When planning a vacation, everyone wants a little romance, a little mystery, a little adventure and a little magic. While it’s certainly not Disneyland or Hawaii, the country of Morocco is not known as the “Kingdom of a Thousand Kingdoms” for no reason. The culture and architecture is a combination of tribal influence, colonial and European deco and Arabesque design, making it a unique destination. In fact, the entirety of Africa and the Middle East contains amazing sights, cities and regions rich with history and famous memorable sights, but in this turbulent age, they are not always the safest places to travel. Morocco is a unique gem with coasts sitting 160 feet from bordering islands belonging to Spain. It has been the home of many expats and the destination of worldwide tourism for decades, and it offers something for everyone.
The Exotic Beaches
Morocco shares with Spain the exclusive luxury of having beaches on both the warm Mediterranean Sea and the cooler Atlantic Ocean, giving tourists a variety of coastal towns to visit with different climates, architecture and influences. Almost all destination beach towns around the Mediterranean offer intercultural elements as most contain seaports and therefore more diversity of multi-country residents, meaning more variety in restaurants, markets and architecture. In Morocco, some of the exotic beaches are hours away from any big city and have a culture all their own.
Essaouira, on the Atlantic coast, lies more than three hours from the inland city of Marrakech and enjoys world-class kite boarding and windsurfing. With both African and Portuguese influence, the exotic walled city has an amazing marina where fishermen will sell their catch right off the boat and local restaurants and food stands will cook it up for you with the Moroccan spices of cumin and coriander.
Al Hoceima lies on the Mediterranean coast and is another popular beach stop for tourists with many French and German visitors coming in from Europe, arriving by boat or plane into Tangiers. The crystal clear Mediterranean waters and small town feel make it worth a day or two stop. There are many smaller bed and breakfast type places with sea views and amazing home cooking.
Other coastal towns not to miss are Legzira with its magnificent natural arches of rock over sand and Sidi Kaouki, which can be reached by car, horse or even camel, and interestingly doubled for Dubai in the second Sex and the City movie.
Experience the Cities
While the beaches can capture your whole vacation, the real culture of old Morocco can only be seen in the cities: Fes, Tangier, Marrakech, Rabat and Casablanca to name a few. The old cities all have a walled medina (or older Arab influenced area) and a newer ville nouvelle with French and Spanish influence. The medina usually contains the markets and more historical architecture, while the newer European influenced towns have become the centers of modern services such as railways and luxury hotels.
Marrakech is the third largest city in the country and contains the most remarkable market areas situated below the often snow covered Atlas Mountains. In the well-known square, Jemaa el Fna, tourists will be charmed by musicians and storytellers and entranced by local snake charmers. There is a wealth of real local artisans and craftsmen creating and selling pottery, rugs, herbal medicine and tantalizing foods.
The capital of Morocco for almost four centuries, Fes or Fez is quite possibly the oldest and largest medieval city in the world. Its souks (markets) are known for incredible craftsmanship in tanning animal skins and dying wool with methods that have not changed in centuries. The old city is set in a maze and it is a major center for Arabic religion. Of course, you can also play a few rounds at the Fez Royal Golf Club is you want a taste of more modern luxury.
Tangier has the most varied cultures as it has been under the ruling several different countries over the past few centuries, including France, Britain and Spain. It is the one place in Morocco that day-tripping tourists from Europe can easily go.
Agadir is the place to stop if you want a brief respite from history. It is a modern city with low-rise hotels dotted along the sandy beaches. It is a thriving fishing port and is one of the few cities in Morocco not walled in.
Here’s Looking at You, Casablanca
If you plan to only hit one city in Morocco, it must be Casablanca. It is the largest city in Morocco and is the country’s primary port. While it has the seedier and more industrial neighborhoods due to the large population and multitude of business, it is also the most metropolitan of all Moroccan cities with high-end restaurants and hotels as well as lively nightlife. The city also contains the beautiful Hassan II Mosque, filled with magnificent mosaics, sculptures and painted ceilings. French architecture can be seen in the Place Mohammad V, with its lovely lit fountains.
Of course, one cannot think of Casablanca without thinking of the idyllic love between Bogart and Bacall in the classic black-and-white movie. Even younger generations quote the well-versed lines, “Of all the gin joints in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine…” No one can forget the scene in the film where Bogart’s character tells a newlywed husband to bet it all on roulette. The excitement and anticipation that comes with the spinning of the roulette wheel has made it a favorite tool for storytellers and stands out as one of the most memorable scenes in the film, along with that famous final line, “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Visiting Casablanca is a must for movie-lovers.
Although Rick’s American Café was Hollywood-created, today there actually exists a Rick’s Café. Opening in 2004, it is located at the edge of the medina, which still retains its 1950s European look with and “oriental” flair. The café boasts film nostalgia with more class and luxury, and delicious Moroccan cuisine that definitely shouldn’t be missed.
Markets, Baths and Glorious Accommodations
Regardless of what city or cities one visits, visitors should not miss shopping at the open markets and experiencing the Hamman, or public bath. The Hamman is a steam room and public bath where Moroccans go weekly to cleanse themselves and socialize. It is quite an experience for a Westerner as men and women, separately of course, experience bathing, scrubbing and exfoliating unlike any American spa, while hearing all the local gossip.
While in the cities, stay in a riad, or old Moroccan courtyard home turned hotel. Experience real luxury in a boutique sized accommodation full of real local flair. Marrakech is well known for more luxurious riads and many offer personalized services and tour assistance, making it a perfect honeymoon plan when in conjunction with beach days and mountain hikes or biking.
1001 Arabian Nights
It’s hard to fit so much adventure and exploration into a shorter trip, but if you have the time, do not miss the opportunity to take a short Sahara Desert tour. Morocco borders the great Sahara and many tour operators offer a simple to luxurious trip through the desert, complete with large nomad tents and authentic flame cooked Moroccan meals. Experience sunrise on the back of a camel trekking to the next oasis. Trips are available from two to 10 days and from simple tents to glamorous tent suites. It is definitely the best way to get from one ancient city to the next.
From white sand beaches to ancient cities, mountain and biking treks to camel and horseback camping trips, city nightlife and desert sunrises, Morocco offers something for everyone.