In April Caroline and I traveled to Morocco with my mother, sister, husband, three daughters and some family friends. We wanted to take advantage of my mother’s lifetime of experience in Morocco starting with her Peace Corps service there from 1964-66 and culminating in being decorated by the King of Morocco (the equivalent of being knighted in Great Britain) a few years ago. For my daughters it was a chance to expose them to multiple cultural influences simultaneously – Africa, the Arabic / Muslim culture and the European influence. The chic style and sophistication of Morocco made it a real vacation.
Koutoubia Mosque in Marrakech
We have many friends who have had less than satisfactory experiences visiting Morocco and it is easy to go awry there. Here we share some of our best Marrakech tips if you have the opportunity to visit.
- We took a daytime flight from Boston to London to avoid starting our vacation with a missed night’s sleep. From Heathrow we took a car (firstname.lastname@example.org) to the Gatwick House, a modest homey inn minutes from Gatwick Airport. We had a late dinner behind the inn at Ye Olde Six Belles, a traditional British pub that dates back 700 years. The next day we flew to Marrakech. (For our return flight from Marrakech to London we took a $35 Ryan Air flight which I’d take round trip next time.)
- At the Marrakech airport we were picked up by transportation arranged by Riad des Artistes, the private home where we stayed run by Palais Lamrani. The airport is a good place to get Moroccan Dirham since many places only accept cash and it felt more secure than a local ATM.
- The driver dropped us at Dar El Basha, the closest medina entrance to our lodging. Our bags were loaded on a pull-cart and we hugged the right hand side of the narrow streets taking in the vibrant stalls and dodging the mopeds, bicycles, donkeys and stray cats. The medina dates back to the 1100s. I was grateful to arrive in daylight and my first reaction was that I’d never walk through the medina at night but within a couple days I had adjusted.
The courtyard at Riad des Artistes in Marrakech
- Riad des Artistes was on an especially narrow street with an unassuming entrance. Once inside we were greeted by a soaring airy courtyard with citrus trees, beautiful furnishings and even a small pool. The private home slept 8 of us in four bedrooms and our two friends stayed in a hotel room at the equally appealing Riad L’Orangerie. Each morning an older couple came to serve us breakfast on the roof terrace and do some housekeeping. Most of the time we had the home to ourselves which made it very relaxing. We spent most of our time in the courtyard. The entire stay I kept waiting to see a bug or a critter and I never did – not even in the kitchen.
- That first day and several more times, we visited Terrasse des Epices, a rooftop terrace serving Moroccan and international food in a casually elegant setting. The level below the restaurant housed some of our favorite boutiques including the Henna Store where we got henna tattoos. We were warned not to get henna in the souk since they sometimes use harsh chemicals.
- Being in Marrakech felt more about soaking up the ambience more than ticking off all of the tourist sites. My uncle had given each of my girls $50 for the trip and whenever we left the riad they would explore the endless stalls for treasures to bring home. The craftsmanship there is beautiful and the girls bought many beautiful items including woven bags, scarves, jewelry and wooden boxes.
Jardin Majorelle is known for this shade of blue
- My mission in Morocco was to expand my necklace collection. Almost every day for years I have worn one of two necklaces that my mother brought back from Morocco designed by Amina Agueznay. Our first full day in Marrakech we met our friend Stephen di Renza at Jardin Majorelle where he is the creative director. Caroline and I each bought necklaces designed by him and we took shallow glee in learning that Kate Moss had bought the same tassel necklace the week before and had been photographed wearing it with numerous outfits. We also bought some of his gorgeous leather goods and housewares. The gardens, the most popular attraction in Marrakech, were acquired by Yves Saint Laurent and offer a beautiful sanctuary in the city. We enjoyed a beautiful lunch at the café there. On our way out, we made a point of stopping at 33 Rue Majorelle across the street, a concept store featuring contemporary Moroccan design. There I picked up a playful woven necklace.
Royal Mansour is a showcase of Moroccan style and craftsmanship
- Marrakech hotels offer a showcase of Moroccan style and nowhere more so than the Royal Mansour, a hotel built and run by the royal family. As the website explains, the hotel was built out of a vision to create a masterpiece of Moroccan craftsmanship blending traditional artisanship with modern style. In the gift shop I completed my necklace mission buying their only remaining Amina Agueznay necklace. (We learned that when you spend $300+ you are entitled to a tax refund at the airport if you provide the appropriate paperwork from the store.)
The gardens of La Mamounia
- Other hotels worth seeing for their style are La Mamounia, the flagship grand hotel of Marrakech and Maison Arabe, a small elegant hotel in the medina.
- Aside from Jardin Majorelle, we made a point of visiting several other tourist sites including Ben Youseff Madrasa, a Koran school in the medina that dates to the 16th We couldn’t skip the main square in town Jemaa el-Fna but it’s not my favorite place with the chaos and snake charmers trying to drape snakes around tourists’ necks. From there we walked through the gardens of the landmark Koutoubia Mosque and into the sanctuary of the gardens at La Mamounia for lunch. The Maison de la Photographie was highly recommended but we didn’t make it there.
- During our week, we made two daytime excursions. For each, we arranged a van and driver through our riad. For other shorter excursions, we would hail taxis and we took the advice to offer the driver 20 dirham ($2) at the end of the ride as that fare covers most rides. Twice the driver objected and we ended up paying $5-7.
- Our first excursion was a 2 ½ - 3 hour ride to the Atlantic coastal town of Essaouira. On the ride we stopped to get a camel ride photo opp and to photograph the renowned goats in trees in the area where Argan oil originates. Upon arrival we had lunch at the Ocean Vagabond, the Malibu-esque “Eco Surf Café-Resto” where I had a delicious monkfish skewer with vegetables while seated outdoors overlooking camels on the beach. Then we explored the medina including the Villa Maroc hotel and Italian gelato stand. On our way out of town, we swung by the port to see the traditional blue fishing boats.
- Our second excursion was a luxurious day trip to Richard Branson’s Kasbah Tamadot in the Atlas Mountains. In advance we had booked a guided trek through the mountains through a nearby village followed by a gorgeous lunch where the call-to-prayer echoed through the dessert and snow covered mountains. We spent the afternoon enjoying the pool and tennis courts.
The view of the snow-covered Atlas Mountains at Kasbah Tamadot
- In Marrakech, we spent most of our time in the medina but it was fun one evening to venture to Gueliz, the modern neighborhood bustling with department stores (and some chic boutiques such as Moor) and have an elegant dinner at Le Grand Café de la Poste which has a French Colonial Vietnamese ambience.
- Before our trip some people reacted with incredulity that we were heading to Morocco in this era of upheaval around the globe. We had wonderful interactions with the Moroccans and were impressed by the helpfulness we encountered. Morocco embodies a sophisticated, welcome culture accustomed to hosting American and European tourists.
Morocco offered an exotic getaway, gorgeous landscapes, delicious food and endless style inspiration.