In Frommers.com's second dispatch from Morocco, our writer travels from the port city of Casablanca, to the capital Rabat and into the High Atlas Mountains before landing in the Hollywood of North Africa.
Most direct flights to Morocco from New York and European countries arrive first in Casablanca, the country's finance capital. As a coastal city of office buildings, a large port, and wide boulevards named after world leaders and Moroccan kings, it is little more than a stopover city yet still an exotic-sounding locale to start your Moroccan adventure.
If you want impeccable service, the Le Royal Mansour Méridien (27 avenue de l'Armée Royale; tel. 800/543-4300; www.starwoodhotels.com) is a Starwood-preferred property located in the center of town. Built in the 1950s, the Mansour is considered the most elegant hotel in town. Rates can be reasonable for the five-star splurger or traveler looking to make the most out of their Moroccan experience, starting at $200 per night for Starwood preferred guests or about $275 for a standard room. If you don't feel like splurging but want to be nearby and in a U.S.-style hotel, Best Western Hotel Toubkal (9 rue Sidi Belyout; tel. +212 (0) 22 31 14 14; www.bestwestern.com) is right across the street from the Mansour and has rates that start around $100 per night.
The Mosque Hassan II sits on the edge of the continent like a gleaning lighthouse and is the world's third largest Mosque in size and the tallest in terms of height. Although it was completed in 1993, the mosque looks ancient. While non-Muslims cannot enter many mosques, this mosque is open for tours of the library and non-praying areas. Built by the now deceased King Hassan II (whose son Mohammed VI currently rules), the mosque has a retractable roof above and a glass floor below that allows the 25,000 capacity supplicants views of the ocean below. There are no tours at night but the mosque lights up the sky and makes for an excellent photo opportunity in front of the grand minaret.
Continuing on past the Mosque Hassan II, Casablanca's beach area seems a distant cousin of Miami's South Beach. Set in the Ain Diab suburb of Casa, the beach is a wide sheath of sand and chest-high waves on one side with ritzy villas and jazz clubs on the other. Like South Beach and St. Tropez, Le Corniche as the beach area is known, has private clubs where Moroccans spend the day lounging on beach chairs and next to small pools. La Notte, at 31 Boulevard de la Corniche, attracts young, hip Moroccans who dance until closing time -- usually around 3am. The summer months see a crowded Corniche while winter nights are attended by mostly locals and weekenders who inhabit the affluent international suburb.
L'Ostrea (tel. +212 (0) 22 44 13 90; www.ilove-casablanca.com/ostrea) along Casablanca's port is a local foodie favorite. The restaurant is best known for oysters fetched from the sea in Oualidia, a town 80 miles to the south that is credited with opening the country's first oyster farm. The total Moroccan oyster count now comes to 200 tons per year most of which are sold locally. Moroccan wines -- hearty and dry -- are served as well.
Be advised that the harbor area can seem very seedy, as can some major city intersections. Children will ask you for money and beg for food. Petit taxis -- the inexpensive form of getting around in Moroccan cities -- can take you back to your hotel or destination.
An hour's drive up the coast, Rabat is home to the standing government of Morocco and one of the country's four Imperial Cities (those that have housed the country's capital). Situated on the Atlantic Ocean, Rabat's souk and beach area are highlighted by blue and bleached white houses and the streets leading up to the beach are warm and welcoming with shrubs and trees. Restaurants, cafes and bars are crowded with Moroccan officials and foreign nationals working at nearby embassies. The city's markets are famous for silks and small, handmade boxes.
If you have time, either lunch at any beachfront European-style cafe or tuck in for a longer meal at La Villa Mandarine (tel. +212 (0) 37 75 20 77; www.villamandarine.com), a guesthouse located on a former orange grove on a residential street and currently owned by a Frenchwoman. The restaurant attracts a very chic, French, English and American crowd that mingles with Moroccan government officials who come to eat dishes such as duck with couscous on the garden patio. Rooms in the guesthouse start at $220 a night.
Since we recently updated Marrakech with practical guide material and in-depth description, I'd like to address Marrakech as a gateway to the Southern Oasis, the High Atlas Mountains which flank the city's southern border, and treks into the desert. Similar to Katmahdhu in Nepal, Marrakech serves as a departure point for treks, hikes and desert overnight and day trips. Protected as natural reserves by the government, both areas are equally as interesting in terms of history and culture as they are in topography.
M. Aventures (tel. +212 (0) 66 41 95 35), led by Ahmed Marwane, offers custom trips into both the desert and the mountains where Marwane has been trekking since the age of 13. In both the Sahara and the High Atlas Mountains, M. Aventures set-up camp anywhere it likes, offering picturesque views of the Moroccan and North African countryside. "The peaks are my map of the mountains," says Marwane.
Equipped with a Nissan four-by-four and a small tourist bus, M. Aventures offers airport transfers (arrival and departure) with four-day, seven-day and even 21-day tours. The seven-day land-only trip that includes all food, non-alcoholic drinks, and fully-guided service costs approximately $900. You can custom-design any other trip as Marwane is extremely flexible. His French is perfect and his English is rapidly improving. His love of Morocco and its terrain, however, brings a special passion and knowledge to his well-run trips.
Hire a guide out of Marrakech to optimize your desert experience. Chagih Abdelhalim (tel. +212 (0) 68 04 53 45), is a tour guide used by Morocco's tourism office. Specializing in long drives in and around the Marrakech region, Abdelhalim's knowledge of Berber and Nomadic culture moves the trip along quickly. Commanding a large 1991 navy blue Mercedes sedan with over 245,000 miles, Abdelhalim has a very easygoing, patient demeanor. His unrushed tour guide style makes you feel you can ask anything anytime you want (to stop and take pictures, to see a particularly interesting house, to capture a better view of the moon) and he'll immediately accommodate. Providing transportation all over the Moroccan countryside, Abdelhalim can take you from his base in Marrakech to the edge of the desert at Zagora, through Ouarzazate, to the bohemian beach town of Essaouira, the resort town of Agadir, and even to Fez or Rabat. Abdelhalim's rates are $150 for the car per day for up to three or four people.
Nicknamed "Hollywood, Morocco," the town of Ouarzazate is located across the High Atlas Mountains due south of Marrakech. With three large film studios in operation and one on the way, Ouarzazate has quickly become the chosen filming location for almost all films with desert plots or ancient storylines. Parts of Lawrence of Arabia were filmed in the hills around town, Ridley Scott's Gladiator, Black Hawk Down and Kingdom of Heaven as well as other recent movies such as Babel and Oliver Stone's Alexander the Great were filmed in the studios. The modern town of Ouarzazate was built only 20 years ago in a desert oasis specifically to accommodate filmmakers and visiting cast and crews. Since then it has grown into another departure point for treks and a layover town after the four hour drive through winding mountainous roads.
Half the fun of Ouarzazate is getting there. The drive out of Marrakech goes through Berber villages and towns built into the mountainside inhabited by craftspeople who sell their goods at surrounding markets. Where man-made objects such as rugs, pottery, leather goods, jewelry are the attraction inside the Marrakech souk, the natural elements are the attraction in and around Ouarzazate.
All the film studios are open for tours and it's common to see an army of extras dressed in ancient Greek costumes milling around the hills and valleys of the countryside or to see a star's wife buying post cards in one of the town's shops. The biggest and busiest film studio in town, The Atlas Film Corporation Studios (tel. +212 (0) 24 88 21 66; www.atlastudios.com), the first studio built in Ouarzazate, in 1983, gives half-hour tours starting at $3.75.
If you're a celebrity stalker, Le Berbere Palace (tel. +212 (0) 24 88 31 05; www.ouarzazate.com/leberberepalace) is where the stars, cast, and crew stay. The five-star hotel is half-luxurious, half-practical with working wireless Internet availability in the lobby and a huge pool surrounded by several restaurants (including an Italian eatery serving excellent individual pizzas -- a welcome option after a week of tagine). Rates start at $220. The hotel's bar has a Harry's Bar, white-glove vibe with bartenders and attentive waiters decked out in red and white jackets with thin black ties. The two-floor hotel mimics a Berber village with low-slung housing stretching out over the large grounds. Televisions are big (remember, Hollywood types are everywhere).
In town, the Hotel Palmeraie (tel. +212 (0) 24 88 72 44; www.ouarzazate.com/hotelpalmeraie) accommodates adventure seekers who have come to Ouarzazate to head further south to the edge of the Sahara. Rates start at $85 and the staff is glad to help with any questions about natural attractions and places to stop along the route further south. The hotel has a pool and a bar.
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