With a passion for travel and particularly Morocco, I own and manage Sun Trails.
Riads straight out of 1001 nights. A small plane ride to land you next to the Sahara. Tea with the nomads. A lunch on top of the dunes just you, your loved one and your private butler. Village markets and secret kasbahs. Romance and local culture- that's our idea of a Morocco honyemoon.
So, you've considered spending your honeymooon in Morocco. No, there are no pristine white sand beaches caressed by warm turquoise ocean waves. You look forward to snoozing by an infinity pool having margaritas every hour ? Morocco's not the place. But perhaps that's not your idea of a honeymoon either.
Morocco is above all an assault on your senses. Here, nights smell of cinnamon. Here, what looks like a crumbling abode from outside, turns out to be a pasha's palace once you stepped in - the riads. Here, on the back of a camel across the saffron dunes, time expands. Bazaars packed with Ali Baba caves of hand woven carpets, lamps, incense, ivory- embedded chests, Syrian tea tables... Sounds like the setting for 1001 nights ? Romance ? You bet. Not a coincidence that in more than 10 years of offering private Morocco tours quite a few of our guests proposed to their loved one on the top of the dunes of Erg Chigaga.
But where does the honeymoon originate from ? The tradition may or may not have been handed down from the ancient custom of “bride kidnapping.” Some people say that it referred to the period between abducting a woman and the moment her family stopped looking for her. By some accounts, the phrase “hony moone” first surged in the mid-16th century. Some connect this to a supposed Babylonian practice of giving the bride and groom a month’s supply of honey wine and dispatching them for a cycle of the moon to conceive a child. A lot has changed since then.
In more recent times, honeymoon associates with romance. And there's not much romance in sight when looking at the various offerings on the internet when searching for 'best honeymoons in Morocco' on Google and the likes. Widely speaking, most travel agents offer the same tours they would offer anyone else: retired couples, families with children, group of friends traveling together. But then, if you embark on a private tour of Morocco on your honeymoon ( and what better way to travel around Morocco ?!), you should get much more than just moving around the country and ticking a few boxes out of your travel list. Rubbing shoulders with thousands of other visitors. Being taken to gigantic carpet shops where you'll spend your afternoon trying to escape a hard sale. Our idea of a honeymoon tour in Morocco doesnt' follow a set itinerary. Think of it rather as connecting different private local experiences with secret, intimate, authentic accommodations, within your budget and time available. When on a honeymoon in Morocco, there's a few things that can't miss from the mix.
Relaxation. Even if you hired someone else to organize your wedding, you still must have gone through quite a lot of stress. Whether it is a hammam while in Marrakech, adding an extra day/ night along the way or just enjoying the premises of your lodge in Taroudant, extra time should be accommodated to ensure that fragile balance between discovery and the time you need to take it all in. Visitors take 6 days for a private tour from Marrakech to Taroudant through the desert ? Take 8 days.
Local experiences. Bake bread in the village oven. Discover the medina with a local university teacher. Have lunch inside a Berber home and learn how to prepare a tagine. Be invited to tea by the nomads in the Anti Atlas mountains. Tread on millennia old rock engravings. ( And some luxurious ones- fly privately to the Sahara in a small propeller plane to land by the dunes). Yes, walk in the Todra Gorges and marvel at the story tellers on Jemaa El Fna square. But you don't need to rub shoulders with thousands of other visitors to Morocco. Why ? Because you know better. Because you're not likely to return to Morocco soon, if at all. What if we told you that at Sun Trails all the above experiences are private ? Ah. Privacy.
Privacy- the one ingredient that can’t be missing to ensure romance ? Just you, your spouse and your guide/ hostess. And no, we can't arrange to empty the medina of all other visitors. But all our addresses are hand picked to avoid as much as we can mass interaction. Most importantly, privacy translates into staying only in those guest houses that almost no one knows about. How do we know about them ? Because we’re curious by nature. We scout Morocco a few times a year, our eyes set on anything that stands out of the ordinary. And we test accommodations, guides, local experiences, music festivals, spas, trekking routes, etc. And when we say privacy, we don’t mean driving secondary roads and only coming out at night. You’ll have tea with the locals, bargain in a village market, trek the High Atlas with a Berber guide. With the main focus being on avoiding all mass tourism. And touring Morocco on a custom off- the- beaten- track tour while staying only in unique, intimate locations.
Below, we have selected a few of those addresses that we think best embody this spirit. You can select all or a few of them and have us design a private customized tour around these properties and some hand- picked experiences. They are not limited to honeymooners only. Some couples just want to get back to finding themselves again and reconnect with each other. Cut out the white noise around. Yes, that includes social media and being ‘connected to the world’. But that's entirely up to you. The only limit is your budget and the time you can take off to travel around Morocco.
The house of dreams. And it will certainly fulfill some. More than that, it will consistently leave you rapt. As Hicham, the manager, likes to put it, this is not about functional luxury. After all, you don't have square meters of Carrara marble of bathtub. Neither the latest plasma Full HD television. Actually, there's no TV at all. You do get underfloor heating and French- chef desserts, but if you're looking for value for your buck, look elsewhere. You'd be missing the point. Wonder. Experience. Enchant. The French owner used to create fantasy events in Paris, so the last thing he wanted to create is a 5 star resort inside a palm grove. What if someone knew your favorite color was purple and you'd arrive in your room to find everything is purple ? What if you didn't know where or what your next meal is going to be ? Perhaps it will be a candlelit table in a tiny room in the labyrinth that you didn’t know existed. Or a set up dining area showing up out of nowhere, complete with your butler, up in the High Atlas, by the riverbed. This 14 room hideaway sits at the foot of the High Atlas mountains, nested within the 4500- acre palm grove of Skoura. Part of the wonder of staying here is learning the way back to your room. With a staff of 100, you can get an idea of how personal the attention and service is going to be. In the image- based world we live in, where information is instant, this is a world of secrets. A house of dreams. It would make little sense staying here less than two nights, arriving late evening and departing early after breakfast the next day. Magic needs time to operate.
DAR ZAHIA GARDEN
Marc Belli has just realized his dream: to build sleeping cabins in the rural plot he owns facing the Atlas mountains. If he shares with many of his contemporaries a desire to get back to nature, Marc, a French photographer and art director, is also victim to a certain nostalgia for the ‘paradise garden’ of his youth: that of his grandmother’s villa, where he spent his holidays.
Covering nearly 4,000sq m, this narrow plot is enclosed by a rammed-clay wall. It is reached by a dusty track edged by thorn bushes and cacti. There is nothing to suggest what can be found behind the walls, and no-one could guess that through the main gate is a field of roses and hibiscus by a patio in which jacarandas, euphorbias, palm trees and acanthus are reflected in a huge mirror. Another surprise awaits beyond the patio: an electric-blue raised swimming pool that seems to stretch as far as the eye can see.
Picturesque pathways dotted with garden seats wind through the fragrant, bushy undergrowth, opening the way through the eucalyptus, pomegranate, citrus, olive and fig trees, aloes, succulents and more. At the far end of the garden, buried among the vegetation, are the five cabins open to guests. Wooden cubes, the cabins are reminiscent of Balinese gazebos or small Japanese tea houses and have been fabricated out of local materials.
South of Essaouira, on the Atlantic coast and north of Agadir lies the small village of Tafedna. This feels remote and at first, it's hard to see the sandy beach, tucked among the Argan cliffs that makes any encounter with the waves of the Atlantic uniquely memorable.
Therein lies Tasgua- Yan, a charming 14-room guest house overlooking the sea, its walls forged out of local stone and timber. The white washed walls and blue framed windows reminisce of the Greek islands rather than Morocco. You come here to disconnect from the world. Take long walks along the deserted beach or through the argan forest. Sit by the fire place or the turquoise pool with your favorite novel. Swim in the ocean. Linger on for dinner over fresh fish and a glass of vin gris. Let time pass. By the Atlantic, in the middle of nowhere. Literally.
If one could have only one thing, one reason only to visit Morocco, this would be it: a night at Azalai Desert Camp in the dunes of Erg Chigaga. Let your driver arrange for a camel ride just before entering the dunes so you arrive in style at the camp, right about sunset. Four large white canvas tents and three slightly smaller ones, complement each other so that one might think he's on his own in the desert. Two VIP tents, further away, come with their own dedicated butler, club leather armchairs and lounge- library. Inside you'll find king-sized wrought-iron beds, quality mattresses, finest bedspreads, mosquito nets and Fes - ceramic water basins. Berber rugs cover the uneven rattan floors. King-sized beds are heavy with blankets and brocade covers – necessary in the winter – and light is provided by tin battery-powered lanterns. Bathrooms are provided with eco- toilets and pump showers with hot water. Dinner is served by candlelight, encircled by lanterns placed meticulously around the dune. The four course set menu regularly starts with harira soup, Moroccan briouates, continues with a hearty beef or lamb tagine and ends with a French desert. The hardest is to leave.
AZALAI BEACH COTTAGE
You really have to know your way to get here. About 20 minutes drive from the dreamy village of Oualidia, the road overhangs the tomato parcels juxtaposing the beach. An unassuming turn and a few miles of off- road take you to the gates of Azalai Cottage. Strong on the heels of Azalai Desert Lodge, arguably the smartest guest house south of Ouarzazate, Bouchaib, the French- born Moroccan owner, an accomplished architect himself, entrusted Helene Bartholdi to create something altogether different. The Out- Of- Africa feel was replaced by something much more Mediterranean, almost Aix-en- Provence vibe, with the occasional Berber carpet thrown- in. Five rooms, two suites and two bungalows all face the Atlantic and the gradient makes it that everyone gets a sea- view. Between the villa and the beach, a generous pool blends smoothly with the garden’s palm grove, near a shaded beach hut providing a bounty of fine shell fish cuisine to be enjoyed under the cool swaying shade of the palm fronds. The well stocked library and board games make up for the lack of any TV or wifi.
TOUR DES FAUCONS
In the 1960's, long before budget airlines and Trip Advisor, Morocco started to attract a particular kind of crowd. Fashion moguls, actors, artists and writers, settled here or had a secondary home, a Paradise Lost retreat from the disenchantment with a more and more mechanical Europe. Their villas were the epitome of design, mixing the Moroccan- inspired carpets, zellij, fountains or woodwork with modern European arts, African masks, Andalusian gardens and Italian chandeliers. La Tour des Faucons is such a place, located just outside Taroudant, but Karl, the very down- to- earth German owner, doesn't throw any opulent parties. What he likes to do nowadays is welcome guests and have good company. The art collection on display should be protected with infra- red laser at night. But don't think for a second that you'll be spending the night in a museum. The suites are immense and fully functional with floor heating and reversible A/C. The bathrooms seem to come out of Architectural Digest. There is a 30 meter long pool to keep you fit, if you manage to not get lost in the gardens. Be there at the right time of year and you can join in to harvest the olives or oranges.
Short on time while in Marrakech and you don't want to miss the desert experience ? Well, you have Agafay desert, just 45 minutes drive away. In all honesty, Agafay desert is not really a desert. It's a startling revelation, as one is surrounded by nothing but biscuit-colored waves of rock that stretch as far as the eye can see; an isolated palm tree flapping its fronds and a couple of camels grazing peacefully add to the illusion. La Pause is a rustic retreat where you can both get back to nature and keep your comfort intact. And what better example than the wood burning stoves that stand guard keeping the chilly air of those winter nights away from the open fronted rooms ? There is no electricity and scarcely any mobile reception. But perhaps snoozing, stargazing and staring into space are not your thing. Well, worry not. Camel riding, buggy racing, Arab caligraphy, massages or a cooking class can all be arranged on site. The rooms are built of pisé (adobe and straw mix) and the stylish lodges are sublimely illuminated by candles and oil lamps. You will find a sumptuous king sized bed, a strong shower, low sofas, rugs and cushions, plus fireplaces and a patio sun-lounger for morning mint teas. Their comfortably arranged Berber tents let you enjoy magical moments and beautiful evenings under the stars, whilst listening to the captivating and hypnotic rhythms of traditional Gnawa music.
Juan, an international photographer, wanted to blend his love of photography, India and the Sahara and Casa Juan is the offspring. In the middle of nowehere, this is as remote as you can get, on the edge of the Sahara. Given the coordinates, it is hard to imagine you'd find a manager that speaks fluent English. Or refined Moroccan cuisine. Finding the place is like a treasure hunt. You will sometimes be met by Juan himself and get your luggage carried to your room by donkey. You will truly appreciate having a 4x4 here as you'll need to cross a few small dunes to make it to the house. I've hardly ever stayed in a hotel where the names of the rooms encapsulated this well their respective names: Africa, India ... From the rooms and the public areas, it is clear that the owner has travelled all over the world and has decorated the spaces with some sublime photos and very rare artfacts. Abdel , Hamid and the rest of the team could not make you feel more welcome. Just go up those stairs and come out on the roof terrace to awe at the setting sun over the palm grove and the dunes...
© Sun Trails 2019. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
So here we are on a beautiful day in May, just a few days before the starting of Ramadan and nothing seems to foretell it. It’s 10 AM and we are crossing Jemaa El Fna square in the company of Oumaina, our hostess for the day. The vendors are as busy as ever, enticing us with exotic juices, their stalls piled with heaps of oranges and grapefruits. Oumaima, whose English is sublime, is a student at Cadi Ayad university in Marrakech where she studies tourism. Part- time she hosts cooking classes, but also handicraft workshops in zellij, babouche, tadelakt or pottery. She sounds very enthusiastic about the day ahead and her job in general. As we are stepping off the square she muses about her dreams to become a licensed guide in Marrakech, one of the first, if not the first female guide.
After a few twists and turns around the derbs of the bustling medina with its tourists, shop owners luring their clients in and donkeys pulling carts loaded with carpets, tagines or rubble, we make it to the small riad where the cooking will actually take place. When I say riad, I don’t mean the fancy guesthouses of Marrakech so popular with tourists nowadays. This is literally a local’s home where the lady of the house is preparing the tea, while her niece which is visiting from Spain, is on her way out, leaving her 1 year old baby in the capable hands of the house ladies. There are two common areas on the ground floor where the women spend most of the day, together with the kitchen. On the first floor, one can guess there are two or three more rooms which most likely are dispatched to young married couples. The men would have all gone out to their work earlier and probably would come back home late afternoon.
After passing on the invitation to tea, we head out back into the streets. Our next stop on our Moroccan cookery class? The butcher. Aicha, our cook for the day, joined us for the shopping. While Oumaima is busy describing every day life inside the house, Aicha stands in line waiting to purchase some good chicken thighs. Once the chicken purchased, we slalom past the crowd into the open air souika, the colourful local market. We’ll need onions, lemons, parsley, tomatoes and aubergines. Aicha knows her providers and so she sorts the ingredients out. Some guests would prefer skipping taking photos of the exotic stands and instead bargain for vegetables themselves…
Back on our tracks and across Place des Epices, where slave auctions used to take place in the not- so- distant past, we are heading towards the square, more precisely just behind it, where the preserved vegetables market takes shelter. Once our olives purchased, we are pressing on to the riad, just when the heat starts stifling.
Now it’s time for action. Aprons on, we are handed the necessary kitchen ware and off we go. It seems that I will be in charge of preparing the chicken tagine while Leila will supervise the zaalouk, a popular tapenade made out of smoked aubergines, tomatoes and garlic. I’m a fiend for zaalouk so I will certainly peep over. Before anything else, Aicha sets about by rinsing the chicken parts… with lemon juice. By her account, the juice not only kills all the germs but also renders the chicken tender throughout the cooking.
I start with placing the chicken thighs inside the tagine. Then, it’s the turn of the garlic which I chop really slender and sprinkle it over the chicken. Leila gives me a hand with chopping the parsley which is sprinkled next. Tears run down my cheeks thinking of the chicken that had to be sacrificed for our lunch… I’m kidding, of course. I’ve sliced so much onion that it completely shelters the chicken by now. Next, it’s time for decorating with olives, spice it with a little saffron powder and lastly, pour a good ladleful of olive oil over. Our cook tells us there’s no point in using water as the chicken will let out liquid while cooking.
We place the tagine over the fire, not before wedging a metal plate in between to help diffuse the heat of the direct flame and avoid cracking the adobe tagine. TIP: never expose the tagine stewer to direct flame and settle the flame as low as possible.
While the tagine is cooking, we place the aubergines next to the fire and turn them around so that they don’t burn. Once ready and pulled from the flame, Leila will sit down and peel them, before chopping them as fine as we can. We grind the tomatoes and the garlic and we mix it all with a good pinch of paprika, cumin, salt and pepper. We then place it all on the fire in a pan and slow cook it while mixing with a spoon occasionally. When I thought I played my part, Aicha showed up with a tray and informed me it was time for making Moroccan bread.
After sifting two kinds of flour and working the dough ( don’t ask me how to shed the dough off your fingers) it’s getting somewhat tricky to turn those lumps into perfect circles which are then to be shoved inside the oven, not before puncturing them with a fork.
While the tagine and zaalouk are cooking and the bread is baking, we are being served a Moroccan tea. And it feels well deserved. Some half hour later everything is ready and lavishly spread on a table in the patio. Out of the two, I find the zaalouk to be the better. Bread chunk in hand we dig into the tagine, traditional way. The onion has completely sunk and caramelized and the chicken is as tender as it gets. I can finally brag about knowing how to make zaalouk, one of the staples of Moroccan cuisine…
Please note that such a class would take about 5 hours, lunch included. Cooking with the locals in Marrakech is offered as a choice of activities while on one of our bespoke Morocco tours.
© Sun Trails 2019. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
Whenever we get the chance we like to immerse ourselves in the local culture here. And Marrakech, the place we call home since 2006 offers quite a few choices for that, despite the explosion of tourism of the last decade. After having cooked a tagine and bargained for spices and vegetables in the medina, crafted pottery in tadelakt and chipped the patterns of Moroccan zellij, we heard that someone could actually teach you how to make a babouche. You know, the sharp- pointed leather slippers, the ubiquitous Arab world accessory. Almost everybody ends up buying a pair of them after touring Morocco. But making a pair ? We wanted to see if we've got what it takes...
We arrived at the shop one busy afternoon in November. The medina of Marrakech swarmed with motorbikes, pedestrians, donkeys, carts and cats. Rachid, the master maalem ( craftsman) was sitting comfortably beyond his desk in the back of a tiny shop whose walls were entirely furnished with hand- made shoes of all shapes, forms and styles. Sheets of raw leather of different colours and textures were piling up in a corner. After exchanging greetings, we had a quick introduction to the different techniques and a description of how the crafts class was about to unfold. First, the basics: 1) choose a size inferior to the one you have. For instance, if a 9, choose 8.5 ( if 43 choose 42). 2) you’ll craft the babouche from scratch, except for the stitching (if you want to factor that part in, add another hour and a half to the actual class).
From beyond the counter, Youssef hauled a few sheets of raw leather in very exotic colors. We were supposed to choose each a color of our future leather slippers. Hard choice... Saffron yellow, turquoise, lilac move, red brown, purple, shiny black were just a few of the options on dispaly. I finally decided for coffee brown while Leila, my enthusiast colleague, went for a sort of reddish brown.
Before making our choice, the master craftsman pointed out that traditionally men in Morocco wear yellow or black whereas Moroccan women have a choice of any colour and quite a few are embroidered. Tourism drove up considerably the demand as well as the fabric type and so nowadays one can spot in the souks of the red city anything from blue- jean or zebra print babouches. Don't trick yourself in believing that a Moroccan would ever wear such deviations from the norm… It was time to get our hands to work ! We took possession of the pattern and proceeded to draw the shape of it on the leather sheet we had each selected.
Then it was time for the second stage: the gluing. After applying generous layers of special glue, we pasted the parts together under the undivided attention of our master maalem. Soles slashed out, foam layer was rubbed in so that excessive walking wouldn’t be harsh on our feet.
Then, it was time to activate our muscles. The mallet in our hands, the different leather garments were bashed together. The shapes were handed to Youssef, who started stitching the garment to the soles, while we indulged in the ubiquitous pleasure of having a Moroccan tea and cookies. After all, it was getting near to 5 PM.
When finished with our tea, we were surprised to find that our soon-to-become-babouches resembled shoes reminiscing of what peasants used to wear in Europe centuries ago. Or perhaps, the Eskimos. Never mind, they sure didn’t look like a leather slipper that you’d wear around the house. Where’s the trick, I thought. Well, there was one.
That was indeed the babouche, except it had to be turned inside out. And so we did. Turn it inside out. In the process, I was largely helped by a wooden stick. The trick is: you turn the shoe inside out using your hands as much as you can. Which is about 3 inches. Then you shove the stick inside the pocket thus created and you pull. And pull. At first, you are afraid that the stitches will give up from so much pulling. But they won’t. Eventually, you end up with an almost perfect babouche. And I think we did. I mean, have a look at the pictures and judge.
Please note that such a class would take about 3- 4 hours for a whole class, tea time included. Stitching will be taken care of by the master craftsman. Babouche - making class is offered as a choice of activities while on one of our bespoke Morocco tours.
© Sun Trails 2019. All rights reserved. No part of this interview may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher.