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Morocco's Magic: Get Romantic in Marrakech, Adventurous in the High Atlas Mountains & Relaxed in Essaouira

For the first few weeks after we arrived back home in the States, I could literally smell Morocco. It was emanating from the beautiful, handmade carpets my boyfriend and I had carried back with us and tried to air out in our apartment.

For the first few weeks after we arrived back home in the States, I could literally smell Morocco. It was emanating from the beautiful, handmade carpets my boyfriend and I had carried back with us and tried to air out in our apartment.

But even now, several months after the trip, as we live amid our (finally) clean rugs, a powerful scent lingers with me. Morocco is like a magic potion, spellbinding and fragrant -- an infusion of intense spices and leather hides being sewn into babouches (slippers); mules and the black soap found in hammams (the Moroccan version of a Turkish bath); steaming sweet mint tea and dusty corkscrew city alleyways; crisp mountain air and ocean breezes.

Why Go Now

According to the 2005 Conde Nast Traveler Reader's Choice Awards, Marrakech is the third best city in the Africa/Middle East category. The first thing it has going for it is sunshine, about 300 days a year. Second, it's part of a peaceful Islamic country, one that's not only at a crossroads now but has been at one for much of its history. Morocco has managed to retain its centuries-old delights -- Islamic palaces, comedic storytellers, and snake charmers -- while also embracing tourism and giving itself, with the help of wealthy Europeans, a significant makeover. As I wove my way within the walls of the medina -- in and out of groups of veiled women, donkey-drawn carts, and motorbikes; past crowds of jelleba-covered men sipping mint tea -- I discovered posh riads, trendy restaurants, and talented craftspeople accustomed to showing off their skills to visitors, all hidden behind plain brown walls on narrow maze-like streets.

A unique rugged metropolis, set to the daily soundtrack of five calls to prayer from microphones in skyward-reaching minarets, Marrakech is inhabited by extraordinarily open-hearted people. Take our friendly guide in Marrakech, for example, who taught me the traditional Arabic greeting and practiced it with me until I had it memorized: Assalaam aleikum (peace to you) and Waaleikum salaam (and to you peace). As each part of the greeting is uttered, a hand is traditionally placed over the heart. Every time I witnessed this exchange on Marrakech's streets, I felt truly moved, especially in light of my comparatively callous American routine of "Hey, what's up? Nothing, you?"

In one of our recent e-mail correspondences, I asked Mustapha what he'd tell would-be visitors. "The kingdom of Morocco is a wonderful one," he writes. "The people are very welcoming. The country is rich in history, geography, and sights. Most people who have visited come back again and again. Everything is magic in Marrakech. And whatever your religion is, this country is your second country."

Because Marrakech has been a trading center for decades -- and is an increasingly popular tourist destination -- the influences of both East and West are palpable. I often saw a traditionally veiled older woman walking arm-and-arm with her jeans-clad teenage daughter. (Western women don't need to wear a veil in Marrakech, but both men and women should keep their arms and legs covered as much as possible.) As a female American tourist, I never felt uncomfortable or out of place. Nor, it seems, do other visitors; tourists are rediscovering Morocco in record numbers. After agriculture, tourism is now the nation's second largest industry.

In the first half of 2004, 3.16 million tourists visited the country, and, according to the Moroccan government, foreign tourist arrivals increased by 19% in the first half of 2005. But these numbers are largely French, Spanish, German, and British. (I didn't meet another U.S. traveler during the time I spent in the country.) The Moroccan tourist industry hopes to accommodate some ten million tourists by 2010, and that means the monarchy -- ruled by Mohammed VI, who ascended the thrown in 1999 -- is encouraging economic development, official training for tourism guides, and rising numbers of comfortable accommodations with Western-style amenities. As a travel destination, Morocco has it all. "My favorite thing about Morocco," Mustapha told me, "is that it has the Atlantic Ocean, the Mediterranean, the mountains, and the desert."

If you're unsure how to structure a trip to this part of North Africa, here's the general itinerary my boyfriend and I followed in December 2005 and one I'd highly recommend to a first-time visitor who wants a diverse experience -- including city life, the mountains and a beachside town -- all in a relatively short trip.

Getting There

Both Air France (via Paris) and Air Maroc (via Casablanca) offer flights to Marrakech out of New York's John F. Kennedy (JFK) airport. We choose Air France (tel. 800/237-2747; because it was cheaper -- about $650 in December 2005 for a round-trip ticket. If you're flying into Marrakech, plan on spending at least three nights there, then three nights in the Atlas Mountains, and two nights in Essaouira. On the way back home, consider decelerating your jet lag and culture shock by spending an overnight in Paris.

Exploring Marrakech (Days 1-4)

Marrakech is safe and navigable on your own, but it can feel overwhelming upon arrival. To get your bearings -- and to learn about the city from a local resident -- start off by arranging a tour with an official guide. You can ask your hotel to arrange a guide, but I highly recommend Mustapha Chouquir (tel. 212/062-10-40-99; For about $20 a day, plus tip, he'll show you around the city and share local insights in English, as well as politely ward off the rare unofficial guide who tries to offer you his services. Mustapha's charismatic manner and his wealth of information about Marrakech's history and current politics are priceless. He can also coordinate side trips outside of Marrakech. Call or e-mail him at least a week before you require his services, or, if you prefer to wait until you arrive in Morocco, ask your hotel to call him the day before you hope to set off. Even if he's unavailable, he can set you up with one of his associates.

After a day with Mustapha, spend some time exploring on your own. To my mind, the streets themselves are the city's best attraction; just wandering around, even getting lost, exposes you to the sights, smells, colors, and essence of Moroccan daily life. Along the way, be sure not to miss the Bahia Palace, Djemaa el Fna (a daily stage for entertainment, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site), the souks, the Musee Marrakech, the Ben Youssef Medersa, the Villa Nouvelle, and at least one of the city's stunning gardens.

A shopping hint: Browsing in the souks and talking with local shopkeepers is a worthwhile activity that can hold your attention for more than one afternoon. But if you plan to take home souvenirs, do some initial research at Ensemble Artisans, on Muhammed V Avenue. Here, all prices are officially set at fixed rates by the government, which means there's no bargaining. The costs are good benchmarks to keep in mind when you do bargain at the souks. Something else to remember: If you enter into a conversation with a shopkeeper in a souk, it's often customary for he or she to offer you mint tea. If you're truly not interested in purchasing anything, decline the tea politely and try not to loiter too long. If you stick around, you'll begin to feel intense pressure to buy and it's hard to escape without at least one trinket. Once you do express genuine interest in something, let the bargaining begin. It's fair to counter the shopkeeper's original offer by at least 50% or 60% and go back and forth two or three times. You can always walk out if you don't like the final price, but my rule of thumb was that if I really liked something and liked the person selling it, I was willing to pay a few extra bucks for the experience.

The only exception to this rule is carpets: If you plan to buy traditional carpets, do your research on type, quality, and value before you arrive. You'll want to be educated about the wide variety of rugs unrolled before you, so you'll know what's a fair price for what.

Outside of the government shops, haggling in Marrakech is part of the fun; just keep a cheerful spirit and you'll earn the shopkeeper's respect. Babouches (slippers), silk scarves, handmade leather bags and poufs (footstools/ottomans; visit Authentic Morocco for photos), and jellebas (traditional robes) are unique, handsomely crafted, and relatively inexpensive souvenirs for friends and family back home. Babouches shouldn't cost more than $10 per pair; scarves shouldn't cost more than $20; and poufs shouldn't cost much more than $30 or $40.

During the day, you can walk anywhere within the city walls. But if you're heading out for dinner after dark, or maybe for a day-time excursion outside the medina -- to the Villa Nouveau or the Palmerie on the city's outskirts -- consider taking a taxi. During the day, it's easy enough to hail a petite taxi (often shared with other passengers), but, at night, ask someone at your riad or the restaurant where you're eating to call and make arrangements.

Where to Stay in Marrakech

Forget the most well known hotel, La Mamounia -- at least until it's renovated (an overhaul is expected in the next year), and instead, try an enchanting and unique riad. In Marrakech, restoring riads and reincarnating them as hotels or B&Bs is the ongoing trend in accommodations. A riad is a traditional building, typically an old home, that's hidden from the street except for its door, built around a courtyard that often houses a fountain and fruit trees. The windows from bedrooms often overlook the courtyard rather than the street. Here are two of my favorite places to stay:

Dar Les Cigognes (108, rue de Berima, medina, Marrakech; tel. 212/0-24-38-27-40;; 11 units; 1400¿3500 dirhams) is the brainchild of a Swiss-American husband-and-wife team who fell in love with Marrakech -- and this riad -- while visiting the city on a vacation from their home in London. They aptly named their stylish and intimate hotel, "House of the Storks," in honor of the storks that perch on top of a neighboring palace's walls. (You can watch the storks for hours, and snap countless photos, from the riad's breathtaking roof deck.)

This place is the perfect choice if you don't want to spend a fortune, but you can afford to splurge a little for a luxurious -- and utterly unpretentious -- vacation. It's also a good pick if you want to be close to the sights. The UNESCO World Heritage Site, Djemaa el Fna, is just a 5-minute walk from here.

When we arrived from the airport at Dar Les Cigognes, we were greeted by the general manager, who led us to couches in a tranquil white room off the interior courtyard. Rather than ask for my credit card and signature at a sterile desk, he presented me with a single red rose and strolled with us through a casual tour of the riad. Any irritability or anxiousness I felt due to jet lag instantly melted away.

Les Cigognes' interior design combines the modern aesthetic of clean lines and neutral colors with traditional, vibrant accents including plush pillows in reds, oranges, and purples; handcrafted lanterns; and fresh roses. The ambience feels both glamorous and relaxed.

Our square bedroom, the Sahara, was enclosed with walls decorated by a hand-painted mural of camels crossing the desert and a dark blue ceiling speckled with masses of shining stars. The first night we arrived back from dinner, our bed's plush white comforter was topped with a smattering of red and yellow rose petals.

After dropping off our bags in this whimsical room, we headed upstairs for fresh air and a mid-afternoon snack on the rooftop. (The riad rooftops in Marrakech are delightful sanctuaries, away from the city's noise and chaos.) Everything -- from the Moroccan spiced chicken kebabs to the assorted samosas to the view -- was delicious. The riad also offers spa services (a traditional hammam, as well as Western massage treatments) and all room rates include breakfast, which is scrumptious and can be served in your room, in the dining room, on the rooftop, or anywhere in the riad you'd like to have it.

For a more extravagant experience, book a room or suite at Villa des Orangers (6, rue Sidi Mimoune, 40,000 Marrakech; tel. 212/0-44-38-46-38;; 2700-6350 dirhams). Larger and more regal than Dar Les Cigognes, this hotel is set in a breathtakingly restored riad. Much of the original craftsmanship -- such as delicately carved walls that look almost like lace -- remain intact. The new furnishings are of very high quality. And especially in the public spaces and suites, a sophisticated, clean-lined décor with splashes of Moroccan fabrics, poufs, and pillows is fit for the most stylish magazine pages.

Plan to have lunch one day in the orange-tree filled courtyard, off of which is a long, narrow pool fit for a king. Many rooms have their own outdoor terraces; ours was adjacent to a smaller rooftop pool and came complete with an outdoor shower in addition to a large en-suite bathroom. The range of accommodations is wide; three new suites are enormous and at least one includes an extra room off of the kitchen that houses a massage table. True opulence, but it's all served up without ostentation. The dining room, decorated in muted colors with modernist elements and candlelight, is a must for dinner. The kitchen's chef takes a creative look at traditional Moroccan cuisine, which you'll appreciate after a few nights of repetitive set menus at restaurants in the city.

Where to Dine in Marrakech

"Say couscous!" If you're like me, you'll laugh, but you'll begin repeating this phrase in lieu of "say cheese" each time a local bystander snaps your photo. And you'll get used to the phrase when dining, too. If you want to savor traditional Moroccan cuisine -- but don't have an invitation to someone's home, and have too weak a Western belly for the food stalls -- prepare yourself for set menus at restaurants. These meals typically start off with a plethora of salads served on small plates, followed by tajines (casseroles cooked in ceramic bowls; the term actually refers to the cookware, which is covered with conical lids; to see examples, go to, and couscous. The cuisine is mouth-wateringly good, but after several days, you might want to try a riad like Villa des Orangers or Dar Les Cigognes for dishes that attempt a fusion of European and Moroccan flavors.

After a morning of exploring Djemma el Fna and the souks, you'll work up an appetite. For a traditional (if somewhat overpriced) Moroccan lunch set in a refreshingly tranquil garden, just off of the bustling square, try Restaurant Al Baraka (1, Place Jamaa El Fna; tel. 212/44-44-23-41;; set menus ranging from 300¿400 dirhams). You can dine inside or out, and the enormous quantity of food you're presented with is all scrumptious. Save room for the mint tea and pastries that follow your main course. You can find plenty of other cafes and restaurants overlooking Djemma el Fna, but we enjoyed Al Baraka's kind service, calming setting, and home-style Moroccan cuisine. The only negative is that this place caters to tourists and wealthy Moroccans; we saw very few locals dining here. (In fact, I didn't see many locals, particularly local women, eating out anywhere. The male-dominated cafes are popular spots for mint tea, but as a woman, I rarely felt comfortable entering one of these establishments.)

For a romantic dinner, with plenty of laugh-out-loud fun, don't miss Dar Marjana (15 Derb Sidi Tair, off Rue Bab Doukkala; tel. 044-38-51-10; set menu 605 dirhams; daily except Tuesday from 8pm; reservations required). This worthwhile splurge offers excellent cuisine, live Moroccan music, and a belly dancer that gyrated with me and my boyfriend. I've never laughed as hard as when I tried to emulate her impressive hip shaking. And in between our many courses, our always-smiling charismatic waiter gave us Arabic lessons. "Shukran" (Arabic for thank you), he reminded me each time I said merci.

Upon arrival at the magnificent early 19th-century palace, we were seated in the majestic courtyard and served a drink, olives, and popcorn. After a half-hour or so, we were escorted into the dining room, where our table was decorated with the outline of a heart, fashioned out of fresh red rose petals, with our initials spelled out inside in red sequins. Everything -- from the plethora of salads to the tajines and couscous to the flaky pastries and mint tea -- is delicious, and the English-speaking owners are delightful. (Wine is included in the price of the set menu.)

For a more intimate and reserved romantic night out, try Le Tobsil (22, Derb Abdellah Ben Hessaïen, R'mila Bab Ksour; tel. 212/0-44-44-40-52 or 212/0-44-44-45-35; e-mail:; 550 dirhams; reservations recommended). This restaurant is considered to be one of Marrakech's finest, and you won't be disappointed by the set menu or the ambiance, but I found the service warmer and more entertaining at Dar Marjana. You'll hear live music here, too, but the musicians only come by your table for a brief period; mostly, you'll be left alone to enjoy your traditional cuisine and unlimited wine. If you want a quiet evening with a variety of well prepared dishes, Le Tobsil's the place to go.

Plenty of the kitchens at stylish riads are also earning top-notch reputations; even if you're not staying at one of the riads I recommended earlier, try Villa des Orangers or Dar Les Cigognes for dinner one night, or ask your concierge for other recommendations.


Bars and clubs are emerging destinations for tourists, ex pats, and some young Marrakech residents, but the stimulating Djemma el Fna is where you'll find the largest number of locals out after dark, enjoying inexpensive food stalls and nightly entertainment.

Rocking the Kasbah in the High Atlas Mountains (Days 4-7)

The highest peak in Northern Africa, Mount Toubkal, is just 40 miles outside of Marrakech. Because you won't need a car once you arrive, consider splurging for a private taxi (about $70) to take you into the High Atlas Mountains. I'd highly recommend the friendly and dependable driver Hamid Oubihi (tel. 061/16-07-46; fax 0/44-49-08-30), who speaks excellent French and enough English to communicate all the necessary information. To exemplify his trustworthiness, he wouldn't let us pay him anything upon arrival in the mountains. Instead, he offered to drive us to our next destination for another $70, and told us we could pay him the total sum once we arrived there. We agreed, and Hamid proved to be an excellent, dependable driver who pointed out towns and plants as we drove by them, and brought us to a great Berber carpet warehouse on the way to Essaouira.

The absolute best place to stay in this mountain region is the Kasbah du Toubkal (owned by U.K.-based Discover Ltd.; tel. + 44 0 1883-744-392;; 110€Â¿400€). This remote, majestic hideaway, without any airs, is set at the foot of Mount Toubkal (and it's so visually impressive that Martin Scorsese used it as the Tibetan monastery in his film Kundun). Run by a local and hospitable Berber staff, you'll feel at once at home and like you've stepped out of this world.

Your taxi can only take you as far as the town of Imil. From there, you'll check in at a small storefront office. A mule and a local guide then come meet you to carry your bags and lead you on a short uphill walk to the Kasbah.

Our room had a terrace that overlooked carpets airing out on a villager's roof and nothing else but trees and magnificent mountains, with the snow-covered peak of Mount Tobkal in the distance. Inside were two pairs of brown leather babouches (Moroccan slippers) and our own jellebas (traditional Moroccan garments, with sleeves and a hood, that go over your head and reach below your ankles) to wear between our room and the main lodge. Every time my boyfriend and I entered the lobby, someone would be sitting by the small fireplace just inside the doorway, and, like clockwork, he would shake our hand, grinning. "Good morning/afternoon/evening," he'd say. "How are you? How was your hike (or hammam or dinner)?" And he was always genuinely interested to hear our answer -- which was always full of superlatives and smiles. Mostly though, we felt like we had this utterly peaceful and romantic palace to ourselves.

The mountain views from the Kasbah's rooftop are justifiably publicized as the best in North Africa. But it's more than the views that make this place such a worthwhile destination. An eco-resort to the fullest extent, bottled water is discouraged; purified, filtered water is always available from the kitchen. Dinner is served for all guests at 7:30 every night, and you eat what's placed in front of you. (If you're a vegetarian, the staff can accommodate you with an alternative.) Expect to start with delicious bread and soup, followed by a meat or chicken tajine and couscous, then a slice of cake along with mint tea or coffee and additional flaky traditional pastries and cookies. (Alcohol is not served here, but you're welcome to bring your own bottles of wine and dispose of them after you leave the Kasbah.) Ten percent is added onto all bills here, and, with that extra money, the Kasbah has provided an ambulance and a garbage collection service for the local community.

During the day, the mountains are your natural playground. The terrain is varied, with trails for the casual walker to the ice-picking climber, and -- at least in December -- you can hike for hours without seeing another tourist. Instead, you see local Berber women airing out rugs or young children running around with their friends. If you hike with a guide (highly recommended), chances are that you'll encounter his friends and family as you explore the mountainside (there are only seven villages in this area, and everyone seems to know everyone else.) As we huffed and puffed up passes (the altitude takes a bit of getting used to), and tried to avoid tripping on rocks, our guide patiently waited and pointed out barren walnut trees.

After your hike, there's no better way to unwind than to visit the Kasbah's hammam. Here you sit on wooden stools in a large private steam room, mix buckets of hot and cold water to your desired temperature, and scrub yourself with traditional black soap and exfoliating gloves.

Optional: Seaside Solace in Essaouira (Days 7-9)

If you have a few days to spare, head for the tranquil beachside town of Essaouira. No longer the bohemian hippy enclave it once was in Jimi Hendrix's heyday, tourists -- strolling through the souks with cameras around their necks -- have found their way here. And for good reason: If a bit too touristy, Essaouira remains laid-back. Whitewashed exteriors with royal-blue doors decorate buildings; cafes line cobblestone sidewalks; neighbors greet one another on the street with warm embraces. At the famous seafood stalls, just point out what you want, and enjoy the bargaining game over your plate of shrimp, calamari, or whichever fresh fish you desire. Everything's grilled to order, and eating it on a bench overlooking the sea is one of Essaouira's thrills. Wandering through the town, you'll pass art galleries and small souks (many of which sell crafts made from local thuya wood and skincare products made from local argan oil). Don't miss the port's stone ramparts, which were featured in Orson Wells' Othello as well as in several more recent films. When we visited, the water was too cold for action, but Essaouira is a prime spot for surfing and windsurfing in the warmer months.

Where to Stay and Eat in Essaouira

One of Essaouira's longest-standing riad hotels, Villa Maroc (10 rue Abdallah Ben Yassine; tel. 0-44-47-61-47;; 850¿1500 dirhams) is beginning to show its age in the accommodations, but the cuisine it offers is some of the best in town. (Even if you don't stay here, be sure to make a dinner reservation.) Our room was chilly until we were given a space heater, and the water temperature was cold more often than it was hot. Nonetheless, for a large double room with an en-suite bathroom, set in a beautiful 18th-century building inside the medina's walls, it's not a bad choice. We especially liked spending an hour each evening at the chess board set on a table for two in a small alcove above the courtyard, right by the bar.

For a pre- or post-dinner drink nearby, try the new lounge, Le 5 (7 rue Youssef El Fassi, Essaouira; tel. 0-44-78-47-26). Food is served, but it's the drink menu that impressed us most. (Both alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, including coffee, are offered.) Modern artwork covers the walls; a fireplace in back offers a cozy and intimate corner.

At one of Eassaouria's time-honored dining institutions, you can eat by the water in a wooden shack that was built to resemble a boat. Chez Sam (in the fishing port; tel. 0-44-47-65-13; daily noon to 3pm and 7 to 11pm) offers large portions of good seafood, and you can watch fishing boats through the portholes as you eat. We also liked the slight kitsch factor, including a signed black-and-white photo of Hendrix by the door.

Practical Details

A valid passport is required for all visitors to Morocco. Visas are not required for U.S. travelers staying in Morocco less than 3 months. For more information, go online to the U.S. State Department's website (

At press time, the exchange rate was about one U.S. dollar to 9 dirhams ($1 = 9.07 Moroccan dirhams). For up to date information, go to

Arabic is Morocco's official language, but French is spoken as well and most often used in business, government, and diplomacy. Some locals speak English (especially in the hotels, restaurants, and some of the souks), but if you can converse -- at least a little bit -- in French, you'll have an easier time communicating.

Before You Go

Six weeks before you depart for Morocco, consult your doctor or a travel clinic to make sure your vaccinations are up-to-date. Be sure to bring any medications you take regularly, as well as any personal hygiene products you use on a daily basis. You might ask your doctor for an antibiotic you can take with you in case of infection (Cipro is the most commonly prescribed antibiotic to treat severe stomach problems). Check with your current health insurance provider to see what expenses are covered, and consider purchasing international medical and evacuation insurance. Reliable and reasonably priced packages are available at International SOS (

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