The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - Travel
It’s another world – just four hours away
As Morocco reopens its borders, Tara Stevens has 10 great reasons to visit this familiar but exotic short-haul favourite for a burst of February sun
Jetting off to Morocco in the early spring means two things: you will get all the thrills of a long-haul destination on a short-haul flight (under four hours), and guaranteed sunshine. With borders reopening from Monday – you will need proof of vaccination (for anyone aged over 12) and a negative PCR test (for anyone aged over six) taken within 48 hours to get in – it’s a no-brainer, after a long, gloomy winter, to escape to this exotic land of eye-popping contrasts.
Think candy-coloured towns and the cities of Marrakech (pink), Fez (ochre) and Chefchaouen (blue), honey-coloured dunes and terracottatopped mountain peaks, ancient cedar forests and silvery olive groves, crashing Atlantic waves and pinescented Mediterranean breezes; and now, as spring draws near, hillsides bursting with frothy blooms and shimmering grasses.
This is a country where the food is suffused with great bursts of cumin, cinnamon and saffron, and small-scale riads adorned with carved plaster and jewel-coloured tiles feel like miniature palaces; where a steam and a scrub down at a local hammam will leave you feeling shiny and new, and the people welcome you like family. Little wonder it is one of Telegraph Travel readers’ favourite countries; and Zina Bencheikh, managing director of Intrepid Travel, says it is one of the small group adventure travel company’s top-selling destinations.
Craving adventure somewhere that is big on excitement but low on admin? Perhaps you are venturing out alone for the first time in a while, or seeking an unforgettable family option for Easter (or even February half term). If you are looking for a liberal sprinkling of stardust on your first big holiday of 2022, Morocco nails it.
Historically, it has always been a melting pot of cultures – Amazigh,
Arab, Jewish and French – and all come together in a heady medley of architectural design and ancient crafts, urban style and off-road adventures. Soak up the atmosphere in the country’s mazelike medinas, where sunbeams rain down into shadowy alleyways spotlighting all sorts of treasure. From beaded Senegalese heads to copper bathtubs, custom-made rugs, hand-cut tiles and couture kaftans, it’s heaven for shoppers. But don’t miss its cultural side. As well as museums that outline the kingdom’s past and the savoir faire of its artisans, it has now become a hub of the African art scene, with the annual 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair; a literary festival due to take place in November in Marrakech; and a Festival of World Sacred Music every summer in Fez.
Drive south across the lunar landscape of the Atlas – about eight hours from either Fez or Marrakech – and you’ll eventually hit the frontier towns that give way to the sandy seas of the Sahara. Head west and wind-sculpted Argan forests point to the wilderness beaches of the African Atlantic. To the north, Tangier sparkles white in the Mediterranean light, thrumming with the energy that so captivated the Beat poets and innumerable writers and artists ever since. With huge investments in infrastructure – better roads, highspeed trains, regular internal flights – and ever more lovely accommodation, here are 10 reasons why there has never been a better time to pack your bags, hit the road and get Morocco under your skin.
Spinning through the warren of Fez’s mind-bending medina, uncovering architectural treasures such as the 14th-century Madrasa Bou Inania, with its horseshoe arches and marble courtyard, and the 9th-century Al-Karaouine University, feels like stepping back centuries in time. In Meknes, the 25 mile-long pink ramparts with their nine monumental gates contain the former palaces of Sultan Moulay Ismail and give some sense of his megalomania; while the peaceful, blue-trimmed
Kasbah des Oudaias of Rabat, festooned with flowers and with waterfront views, seems a world away from the frenzy of life outside. Abercrombie and Kent (0330 162 2359; abercrombiekent.co.uk) offers an eight-night Classic Morocco
trip taking in all of these, and adding fun extras, such as vintage sidecar transfers and hot-air balloon rides, for £3,795pp including flights.
You will have heard of its fragrant tagines and sumptuous traditional Friday couscous, but Morocco has plenty more to savour, from sugar-drenched pigeon pastilla to chermoula-laced fish stews and slow-cooked lamb mechouia. At the night food market on the Djemma el Fna, Tasting Marrakech (00 212 6225 36436; tasting-marrakech.com) helps you graze through the best stalls for £75pp, while Annie B Spain (00 34 6205 60649; anniebspain.com) offers a 10-day gourmet tour of the imperial cities, including three cooking classes and wine tastings for £3,320pp. Peggy Markel’s Culinary Adventures (00 130 3413 1289; peggymarkel.com) roams Marrakech, Imlil and Essaouira over 10 days in search of culinary know-how, including wood-fired bread baking and learning about medicinal plants, for £4,200pp.
Agadir has traditionally been the Moroccan favourite for a dose of vitamin D, but the new hotspot is a few miles north in the Amazigh fishing village of Taghazout. A Grandest Sensations wellness weekend at the Fairmont Taghazout (00 212 5282 82828; fairmont.com/ taghazout) is all about lazing by the pool and serious self-care in the hammam and spa. Prices start at £260 for a seafacing double. If you want something more active, Wow Surfhouse (00 212 5282 00037; wow-surfhouse.com) offers week-long surfing courses and daily yoga from its boho beachside perch for £525pp.
STARRY DESERT NIGHTS
The desert is the best place to see the Milky Way, and while big tour groups head for Merzouga, Erg Chigaga has the highest dunes and more exclusive camps. Azalai Desert Camp (00 212 6611 64394; azalailifeexperience.com) offers gourmet dinners, campfires and fourposter beds under the stars for £275 for a double tent, half board. Journey Beyond Travel (00 212 6974 84993; journey beyondtravel.com) offers a sevenday, Golden Sahara experience from £2,450pp that digs deep into desert culture, ending up at a remote beach town in the south. If you are short of time, Scarabeo Camp (00 212 6628 00874; scarabeocamp.com), in the Agafay Desert, is just 45 minutes from Marrakech. Here, the ever-shifting light paints the dunes all shades of pink and purple, and a local astronomer will guide you through the constellations. It’s a great overnighter, starting at £172 for a deluxe tent, half-board.
AFRICAN ART AND DESIGN
Thanks to the arrival of the Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden and the Yves Saint Laurent Museum, alongside a growing number of great galleries in the Red City’s fashionable Gueliz district, Marrakech is a hotspot for art lovers, but there’s plenty more to explore beyond. Art Travel Adventures (00 61 4170 33233; arttraveladventures. com.au) offers 17-day painting and sketching trips from £4,525pp, based on two sharing. Accompanied by British artist Noel Bensted, who fell in love with the light, colour and energy of
Morocco, and made it his home, the route takes you from the dusky pink streets of Marrakech to the peaceful ksars (walled villages) of the Todra Gorge, a secluded artists’ residence on the edge of the Sahara, to the hidden splendours of Fez and the blue-washed charm of Chefchaouen.
The Moroccan Mediterranean combines glitzy resorts, such as the Sofitel, Banyan Tree and the Ritz-Carlton on Tamuda Bay, with secret coves and saltsprayed fishing villages that cluster along the bay from Tetouan to Al Hoceima. Whereas the Atlantic seaboard, which runs like a gilded ribbon almost without stopping from Tangier to Dakhla, is a kind of Moroccan Montauk with better weather. Lively Essaouira has a laid-back, artsy vibe, while sleepy Oualidia is blessedly quiet outside high summer, with little to do but feast on local seafood or putter on the lagoon in search of migrating storks and flamingos. Fleewinter (020 7112 0019; fleewinter.com) offers a six-day Sea and Souks trip combining Essaouira and Marrakech from £395pp, B&B. Abercrombie & Kent (0330 162 2359; abercrombiekent.co.uk) will tailor-make luxury Atlantic Coast holidays; prices on inquiry.
MOUNTAINS HIGH, VALLEYS LOW Divided by the mighty Atlas, with the Rif to the north and the Anti-Atlas to the south, Morocco is a walker’s dream. There’s something for all, from easy day hikes along dry riverbeds fringed with date and banana palms in the aptly named Paradise Valley, to demanding multi-day treks to Toubkal (the highest peak in North Africa, on which snow still lingers long into spring), or overnight trails through the Rif taking in natural phenomena such as God’s Bridge, which connects two waterfalls. The Natural Adventure (020 3962 1455; thenaturaladventure.com) offers twoto nine-day, fully customised hikes to the top of Toubkal, with guide, cook and muleteer, from £245pp. Seven-day trips into the Rif national parks with Toubkal Adventures (00 212 6671 68906; toubkaladventures.com) include secret swimming holes and tea stops in remote Amazigh villages, from £650pp.
ROCK THE KASBAH
The Dadès Valley is the main route connecting the desert with ancient trade roads, dotted with steep, terracotta-hued gorges and ksars crafted from mud built for its various feudal lords. The most spectacular of these is Kasbah Ait-Ben-Haddou, a Unesco World Heritage Site that is the former mountain residence of Thami el-Glaoui, pasha of Marrakech from 1912 to 1956. The Draa Valley, by contrast, encompasses 680 miles of the Dadès and Imini rivers, flanked by lush palm groves and oases at Skoura and Zagora, which make for excellent jumping-off points to the desert camps. Intrepid Travel (020 3308 9757; intrepidtravel.com) offers a Premium Morocco Explorer, which takes in imperial cities, desert camps and palatial kasbahs over 12 days, from £1,455pp. Cox & Kings’ (0330 173 5131; coxandkings.co.uk) luxurious seven-night Oases and Kasbahs trip goes more remote and includes highlights such as the spectacular formations of the Todgha Gorge for £1,695pp including flights.
Moroccans place great importance on gardens, incorporating Islamic and Andalucian styles – symmetry, art, water features, medicinal plants – to spectacular effect. From the eyepopping colours of the Jardin Majorelle in Marrakech to the exotic blooms of the Sidi Bouknadel gardens in Salé, saffron fields of Ourika and the rosariums of Ouirgane, it is a verdant paradise. Travel Exploration (00 212 6188 82681; travel-exploration.com) has a 10-day Gardens of Morocco tour from £3,700pp, led by garden designers, botanists and herbalists, liberally sprinkled with cocktails and gourmet meals.
COOL FOR KIDS
This is a country that adores children and wherever you go they will be spoilt and indulged and treated to adventures: scooped onto the back of a donkey in the Fez medina, dune surfing in the desert, whisked into the kitchens of local restaurants to sample homemade sweets; and there are children’s workshops at Marrakech’s
Museum of African Contemporary Art (00 212 6769 24492; macaal.org). Plan It Morocco (00 212 5356 38708; plan-it-morocco.com) offers tailormade family holidays that can include anything from pottery classes to treasure hunts through the souks and camel treks. There’s something to suit every age and interest, from £5,000 for a family of four over five days.
Prices quoted above do not include flights unless specified. British Airways (0344 493 0787; ba.com) has return fares from Heathrow to Marrakech from £193; Royal Air Maroc (00 212 5224 89797; royalairmaroc. com) has returns from Heathrow to Rabat from £326 and from Gatwick to Casablanca from £288. Ryanair (01279 358395; ryanair.com) will resume flights to Agadir from
Stansted at the end of Feb from £68. Information: visitmorocco.com/en