atlas Mountains and / or Atlantic coast.
|ST: What is one of your best memories at VDO ? Tell us something funny/ out of ordinary that happened to you lately as manager at VDO.
JPC: A customer recently organized the birthday of his wife and booked the entire house to entertain their friends without his wife knowing. When they arrived everyone was waiting in the main courtyard of the hotel. It was a total surprise with a lot of emotions for her and I would like to think that this special birthday will remain etched in her memory for long.
|ST: What do you think is the main challenge for Marrakech to keep attracting the right kind of tourists ? What are your plans for the future at VDO ?
JPC: The destination is very dependent of the air services and the improvement in terms of airport reception will be a major challenge in the future as well as the ecological development. On our side, I wish we can have some more space to enlarge our fitness room and open a second restaurant dedicated exclusively to the Moroccan cuisine!
|* The term ‘riad’ seems to design a ‘garden inside’. As to the origin of its design and how it arrived in Marrakech, the most likely is that the sultan Ali Ben Youssef, must have brought the concept with him from Andalusian Spain at the end of the 11th century. Son of a Christian mother and the Almoravid dynasty’s founder he had been brought up and educated in Cordoba. When he arrived in Marrakech, then the capital of the Almoravid empire, he found a little more than a warrior encampment. Under his supervision most of the surrounding walls still standing nowadays were built and the house around an inside patio, so common in Cordoba and Granada, was introduced in Marrakech|
|Villa des Orangers is currently offered on Divine level with our folowing tours: ' Land of the Setting Sun', 'Feathers, Ivory and Gold' and 'Salt and all that glitters' as well as with other bespoke tailor made tours.|
|© Sun Trails. All rights reserved. No part of this interview may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher.|
The ideal Morocco summer tour with children.
Or without. Forget all about mask wearing and travel bans. Is summer the best time of year to visit Morocco ? No, not if you wish to travel to the Sahara. Unless you don't mind temperature soaring over 100 Fahrenheit ( 40 Celsius). Thankfully, Morocco is much more than just the Sahara. And so we have imagined a tour for the whole family, blending the sensory overload of the imperial city of Marrakech, replete with palaces, gardens, museums and art galleries, with one or two nights in the Atlas Mountains, trekking and taking in the views, and one or two nights by the Atlantic beach, unwinding in bohemian Essaouira or sleepy Oualidia. For a taste of the desert, also spend one night in a private tent in the Agafay desert, with dinner under the starriest skies and a camel trek. 4 to 5 days of history, arhitecture, shopping, crafts, adventure and farniente. All of this a mere 3- hour flight from major airports in the United Kingdom.
DAYS 1-2: Marrakech.
Where Fez is the bashful scholar, Marrakech is the exuberant dancer. More than its opulent night life and luxurious palaces, the design boutiques or the French restaurants, it’s something in the air. The 'light of the south' as some may call it, a certain je ne sais quoi… A good point to start your private guided tour is perhaps Maison de La Photographie, located in one of the most authentic districts of Marrakech. It accommodates one of the most interesting collection of photos in Morocco, documenting the life in Morocco from late 1800’s all the way to the 1950’s. Patrick, the welcoming owner, is always on hand to give you a tour and precious insight into the history of each photo. The roof terrace offers 360 degrees views over the Medina and is the perfect spot for great photographs and the ubiquitous atay.
Crossing the souks you may want to spoil yourself with some shopping. Miles of Ali Baba closet- size caves where everything glitters will lure you in. If it is too early in the day for shopping, you can witness the dyeing of the wool or the looming of a Berber carpet on site. Past Place des Epices and its shops stuffed with turtles, colorful spices and other witchcraft accessories, we make our way into the Kasbah district. Not before entering the gardens of 19th century Bahia Palace, an epitome of Islamic art of the era and residence of the grand vizier. Uncovered by chance in 1917, the nearby Saadi Tombs hold the remains of the sultans that gave the city its the last golden age, the 16th and 17th century. The slabs of Carrara marble stand witness to the wealth of the sultan and so does the neighbouring El Badi palace, albeit only a ruin nowadays - called in its heyday by a European chronicler the '8th wonder of the world'.
As the sun sets and the shades of its towers lose their contour, the fumes start rising on the nearby Jemaa El Fna square. Musicians, acrobats, snake charmers, witch doctors and food stalls all come alive as if they had never left the place. This is the city at its most essential, a place where people from everywhere mingle, perform and people- watch, half way between a tableau vivant and a circus show. Try to catch one of the story tellers in action, a tradition perpetuated for centuries and likely to disappear soon.
You can also choose to discover Marrakech a little differently than with a traditional guide. Your guide for the day will take you around the medina and uncover for you each component of the food circuit inside the old town: the mechoui lamb ovens, the preserved vegetables, the farnatchi stove, the herbs and spices shop, the local butcher and finally the souika market where you will bargain for vegetables and grains. She will also point out the different sites and monuments of Marrakech on the way. Then, in the shade of a traditional riad, you will be assisted by your dada ( woman chef) in making your own Moroccan tagine, preparing Moroccan tea and bake traditional bread. More details here.
DAYS 2-3: Atlas Mountains ( Imlil/ Asni).
Escaping the hustle and bustle of the city, your tour of Morocco will take you through lush countryside and Berber villages at the foothills of the Atlas and then up into the mountains. Maybe not as dense as the ones in the Middle Atlas, the forests of the High Atlas provide sufficient shade to make them a heaven for trekking and create their own climate where temperatures rarely exceed 30 Celsius. Less than one hour and a half from the city, you will arrive at your guesthouse to leave your luggage and sip a mint tea while taking in the views. (Douar Samra is the dream of Jacqueline, the Swiss owner, who wished to create a Swiss chalet in the middle of the High Atlas. The more posh Kasbah Tamadot is the dream of mogul Richard Branson, said to have spotted the property years ago on one of his balloon flights around the world).
Then, meet your English speaking guide who will arrange for a trek according to your level of fitness and stamina. Our favorite one is the one leaving from under the village of Aremd to ascend to 2400 meters high and the descend along the river and through the Berber hamlets all the way back to Imlil. If too difficult or steep for children, we can arrange for mules to escort you. Later, stop in the village for lunch inside a Berber home. If you have a second night to add in the High Atlas mountains, we can also take you to see the ruins of 12th century mosque of Tinmel, one hour drive away from Imlil.
How about waterfalls at 2500 meters altitude ?
For those fit enough and willing to go totally off the beaten track, the more strenuous trek to the Roulidane waterfalls is worth every stretch. Even in October, after the long hot summer, you will spot patches of snow on the plateau overhanging the falls. The walk is long and you will need to stop and catch your breath plenty, but you are rewarded with breath- taking views, lost-in-time adobe villages, remote sheep folds and terraced gardens. The few locals you will cross on your way will invite you for tea. Arrive at the base of the waterfalls in the afternoon and take some great photographs to then descend to the village below. Later, have a Berber lunch with a steamy tagine and freshly baked tafernoute bread while overlooking the peaceful valley. On the way back, we can choose to return the same way or draw a loop to join the Asni- Imlil route and be picked up by our driver. Tip: trekking equipment including ski sticks and boots can be rented locally.
On the way from High Atlas to Essaouira, you can choose to spend one night in the Agafay desert and get a taste of the desert life. After all, in summer Sahara is too hot and too distant, a 10 hour drive from Marrakech. Crossing the Kik Plateau and descending by Takerkoust lake, your 4x4 guided tour will then enter the desert. Nothing grows here. There are no birds, no sign of animal life. Far away on the horizon lay the snows of the High Atlas range, but in between, there seems to be nothing but dead hills indescribably bleak, more frozen in their ashen yellow than if they had been covered in rime. Occasionally, a herd of goats and shepherd spatter the horizon, on their way from their hamlet to the next oasis. The occasional camel waiting by the dusty road. Fortunately, one or two desert luxury camps have pitched their white canvas tents between the stone dunes. In places, the same solitude and majesty reigning over the Sahara. The open panoramas lined by the High Atlas ridges in the background make it a great alternative to the Sahara for those too short on time to make the 9 hour- drive trip each way. Arrive at the camp in the afternoon to drop off the luggage inside the tent, have a tea and go for a camel ride. Or ride a buggy. Return to the camp to then prepare for dinner, served in front of your tent, as the night falls over, under a million stars.
DAYS 4-5: Atlantic coast ( Essaouira/ Oualidia).
A 4 hour trip from the Atlas Mountains (3 hour drive from Marrakech), lies UNESCO world site port of Essaouira. With little to do but wander, Essaouira remains a hippy hang-out where Jimi Hendrix is said to have penned Castles in the Sand. Today though, a more Bohemian crowd flocks for the laid-back ambiance, delicious local cuisine, and miles of beach perfect for walking (even as far as the castle in the sand said to inspire Hendrix’s song). Laid-back Essaouira is a must-do either as part of a custom Morocco tour or an excursion from Marrakech. Jews, Arabs, Berbers and English were sharing the profitable trade and left behind a very cosmopolitan, yet laid back town with fortified walls and bastions, white washed houses and dozens of art galleries. Centuries of trade, plunder, slavery and empire have left their prints here.
The Europeans came back two centuries later albeit not as traders, but as art gallery or Riad owners, seduced by the farniente ambiance and all- year- round sun. No longer a best- kept secret and recently added to the very select UNESCO world site list, Essaouira still feels like you travel in time to, perhaps, Mykonos or Ibiza of the 1970’s. Nearby dunes are ideal setting for riding a camel or a quad bike, while the strong wind attracts an all- year- round crowd of surfers and wind surfers. Although the best spots for swimming are south of it, the beach in Essaouira is worth an evening walk to take in the sunset or have a horse ride. Eat well, have drinks with a view, go for a wine tasting, sample local cheese, visit a local market or take a boat ride around the Purlple Isles. Stay in a charming riad inside the medina or relax in a country lodge, just outside the city.
If you want to keep away from the crowds, any crowd or have some tete-a-tete time, Oualidia is your best bet ( except July and August when locals flock to its shores). On the way to El Jadida, this remote fishing village, built around a wide lagoon midway up Morocco’s Atlantic coast, is a quiet, slightly out-of-time place. For much of the second half of the 20th century, the Moroccan bourgeoisie decamped here in the summer on their weekend holidays, eschewing the urban fug for their modest white-and-blue vacation houses. Today, well-heeled Moroccans come for the clean air, the tranquility and the best oysters in the country, which are served tableside on the terrace at L’Araignee Gourmande or the opulent 12- room Sultana Hotel. The most you can do here, besides leaving the world behind, is wander, stare, beachcomb and ride a boat around the lagoon.
Please find below the resumed itinerary (driving times don't include stops): Day 1: Marrakech. You may choose to follow the original tour itinerary as described on the website or have us create a tailor made itinerary around your preferences. Please note that all our tours of Morocco are private and daily stops are accommodated along the way every couple of hours for you to visit a site, take a stunning photo or stretch your legs. Feel free to let us know if you would like to include a site/ activity of your own in the itinerary. If you don't know where to start some ideas are: Marrakech: - hot air balloon flight from the Palmeraie; Atlas Mountains: - trekking with local guide adapted to your level; Agafay desert: Essaouira: Here are our rates based on two persons travelling together, with the relevant accommodation option: Dreamers: from 750 GBP/ 875 €/ 1040 US $ per person ( double room & private desert tent); Our portfolio accommodations do not fit into a rigorous star rating system, so we have named them Dreamers, Privilege and Divine, to best resume their nature. Pricing is tentative and can vary slightly. We can only quote an exact rate once we have agreed on the precise itinerary, accommodation option preferred, the extras you would like to include and the duration of the journey. Discounts apply when 3 or more persons share the vehicle(s). You can also choose to mix different accommodation ranges within the same circuit. Our rates include: - private use of the English fluent driver- guide & modern air- conditioned Toyota 4x4; WHY SHOULD YOU BOOK WITH US # We are based in Morocco since 2006 and no, we don’t work from home :). We scout for the most unique sites & local experiences all year round. We present these on our blog, Facebook and Instagram pages. And only a travel agent based in Morocco can keep you up to date with latest travel restrictions within Morocco or how to get the fastest PCR test; # We anonymously test, hand- pick and continuously update the best boutique and luxury hotels, Riads , eco lodges and Kasbahs across Morocco; # We strive to bring you most authentic experiences. Some of them are unique: private flight to the Sahara; visit of a medina with a local university teacher; mechoui with a nomad family; # we accept payments by credit card, PayPal, bank transfer and, in the near future, alternative coins; # we are on hand 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, before and during your tour, by email, phone or Skype/ Zoom. Ready to create your unique Morocco tour? Get in touch here with our on- the- ground team in Morocco.
SHORT ITINERARY AND RATES
Day 2: Marrakech- Imlil (1H30 drive).
Day 3: Imlil - Kik Plateau - Takerkoust lake - Agafay desert ( 3 hour drive).
Day 4: Agafay desert - Essaouira ( 3 hour drive).
Day 5: Essaouira- Marrakech ( 3 hour drive).
- Moroccan cooking class with a Moroccan family;
- crafts classes including babouche ( slippers) making/ tadelakt/ zellij or Arab caligraphy;
- a day pass at La Mamounia;
- visit of 12th century old Tinmel mosque;
- mountain biking next to Imlil;
- adventure trail park at Terre d'Amanar;
- buggy ride, mountain biking or camel/ horse ride;
- wine tasting plus lunch inside a domain;
- visit a local village market;
- private surf lessons.
Privilege: from 990 GBP/ 1175 €/ 1375 US $ per person ( junior suite & luxury tent with en suite shower and toilet);
Divine: price available on request.
- boutique/ luxury hotel accommodation for 3 nights;
- camel trek and private en suite classic/ luxury tent for 1 night;
- 4 three- course- meal dinners and 4 breakfasts for 2 persons;
- airport or hotel pick- up and drop- off;
- guided visit of Marrakech with English speaking local guide;
- trek in the High Atlas with local guide;
- refreshing drinks inside the vehicle all along the itinerary;
- admission fees to all local sites and attractions;
- 24 hours travel assistance ( with Privilege and Divine level);
- gasoline and transport insurance;
- VAT and visitors tax.
Please find below the resumed itinerary (driving times don't include stops):
Day 1: Marrakech.
You may choose to follow the original tour itinerary as described on the website or have us create a tailor made itinerary around your preferences. Please note that all our tours of Morocco are private and daily stops are accommodated along the way every couple of hours for you to visit a site, take a stunning photo or stretch your legs.
Feel free to let us know if you would like to include a site/ activity of your own in the itinerary. If you don't know where to start some ideas are:
- hot air balloon flight from the Palmeraie;
- trekking with local guide adapted to your level;
Here are our rates based on two persons travelling together, with the relevant accommodation option:
Dreamers: from 750 GBP/ 875 €/ 1040 US $ per person ( double room & private desert tent);
Our portfolio accommodations do not fit into a rigorous star rating system, so we have named them Dreamers, Privilege and Divine, to best resume their nature.
Pricing is tentative and can vary slightly. We can only quote an exact rate once we have agreed on the precise itinerary, accommodation option preferred, the extras you would like to include and the duration of the journey. Discounts apply when 3 or more persons share the vehicle(s). You can also choose to mix different accommodation ranges within the same circuit.
Our rates include:
- private use of the English fluent driver- guide & modern air- conditioned Toyota 4x4;
WHY SHOULD YOU BOOK WITH US
# We are based in Morocco since 2006 and no, we don’t work from home :). We scout for the most unique sites & local experiences all year round. We present these on our blog, Facebook and Instagram pages. And only a travel agent based in Morocco can keep you up to date with latest travel restrictions within Morocco or how to get the fastest PCR test;
# We anonymously test, hand- pick and continuously update the best boutique and luxury hotels, Riads , eco lodges and Kasbahs across Morocco;
# We strive to bring you most authentic experiences. Some of them are unique: private flight to the Sahara; visit of a medina with a local university teacher; mechoui with a nomad family;
# we accept payments by credit card, PayPal, bank transfer and, in the near future, alternative coins;
# we are on hand 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, before and during your tour, by email, phone or Skype/ Zoom.
Ready to create your unique Morocco tour? Get in touch here with our on- the- ground team in Morocco.
A private tour of Morocco should charm yet also indulge.
You are planning on taking on a private luxury tour of Morocco and you are wondering what is that you can not miss. It is no less than a daunting task, considering the explosion of luxury hotels, restaurants and brands in Morocco in the last few years.
Perhaps not as over the top as Dubai or Shangai, Marrakech has become synonym with opulence and hedonism and one of the favorite getaways of the rich and famous. If you haven’t yet heard of the riads and palaces of Marrakech, the odds are you have lived under a rock for the last 10 years. But it turns out that the boom of the red city spurred these last few years a country- wide breed of places and activities that cater for the well- heeled that wanted their options not limited to only the red city. We have compiled a list of what we think are the best ones. This is also about diversity for there is hardly a country more spectacular and spectacularly diverse. Naturally, we could have included a stay at La Mamounia, but La Grande Dame was also there 40 years ago. These are our favorite things to do on a bespoke tour of Morocco:
1. BE A GUEST AT DAR AHLAM
Ranked a few years back by Harper’s Bazaar as the first among the 15 most fabulous villas in the world, Dar Ahlam is above all a home which embodies its atmosphere and follows your rhythm. More than a guest house, the accent here is put on the experience, not the size of your suite. On the what but even more so on the how. Naturally, the standard is there: noble materials have been employed throughout the house, the perfumes and bathroom products have been created by none other than Olivia Giacobetti and the two resident French chefs work wonders in reinventing the Moroccan cuisine. But if you are looking for huge suites with a tennis field- size bathrooms and express check outs, you’ve come to the wrong place. Here, you will find no TV’s, no telephone and no card keys either…
Each day, unique experiences are tailored to each guest with the unique purpose of surprising and enchanting. How would you like to find your room differently arranged at night then when you left it in the morning ? To never know where the next lunch or dinner will be served? Or consist of ? To loose track of time ?... The location of your next meal is always a surprise: it may be inside a private lounge in the Kasbah, one of the secret gardens of the guest house, in a nearby gorge for a magic dinner or a picnic set within the Valley of Roses…
Included in your room rate, an English speaking driver- guide and a private modern 4x4 are at your disposal to take you on an excursion around the area, depending on your mood and wish, at the time of your choice. Luxury means also not having to make any plans. Here, you are forgiven for doing things on a whim… If you want to step outside this garden of Eden, you may choose to visit the salt mines and witness the almonds blossom in spring. Or catch the sunset on Ksar Ali, the ruined Kasbah majestically overlooking the palm grove. Trek in Dades gorge and find out the meaning of ‘monkey fingers’. Visit a 14th century Kasbah, meet the local potters and ironmongers or act like a local and bargain the price in a Berber souk.
Each experience is organized around a theme where each detail is thought accordingly. The menus change. And so do the linen, the cutlery, the candles, the colors, the site… ‘ You know, everything can become reality here’ are the first words one hears when checking in (one day one of the guests took this so seriously that for her immersion into the ancient Egypt, she asked that her bathroom should be regularly filled with camel milk… No, that wasn’t accommodated for.)
Days go by here as anywhere else, but they never look alike. And for the first time in many many years, you give up fighting time and rather surrender to its passage. More often than not, the guests feel like having a ‘vacation from a vacation’ after staying at Dar Ahlam. For the spell to really settle in, you need to spend at least 2 nights here, in a place where the charm cannot really be put into words… Dar Ahlam is currently being offered on our Divine option of accommodation with all of our private tailor made Morocco tours.
2. SEE (AND HEAR) FES WORLD SACRED MUSIC FESTIVAL
Throughout the years, Fes World Sacred Music festival has progressively yet discreetly built a reputation that sets it apart from other similar festivals. If the word ‘sacred’ is making you think of liturgy music or a church choir, think again. This is a festival where flamenco shares stage with gospel, tango and fado succeed themselves to traditional sitar music or the griot music of Mauritania. The organizers have somehow always succeeded in finding diamonds in the dirt, low- key yet extremely talented bands and artists and have them share the stage with some of the most prolific world music actors of recent decades. Past artists include: Bjork, Patti Smith, Paco de Lucia, Ravi Shankar, Joan Baez or Youssouf N’Dour ( who will be performing again this year).
But what makes the festival really exceptional and somehow brings out the best in the music is the décor itself. There can’t possibly be any other better scene for this type of music than the century- old palaces and gardens of one of Arab world’s jewel cities – Fez. I remember one particular late summer night last year walking down a derb sidelined by candles throughout the maze of Medina’s streets and entering Dar Adyel, a three century old palace, all zellij, marble and cedar columns. Berber carpets were spread out in the patio and chairs were sidelining the walls. By the time the band settled into their traditional music from northern India, a hand’s reach from the audience, only a few dim lights around and the starred sky above , it’s fair to say everyone present went into a silent trance. Or the Sufi nights in the parks of the city way past midnight where the locals could enjoy one of the very rare occasions of listening to traditional Moroccan music in public. Or Aicha Redouane bringing back to life some of the golden age Arab poets with her incredible singing in the gardens of Batha palace in front of a mesmerized audience.
This year, the festival’s theme is ‘Conference of the Birds’ in allusion to a the 4500 lines epic written by a Persian poet in which the birds of the world gather to decide who is to be their king, as they have none. The hoopoe, the wisest of them all, suggests that they should find the legendary Simorgh, a mythical Persian bird roughly equivalent to the western phoenix. The hoopoe leads the birds, each of whom represent a human fault which prevents man from attaining enlightenment. When the group of thirty birds finally reach the dwelling place of the Simorgh, all they find is a lake in which they see their own reflection. It is the Sufi doctrine that God is not external or separate from the universe, but rather is the totality of existence.
As the poem, this edition is a spiritual and artistic journey through the cultures and traditions of the world , which are gradually revealed in their depth, through a concert , an exhibition, a film or a conference. All continents are represented by the greatest artists , proven masters in the practice of their art or their song : Roberto Alagna, one of the greatest tenors of modern times that will present a worldwide premiere for the festival, Tomatito , a living legend of flamenco guitar ( Paco de Lucia, that performed last year, sadly passed away last February), Yossou n’Dour and Johnny Clegg presenting a joint project paying homage to Nelson Mandela, and Rokia Traoré representing the deep Africa; Kadem Saher , the prestigious Arabic singer from the Middle East or Zakir Hussain , the most famous Indian musician in the art of tabla. From Latin America we will have Luzmilla Carpio (Bolivia) and from North America Buddy Guy, the great Chicago blues legend who visits Morocco for the first time, surrounded by the greatest representatives of this legendary African- American music.
Artists from China, Palestine, Ireland, Hungary, Mauritania and many other countries and cultures will also perform in the afternoon at Batha Museum , the evenings at Bab Al Makina or within Dar Nights Medina , not to mention the much sought- after Sufi nights at Dar Tazi, out in the gardens under the moon and the stars. Fez, the conservatory and rather frozen- in- time city, truly comes to life during the festival, hosting a variety of exhibitions and educational activities, which take place simultaneously in the city and its gardens. Also, recently, a new project was born, the ‘living itineraries’ that allow the discovery of a millennia old Medina to the rhythm of Sufi music and lost-in-time tales.
3. EXPERIENCE ‘LE SPA’ AT SELMAN MARRAKECH
Recent years have seen quite a few openings of opulent hotels in and around Marrakech, each trying to out- shadow the other by its décor, restaurant menu, concept and almost always, a spa. We think of Palais Namaskar and its Feng- Shui- inspired spa, Jardins de La Koutoubia and its Clarins Spa, the spa at La Mamounia- always a reference, or Dior spa at Es Saadi gardens hotel. But perhaps the one that really stands out is Le Spa at Palais Selman, a 61 room lavish hotel, 10 minutes drive outside Marrakech. Selected by Conde Nast Traveler as one of ‘THE BEST NEW SPAS IN THE WORLD IN 2013’, Le Spa is a standalone space from Henri Chenot, more famously known for his medical spa in the Italian Alps which focuses on rejuvenation rather than relaxation.
Based on the Henri Chenot method, founded at the Palace Merano over 40 years ago whose focus is the combination of principles of Chinese medicine with the latest scientific advances, Le Spa @ Selman has now created its own bespoke offering. The mission: to rebalance the body by helping it. Each day, the body lives a new cycle of 24 hours; this cycle is divided into three specific phases while observing the natural biorhythms: The Elimination, The Assimilation and finally the Regeneration. By recognizing this natural division, one will be able to make the right choices for his/ her body in terms of nutrition, physical activities, relaxation, etc.
In the case where the three cycles are somehow identical within minutes of each other, further Chenot methods are to be considered. Another pillar of the Chenot Method is based on traditional Chinese medicine, determining the energy field that each individual possesses. Henri Chenot has defined five elements among which we find the profiles that allow a relevant diagnosis and customized prescriptions. Finally, the energy circulation is the third pillar of the Chenot method. The identification of individuals problems enables working on specific energy points and potential restrictions- meridians. The method enables developing treatments that will allow sustainable actions regarding specific problems the body will encounter (fatigue, health problems, stress, skin problems, etc…)
Built away from the grand pool, sheltered by the main building, the spa is a tribute to oriental well-being. Arranged around a central square pool, its seven treatment rooms are hidden behind latticework screens. The vaulted ceiling seems to sparkle like a starry sky, perforated to let light gently filter down from above while the main room and arcade are plunged in semi-darkness, promoting utter relaxation. Light and dark, shadow play, shimmering mosaic tiles, traditional plasterwork... unquestionably inspired by the Orient, equipped with two heated outdoor pools and completely secluded from the rest of the hotel, evoking the ancient hammam of Istanbul. Steam room, sauna, water jets, hydrotherapy... all contribute to a matchless state of being.
In order to put these principles into practise, Le Spa is equipped with 7 treatment rooms, 4 hydrotherapy rooms, a jet-massage pool and an expansive Hammam area. There are an additional 2 outdoor heated pools, a Jacuzzi and an indoor relaxation pool and fitness suite. In addition, there is a private spa suite complete with its own Hammam, Massage and Hydrotherapy areas. For guests to be able to have a complete experience of Selman, Dominique Chenot has integrated their signature ‘Bio-light’ cuisine within all three restaurants: ‘The Biolight proposition serves to demonstrate that our 'diet' is well-harmonized with good food that is beautifully presented. The Chef at Selman Marrakech, Ludovic Gomiero, learned the philosophy of our cuisine with me. It is a diet which above all considers the selection of produce and methods of cooking. It teaches us that to follow a healthy diet is also a pleasure. The cuisine presented is part of our true identity and our research.’ Independent from the rest of the hotel lie the stables with 16 boxes housing a collection of pure bred Arabian award- winning horses, 6 outdoor paddocks and a spring garden of 4000 sqm where signature horse shows are organized .
The spa together with the hotel and the stables were all designed by Jacques Garcia, the French architect responsible for the restoration of La Mamounia in Marrakech or Le Fouquet in Paris. To quote Conde Nast Traveler: ‘Every square inch is set for seduction, from the smoky-gray corridors lined with red silk- shaded lamps, to the formal dining room, with its violet-velvet banquettes and fireplace nooks’. To give you an idea of the work that has gone into place here, every brick of the façade and every piece of mosaic was laid in by hand. And there are a few. Mr Garcia said in an interview when asked about what inspired him when building the spa: ‘’The spa is of course inspired by the Orient. It reminds me of the hammams of ancient Istanbul. For me personally, the ultimate one is at the harem of Topkapi. The optical illusions of light and shade cast by the mashrabiya screens…. It’s quite fleeting and mysterious. It is a place of pure comfort and refinement. With its two private pools, the spa is an oasis within an oasis.’’
4. SPEND A NIGHT IN AN EN- SUITE TENT IN THE SAHARA
Most people booking a private Morocco tour want to spend a night in the dunes of the Sahara. And for good reason. Even those coming from countries like Australia, US or South America where the desert is also present. Why ? There is something about the Sahara that startles the imagination of even the most conformist person. Is it the tales of 1001 nights ? The Hollywood blockbusters and their portraying of the desert knights, a mix of ruthless and mysterious, cherishing their freedom as their greatest good ? The tales of die- hard romantics like Lawrence of Arabia or Isabelle Eberhardt ? The stories of the caravans slowly crossing the dunes carrying gold, slaves, ivory or the most unheard- of spices or precious stones? Hard to answer. One thing is certain: a night in the desert always exceeds the expectations and is something remembered for the years to follow.
For those that don’t want to rough it, living the desert experience doesn’t necessarily mean spending the night under a wool tent hardly larger than your mattress or sharing toilets with the rest of the camp tenants. The last few years have seen quite a few openings of ‘luxury’ camps. Bouchaib and Khouloud, the young couple owners of Azalai Desert Camp in Erg Chigaga have taken things a step further. Instead of the typical Berber wool tent and bulky Syrian armchairs, they have designed something different, using linen instead of wool ( so the tent doesn’t keep the heat) and white and beige as the main colors throughout, a style that has been termed ‘ Gentleman Voyageur’. This is not a coincidence since the owners’ favorite movie is ‘Out of Africa’ whose poster hangs on the walls of the lounge of their Azalai Desert Lodge hotel in Zagora. Back at the camp, pouffes are laid out at night with cushions to admire the Milky Way and watch stars up close with the on- location Sky Watcher telescope.
There are only 4 luxurious canopy roof tents that accommodate exclusively the lovers of the great sand dunes and travelers wishing to experience the overwhelming otherness of the Sahara. Each 20 square meters, they have everything you can dream of : mosquito nets, a Simmons- mattress 180 cm wide bed and a real bathroom not only functional but full of charm. Placed on a walkway behind a veil of linen insulation of the room, as out of the novels of last century, the bathroom unveils the oddity of a beautiful sink from Fez, embedded in a marble top
capping a stylish wooden furniture. White canvas tents are all lined with linen, soft and bright. The exquisite Moroccan dinners are prepared back at the hotel in Zagora and served hot in an open air ‘dining room’ set in front of every tent.
A fifth VIP tent ( 35 square meters), with its own dedicated private butler is there for those looking to linger for a few nights in the dunes in complete privacy and has plenty of extras to make sure you have things to do when dune watching is over: an area to sample refined cuisine and a lounge- library to surrender to the pleasure of a board game or a travel novel. In a style suitable to the peculiar spirit of the destination , picnic chic , camel rides and even hypothetical rounds of golf on a green mini set a few sand dunes away, punctuate the passage of time .
If you are planning to spend a few days, you should know that the area is filled with interesting sites to see. After all, we are on the banks of the mythical Draa valley, a valley so often followed by the caravans coming from or heading over the dunes into Sudan, the word used to designate the black kingdom south of the Sahara. The lodge invites you to discover the palm grove of Zagora either on foot or on a mountain bike, to roam around adobe villages in the shade of the palms in the middle of the palm or hide and seek around Ksar Tissergat and its wells of light, a village built almost entirely underground. The nearby Kasbah of Amezrou reminds the rich Jewish presence in the area, controlling the silver manufacturing and trading. Only 12 families were left when they decided to flee Amezrou for Israel back in 1956. The small synagogue can still be visited, illuminated by a skylight during the day. At the bottom of it was placed the Torah in a niche, and small holes are drilled into the walls where the kippas were once deposited. Tamegrout , the potters village, is where the locals make and export throughout the country their famous and unmistakably green pottery. It is also the siege of one of the most prestigious zaouïas ( Islamic school ) in North Africa, containing nine century old manuscripts, valuable scientific treatises , religious books dating from the Andalusian golden age and flourished Korans .
But perhaps the most interesting is to travel back in time, hop on a camel and have an intimate tête- a – tête picnic on the banks of Sacred Oasis, with white tablecloth and silverware. Now just lay back on the sand, close your eyes for a second and imagine the caravan traders reaching the source of water after weeks of navigating the relentless sea of dunes. For those short on time that can’t do without the bliss of spending a night in the Sahara, good news is on the way. Soon, a small plane flight (only the pilot, 2 passengers and their luggage) will carry the few lucky ones from Marrakech over the snowcapped peaks of the Atlas Mountains into the desert for a stay at Azalai Luxury Camp. To be continued…
5. FLY IN A HOT AIR BALLOON OVER MARRAKECH
Waking up on your holidays at 5 AM has to be for a good reason. Especially when you have to convince your other half to follow your example. Or the children if it is a family holiday. Seeing the ‘red city’ , the Berber dwars and the millennia old palm grove. From above. 400 meters high. Is that a good reason ? We think it is. If you are worried about catching up on your sleep, know that the whole affair will be wrapped up by 11 AM and you can have a snooze by the pool back at your Riad in Marrakech, after an early lunch. If this is not a romantic way to surprise your loved one(s), well, we don’t know what is. Especially considering the choice to take a normal flight or have the more high- end option of having the balloon all for yourselves with nothing more than the pilot and the butler filling your glasses with champagne while you take in the panorama.
Making it to the meeting point just after dusk, you get picked up by a spotless 4x4 and driven to the palm grove where the team starts filling the balloon. Once the gas bottles and burners are set up inside the basket, they check to see if there is no gas escape, place the basket on the side and attach the actual parachute. Then the inflation begins. The powerful fan draws cold air inside the envelope. The pilot turns on the burners which heat up the air inside. Meanwhile the assistants help keeping the hot air balloon down. The last tests are being performed: the panel opening parachute, on board panels, radio tests , then passengers can come on board : the preparations are finished. The pilot continues to heat up the balloon – it must reach a temperature close to 100 ° C at the top of the envelope.
Finally, the order is given by the pilot: " RELEASE ALL ! " All aids release the cords at the same time. Everyone is holding their breath. The moment is magical as the journey begins. For those who remained on the ground, the show is fabulous. For those on board, it is both fascinating beauty and adrenaline. This delightful sensation of floating in the Moroccan sky, suspended inside a balloon quickly replaces the initial surprise of the vertical takeoff.
During the trip, many questions are asked while everyone raves about the beauty of Morocco below and the pleasant feeling of having left all their problems on the ground. Seen from here, everything becomes more beautiful and the everyday worries seem all but important. The red adobe villages below contrast with the lush green of the palm groves and other olive farms, while in the distance the Atlas Mountains show off their majestic peaks covered in snow. Soon enough it is time to think about the landing. The pilot chooses a flat area and starts the approach after having explained to the passengers what to do upon making contact with the ground. With a bit of luck, there is no wind and we have what we call a ‘kiss landing’. If the wind picks up, we may get dragged along a few meters. What better after the flight, then to enjoy a mint tea and talk about the sensations we just experienced? The 4x4 tour takes us to one of the small Berber villages we just flew over and discover the enticing Moroccan hospitality by having a mint tea with Moroccan pastries or freshly- baked bread dipped in olive oil.
What to do and see when spending a few days in Marrakech.
We’ve been designing travel experiences around Morocco since 2008, from our offices in Marrakech. With the rise in numbers of online ‘ lifestyle travel designers’ with ‘expert advice’ on Marrakech, we needed to sift the wheat from the chaff and compile our own list of essential things to do and see in Marrakech. After all, your holidays don't last forever and you want to make the best out of them.
Some of the things to do in Marrakech below are rather popular and some of them just hidden gems. In general, you should try and spend at least 2 full days in Marrakech if on a private tour of Morocco. Some of the experiences below were not available a few years ago. Some of them have always been but presently, it’s more about the how than the what.
MEDINA'S FOOD CIRCUIT AND COOKING CLASS
If you wish to tour the medina of Marrakech in a different way than with a traditional local guide this one is worth considering. On one hand, you get your bearings as your guide will point out Jemaa El Fna square, the souks, the Place des Epices and other such landmarks of the medina. On the other hand, you will familiarize with the locals, fetching bread from the local farnatchi or bargaining for vegetables at the local market. Better still, cook a traditional Moroccan dish, whether it will be a tagine, rfifa, couscous or pastilla. The experience is personal as groups rarely exceed 10- 12 persons and everyone gets personal attention. Gemma, the organizer, has lived in Marrakech for 10 years, speaks Moroccan, English and French and is a well of information on such disparate topics as the social importance of couscous or permaculture in Morocco.
Start by meeting Gemma in front of Cafe de France at 10 AM. She will take you around the medina and uncover for you each component of the food circuit inside the old town: the mechoui lamb ovens, the preserved vegetables, the farnatchi stove, the herbs and spices shop, the local butcher and finally the souika market where you will bargain for matisha, bsla and btata. Your guide will also point out the different sites and monuments of Marrakech on the way. Then, in the shade of a traditional riad, you will be assisted by 2 dadas in cooking your tagine. If you're not crazy about cooking, you can sip a glass of wine, watch the others at work and have a tasty lunch. Later, enjoy the rest of the afternoon on your own, browsing the souks of Marrakech or relaxing back at your riad. More details to be found here. From 50 euros per person.
Best done on your first day in Marrakech, all year round except July, August, Ramadan and Aid El Kebir holidays.
Less than one hour drive from Marrakech lies the stony Agafay desert. Nothing grows here. There are no birds, no sign of animal life. Far away on the horizon lay the snows of the High Atlas range, but in between, there seems to be nothing but dead hills indescribably bleak, more frozen in their ashen yellow than if they had been covered in rime. Occasionally, a herd of goats and shepherd spatter the horizon, on their way from their hamlet to the next oasis. The occasional camel waiting by the dusty road. One or two camps have pitched their white canvas tents between the stone dunes. In places, the same solitude and majesty reigning over the Sahara. The open panoramas lined by the High Atlas ridges in the background make it a great alternative to the Sahara for those too short on time to make the 9 hour- drive trip each way.
You can navigate the Agafay desert by mountain
bike, camel, horseor 4x4 but our favorite has to be in the seat of a buggy car. The adrenaline rises while the landscape changes continously as you drive past isolated Berber dwellings, abandoned pens, Eucalyptus forests, lunar rock formations and inside dry river beds and oases. The team will collect you at your riad / hotel in Marrakech after breakfast and take you to Tamesloht, a village famous for its 15th century, 30 minute drive south of Marrakech. There, you will get introduced to the different vehicles and security measures before rolling off in a dust cloud.
The ride takes about two hours and throws at you all types of terrains, from making your way in and out of a trench to stretches where you can take full advantage of the powerful engine. The ride is sometimes windy, as you navigate sandy river beds or donkey tracks under the eucalyptus. The front vehicle will guide you and ensure safety at all times, while stopping regularly for photos at chosen vantage points. You will also be invited to visit a local family and have tea with them. Later, trod across the stony desert on the back of a camel. Finish the day with a tasty meal in one of the local farms and return to Marrakech in the afternoon. Click here for a video of the ride. From 200 euros per person.
Best done on your second or third day in Marrakech, all year round, except July and August.
HOT AIR BALLOON FLIGHT
Ideally, you’ll need perfectly clear sky to enjoy this Marrakech attraction, conditions which are more likely to happen outside the warm season. Then you can really take in all the majesty of the snowy peaks of the High Atlas range and the adobe hamlets scattered throughout the palm trees on the edge of the city.
The journey starts quite early as you are being collected by a 4x4 from your Riad/ hotel in Marrakech at around 5 AM. Once arrived at the flight area you will be served a coffee or tea and witness the rather spectacular setting up of the balloon. The pilot turns on the burners which heat up the air inside. A huge tongue of fire makes the beast slowly stand up... The last tests are being performed and then the passengers can come on board : the preparations are finished.
Finally, the order is given by the pilot: " RELEASE ALL ! " Everyone is holding their breath. The moment is magical as the journey begins. This delightful sensation of floating in the Moroccan sky, suspended inside a hot air balloon soon replaces the initial surprise of the vertical takeoff. The brown adobe villages below contrast with the lush green of the palm groves and other olive orchards, while in the distance the High Atlas culminating at 4200 meters high, glittering its snow mantles far away to the south. One hour later, it is time to think about the landing. The pilot chooses a flat area and starts the approach after having explained to the passengers what to do upon making contact with the ground. After being picked up in a 4x4, you are driven to a Berber tent where you’ll be served mint tea and breakfast while the pilot delivers you a flight certificate. You will be delivered back at your riad/ hotel by 11- 12. From 200 euros per person.
Tip: A Royal Flight would grant you an exclusive private flight for you and your dear one, if you’re looking to romantically surprise your other half, either on your honeymoon in Morocco or as a perfect setting to propose. This also entitles you to: roundtrip in a private and luxury 4x4 from your hotel to the taking- off area, welcome Moroccan tea, free Wi-Fi on board and gourmet breakfast prepared specially by a Pastry Chef composed of fresh champagne, pressed orange juice, fresh fruits selection, coffee and tea served by a steward or hostess sitting at table in the sky. From 550 euros per person.
Best done on your second or third day in Marrakech, all year round, except June, July, August and September. Check weather conditions the day before to be guaranteed clear skies.
TREK IN THE HIGH ATLAS MOUNTAINS
The base for the ascension to Mount Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa is the village of Imlil, at 1700 meters high, only one hour and a half drive from Marrakech. Now, perhaps you are not fit enough to climb all the way to its 4200 meters high ( the hike takes 3 days from Imlil and back) but worry not: there are some great alternative treks available from Imlil and your local English speaking guide will adapt to whatever your level of fitness may be. The surroundings of Imlil are a true earthly heaven and orchards of cashew nuts, cherries, raspberries, elderberries, apples and figue trees supply the local Berber market in Asni on Saturdays. The local waterfalls, half hour walk from the village, in the shade of the nut- trees, past Kasbah Toubkal, are also a highlight. After a good trek, treat yourself to a tasty lunch and incredible views at the local Douar Samra chalet or the more posh Kasbah Tamadot. Our favorite thing to do though is by far lunch inside a Berber home and seeing how the locals live.
HOW ABOUT WATERFALLS AT 2500 METERS ALTITUDE ?
For those fit enough and willing to go totally off the beaten track, the more strenuous trek to the Roulidane waterfalls is worth every stretch. Even in October, after the long hot summer, you will spot patches of snow on the plateau dominating the falls. The walk is long and you will need to stop and catch your breath plenty, but you are rewarded with breath- taking views, lost-in-time adobe villages, remote sheep folds and terraced gardens. The few locals you will cross on your way will invite you for tea. Then, have lunch in a Berber home: a steamy tagine and freshly baked tafernoute bread while overlooking the peaceful valley. On the way back, we can choose to return the same way or draw a loop to join the Asni- Imlil route and be picked up by your driver. Return to Marrakech in the evening. Tip: trekking equipment including ski sticks and boots can be rented locally. From 65 euros per person, excluding guide and lunch.
Best done on second or third day in Marrakech, all year round.
Marrakech is resplendent with gardens, resembling much its sister city on the other side of the Mediterranean, Seville. Menara and Agdal are two of the vastest ones, built by former dynasties around large basins of water, meant to drain the waters of the High Atlas mountains and distribute it to the medina. Yves Saint Laurent’s Majorelle Garden is perhaps the most popular, especially since 2017 has seen the addition of a museum dedicated to the fashion designer. However, Majorelle is rather tiny and thus gets hugely crowded most of the day ( try visiting them early in the morning, before the tourist crowds and buses take over).
Our favorite gardens in Marrakech though, belong to a hotel, La Mamounia. The story of the Mamounia begins in the 18th century with the Alaouite Sultan, who used to offer a domain as a wedding gift to each of his sons and thus Arsat Al Mamoun inspired the name of a hotel. Two centuries later, the hotel and its 8 hectars ( 20 acres) of magnificent gardens opens its doors and soon achieves international fame. Throughout the years, the hotel was never able to accommodate all the customers who desired to lodge here. Before the Second World War, Europeans and Americans were bringing their furniture for their long stays. Winston Churchill, a regular at the hotel, told Franklin Roosevelt about Marrakech in 1943: "This is one of the most beautiful places in the world". The Rolling Stones stayed in 1968. Other guests included Jean Paul Gaulthier, Nelson Mandela, the Kennedies, Tom Cruise or Elton John. Nowadays, tt goes a long way to imagine a more romantic site in Marrakech than these gardens when the afternoon turns to dusk, here, among the hundreds of well- manicured olive, lemon, pine and orange trees. In a way, being here, is like you have suddenly been sucked out from the white noise of the neighboring medina and its traffic madness and landed into an oasis without leaving the city. Even the nearby Jemaa El Fna and its permanent tumult seem but a far away memory.
Tip: Naturally, the gardens are not open to public, but you can ask at the entrance for the terrace and for a beverage ( a coffee would cost you a 70 dirhams / 7 euros) on the terrace, you are free to roam around its romantic gardens.
Important: please note the hotel has a strict dress code and sandals, flip- flops, shorts and mini skirts are not allowed.
Best time of year: all year round except high season ( Easter and New Year’s Holidays).
JEMAA EL FNA SQUARE
Perhaps the most popular thing to do in Marrakech, Jemaa El Fna open- air market is the heart of the city. Undoubtedly touristy and flooded during the day with international tourists on their way in and out of the neighboring souks, it is still... unmissable. After dark the lingering crowds in the square are mostly composed of Marrakech locals, who come looking for entertainment and eating out at one of the hundreds of food- stalls late into the night.
The Jemaa al-Fna is limited only by the streets and buildings that surround it and the market square has been used as a public gathering place since the twelfth century, when Marrakech became a lively international capital under the rule of the Almohad dynasty (1130-1269).The square provides the setting for a huge repertory of spectacles: telling tales, playing music, achieving trances, snake charming, showing monkeys, selling herbs, street preaching, performing acrobatics, magic, fortune telling or reading cards, to name a few.
Several possible explanations are given for the origin of the name of the square. The word jama', or djemma, is an Arabic term meaning "gathering" or "assembly," sometimes carrying the more religious connotation "mosque." The word fna means "nothing" or "end." The interpretation of Jama' al-Fna as "the mosque that came to nothing" refers to an unbuilt mosque that was planned for the site by Sa'di Sharif Ahmad al-Mansur (reg. 1578-1603) but was never erected. Jama' al-Fna was listed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985 as a part of the "Medina of Marrakesh" site. It was almost terraced by the local authorities in 1990’s to make place for a building project and was later rescued by an appeal made by Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo, a local resident, to the UNESCO who then declared it Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Tip: The best time of day to capture the ambiance ( and the best photos) is at sunset. Get up on one of the roof terraces next to Cafe de France and have a mint tea while witnessing how the food stalls are set up and the whole square appears to wake up among the hawking of the sellers, the call to prayer and the fumes rising in the air above it. Then, get right in the middle of it and nibble on local street food from the stalls and stay on to watch the local entertainment.
Do you want to eat where locals eat and taste dishes you typically won’t enjoy in a riad ? Tuck in to a slow-cooked tanjia prepared with preserved lemons and spices and cooked underground. Slurp harira with a side of sweet treat chebakya at a locals-only soup stand. Don’t miss out on some of the best zaalouk in the square, best paired with fresh calamari while watching the world go by from one of the busiest food stalls. In between take in a belly dancing show, some storytelling and perhaps an astrological reading or test your patience alongside locals young and old fishing for a cola. Along the way, your hostess will share her tips to Marrakech including where to dine for a special occasion and of course, where to shop. At the end of the night with bellies full, guests are accompanied to their riad. From 80 euros per person.
© Sun Trails. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher.