From colourful souqs to beautiful riads, Africa Expert Fiona's recollections of her first ever bespoke holiday in Morocco paint a vivid picture of a unique country...
A luxury break in Morocco
A week in Morocco felt like a two week holiday - it is so easy to get around that one day we were hiking in the shadows of Mount Toubkal in the Atlas Mountains and the next, diving through the waves in the Atlantic Ocean whilst horses were happily cantering down the miles of empty beach at Sidi Kaouki.....
Discovering Jamaa el Fna
In contrast, the frenetic energy, colour, smells of Marrakech's 12th century medina is obviously very well documented. It is known for its maze of souks, where enthusiastic hagglers can shop to their hearts content - it really is an assault on all of the senses, especially when the famous main square, Jamaa el Fna, comes into its own in the late afternoon. Once the heat of the day has abated, hundreds of locals frequent the numerous food stalls as smoke and noise fills the air and friends catch up on the day's events, storytellers attract crowds and snake charmers try and tempt you to come closer! Half the fun is to just throw yourself into the mayhem and get hopelessly lost within the maze of stalls, shops, leather bags, colourful scarves and textiles, immaculate mountains of spices and much much more.
Life is in the detail...
However, a closer look around this fascinating medina is highly recommended and a local guide is a must for those who are keen to dig deeper into the rich and varied history of this country and enjoy a tour of the cultural and historic monuments as well as beautiful gardens. Life really is in the detail here: everywhere you look are examples of intricate local craftsmanship, both centuries old and contemporary - a real visual feast.
There are a myriad of different riads to stay in depending on what takes your fancy, and how much you want to spend, but I was amazed at the character and charm of even the cheaper-end-of-the-scale properties here. Once inside your riad, behind inconspicuous ornate doors, the cool and calm is instantly calming: relax on your roof terrace as the muezzin calls to prayer, or enjoy a good scrub down in the hamams that they nearly all have. Even some of the best recommended restaurants (the roof terrace at Le Fondouk is a must) were on a par with what you would spend in a more gastro pub in London.
The Atlas Mountains
If being in the thick of things sounds too much for you, there are lovely options in the nearby Palmerie, which boasts more outdoor space, bigger pools and lush gardens laden with chirpy birds. Alternatively, there are some wonderful options 45 minutes away, towards the Atlas Mountains - we had the most delicious lunch (my first taste of octopus carpaccio) at the uber cool and contemporary Hotel Capaldi, where I could have quite happily have lazed around for a few days by one of the two beautiful pool areas with Ibiza cool white beds dotted around.
For those keen to get right up into the mountains, there are a handful of fantastically picturesqe kasbahs that cover a range of tastes and budgets. For those wanting to focus on some proper trekking, Kasbah du Toubkal was a really fun and rustic adventure, only reached by foot and mule from Imlil village. We enjoyed quite a spectacular sunset here surrounded by mountains, as the mosques belted out their last call of the day, ricocheting around the mountain villages.
The coast of Essaouira
I wasn't quite sure what to expect from the coast, having heard so much about Essaouira on the coast, I was pleasantly surprised by the laid back coastal nature of this pretty (if slightly crumbling) medina - much smaller than Marrakech. This is not a beach destination as such, but it's impressive location on the ocean does offer a bit of an escape from busier Marrakech.
For those wanting a bit more of a beach experience, I would head 30 minutes south to Sidi Kaouki, where the beach is much more unspoilt and seemingly endless. This offers much more of a chance to stretch your legs on a long beach walk, or even try your hand at some horse (or camel) riding and have your picnic meet you miles down the beach. Rebali Riads was a fantastic value option here - you can enjoy your own privacy in a private villa, but still have all the benefits of a hotel service. It's not the Indian Ocean (and it can get very windy), but we had a good swim in the sea, and there were surfers trying to catch some waves…..if you want to finally learn to surf, this is a good place!
Conclusion: totally impressed
So after years of hoofing around sub-Saharan African camps and lodges, and covering a huge number of miles doing so, Morocco was a joy in that travelling distances were short and easy, a lot of the properties were really very affordable, and there was so much variety of landscapes. There really is something for everyone - and remember: budget for some good shopping, and take a big memory card for your camera!