Cristian

Cristian

With a passion for travel and particularly Morocco, I co own and manage Sun Trails.

Website URL: http://www.sun-trails.com

Marrakech to Sahara by small plane

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You are in Marrakech for a few days. You’d love to spend a night in the Sahara but are put off by spending 9 to 10 hours each way inside a 4x4 ? Or perhaps you wish to make your other half a very special surprise and take her/ him to lunch on top of the dunes ? Just for the afternoon. What if we could arrange for you a private flight from Marrakech to the Sahara desert ? And if you’re thinking about ultra luxury fully staffed private jets with champagne on board, think again. We mean a 4-seater modern, safe, single- engine, propeller aircraft. Yes, like the ones you see at airshows. Or the one from the The English Patient. Well, not as old as that one, of course.

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The aircraft in question is a Cirrus 22 SR, from 21st century, boasts state-of-the-art technology on board and leather seats. It can take up to 3 adult passengers with cabin luggage. The pilot speaks English and will answer all your questions during the flight while also pointing out the most interesting sites as you fly over them: the highest peak in North Africa, the scattered Berber villages, the Eddhabi lake or the Draa Valley, that long green ribbon you see from your passenger seat, minutes after flying over the High Atlas mountains. The pics featured here were taken by Sloane and William, our guests in May 2017 that flew out on a Saturday, spent the night in a luxury tent in the dunes, had tea with the nomads, rode camels and flew back on Sunday.

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This little marvel would fly from Marrakech over the snowy peaks of the High Atlas mountains and land at the airport in Zagora or Errachidia in about one hour. On the ground, a Moroccan private English fluent driver– guide and a spotless modern air conditioned 4x4 await you. In little more than a couple of hours you will reach your luxury desert camp in the dunes of Erg Chigaga or your open- air picnic spot, if you opted for just lunch. But perhaps you would like to take your time along the way and first have a guided tour of a palm grove in Zagora with a local. Stop and visit the Jewish old district or the earth ovens in Tamegroute casting that unique green pottery. Then have a wander through a traditional honey- comb ksour  and its wells of light. Enjoy a hearty couscous with a local Berber family.

If you're tempted by the dunes of Erg Chebbi, you will land in Errachidia and spend the afternoon discovering pre Islamic dwellings, prying out fossils, visit the dinosaur sites or the rock engravings and have tea with the nomads.

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Ultimately, reach your luxury Sahara tent after a swift camel ride and have a mint tea on the top of the dunes, gazing at the oceans of sand.

If safety is your worry, not only flying is the safest way of transportation in the world (The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration states that airlines and business aviation (Biz-Av) are about ten times safer than auto travel), but the CAP system on the Cirrus 22 SR aircraft is designed to lower the aircraft to the ground after deployment using a whole- airplane parachute, in the unlikely event of an emergency. 

tea with nomads SAhara

Private flights in Morocco were mostly the domain of helicopter flights until recently. 2016 has seen the opening of a company that offers private jets. While both these choices are convenient for groups of 6 or more persons travelling together, their rates are prohibitive with prices for a flight from Marrakech to Zagora or Errachidia starting at 6000 euros each way. So, if in Marrakech and short on time, book a flight with us and live the magic of the Sahara for one night. 

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Private flights by small plane from Marrakech to the Sahara desert are available starting at 2000 euros per person, including return flights, return transfers by 4x4 to and from the camp, a private luxury ensuite tent with own showers and toilets, dinner and breakfast for two.  

For more details about rates and customized itineraries, contact us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or call us at +212 638 636 719/ + 212 666 915 384.

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Private tours of Morocco help educating young girls

Private tours of Morocco help educating young girls - 5.0 out of 5 based on 2 votes

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In 2013, we started supporting the education of the young girls in rural Morocco . Every month, Sun Trails donates 1 % of its income towards Education for All Morocco. So, in booking a private tour of Morocco with us, not only you are likely to have an unforgettable travel experience but also contribute to the education of a young girl that will hopefully one day make a difference within her community. We felt compelled to share with others the amazing work Education for All Morocco is doing. 

On a hot day in June 2013 I was invited to have lunch on the rooftop terrace of a sublime riad in the medina of Marrakech by Cees and Maryk, the riad’s hospitable Dutch owners. Also seated around the table were about a dozen teenage girls eating, talking and laughing. Between giggles and Moroccan briouates, I found out that most of these girls had taken their baccalaureate and were thinking of following on to the university. Khadija hoped to become a doctor, Rachida a French teacher... Their plans may sound normal but their journey was far from ordinary.

They had all completed their education with Education for All (EFA) Morocco, a local NGO facilitating education to Moroccan school girls from remote areas around Marrakech, who would have otherwise had difficult access to education. This program was the first promotion of girls that had been taken under the umbrella of Education for All Morocco, some 7 years ago.

IMG 9202But my introduction to the program began years before, when I found myself struck by a black and white photo of Moroccan children, hanging in the hall of Kasbah Toubkal, an imposing mountain lodge in the village of Imill. The children in it were impossibly beautiful, yet the photographer somehow managed to retain their candid appearance. The text below said ‘ Educate a girl and you educate the next generation’. The photo stuck with me and I decided to look into it, when I got a chance. Then, some years after, I contacted Mike McHugo, the main leader behind EFA Morocco and he then put me in touch with Cees and Maryk. After a few emails, they suggested the best way to find out more about their initiative was to come and meet the girls in person. That’s how I found myself on that rooftop terrace in June, surrounded by a group of remarkable people.

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As we ate lunch, Cees and Maryk explained the history of their project. Though Mike has more than thirty years experience of bringing school groups to Morocco, the beginnings weren’t easy for any of them.

“We’d all lived in Morocco for a number of years and ate out together regularly. Most of us worked in tourism so we came up with the idea that we would go to a restaurant and get them to provide us with a meal at cost and we would promote them. We then charged ourselves the full rate and paid the balance into a fund, which we would use to support something, although at the time we weren’t sure what.”

Over a couple of years the account grew, but it was through a chance meeting with John Woods, creator of the charity, Room to Read, that they found their direction- education. Room to Read is a program that builds libraries in parts of the world where children might never get the chance to see the written word. At first, this program seemed like the answer they had been looking for.

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“Originally we thought that we might just act as fund-raisers for Room To Read,” says Mike, “but then we decided we’d like to do something specific to Morocco. It was quite obvious that girls didn’t have the same educational opportunity as boys, and in addition to that, some of the villages in the High Atlas Mountains are very remote and aren’t accessible by road. Children had to walk for hours to even get to the road-head before they might be able to hitch a ride to school.”

“We realized from the beginning that we had to be very careful with our approach, once we had decided what we wanted to do,” says Maryk Stroonsnijder, who, with her husband Cees van den Berg, EFA’s Treasurer, own Riads Siwan and Azzar in Marrakech, and have been part of Education
For All from the beginning. “We couldn’t suddenly start trying to educate children, especially girls, in a staunchly Islamic society, but what we could do was make it easier for some girls to continue their studies within the established school system.”

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Think of yourself as the father of a young girl not yet even into her teens, and a group of foreigners come along to tell you that you should send her to a private boarding-house miles from home. “It’s for her benefit“ they say, but you might not be well educated yourself, and the idea of putting your daughter into the hands of foreigners who aren’t part of your culture or religious beliefs can be incredibly frightening.

They enlisted the help of Hajj Maurice, a small man with a large moustache and a winning smile. He is well known and highly respected throughout the villages of the High Atlas Mountains, not just because he has made the pilgrimage to Mecca, which entitles him to the honorific title ‘Hajj’, but for the work he has done as a mainstay of the Association Bassins d’Imlil, a non-profit organization that provides immense support to the people of the local villages. He has undertaken a range of projects that have created an incredibly positive impact in the Imlil Valley.

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For weeks Hajj Maurice walked the mountains, talking to fathers and families. He met with families and tried to convince them that allowing their daughters to live in a privately run boarding house while continuing their education was not only the best thing for them as individuals, but also
for their families, their future children and their communities.

In 2006, Education For All was officially recognized as a Moroccan NGO, with a sister charity set up in the UK, and the program began to raise funds in earnest for their first boarding house in Asni, forty-five kilometers from Marrakech. In this house, and those that were to follow, the differences in the educational life of Moroccan girls are taken into account and all houses are within a few minutes walk to the girls’ schools.

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Of the ten young girls who nervously snuggled up in their first ‘own bed’ 9 years ago, seven went on to pass their baccalaureate and five of those seven went on to university. They have become confident young women, aware that they have something to offer the world, even if that simply means they can better their own villages. When these girls finished their first three years with EFA, the program ran into a quandary. How can you educate a girl, expand her horizons, and then simply say goodbye when her three years are done? The answer is – you can’t. But the girls cannot stay at the boarding house, taking up beds that other young girls need. So there really is only one answer – you build another house for the girls who are moving on to the lycée.

Until now the existing houses have been able to cater for those girls, but their number is growing, with more girls each year getting high grades and wanting to continue their education. In September 2013, in time for the beginning of the new academic year, a second house was rented in Asni to accommodate the girls from the area who had reached lycèe age. But with greater success comes greater demand for the limited number of places Education For All can offer.

“Leaving aside the fact that the girls from the EFA boarding houses have an exam pass rate of over 90%, almost twice the national average,” says Maryk, “we are receiving far more applications for places than beds exist, in complete contrast to nine years ago, when Hajj Maurice had to almost beg for girls to be allowed to continue their studies by staying in one of the houses.”

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You might imagine that the success rate of the girls from EFA might cause envy from some of the schools in the area, but it’s totally the opposite. “We are receiving so many applications now that we are having to set quite strict criteria,” comments Latifa Aliza. “The directors and teachers of the schools are a wonderful help because they know which of the girls really do come from poor families, but also those who have good exam results and the academic will to study. That’s very important, because we can’t afford to offer someone a place if that person isn’t inclined to study. That could lose another young girl her chance in life.”

That afternoon, on their roof terrace, I was seduced by this amazing yet simple idea: instead of temporary fixes for the poor, like food, clothes or money, you offer their children a chance to obtain an education, hoping that someday they will make a difference in their own community, the country or the world beyond. To most of us, access to an education beyond primary school never even enters our consideration; it is simply there, almost by divine right. But what if it weren’t? And almost worse still, what if it is offered but you cannot access it because you live too far from the nearest school? What if your family is too poor to pay even the most basic accommodation costs? And so we decided to donate 1 % of all our revenues to Education for All Morocco with the aim of eventually gathering 10000 euros in the end. 

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This May I decided to pay them another visit, as we like to see whether our modest donations make a difference. As I entered Dar Asni, the main boarding school in Asni, a room full of very dedicated school girls were getting along with their homework. I was also lucky enough to visit the fifth boarding school being built, with all the amenities necessary – in the bathrooms, the architects even fitted in small ledged basins where girls could wash their feet. The rooms seemed spacious and the whole house was bright and modern, built around a central courtyard with light coming through from an opaque glass roof. Latifa, the Head House Master, enthusiastically explained the meaning of each room and you could see from her eyes she was already picturing the house brimming with school girls. The fifth boarding school is due to open in September and currently 149 girls are accommodated and studying through Education for All Morocco. To think that in the beginning, there were only 10.

Because I cannot do justice to the amazing outcomes that EFA has brought about, I share below a story of one girl whose life was changed by this remarkable program.

                                                                   Khadija’s story
KHADIJA ID AHMED OU ALI was one of those first ten girls, so shy that she barely spoke to anyone for the first couple of weeks. Now, t nineteen, she is a confident young lady, totally fluent in English, Arabic and Berber (although she admits she’s a bit shaky in French), who has just completed her first year at Marrakech University. “I arrived at Asni with my father and we didn’t know where the house was. We didn’t have our own Education For All house then, so we started asking people. We started knocking on doors for a long time and finally my sister Latifa heard us and opened the door. I was very scared. It was the first time I was going to another place to live without my family. But it was a great day for me, I felt like this is really the beginning for me, the beginning of my real life. Okay, I knew that I’m going to study, but I didn’t think that I would go this far. I thought maybe I study for a while, for a year or two, then I maybe go home. I didn’t expect that all these great things would happen to me with Education For All. “We started as ten girls. We were different, we were from different villages, but all the girls we were all there without our family, it was the first chance for us to live together, so we had to cooperate, we had to live together, we had to make our own family there. That’s why I consider sister Latifa and all the girls like my second family because they are always there for me. Whenever I need something I know I will find them by my side. In my first year in high school my mother died. I felt a big change for me but when I come back to Asni all the girls were there for me, they were all the time around me, they took care of me until I say it’s okay again. “If it wasn’t EFA that gave me the chance to work I couldn’t do
anything. I had the place I felt safe, I felt everything I needed was there for me. I had the chance, the opportunity to work. EFA offered all that to me, that’s why I have the power and energy to study. Basically they gave us the time, just having the time for us and having the time to have this idea for EFA. I just couldn’t see all that and just do nothing.”
After four years of study Khadija was so convinced that she would go to university that she began preparing her family for her leaving well in advance. “I always imagine the future, so I started telling my parents two years before I went to university that I would be going. I didn’t know if I was going to succeed or not, but again something inside me told me I’m going to complete my studies. The first year has been difficult, but now I’m imagining myself being a doctor or a teacher of biology.”

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It is such a joy to see that we can make a difference in someone’s life and we’d like to take this opportunity to thank all our previous guests. Having booked a private tour of Morocco, changed, in some small way, the life of a schoolgirl in rural Morocco. If you would like to help or donate for Education for All Morocco, you can do so by visiting this page or getting in touch with Sonia at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  

We'd also like to thank Sonia Omar and Emily Kluver for their help with this article. 

© Sun Trails 2015. 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.

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Rick's cafe Casablanca

Rick's cafe Casablanca - 5.0 out of 5 based on 2 votes

Outside view

The things to do in Casablanca aren't that many. Despite the glamor that is associated with the name, Casablanca is not exactly Bangkok. Or Cairo. Besides the third largest mosque in the world, the city boasts little more than a few architectural jewels in the way of monuments. There’s one thing to do in Casablanca – go and have dinner or a drink at Rick’s. Never heard of ? It’s the restaurant that looks like the one in the Hollywood blockbuster. But how is that a restaurant could become ' a thing to do' in Casablanca ? Way before “Hideous Kinky” or “The Sheltering Sky” came around, “Casablanca” must have been the film that lit up imaginations on the idea of travelling to an Arab country. Even though most of the action happens inside Rick’s Cafe Americain, the few scenes shot outside show bustling markets, the complicated art of bargaining and one or two glimpses into a strange yet mystifying culture, in contrast with the few scenes portraying Paris. But... hold on a second. No one involved with the production of the film ever set foot in Morocco. Yep, that’s true, it was all shot in the studios of Hollywood. And that’s one of the reasons that pushed Kathy Kriger, an American expat with a background in diplomacy and travel industry, to open a restaurant that would become much more than the pastiche of the movie, a Casablanca institution, mixing together good cuisine, a spot where expats could meet and the desire to entertain. For a restaurant requiring a dress code yet having its general manager ( Issam) playing the piano, it might as well come out of a movie. It was everything but easy, but 11 years down the road, Kathy would play, I mean do it again. She was kind enough to agree to an in- depth interview where she details her love of Morocco, talks about nowadays Casablanca, jazz sessions, Bill Willis, Yves Saint Laurent and the ‘Monday’ syndrome.

Sun Trails: Is it true that you watched Casablanca in 1974 in a cinema in Portland and the audience stood up and applauded at the end of the movie ?

Kathy Kriger: It was the same year I’d opened up my travel agency, and we shared space in the retail outlet of an outdoor/leisure catalog operation headquartered in Portland. I went with friends from the store. It was a black & white film series and “Casablanca” just had an emotional impact on the entire audience. One in our group recounted how his father had been based in Casablanca after the Allied embarkation and they showed the film “Casablanca” to the troops in a tent. His mother always added that she and other wives whose husbands were away all watched “Casablanca” at the Blue Mouse (a Portland theatre) and cried all the way through it.

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ST: You had a background in travel business and diplomacy. Why a restaurant ? How do you feel about your choice 11 years down the road ?

KK: My first plunge into entrepreneurship was starting the travel agency in 1974 with $800, encountering all the usual financial problems and unexpected crises. Eventually a friend joined me and it became very successful. Sue, my partner in the travel business, and I at the same time took a variety of cooking classes – it was just at the outset of California Cuisine – and we used to cook a lot together. Many of the dishes on our menu are adaptations of recipes I learned back in the late 1970’s. I knew Rick’s would always be more than a restaurant, but a dramatic setting that would give rise to the fantasy sought by a tourist, or a nostalgic ambiance appealing to the sophisticated Casablanca clientele. It was the best thing I ever did, as it has combined all of the things I love. I used to say after the restaurant opened that it was perfect, as I loved to entertain, but never liked cleaning up after!

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ST: Life for a single expat woman isn’t easy in Morocco, let alone when she undertakes the restoration of an ancient house and wishes to open it as a restaurant in the medina of Casablanca. Do you feel that experience helped you understand more Morocco ? Would you do it all over again?

KK: I had some inkling of what I was getting into as I’d had 4 years as a diplomat, but wasn’t prepared for the degree in which things changed after I was on my own. Fortunately I have some very good friends here in Morocco as well as a lot of friends scattered around the globe, and their confidence in me, and willingness to invest in “The Usual Suspects” kept me going. I learned a lot in the 2 ½ years it took to get Rick’s open, learned more in the first 3 difficult years and am still learning about Morocco today! I’d do it again, and looking back I feel I was meant to – there were so many coincidences of fate or destiny.

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ST: Some opinions on the internet portray Rick’s Cafe as a tourist trap. What would you say to them ?

KK: Rick’s is anything but a tourist trap – we’ve deliberately made the commercial tie- in with the film understated, dedicating our Lounge to the movie and old posters of the film. Otherwise what you see looks like the scenes in the movie, and people can pretend they are the stars. When I look at these “tourist trap” comments on the internet I always suspect they’re people who didn’t get through the door as we have a reasonable dress code. Certain types get very outraged when told their attire is not acceptable.

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ST: Last year I had dinner at Rick’s and I remember mostly the stunning lamps and the excellent saxophone player and band. I believe it was a Sunday evening. Is that a regular thing ?

KK: Thank you for noticing the stunning lamps… I set about buying them when a bank loan had come through but construction was months away. Encouraged by Bill Willis and our local architect Hakim Benjelloun as we needed ambiance, I was amazed to find lamps that look exactly like some of the pieces in the film. I learned later that I really shouldn’t have been spending the loan money on lighting, but frankly if I hadn’t bought them at the time, you would have been dining in the dark!

Sunday night jazz jam sessions were introduced a few months after we opened. A Casablanca resident reminisced about going out with friends many years ago on Sunday nights to overcome what they called the “Monday syndrome” – a place usually with live music where they could squeeze out the last hours of their weekend. The Jam Session was an immediate success and today we have a regular combo and from time to time guest musicians.

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ST: How did you find Sam, the piano player ?

KK: Finding Issam to play piano was a major sign that creating Rick’s was my destiny! A friend who plays as a hobby was searching around and he called one day with the news he’d located a pianist… named Issam! I was amazed at the connection to Rick Blaine’s best friend, the pianist Sam, from the film “Casablanca” and said I hoped he could play the piano as the name alone had him the job. When Issam came to audition, and I heard him play “As Time Goes By” in a way that sounded like the film soundtrack, as well as other songs from the epoch, it was the sort of affirmation I was seeking that Rick’s was meant to exist.

Over the years he’s done all our graphics, our website, finally directing personnel to the point where he is the General Manager…while still playing piano.

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ST: I feel that there could be more done to attract tourists to Casablanca. It certainly doesn’t have the cosmopolitan air and riads of Marrakech or the heritage of Fes, but a lot of people would love to find things to do in Casablanca. What do you think can be done to attract more visitors to the city ?

KK: Because of my experience in the travel business, and having traveled extensively, I see a lot of potential for Casablanca. One problem is that it has so long been associated as the business center, that it’s difficult to convince local authorities to do some of the things necessary to attract tourism investment.

When I first broached the idea of Rick’s Café to Driss Benhima when he was the Wali of Casablanca he was the one who suggested I find an old house in the Ancienne Medina to restore. He said it would then help attract other investors to the Ancienne Medina. I considered that an excellent idea, as I’d see what preservation had done to my own hometown, Portland, and places all over the world, from Havana to Dubrovnik to New Orleans to Barcelona.

I’m optimistic that soon there will be some initiatives launched that will upgrade the old downtown area of the Marche Central and the Hotel Lincoln. Unfortunately investing in the Ancienne Medina is complicated.

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ST: Did you choose Casablanca because of the film or were there other reasons as well ?

KK: I liked Marrakech most when I first visited Morocco in 1997, and when I arrived to take up my diplomatic post in 1998 I’d visit often and thought Marrakech was where I’d retire one day. In April 1999 I had the chance to buy a small riad in the middle of the souk that had been undergoing restoration, and was almost finished. The Singaporean woman owner had suffered in the Asian financial crisis and could no longer afford to retire and move to Morocco. I took out a bank loan and got some taste of construction projects as I got the place finished and decorated. It was a magical house with a terrace that looked into the souk on one side and to the Atlas mountains from the other. I went to Marrakech on the weekends and loved entertaining there.

When I decided to stay in Morocco after 9/11 I considered the choice between buying the place across the street in Marrakech and operating a “Maison d’Hôtes” or remaining in Casablanca to open Rick’s. It was really a no-brainer, as Rick’s Café would be unique, it had over 60 years of institutional memory behind it, and I would have no competition.

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ST: Do you feel the city has changed in the last 10 years ? How ?

KK: Many changes. First, it was hard to find places, no good maps. Now with Google Maps and GPS there aren’t the problems of finding places.

When I was working on the project, the underground pedestrian tunnels that linked one side of Place Nations Unies with the other (the BMCI, Blvd Mohammed V side with the Hyatt, Ancienne Medina side) were open, functional and one could cross with ease, with a Police box in the underground and no hassles. Unfortunately they closed the tunnels, and while the construction of the tramway made it possible to open them again, I’ve heard that there was little effort put into making them viable, and they’ve been closed up again.

There was not as grand a range of restaurants as there are now – very few Chinese, Asian restos, and I think the first sushi arrived in 2002. But the fine restaurants in Casablanca when I first came had the weight of history going for them, and were distinctive: Le Cabestan in the days of Mme Viot greeting clients at the door with her little Yorkies by her side, and André Halbert presiding over A Ma Bretagne with its striking modern architecture which perfectly compliments his impeccable cuisine. Mme Viot retired to France, and the Cabestan has been re-designed; A Ma Bretagne is now squeezed between the Morocco Mall and an intrusive neighbors construction site, but Maitre Halbert is still holding on.

New places have come along, catering to people living here by providing food and service to draw clients back. Among the new arrivals are the Rouget de l’Isle (new French), Iloli (Japanese gastronomic) and Churrascaria Marius (Brazilian).

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One big change is the art scene with many Galleries opening up – Atelier 21, the Loft Gallery as two examples joining the venerable Venise Cadre. The Museum of the Foundation Abderrahmane Slaoui Museum displays a lovely collection of Orientalist Posters and other objects in a beautiful art deco villa.

Back then “around the turn of the century” the Marche Central was THE place to shop and see friends. The stalls were full and it was bustling. I remember seeing Mme Viot walking through the Marche in the morning with her Yorkies, and the Chef from the Sheraton had a reserved seat at the vegetable stand. Today it has declined rapidly hastened by the traffic and parking problems, closed stands and a proliferation of open air snack shops. The Marche Maarif back then was small and basic. Today, it is the vibrant, lively market that the Marche Central once was.

The Centre Ville with its art deco/art nouveau architecture is a priceless piece of patrimony, and with the introduction of the Tramway and designating this part of Boulevard Mohammed V a pedestrian street I’m hopeful that the City will finally address the restoration of the Hotel Lincoln and the revitalization of the Marche Central.

One change I don’t so much appreciate is the development of the Marina in a way that completely blocks the view of the Ocean. While the project will bring some much-needed economic and touristic benefits with the Convention Center and Cruise Terminal, I feel it could have been better designed with open spaces allowing the local population to enjoy the space and the view.

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ST:What is the menu on a regular day ? What are some of your favorite dishes?
KK:Our menu is printed daily, with 6 Starters: the Prawn (Gambas) salad Tropicana is an adaptation from my cooking class in the 70’s; the Goat Cheese and Fig salad I created the summer before we opened when I had an apartment near the Marche Central and discovered fresh figs; the Crabe Louis is after that served at the Dan & Louis Oyster Bar in Portland. 6 Meat & Poultry dishes: Favorites are our beef filet mignon and a T-bone, and there’s also lamb chops and duck. 3 Fish & Seafood dishes: Right now we have St. Pierre/John Dory, Sea Bass/Loup and Swordfish/Espadon, but these can change according to availability.

In addition to our standard menu we have four daily specials; “Moroccan Touch” featuring a lamb tagine, lamb and vegetable couscous and Moroccan lemon roasted chicken. All our Moroccan dishes and many of our other plates feature ingredients from Moroccan cooperatives available at the Magasin Solidaire et Equitable (located off the small street that runs between the Sofitel and Royal Mansour). We also have some pasta selections and Vegetarian plates. For dessert our menu has 5 choices and in addition there’s a special ice cream menu.

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ST: What is that sets Rick’s apart from other restaurants in Casablanca, besides its name ?

KK: As you can see from above, I think one distinction is the variety of the menu and the care we take to use the very best possible ingredients. Another is the quality and professionalism of our service staff – all young people who have adapted to our own training system emphasizing teamwork. I have to say that the decoration and ambience with the piano music and lighting makes Rick’s a standout even if it weren’t for its association with “Casablanca”. We have more than 60 full time employees, with Security, Housekeeping and Administrative sections in addition to the service and cooking departments.

Our overall attention to detail and maintenance is apparent and clients can clearly see we are continuing to invest and innovate.

ST: What is the profile of your regular customer ?
KK: We have many Moroccan clients who don’t come to “ see and be seen”, but appreciate good food and music; expatriate diplomats and business people who come informally or for entertaining; foreigners who regularly come to Casa on business, tourists from the world over: China, Japan, Thailand, Brazil, Mexico, Iran, Russia, Australia as well as good numbers from the U.S., Europe and other parts of the Middle East and Africa.

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ST:Bill Willis helped you decorate some parts of the restaurant. He is quite known for being a friend of the Gettys and working with Yves Saint Laurent. Could you tell us a little more about him ?

KK: Bill was probably the most fascinating person I’ve ever met and I adored him. He had an amazing tolerance for people who were his friends, but did not suffer fools gladly – and it didn’t matter who you were. I was lucky that we clicked on our first meeting – in the bar of the Mamounia after a reception that had been given for the visiting then- First Lady Hillary Clinton by the then- Crown Prince Mohammed. When I had the idea for the project – even before I found the house – I went to see Bill at his labyrinthine home in Marrakech, the former harem wing of an old palace. He loved the movie and said he’d love to work on it – “Just call me your aesthetic advisor, My Dear.”

Once I’d found the house and finally bought it, Bill went to town. As I was buying lamps, he was designing everything major (the wood doors and entrance look just like the movie, and our downstairs bar is the exact same shape as the film’s – only with golden palms instead of colums), minor (the distinctive beaded table lamps on each table were designed from a beat-up brass and enamel lamp he’d carried with him when he arrived in Tangier by ferry in 1966. He pulled it out from under an armchair in his sitting room one afternoon after lunch when be began talking about the “lamp”. “I think this will work” he said and it surely did.), and many things that moved beyond a film set (four fireplaces, central staircase with terra cotta tile and zellige, a private dining room with oak floors, tadelakt walls and a view to the port, intricate moucharabieh carved wood panels between arches) plus an upstairs apartment for me! In a book that Pierre Bergé produced (sadly Bill died before the book was published, but it is a lovely testament to his talent) he says the basis for his design of Rick’s was “giving my friend Kathy a place to entertain!” Well, that he did.

Bill moved to Morocco from Rome in 1966. Just before leaving Rome he’d met and befriended John Paul Getty Jr. Six months after his arrival in Morocco, Getty invited Bill to come to Rome for his wedding to Talitha. Bill demurred and suggested instead the Gettys come to Morocco and he would escort them on their Honeymoon. In Marrakech they fell in love with an old palace near the Mamounia and bought it on the spot, hiring Bill to restore, repair and decorate it – his first commission in Morocco! He was friends with Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé and in 1974 when they bought the Dar Es Saada – neighboring the Majorelle property – they hired Bill to do the renovation and interiors. Later, after they had bought the Majorelle estate and the garden, he was involved in the restoration of the Villa Oasis.

fireplace and table

ST: What is your favorite hidden gem in Casablanca ? Why ?

KK: I’d have to say the Spice Market – it’s hard to find, but a real space apart. The setting is marked by some leafy trees at the entrance and one passes through the Henna section with decorative signage and booths, and then a series of spice stalls – very colorful – with herbalists (the old fashioned variety, dried animals and reptiles on display) on the opposite. There we have our favorite “spice guy”, Redouan, who picks out the spices with a long paddle and displays them on a flat tray – holding it up for photos - before he grinds. We’ve had him make ras al hanout with over 40 different components, and he’s also made curry powder for us (“kari” in his recipe book). Saffron is taken from a safe where it’s carefully wrapped in muslin, out of the light.

If one goes down a level there is a long hall of more spice stalls, and from there a real market with poultry and meat. If you go all the way through the market and onto the back street there are a variety of street-side stalls, among which the only purveyor of live escargot ( snail) we know of in Casablanca. I know this as we had to buy them for a chef who was coming to film a segment at Rick’s for the Food Network. She was due to film on the day the Market is closed, so asked us to buy the escargot the day before. We couldn’t leave them in the plastic sack the vendor placed them in, so had the kitchen divide them into two plastic containers with open grilling. The containers were carefully wrapped in transparent film, and placed upstairs on the terrace. The next morning when I walked out on the terrace I was shocked to find the two containers empty… and snails all over the terrace! I called security and housekeeping and between the two they were gathered up and put in more secure surroundings. For several weeks thereafter I’d confront one who’d got away….

The video team got a real kick out of this anecdote and in doing some wrap up shooting had the chef and I at an upstairs table on one side of the courtyard, and on the opposite side an escargot poised on the balustrade. They recorded the chef saying, “You know, Kathy, I have a feeling we’re not alone.” It didn’t make the cut, but for us was a perfect ending to a hilarious anecdote. Needless to say we have never – and will never – serve escargots at Rick’s!

© Sun Trails 2015. 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. 

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Morocco desert experience

Morocco desert experience - 5.0 out of 5 based on 1 vote

erg chigaga dunes and tent

What is it that draws us to the immensity of the dunes ? The oceans of sand. Where does it spark from, this longing to gaze at wave after wave of sand disappearing on the horizon?...  All else irrelevant. There, on top of the highest dune. Minutes ago, you were cresting the dunes on the back of a camel. Presently, you are sitting down and conjuring all the majesty of saffron dunes, changing color as the sun gradually sinks. Nothing compares to waking up at night with the Milky Way above you and falling back asleep. And perhaps, the desert, because of its solitude, is what makes the locals more welcoming. 

Here, by the dunes of Erg Chigaga, despite of all the apparent scarcity, water runs just below the surface, a secret well kept under layers of sand. The desert also makes grown- ups children again. The most reserved of persons can’t resist the urge to climb up the highest dune and jump in the sand, the face lit with a wide childish grin. 

camel ride into the dunes                                              Camels ready for the ride in the dunes

In the collective imaginary, there is hardly anything more exotic, than those tougher- than- life Bedouin men crossing the desert, carrying precious loads of gold, ivory, slaves, textiles, spices or salt on the back of their sturdy camels. Or the bandits constantly threatening to attack the caravan, unless the due tax was paid at different custom points. It used to take the caravans 7 to 8 weeks to cross from one side to the other and some were losing half their personnel on the way. What has become of these men nowadays, when,  not so long ago, camels were replaced by trucks ? Whilst some camel trading still takes place in some parts of Niger where the Azalai sees thousands of camels travel across the vast teritorry, camels in Morocco are not used for caravan trading anymore. In the modern age, the nomads are mostly employed by the on site numerous desert camps that have cropped up on the fringes of the Sahara. Some also went to university, learnt English and became drivers and guides for the numerous foreign visitors taking a private tour of Morocco. We are lucky enough to have some of them work for Sun Trails. And every time they return to the desert, they feel at home, still very much nomads at heart.

erg chigaga dinner                                                   Dinner by candle light in the dunes at Azalai Camp

For some of those travelling to Morocco, spending a night in the Sahara is ticking off a box on a travel notebook. For others, it is a lifelong dream. Naturally then, you don’t want to ruin that experience and so you should carefully choose the right Morocco travel planner. Your agent should make sure you won't have to put up with a party at the camp next to you, the racket of a noisy generator or quad bikers blazing past your tent when you least expect it.

ERG CHEBBI DUNES VERSUS ERG CHIGAGA DUNES

Any forum on Trip Advisor or Fodor will tell you that there are two places in Morocco where you can actually spend a night in the desert: the dunes of Erg Chebbi and the dunes of Erg Chigaga. The route from Marrakech over the High Atlas mountains is one of the most dramatic in Moroco and reaches Ouarzazate on the other side. From here, there are two options: Erg Chebbi dunes– east through Skoura, Dades Gorge, Tinerir, Rissani and finally Merzouga; and Erg Chigaga dunes- west, following the Draa Valley through Agdz, Zagora, Tamegroute and finally Mhamid. From my own experience and feedback over the years, indeed, the dunes of Erg Chigaga get a fair amount less of visitors. The distance and driving time to both these dune locations is more or less similar, about 5- 6 hours drive. 

erg chigaga luxury camp inside tent                                                       Azalai Camp luxury tent interior

The dunes of Erg Chebbi owe their popularity partly to their being easily accessible : a bus will take you to literally the foot of the dunes from Marrakech in a 10 hour drive. When people want to do the classical imperial cities tour, the Erg Chebbi dunes are easier to include in the itinerary, given their location. If you are ready to give Fes a miss, then the dunes of Erg Chigaga are the ones to go for. Especially since they are two hours drive away from the closest bit of tarmac and you would be a fool not to loop your way back to Marrakech on a different route, thus experiencing all different formations of the desert:  sand dunes, stone plateaus, gravel plains, dry valleys and salt flats. To not mention the legendary Draa Valley, a caravan highway for centuries, where the river is flanked by one of the largest palm groves in the world along with Biblical villages and century old kasbahs. Then, is it impossible to experience the desert in a camp at Erg Chebbi ? Not at all. Your travel planner can suggest a more distant camp, deep in the dunes. 

erg chebbi luxury camp                                                    Erg Chebbi luxury camp by dawn

SAFETY

Although the border with Algeria is not far, until this day there has been no registered case of kidnapping or activity of a terrorist organization in these areas. Security at the border is very tough. In the very hot season ( July – August), there may be very rare cases of scorpions or snakes, but they never enter areas where they feel human presence. If you want to be 100 % sure, make sure you spend the night inside your tent and that your mattress is not laid straight on the ground. For more details on whether it is safe to travel to Morocco, please read our in- depth article

erg chigaga VIP tent                                                       VIP tent with private butler

BASIC DESERT TENT VERSUS LUXURY DESERT TENT

Nowadays, there are more and more luxurious desert camps to complement the regular ones. Most regular camps offer spartan but clean double beds with mattress and frame and plenty of blankets to keep you warm in the night, if chilly. Toilets and showers are shared and running water is scarce. Luxury camps offer wider tents with en suite showers and toilets, extensive furniture and fittings, and king size beds. The dinner menu is also more comprehensive. In the past 2- 3 years, the luxury camps also offer a higher level of standard, the VIP desert tents. These tents tend to be further away from the main camp, more accommodating and complete with a private butler. A normal basic camp accommodates 10- 12 double tents with a larger tent for restaurant. The typical luxury camp accommodates 4- 5 en- suite tents with a restaurant tent.

Although the typical nomad tents are wool tents secured with wood hooks and ropes, set up in a cone- like pattern, the camp tents nowadays tend to be box- shaped units set up on a solid (usually metal ) frame. Less traditional, they are much more resistant this way to strong winds and provide a better insulation from sand grains or any eventual insects ( mostly flies). However, if your only reason for booking a luxury camp tent is having private showers and toilet, you should know that you can still have a shower both in the afternoon arriving at and the morning departing from the desert lodge. Normally you have that choice, when arriving in the afternoon, before leaving the asphalt. After a 30 – 45 minute camel ride ( optional), you arrive at the desert camp as the sun sets, where you will have your dinner and spend the night. Naturally, the camp is fully staffed. Next morning, you should try and not miss the sunrise. Then, you will be taken back to the same lodge where you had arrived the previous afternoon and have a proper breakfast, before proceeding with your Morocco itinerary.

erg chebbi basic camp                                                Basic camp in the dunes of Erg Chebbi

ONE NIGHT OR TWO NIGHTS ?

In winter ( mid November to mid March) days are short and the sun sets around 5- 6 PM. If you're on a tour of Morocco, it is likely you will arrive at the camp just before sunset and will leave after breakfast. Which doesn't leave you with much time to enjoy the dunes. Ideally, forecast two nights in the desert in winter then. If you are worried about not having much to do, you may be wrong: tea with the nomads, rock engravings, prying out fossils, lunch in the oasis, the Black People village, dinosaur sites, quad biking, sand boarding are plenty of choice. The downside is that if a sand storm is blowing in ( very rare but possible), you will have no choice but to spend the morning or afternoon inside your tent. 

ALCOHOL

Given the alcohol regulations in Morocco, very few camps ( even among luxury ones) sell alcohol on site. Therefore the best way to go about it is to get yourself your supplies in Marrakch or Ouarzazate ( cca. half way between Marrakech and the dunes and the largest town in the south). Otherwise, you may end up paying 3 or 4 times the price if you want to acquire it in a hotel by the dunes. All you need to do is ask for your driver to stop you at a special store. He will then stock it for you in the 4x4’s freezer box, if need be.

erg chigaga basic camp inside                                                            Basic tent interior

CLOTHING AND TEMPERATURES

Cotton/ linen clothes and sneakers/ sandals are best for travelling around Morocco including the desert. A fleece or rain jacket is always a good addition for late nights/ early mornings. Outside the summer season, nights in the desert tend to be fresh/ chilly and in December/ January temperatures can get down to 35°F/ 2°C. Even with the basic tent accommodation, you will get as many blankets as necessary to keep you warm. That being said, it’s not a bad idea to bring over your sleeping bag, if space is available in your luggage. Day time, when the sun is out, temperatures can vary from 70°F/20°C in the winter months to the 113°F/ 45°C and more in July and August. In general we will not recommend taking a Morocco tour to the desert in summer but for some, it is the only time of the year they can come. Have you booked to spend the night in the desert in the summer and you find it too hot to be there ? Worry not. Sun Trails will accommodate you at no extra charge, back at the lodge by the dunes, where you will have the comfort of an air conditioned room and a fresh pool giving onto the dunes. Early next morning, you can still enjoy your camel ride over the Sahara dunes while the sun is rising.

Sun Trails offers both basic and luxury camp options in the desert for those booking bespoke tours of Morocco. For more details, please send your enquiry here .

erg chebbi luxury tent inside                                                    Luxury tent Erg Chebbi interior

 © Sun Trails. 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.

 

 

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Sun Trails

14 Avenue Hassan Seghir

Casablanca 20000

Phone : +212 638 636 719/ +212 666 915 384

Skype: sun_trails_morocco

We are open 7 days a week from 9 AM to 5 PM local Morocco time. For any last minute enquiry feel free to call us on the number(s) listed above.

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Boutique tours of Morocco

What better place than Morocco for a private tailor made tour ? It can be a day trip from Marrakech into the Atlas Mountains. Or a 14 day private luxury Morocco tour. And everything in between. With such a different culture and language, a boutique 4x4 Morocco tour with an English speaking local driver- guide guarantees the best holidays in Morocco. Choose one of the many 4x4 tours from Marrakech or another imperial city and you will discover the off the beaten track Morocco. Much more than excursions from Marrakech or Morocco desert tours, our 4x4 custom tours travel all across Morocco, covering Berber villages, majestic Kasbahs, enchanting palm groves or Touareg desert camps. From Ait Benhaddou to Chefchaouen, from Erg Chebbi to Taroudant and from camel rides in the Sahara to hardcore trekking Morocco can only offer. Browse among our 4x4 boutique tours of Morocco and book your favorite today !