Discovering Morocco on a private 4×4 tour has become very popular in the last few years. When one thinks of Morocco, endless saffron dunes and hard- to- bargain souks come to mind. Ultimately, a culture shock will happen. It is overwhelming – in ways both uplifting and unsettling. Naturally, you don’t have to book a boutique tour – you can simply join a group tour or rent a car – it is, after all, a less costly option. Is it worth the extra cost to get a spotless modern air conditioned 4×4 that can take on steep gorges and towering desert dunes ? And a driving guide to introduce, or rather initiate you in the ways of an exotic and impenetrable culture? We think it is. But we are biased – we’ve been organizing private tours of Morocco for quite a while now. So, we’ve decided to ask the opinion of personalities from the travel world with a common passion for traveling and other cultures:
Patricia Homison is a veteran traveler and owner of ‘Me and He Travel’ blog: www.meandhetravel.com/. Nellie Huang has traveled to more than 90 countries and contributed to CNN Go, National Geographic and Lonely Planet among others: www.wildjunket.com. Paul Goetz is general manager at Domaine de Malika, a boutique hotel in the Atlas Mountains: www.domainemalika.com.
These are 8 good reasons why we ( and them) think you need to explore Morocco with a private tour:
1. THE OFF- THE- BEATEN- TRACK EXPERIENCE
Lonely Planet or Trip Advisor may be good a good starting point to select the sites and activities while on a Morocco trip. The dunes by Zagora can be reached by bus or rent a car and there is where many a travel agency camp their clients. But the majestic dunes of Erg Chigaga, where the Sahara really starts, lie a two hour off- track drive away. Better still, before reaching the dunes, why not leave the tarmac and fall under the palm trees in the nearby palm grove ? Learn how the locals deviate water through century- old irrigation khetaras. Olives are pressed by hand through the oil press – dip the freshly- baked bread into it and sample a local’s breakfast while sipping mint tea. And, at sunset, witness how the honey- comb citadel turns into a flaming wall that seems to defy the ages, its ruined mud houses slowly returning to the earth they had been moulded from.
In a country where tarmac covers more and more routes, true immersion often commences where tarmac ends. How would you feel returning home having missed on all this ? As Patricia puts it: ‘A private tour gives you the advantage of an insider’s perspective of the real Morocco and a exposure to people and places that would be difficult, if not impossible to find on your own. Our private tour totally accommodated our tastes, preferences and values and it was such a fabulous experience, we went back six months later to do even more.’
2. TAILOR MADE ALL THE WAY
Your Morocco journey will be private and customized based on your schedule, budget, and interests. After due exchange of emails, a day- to- day itinerary is provided with daily sites and activities included. But here is where the difference between good and excellent lies. Careful day to day planning is good but spontaneous on- the- go changes are even better. Suppose that one morning you’re too lazy for the Atlas Mountains trek you had planned and just want to reach the Sahara early so you can mooch about in the dunes the whole afternoon.
Or perhaps the eco lodge where you just spent the night has made such an impression on you with the previous evening’s dinner that you suddenly feel like booking an impromptu Moroccan cooking class. Deborah agrees: ‘We love being able to change the itinerary at a moment’s notice – a spectacular temple needs more time for appreciation? No problem, because there is no group agenda written in stone to adhere to. Want to linger another hour at the incredible waterfall? That’s fine!’
3. LOCAL BOUTIQUE ACCOMMODATION…
What makes Morocco great with the intrepid traveler is the number of hip, yet authentic, family- run, cozy accommodations. The riads of Marrakech, the refurbished kasbahs of the Draa valley and the eco lodges on the fringes of the Sahara are but a few examples. Most of them offer great cuisine with ingredients sourced from their own organic back yard. The owners will often join you for coffee over breakfast and share insider tips on what there is to do and see in the area. Woke up too late to have breakfast? Arrived too late to have dinner? Nonsense.
Paul concurs: ‘When my guests arrive for the first time, we already know them a bit from our previous correspondence and I love to see them display a wide smile when I call them by their first names. Very often our guests leave saying they found the perfect ambience because they felt a bit like home, while surrounded by a caring staff that cater to their each and every need, without ever being intrusive’. So then, why have a buffet dinner or stay at a Sofitel ? What tour operator will offer this intimate, cozy kind of accommodation? Only a luxury Morocco- based travel agency, with staff anonymously testing new out- of- ordinary properties all year round, can go the extra mile.
…THAT YOU HAVE TIME TO ENJOY.
But there is no point in carefully selecting the best hotels available in Morocco if you won’t have the time to enjoy them. A good agency will carefully plan and arrange and balance the time spent inside the vehicle, visiting sites and enjoying the properties’ facilities. Why stay at the arresting Azalai Desert Lodge set on the edge of Zagora’s palm grove, if you arrive late at night just in time for dinner or leave next morning right after breakfast? It would be a pity not to laze around and browse their exquisite library packed with livres des voyages. Plunge in the inviting pool whether it is February or June. Or take a bicycle ride in the surrounding palm grove. Stands of dark- green reeds grow beside chuckling water. Succulent trees ripple in a breeze as the palm grove is softly hushed, the only sound the bleating of far- off goats. When was the last time you lost track of time ?…
4. A DRIVER AND MORE
Traffic is mad in the big cities of Morocco – everyone knows that. And that alone could be reason enough to have someone drive you. But your driving guide should be also an expert in the culture and traditions of the areas you will cover. He carefully selects the local guides, the best spots for stunning photos or the pace of the day. He can explain the defense of a ksar or the different kaftans worn by a Moroccan bride during her wedding. He will also know when to talk and when to keep quiet, creating a comfortable ambiance during the tour.
Throughout your Moroccan itinerary, you may even be invited to have lunch with his family, an epitome of hospitality in Morocco. Or elsewhere. Nellie Huang says: ‘For instance, in my recent trip to Iran, we were invited to our guide’s house for a dinner with his family and it turned out to be the highlight of my trip. His family was extremely welcoming and genuine and they showed us the Iranian hospitality that we’d long heard about.’ Deborah agrees: ‘We consider it a privilege to get to know our guide and sometimes his or her family, creating a bond that can last forever. ‘
5. INTERACTING WITH THE LOCALS
Moroccans are Morocco’s greatest asset. Humble, joyful and hospitable, often needy, they will always share the little they have with their guests. Patricia comments: ‘The best of Morocco, the jewel in the crown of this country is it’s people’. Nellie agrees: ‘I’d say the biggest benefit to doing a private tour is gaining in-depth personal insights of a country through a local. If you’ve got a good guide, you can really get to know every aspect of a country’s culture and tradition and at the same time understand the mentality of locals’.
This is also where traveling across Morocco on a private trip makes a difference – it makes possible such encounters while keeping away overacted receptions and convenience smiles. Sometimes these encounters happen spontaneously – as with the family lunch mentioned earlier. Other times, moving stories are to be heard – such as the guide in Skoura, whose passion for his homeland made him open a small scale museum to document the century old garments and tools of the local Berber, Arab and Jewish communities.
6. PEACE OF MIND
A reliable Morocco tour agency should offer 24 hour assistance during your travel. Whether this means booking last minute the most exquisite French restaurant in Marrakech or finding a babysitter for your children, it all comes down to your peace of mind. A luxury Morocco tour means not only staying in the best available hotels at each location and paying top dollar for it, but also have a backup 4×4 available to be delivered timely in the unlikely event that your designated 4×4 breaks down. Or your driving guide welcoming you at the airport even if your flight is x hours late. Similarly, if you’re put off by the possibility of spending too much time at the passport control, the agency will arrange for a small fee a VIP airport arrival bypassing immigration queues and making sure you start on the right note your holidays in Morocco.
7. IT SAVES YOU TIME
Imagine renting a car and driving down the Draa Valley looking for the most spectacular kasbah or a good place to picnic. Getting lost and asking locals for direction in a language they don’t understand. Or joining a group tour and having to put up with pressure- sale speech while on a visit to the local argan oil cooperative before moving on to the next attraction. A site you were not interested in visiting in the first place. You get the picture. None of these ordeals happen when you book a customized Morocco tour. Deborah says: ‘Perceptions and memories of a place can be impacted greatly by how and when you see them. Over-crowding, a hurried pace, and often the inability to see and touch the treasures you have come so far to see can result in such disappointment’.
8. THE SURPRISE
Many book a private trip through Morocco as a celebration of a special event. But it takes more than the occasional flower bouquet or birthday cake to impress nowadays. With a little bit of imagination, there is an endless list of ways to surprise your guests by offering them a special occasion present to match their taste. It may be a signature home perfume to remind them of the almond trees blossoming in February in Dades Gorge. An exquisite album with photos of the dreamiest places in Morocco that will likely inspire one day the next generation to come and visit. Or perhaps a leather- bound notebook where they could keep the journal of a journey that would have transformed them.
Sun Trails has been offering bespoke private tours of Morocco since 2009. For a preview of our sample itineraries click here. Rates for a 8 day bespoke private tour start at 940 €/ 1275 $ per person on a basis of 2 persons sharing.
© 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.