Morocco’s colourful, pungent and frenetic centres are the perfect opposite to the vast expanses of pale, mystical desert and the rugged ridge of the Atlas Mountains. The main cities, built around their incredible marketplaces, have been hosting visitors for centuries, first those on the great trade routes, then those in thrall to the exoticism of the east, and of Africa.
There’s so much to experience in Morocco, from ascending great mountains, to parasailing, and from learning to roll cous cous to learning to haggle for rolls of rugs. So when a friend of mine mentioned he was planning the ‘Moroccan Leg of His Trip-of-a-Lifetime’ I immediately wanted to get involved/hide myself away in his luggage. Personally, I think you could easily visit Marrakech, Fez or the High Atlas on their own as a stand-alone destination, which is why those are the ones I asked the Hotel Gurus for help finding accommodation in.
Exotic and romantic, there’s still a touch of the unknown about Marrakech, what with the old souks, the baffling Medina, the graceful architecture, the expanse of the desert and the sunsets. But Marrakech is welcoming too; it’s been a medina town for as long as it can remember. A place desert caravans converged upon, bringing in wonders from all over Morocco and the world beyond. The flavours of the spices and the recipes brought in off the desert, are one kind of wonder and one of the reasons Marrakech is considered a heaven for foodies – so eat with gusto and shop with gusto too, then revive yourself in a traditional hammam – possibly even one in your hotel.
Where to Stay?
Dar Layyina is small and authentically Moroccan, with just six spacious rooms and suites, all decorated in soothing colours. You’re about 15 minutes outside Marrakech, which might seem a fair way before you arrive, but might be a God-send when you’re here, as it’s green and peaceful, with lots of space for two pools, a spa and tennis courts. And with rooms starting from only €70 per night including breakfast, you can stay long enough to enjoy those facilities without feeling like you’re missing out on too much of the city.
For something somewhat grander, but still offering peace and seclusion try the L’Hotel Marrakech, an impeccably designed five star riad owned by Jasper Conran. As well as being truly beautiful, with its four poster beds, intricately carved furniture and Egyptian cotton, this property has a lush courtyard and pool. Rooms start from €295 B&B per night but for the luxury it’s worth it.
Practical Details: Marrakech is very hot in the summer and dry all year round, so it’s a great winter or autumn destination. January and February are the wettest months, but it’s still fairly sunny. You arrive at Marrakech-Menara Airport, which is pretty well connected to the UK. The airport is about five kilometres from the city and the Medina and if you don’t have too much luggage it is possible to walk to town! Otherwise your best bet is the airport bus which runs every 20 minutes and serves all the major hotels. If you want to catch a taxi it’s a good idea to book a reputable fixed price fare company in advance, because the taxi drivers at the airport pick-up are known for being dishonest and difficult to deal with.
Morocco’s High Atlas mountains rise green out of the desert, dotted with traditional stone Berber villages. The highest mountain range in North Africa, this spectacular region is a real playground for adventurers. The High Atlas’s 1000kms of mountain range is criss-crossed with walking and biking trails, and there are some wonderful paddling opportunities. There’s even some skiing. And some really beautiful hotels to escape to!
Where to Stay?
Kasbah du Toubkal is perched on a ridge in the Atlas Mountains, a 17 room property offering accommodation ranging from economically priced dormitories to luxurious havens. The views are just incredible – indescribable even, and inside there are whitewashed walls with exposed wood beams and bright fabrics. The food is good and the hosts are even better. Rooms start from €145 per night.
Kasbah Bab Ourika is a stunning escape in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, less than an hour from Marrakech. The views are again spectacular – and the approach is somewhat perilous, which the views attest to. When you arrive you’ll find a gorgeously groomed garden of olive trees, lavender hedges and roses, a pool with a divine view, then inside ten individually decorated, cosy rooms, which start from €150 per night including breakfast.
Practical Details: If you’re hiking the best time to visit the High Atlas Mountains is between March and November. July and August are hot, but the elevation here means it’s not as hot as the rest of Morocco. December through February are cooler and the days are still sunny. The best time to summit Mt. Toubkal is between April and September. Marrakech-Menara Airport and Fès–Saïs Airport are both considered gateways to the High Atlas Mountains, but Marrakech is closer and only about 40 minutes drive.
Fez is Morocco’s old and ancient capital, in many ways a rival to the power and popularity of Marrakech. Its old medina is just as cacophonous an assault on the senses with its 90,000 winding streets and alleyways and in some places, medieval lifestyles. And if anything Fez is more fiercely Moroccan. If you’re here for the souqs and market the best places to stay are those within the ancient walls of Fès el-Bali – which is also the world’s largest urban car-free zone. Within the medina you’ll still find everything being transported by donkeys and handcarts.
Fez also has some of he world’s most treasured Arabic architecture – this city is home to the world’s oldest university, so learning and historically intricate architecture are intertwined here. The best examples non-Muslims will have access to is Bou Inania madrasa, built in the 14th century and still a religious college today. But even seeing the outside of the great buildings of Fez is an experience.
Where to Stay?
The Karawan Riad is lavish with seven spacious suites decorated with contemporary luxury in mind. As well as the rooms with their intricately tiled floors, antique-style furnishing and luxurious bathrooms, the riad also has a gourmet Mediterranean-Moroccan restaurant and a beautiful tea room. Rooms start from €185 per night including breakfast.
Practical Details: Fez is very hot in the summer – the maximum average for July and August is 34°C, so it’s a great winter or autumn sun destination. If you’re basing your travel on the most pleasant weather and a lack of crowds, the best times to visit are probably during the shoulder seasons between March and May and September through November. Fès–Saïs Airport is a rapidly growing airport, so check for new connections, but currently you can fly direct to Gatwick and Stansted.