Cristian

Cristian

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

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

Riad La Parenthese Marrakech

The riads of Marrakech, probably Morocco's most coveted attraction. If until the late 90's, they were a well kept secret, the secondary homes of well- off French urbanites that used to come and spend the weekend or winter holidays and started to let rooms to their friends and aquaintances, they then became hugely popular with non- French guests starting around 2006- 2007. Nowadays, there are more than 1600 only for the medina of Marrakech. If they share something in common, it is the fact that rooms spread around an inside patio, with little or no windows on the outside and service is personal yet discreet. The owner will sit down with you and share insider's tips on where it is best to shop or dine. Breakfast at 1 PM ? No problem. In general, nothing is too much trouble, when requests are within reason. And ultimately, the feeling of being transported into another world, when walking past the threshold, from a world of narrow and scrubby alleyways into a setting of 1001 nights, where a fountain is girgling, surrounded by orange trees and the scent of fresh cinnamon filling the air.

But how do you choose the best ones ? After all, you've booked one of our private tours of Morocco and are not likely to return to Marrakech soon. Well, based on our experience, it makes a difference when the owner ( usually a foreigner) is always on site, rather than having a manager hired. Then, the location: close to Jemaa El Fna square, a taxi drop off point and the souks. Third: security. You are not likely to get robbed or attacked anywhere in Marrakech, but in some parts of the medina you will get hustled more by over-night guides. Riad La Parenthese ticks all these boxes and then some: the cuisine is delicious, the decor is sober yet modern ( after all, you get plenty of traditional in Fes, Meknes and Rabat) and nothing is too much trouble for Patricia, her son Pierre and their loyal and hard working team. Patricia generously offered to share with us some of the secrets behind her love- affair with Marrakech.

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Sun Trails: How did you get the idea of the guest house? How long have you been living in Morocco and why? Where does the name of the riad come from? Do you previous have experience running a hotel ? 

Patricia: My first trip to Morocco was about 20 years ago.
To be honest, it wasn’t love at first sight- I was a little apprehensive. When I visited the Medina there, I remember there were a lot of fake guides and for me, the culture shock was complete. 
On my second trip to Marrakech however, I do not know what happened but I only had one thought in my head: to return as soon as possible.

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That’s how we ended up buying a small house a few years later and were moving between Marrakech and Belgium, but as soon as I was landing in Belgium my heart remained in Marrakech. So one day I decided to sell my shop in Belgium so we can purchase the riad. We did and then needed one year of refurbishment works to turn it into what it is today.

We had no previous experience in hospitality, but had many ideas and I knew one thing was I wished to really spoil our guests. The name (Parenthese) because in general, one visits for a few days, has a break, a parenthesis ( faire une parenthese, FR)

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ST: The staff has not changed much in recent years. Was it easy to find a team so welcoming and motivated? When you are not on site to greet customers, who takes your place?

P: Our staff has not changed for 5 years. We are a bit like a family and customers can witness that. I know I can count on them at any moment. It is however very rare that none of us are here. Pierre, my son and partner, takes care of everything when I am not there and I am always very happy when I get an email from a customer who thanks me because he has been very accommodating.

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ST: How do you get along with your neighbors in the medina ? Are there many other guest houses on the street or is it more a residential area ?

P: The neighborhood has several guest houses and we are generally solidary enough to help us in case of overbooking or to lend us things when we need it. I do not consider the other riads as competitors, we are all different in design in terms of what we offer. The good relationship with the Moroccan neighbors comes naturally; it's always nice to say a word to people while crossing the neighborhood.

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ST: You are ideally located, next to Dar El Bacha palace and the souks and 10 minutes from Jemaa El Fna square, with a taxi drop off point not far. What will you advise someone to do if they stay with you and only have 48 hours in Marrakech?

P: I always advise guests who only have 2 days in Marrakech to visit the Mellah and its palaces, the Madrasa for its architecture and especially the Majorelle gardens that I adored on my first trip. The souks are unmissable, for therein lie treasures of Moroccan handicrafts. If the guests want to leave Marrakech, I advise them to take a day trip up in the Atlas and its small villages.

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ST: What will you advise someone especially not to do, the first time in Marrakech?

P: I would advise against evenings too touristy. Some restaurants used to offer dinner and good entertainment years ago, but that is not the case anymore.

ST: What are the best restaurants not far from your hotel ? And spas?

P: The restaurants where we enjoy spending an evening are: Le Comptoir du Pacha (at only 100 m from the riad), Le Café Arabe and La Maison Arabe. We also love Latitude 31 for its reinvented Moroccan cuisine and stunning setting. As regards spas, we work exclusively with the Bains d'Orient and Heritage Spa. They are very professional and quite welcoming. Their decor is unique, with Heritage Spa being quite authentic and Les Bains d'Orient rather chic. It’s the best way to spend a few hours.

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ST: Which countries do your customers come from? Families or couples? How many nights do they spend at the riad on average? Tell us a funny thing that happened to your guests.

P: Our clients are mostly English and Spanish but the rest of our guests come from all over the world. They usually spend between 2 and 4 nights with us.

A funny thing that happened to us:
A guest that had just arrived with his luggage in his hand and who, upon walking past our plunge pool, thought it was covered by a see- through glass and stepped on it... He ended up in a bathrobe while waiting for his things to dry. Fortunately, he only got away with a scare...

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ST: What is one of the typical dishes of the house or one that your guests appreciate the most?

P: Our couscous is I think one of the best (I’m not the one preparing it, fortunately!) The girls are very good cooks. Our breakfasts which change daily are generally very appreciated.

ST: What is your favorite place in Marrakech, inside or outside the medina ?

P: My favorite place inside the city is Majorelle Gardens and a little outside the city, Lalla Takerkoust Lake. Inside the medina, the souks where I love to stroll and treasure hunt.

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Riad La Parenthese is currently offered on the Dreamers level of our bespoke tours of Morocco.

© Sun Trails 2017. 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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Dar Infiane

Dar Infiane - 5.0 out of 5 based on 2 votes

1Tucked away in the south of Morocco, lies the unassuming town of Tata. Those more intrepid travellers on a tour of the southern Morocco, spending the night in Erg Chigaga dunes, pass close by. At a first view,Tata seems a middle- of- nowhere ghost- town built by the French at the beginning of 20th century, part of the colonisation of Morocco. But, there is more than meets the eye. And perhaps the best way to find out is booking a stay at Dar Infiane. Perched on top of a hamlet across the palm grove, the century- old dwelling appears from the outside more like an undefeatable citadel rather than the warm and hospitable guest house it trully is. I had my reservations on my first visit, as the reviews on the internet were mixed. But I still recall the feeling I had when I first stepped in, on a late afternoon in January, years ago. It was as if I had stumbled upon a house that defied all logic, like the ones in Disney animated pictures (which secretly you hope it exists). Its hidden corners, nannies and crooks, rooms with ceilings shoulder- level, the labyrinth of passages, the roof terrace, the secret plunge pool, the miniature windows, the views, the dining salon - I immediately fell in love with it.

As I'm writing these lines, some 500 kilometers away, I imagine it at night, when the neigbours come out on their roof terraces below to chat late at night or at breakfast, the roof terrace overhanging the green vast serpent that is the palm grove beneath. And yes, there are a lot of stairs, the bed linen and towels could certainly get an update and the staff speak no English. But the staff are most warm and obliging, dinners served by Latifa are abundant and delicious, you get hot showers, reversible A/C, and Patrick, the owner, is most willing to share his passion and tips about the region, having lived in Morocco for the last 40 years or so. But the main reason you book here is the magic that the house transpires, a place you'll remember long after you concluded your bespoke tour of Morocco. Patrick agreed to share the story behind it. 

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Sun Trails: I do not know of any other guest house like yours in Morocco. Its age, its charm, its location, its rooms, render it quite special - how did you come across it the first time and how did you think of acquiring it ? Tell us a bit about its history and its location on the top of the village.

Patrick Simon: It’s a long story that starts with my experience at the time as a GCMA expert (Great crossing of the Moroccan Atlas) which used to label rural lodgings in the High and Middle Atlas. One day I travelled to Tata, to gather information about two airport strips and I fell "en amour", as the Canadians say, with this douar ( hamlet) perched above Tata’s palm grove. In fact it was a half-ruined building. My experience of rehabilitation enabled me to see what it could become if given the proper care. 

The hamlet has a few centuries of existence and is a perfect example of the typical oasis and rural buildings of foregone times. Then, men took their time to build homes in a community, in the right season, with local materials: clay, stones and palm beams to support the roofing. They also had great knowledge of best exposures and ‘passive ventilation’, that kept them safe from hot summers and cold winters. I learned that, in fact, originally this douar consisted of 7 hamlets inhabited by fractions of the same tribe, spread over the crests of surrounding valleys. A positioning that favored them to regulate the various commercial passages and camel caravans.

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ST: Given its location and structure, isn't it difficult to keep the guest house in actual state ? How do you manage ? Hot water, toilets, supplies, plumbing ?

PS: It is true that this structure requires annual maintenance, but it is also true that using local materials offers sound and temperature insulation. My previous experience enabled me and Francine, my wife, to decide from the beginning the best solutions fitted for the management of water, electricity, sanitation, thus avoiding us all subsequent head-aches in terms of repairs or modifications. Our efforts were then rewarded with the Green Key label.

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ST: Which countries do most of your guests come from? Since the majority of visitors to Morocco come to see Fez, Marrakech and the desert, not many travel further than Taroudant or Zagora. It isn't a hotel so we can't find you on booking engines either. How do you reach out to them ? Word of mouth, internet, travel agencies ?

PS: To be honest, they come from all over the world. We started the rehabilitation work of the house in 2001. To be successful, we had to devise our own marketing strategy. Very early we decided for the choice of communicating via the internet and later, social networks. The word of mouth did the rest.

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ST: With its hidden corners, rooms with low ceilings, miniature windows, nooks and crannies, the house resembles a small scale Chefchaouen and must be a heaven for children. I for one, spent an afternoon playing hide-and-seek with my 5 year old daughter last time I stayed... Do you have many families with children staying there?

PS: You are absolutely right ! This, together with our small plunge pool on the terrace makes it the ideal spot for them ! We do have families with children staying and children appreciate most these corners, nooks and crannies that in themselves constitute the most charming aspect of their stay.

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ST: Do you think the guest house is meant for everyone ? If not, what is the profile of the visitor you are looking for ? What is that you are offering above the hotels in the area?

PS: It is true that our house being perched on the top of the hill, which greatly amplifies the beauty of the overhangs and sunsets over the palm grove admired from our terrace, one must climb quite a few stairs, and in this aspect, Dar Infiane well, you have to earn it ! ;) We always tell our guests before booking about the many stairs to be climbed.

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ST: What is there to do in the vicinity of Tata that is specific to this region? How many days do you advise to spend in the region, depending on the season? What is the best season of the year to get there?

PS: The region of Tata is rich with the dramatic landscapes of the Anti Atlas, its diverse heritage of igoudars (granaries), sand waterfalls and natural grottoes, its mellahs, house of Charles de Foucald and of course its verdant oases and their traditional khetarras, water clocks and all the micro- communities this creates. I particularly recommend having a walk in the palm grove with a local guide to get a glimpse into this traditional way of living. The region is equally rich with history from the Almohad- era tower to Agadir Ouzrou and the numerous sites of prehistoric rock engravings. One could easily spend 3- 4 days around it. 

For me, the routes are part of the journey hence January and February when the almond trees are in flower are perhaps the best time of year to book. That being said, all year round we have guests coming and enjoying the region and the guest house.

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ST: Tell us about your projects for the region, knowing that you are also vice president of the Regional Council of Tourism.

PS: We are currently working on Jbel Bani Geopark, a regional project of local development linking tourism and development of material and immaterial resources of the region. The aim is to create jobs and income for the local population (of which 40% are young people). We believe that eco-tourism projects such as ours can be an example in creating integrated and sustainable forms of development without ignoring the impact of climate change on this region, where water shortage is already a reality.

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ST: Recently you contributed to our article on security in Morocco. Local authorities are doing their utmost to guarantee tourists this security. However, the number of visitors in Morocco has declined lately. What can be done more to attract more tourists, especially those interested in cultural and adventure travel ?

PS: It is undisputable that Morocco has been able to take the necessary initiatives to avoid any security breaches. I think we should all communicate more to promote the diverse cultural aspects of Morocco. The world has changed much these last few years, indeed. But Morocco ranks among the safest countries! It is no longer a question of reassuring the travel agencies or tour operators but rather the end- user, the traveler, via the social media and all other modern- day platforms.

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Dar Infiane is currently offered on our private tours of Morocco as part of our Dreamers range of accommodation.

© Sun Trails 2017. 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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Is Morocco Safe ?

Is Morocco Safe ? - 3.7 out of 5 based on 3 votes

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Less people travel to Morocco in 2016. These are the official figures from the Moroccan Tourism Observatory. But why? Why are travelers avoiding a land rich in cultural diversity, stunning landscapes and natural- born hospitality? We cannot help but wonder if the kingdom’s location in Middle East North Africa ( MENA) region may have something to do with it. After all, the region is no stranger to terrorist attacks, civil unrest and political instability in recent years. Whenever a new attack is carried out, many potential travellers stay away from Morocco too, simply because it’s in the ‘same’ part of the world. But is it really the ‘same’ ?

Vanessa Bonnin is the manager of Dar Roumana, a stunning riad in the medina of Fes and has lived in Morocco for the last 7 years. Fes, although one of the most fascinating medinas in the Arab world, has seen its numbers drop by 25 % compared to last year. ‘Morocco is unfairly tarred with the same brush as being part of a troubled region, however for me, this type of thinking is like choosing not to visit Germany because of troubles in France.’

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The chief editor of a Moroccan newspaper agrees : ‘Morocco is a victim of its location. Many tourists mistakenly think that the terrorist threat is more important in a Muslim country in the MENA region (Middle East and Maghreb). But despite all this, foreign tourists have no reason to worry, given that since the emergence of ISIS and its supporters around the world, there was no attack in Morocco.’ And it is the terrorist attacks and political instability that have made other countries in the region see a drop in tourism by up to 40 % compared to previous year.

PRAISE FROM FOREIGN MEDIA AND INSTITUTIONS:

There is little talk in foreign media about Morocco and its security measures. Yet the information is there, if one scratches the surface. ‘"People's perception of how Morocco fits into the region needs to change. I would ask potential visitors to see Morocco as its own country and people, and to make choices based on facts not fear’, adds Vanessa. Speaking of facts:

# The UK based Independent magazine has compiled in July 2016 a map of the most dangerous countries in the world by collating the foreign office travel advice for all countries in the world. On that map, Morocco is as dangerous as say Denmark or Canada.

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# The Global Terrorism Index measures the impact of terrorism in 162 countries. To account for the lasting effects of terrorism, each country is given a score that represents a five year weighted average. On this index, Syria ranks #5, United States ranks # 35 and Morocco ranks 92 out of 163 countries. 

# According to the Global Terrorism Database, published by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) at the University of Maryland, terrorist attacks in the Maghreb region multiplied by 47 times between 2011 and 2014, increasing from 15 to 1,105. Of these attacks, only one targeted Morocco.

# According to the French Ministry’s “Travel Advice,” which was recently updated following the suicide bombing that shook Istanbul, Morocco is the only recommended country for French nationals to visit in the MENA region.

# In 2015, the popular Trip Advisor travel website’s users have chosen Marrakech as the top destination in the world. Furthermore, in the 2016 Travelers Choice, Marrakech was Africa’s top destination.

# The US State Department lauded Morocco’s “comprehensive” counter-terrorism strategy, underlining the country’s adherence to human rights standards and the increased transparency of law enforcement procedures. Among other things, the report states that: “in the past decade, Morocco has focused on upgrading mosques, promoting the teaching of relatively moderate Islam"

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KING MOHAMED 6

It is without a doubt that Morocco owes largely its political stability and social security to its king. Having taken on the throne from its father King Hassan 2 in 1999, Mohamed 6 enacted social reforms, including important steps towards gender equality and migrant integration.

In August 2016, the King Mohamed 6 took publicly a stark stand on terrorism and was one of the few, if not the only, chief of state from outside the Western world, to publicly condemn the murdering of innocent people and outcast those who perpetrate these in the name of Islam. "Is it conceivable that God could order someone to blow himself up or kill innocent people? Islam, as a matter of fact, does not permit any kind of suicide - whatever the reasons or circumstances."

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Mandy Sinclair, owner of Tasting Marrakech (food and cultural tours of Jemaa el Fna) has been living in Marrakech for 6 years. While she agrees that the world in 2016 is a less safe place to travel, she feels safer in Morocco than in Europe or the US, although she prefers the less- than- obvious locations: ‘The initiatives the government is taking to ensure the safety of its people and travelers is second to none. As a single woman living in Marrakech, I feel safer here than in most major European and North American cities. I travel frequently around Morocco and always feel at ease, especially in smaller villages in the Atlas Mountains, Moulay Idriss and Essaouira’.

At the same time, countries such as Spain and Portugal have seen almost record number of tourists these past 2 years. Does that mean that you should feel safer in Spain or Portugal than you would feel in Morocco ? Travel writer Alice Morrison agrees: ‘Unfortunately, I don’t think it is 100% safe anywhere in 2016. What I can say is that I feel as safe living here in Marrakech as I would in the UK. I was actually more worried going to London a couple of weeks ago and getting on the underground, than I am going down to the Medina here.’ Alice Morrison is an adventurer who has lived in Marrakech since January 2014. She, of all people, has some insight into Africa, since she crossed the continent on a bike, a race of 8000 km and has written a book about it.

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Personally, I could say that the seeds for this article were planted during conversations with our guests at the end of their private tour of Morocco. In the shade of their riad in Marrakech, most of them would relate the same experience. ‘Cristian, I know we asked a lot of questions before travelling to Morocco as we were a little worried about the safety here. But we want you to know that we hardly felt any safer and more welcomed anywhere else we travelled before’. That raised a question: how many other travelers like them felt that initial apprehension and never venture? When the grim statistics were published in July 2016, I decided it was about time to publish the long- due article and get people involved. And I thought the best is to start by researching how thorough the Moroccan authorities have made Morocco safer, on the ground.

MOROCCO’S FBI AND OTHER TECHNICAL DATA

If you journeyed to Morocco in the last two years, you may have noticed police and military patrol the streets in groups of 3. Scanning devices have been installed at hotels, restaurants and malls entrances. Thorough checks are in place at airports across Morocco. In the local media, many terrorist cells have been dismantled in the past 18 months. But this is merely the tip of the iceberg.

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The Moroccan government has treated counterterrorism as a top policy priority since 2003. In June 2015, the Government of Morocco enacted significant amendments to the criminal code to address the foreign terrorist fighter phenomenon. To further show that Morocco is serious about combatting terrorism, it has created a law enforcement agency that deals specifically with terrorism threat: The Morocco Central Bureau of Judicial Investigation (BCIJ), nicknamed ‘the Moroccan FBI’. As about its efficiency, the BCIJ has dismantled quite a few terrorist cells since its creation.

Law enforcement officials and private carriers work regularly with the United States to detect and deter individuals attempting to transit illegally. At the end of 2014, the parliament voted to support the Council of Europe Convention on Laundering, Search, Seizure, and Confiscation of the Proceeds from Crime and on the Financing of Terrorism.

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On the other hand, one of the most important measures taken by Morocco in recent years was the creation of the new security mechanism “Hadar”, which incorporates elements of the Royal Armed Forces, Royal Gendarmerie, the Police, and Auxiliary Force. 

In the past decade, Morocco has focused on upgrading mosques, promoting the teaching of relatively moderate Islam, and strengthening the Ministry of Endowments and Islamic Affairs (MEIA). The MEIA is educating Morocco’s nearly 50,000 imams in a version of relatively moderate Sunni Islam. 

FIGHTING POVERTY

Besides the security measures and the counter radicalization of the mosques, the Moroccan authorities understood that the radicalization of some youth stems from lack of opportunities and unemployment. The Moroccan government engaged in a policy of heavy public investments in infrastructure and the social sector with the ultimate goal of fighting poverty. According to a study published on the Carnegie Middle East Center in 2010, Morocco succeeded to lift 1.7 million people out of poverty during the period 2000-2010. The same study shows that poverty rates in the country decreased by more than 40 per cent during the same period.

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SO WHERE DOES THE CONFUSION COME FROM ?

Morocco's association with the turmoil of the neighbouring countries is the external and main cause of its drop in tourists. The internal and lesser cause may be the transparency and overzeal of the local media to relate about the dismantling of the terrorist cells. As the editor in chief sums it: ‘The kingdom is also a victim of the effectiveness of its anti-terrorism strategy. Indeed, every other month the authorities announced that a terrorist cell was dismantled.’

Patrick Simon is vice president of Regional Tourism Council of Guelmin – Semara region in the south of Morocco and owner of Dar Infiane guesthouse. Of French origin, he has lived in Morocco for 41 years. He agrees: ‘I’d like to point out that the regular press releases claiming good results in the dismantling of terrorist cells was a choice of the government and especially the Ministry of the Interior, thus insisting to show nationals and tourists that all means were used to ensure maximum security’. So it seems that the security forces are very good at doing their job and like to convey it to the press. In the long term, it's still to be seen whether the transparency is the best policy in this case. 

Did you visit Morocco in the last 5 years ? Did you feel safe ? Did you fear for your safety ? We've created a special platform for you to vote and/ or leave your feeback here. 

The river at a turn

© Sun Trails 2016. 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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Northern Morocco

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This private Morocco tour will take you through Casablanca, Asilah, Tangier, Chefchaouen, Meknes, Volubilis and Rabat. Listen to a local university teacher relate tales of pirates capturing European nobility in Sale. Discover the colorful  medina  of Tangier with a view on the Atlantic, praised by Delacroix, Matisse and the ‘beat generation’. Become a child again in the fairy- tale azure streets of Chefchaouen. Stroll among Phoenician and Roman ruins at Chellah and Volubilis. Unwind in the dreamy fishing village of Asilah with its prize- winning architecture and unspoiled beaches. We recommend this itinerary all year round but ideally so during summer, to keep you away from the high temperatures further south. Additionally, you may also be interested in our Marrakech, Atlas and the coast tour. Below you will find the detailed itinerary. As with all our tours, this itinerary is a mere example and will be customized to suit your taste and schedule. To enquire about availability and rates, please send us an enquiry

DAY 1: CASABLANCA / RABAT – ASSILAH ( 4 – 5 hour drive). We will collect you at the airport or your hotel in Casablanca or Rabat. On our way to Rabat, along the Atlantic coast, we can stop and visit the exotic gardens of Sidi Bouknadel or the bird reserve in Mehdya. There is hardly a better place for lunch than the village of Moulay Bousselham, right on the Atlantic coast where your driver will arrange for freshly caught sea food or fish to be grilled right in front of you and have an impromptu meal along the locals. Follow that with a boat ride into the lagoon. Time allowing, stop in Lixus and visit the Roman ruins or in Msoura to admire the Megalithic stone circle, a sort of Moroccan Stonehenge. Arrive in Asilah in the evening. Dinner and accommodation in Asilah.

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DAY 2: ASILAH. After breakfast on the roof terrace, have a stroll around one of the most beautiful and well- kept medinas of Morocco, dating back to 10th century that owes its present shape to the Portuguese who occupied it for a few decades back in the 15th century. More recently, in 1989 it was awarded the Aga Khan prize for architecture. Much of Asilah’s transformation can be traced to 1978, when two local friends invited artists to paint murals on the medina’s peeling walls. That creative impulse soon gave birth to the International Cultural Moussem of Asilah, a summer festival with concerts, design lectures, poetry readings, and artists who arrived from all over the world to cover the whitewashed city with colorful, elaborate graffiti. The festival takes place every summer ( dates change due to Ramadan) and now draws a crowd of 100,000 people, turning the town into a vibrant open-air museum and creating a street scene that’s picturesque enough to rival Morocco’s famously blue city of Chefchaouen. In the mornings, the sound of waves drifts over the restored  ramparts, mixing with the rhythmic tones of streets being swept and the scent of freshly baked bread. We recommend you to enter the numerous art galleries and then spend some time by the unspoiled beach south of Asilah or try your hand at Arabic calligraphy with a local maalem. Dinner and accommodation in Asilah.

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DAY 3: ASILAH – TANGIER ( 1 hour drive). Our tour of northern Morocco leaves Asilah and follows the Atlantic coast as you soon enter the urban area of Tangier. Penetrate the intricate medina of Tangier and before long, pass the gate of the Kasbah. Drop the luggage in your Riad's room and go out to explore the medina with a local guide. Start perhaps with the Marshan district and its Roman tombs. Before entering the old town, stop for a refreshing break and admire the Moresque interiors of St Andrews church. Follow up with a visit to a local artisan cooperative where the maalems are busy working the looms. Cross the fish market where fresh fish is sold at auction to arrive to the Jewish cemetery, dominating the sea front. Next stop, the American legation, the first American property to ever open outside the United States. Descend onto Petit Socco and have a mint tea at Cafe Tingis, a favorite with the Beat Generation. A few streets further away push the door of the local synagogue ( closed on Saturdays). Make your way up the intricate streets and step back into the Kasbah district. There is no better end to the day then having a drink on a roof terrace dominating the whole medina, at the time when the sun drowns into the Atlantic. Dinner and accommodation in Tangier.

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DAY 4: TANGIER – TETOUAN – CHEFCHAOUEN ( 2 hour drive). On our way to Chefchaouen, we can linger for a while in Tetouan and awe at the Mauresque heritage present in its patios and palaces. Erected on an ancient Roman site, Tetouan was completely destroyed during the 15th century by the Portuguese. The fall of the kingdom of Granada in southern Spain in 1492 marked the renaissance of Tetouan. More than its architecture, the cuisine, the music, the jewelry or the embroidery speak of their Andalusian origin. And where the Moresque heritage can be admired in all its glory is the Ethnographical museum. But perhaps you want to head straight to Chefchaouen so you can spend more time there. Still, you’d be a fool to miss the dramatic gorges of Oued Laou, connecting the Mediterranean beaches to the azure town.

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Quite likely the most charming village in Morocco can’t leave anyone indifferent. We could tell you that the kasbah built in the 15th century is worth a detour or that you should try to track down the still- working watermill or the district farnatchi oven, but Chefchaouen is about loosing yourselves in its streets without any precise goal. Inside the ancient gated medina nearly every building is painted an arresting shade of cerulean or azure, the sky blues juxtaposed with white trim and terra-cotta rooftops. Twisting cobblestone paths lead up and up, around the ocher-colored casbah to a landscape of green hills and mountaintops, uninterrupted sky extending beyond. Great trekking opportunities are also present in the nearby Rif Mountains, for a few hours or a whole day, along the river and up to the waterfalls, or further on, to the Bridge of God. Dinner and accommodation in Chefchaouen.

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DAY 5: CHEFCHAOUEN – MEKNES – RABAT ( 6 hour drive). Our northern Morocco itinerary leaves Chefchaouen and the Rif Mountains behind to then descend onto Moulay Idriss, the holiest village in Morocco, where Moulay Idriss, a 5th generation descendant of Ali, son in law to Prophet Muhamed, arrived in the 8th century escaping the fight for power between the Omeyades and the Abbasydes at the court of Damascus. He was warmly welcomed by the Berber tribes and set out to establish the first Moroccan dynasty. The tomb of Idriss the 1st is still nowadays the object of a massive pilgrimage from all over Morocco. Only 3 miles from there, lays the Roman town of Volubilis, the best preserved Roman site in Morocco, capital of King Juba the Second, who came to marry the daughter of Cleopatra and Marc Anthony. Then, we continue onwards to Meknes, one of Morocco’s 4 Imperial Cities. Meknes became the capital of Morocco with the Sultan Moulay Ismail, who in the 17th century decided to change the capital from Marrakech to Meknes. To this task, he employed 55000 men, workers but also Christian slaves and dismantled the splendid Badi’ Palace in Marrakech to then carry most of it to Meknes on the back of camels. From this age, we were left with the imposing Bab Al Mansour, one of the most original gates in Morocco, the grain silos that, according to a chronicler of the age, could hold enough grains to feed the whole of Morocco, the House of the 10 Norias or the large open air basin where water was stocked so it could supply the whole town and was sometimes used for the army to train. Arrive in Rabat in the evening. Dinner and accommodation in Rabat.

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DAY 6: RABAT. Despite its appearance as a quiet administrative town, Rabat hides quite a few gems, having been included on the UNESCO world site list just a few years back. You should perhaps start your day with the visit of the 12th century Kasbah des Oudayas and its Andalusian Gardens, an important outpost of the Almohad dynasty, back in the 12th century. We can dwell further into the past and visit the Merenid necropolis of Chellah, where Phoenician, Roman and Merinid heritages blend. Sale, the town over the bridge, has a more intriguing story and was known for centuries as a pirates' nest. Canals used to run inside its gates and its pirates were famous for rapidly attacking European ships and taking illustrious nobility as prisoners. Once inside the city, the massive doors would close and the European powers had no other choice than to offer most generous prices for ransom. Some say that it is outside its shores that it inspired Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. Our local guide will tell you all about the fearsome pirates and the relations between Muslims, Jews and Christians inside a traditional medina.Downtown in Rabat, opened in 2015, Mohamed 6 museum offers a great insight into the Moroccan modern arts and holds international exhibitions to rival those of European museums. Dinner and accommodation in Rabat.

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DAY 7: RABAT or RABAT – CASABLANCA ( 1h30 drive).
Depending on your flight location and schedule, we will arrange for the drop off accordingly. If flying out from Casablanca, you should seize the opportunity and visit Hassan 2 mosque, the third largest in the world.

We can always take away or add 1 or 2 days to this Moroccan itinerary to suit your schedule. Book or enquire about your private customized tour of Morocco here

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© Sun Trails 2016. 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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The rise of a pasha

The rise of a pasha - 5.0 out of 5 based on 1 vote

Many of our private tours of Morocco include a detour by the Pasha Glaoui’s ruined palace in Telouet, up in the High Atlas mountains and the nearby salt mines. But not many know that from this desolate group of ruins in the High Atlas, so far from the seat of government at Fez or Rabat, arose by a strange chain of coincidence a generation of kingmakers...

The castle stands at an altitude of more than 8000 feet and its scattered rookery of crumbling predecessors occupy the corner of a desert plateau, circled by giant peaks, all of them rising to more than 10000 feet. The kasbah is a tower of tragedy that leaves no room for laughter. Not too far away are the days when a giant Black slave used to open the lock with a foot- long key, one among the 67 he was carrying, and set his shoulder to the iron- bossed twenty- feet high doors. The reception rooms had taken 3 years and three hundred men to work on, plaster workers, carvers and one painter. The owner of the castle had intended that is should become the most fabulous palace in Morocco. But deep invading cracks cut crudely through the intricate elaboration of years of work, for the kasbah is empty now and slowly returning to the soil it was molded from. If these crumbling walls could talk...

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The year is 1893 and the Sultan Moulay Hassan has decided to visit the desert regions of Morocco including far – off Tafilalet, the great oasis form which his dynasty has originally sprung.
Leaving Fez in the summer, the Sultan proceeded south, crossing the Atlas and descended to the upper waters of Ouez Ziz. Food was lacking , the desert regions could provide little. The water was bad, the heat unbearable. Every kind of delay, including rebellion and the consequent punishment of the tribes, hampered the Sultan’s movements and it was only towards winter that he arrived in Tafilalet with a fever- stricken army and greatly diminished transport.

He did not try to return to Fez, but instead made for the southern capital of Marrakech, separated from Tafilalet by the mighty High Atlas mountains. By the time his army had reached the foothills of the Atlas, the winter snow had begun; as they climbed higher into the main massif more and more of the camels, mules and horses, weak with starvation , stumbled into deep snowdrifts and died.

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Men too weak to carry their weapons any further dropped them and struggled on unarmed. The main arsenal, however, which included a Krupp assault cannon and a quantity of its weighty ammunition, was never abandoned. The Sultan was still many days march from Marrakech, and he was far from certain of his reception by the mountain tribes through whose territory he was passing.

Reading from left to right as the Sultan’s army now looked up at the mountains, these tribes were the M’tougga, the Goundafa and the Glaoua, the latter dominating the pass then called Tizi n’ Telouet. The chief of each of these tribes was officially a Caid, or representative of the Sultan, responsible for collecting taxes and enforcing recognition of the central government. These were the principal three caids of the High Atlas and they were constantly at war with one another and constantly changing alliance. They exacted heavy tribute from the caravans of dates, olives , argan oil and walnuts, whose trade routes led from south through the passes they commanded.

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Caid Madani El Glaoui, controlling Tizi N Telouet was of different caliber from either of the other rival war lords. He was a young man of great intelligence and limitless ambition, an outstandingly brave warrior who possessed at the same time something more than a flair for intrigue. The Glaoua were almost unique among the Atlas Caids in that they did not owe their comparative affluence entirely to piracy and violence for they owned an extremely profitable salt mine. The old pass snaked upwards through the desolate, lunar valley of the Oued Mellah – the river of salt. To these salt mines of Telouet came camel caravans from the Sahara, from the Sudan, from Mauritania, from inner Morocco and from the great oases of the desert. The family was by now on its way to comparative wealth but not to power, for it could command, at the most, between two and three thousand mounted warriors.

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In that autumn of 1893 when what little remained of the Sultan’s army was struggling upward through the snows under a canopy of ravens and vultures and with a rearguard of jackals and hyenas, the Caid Madani El Glaoui was twenty seven years old , and his brother Thami , was fifteen. The Glaoua pass at Telouet lay on the Sultan’s direct route to Marrakech. Madani and Thami heard of the approach of the defeated Sultan’s army while it was still many miles away. The sum of their knowledge added up to the desire of giving the Sultan the greatest welcome he had ever received from a mountain Caid. Having taken this decision, Madani put the greatest pressure upon all the tribespeople owing allegiance to him , and in 48 hours they had collected a vast number of mules and horses, an uncountable number of sheep and goats for slaughter, and special dues poured in from every corner of their kingdom in cash and kind until, when the Sultan’s harka was still twenty miles away, Madani El Glaoui was prepared to entertain the Sultan and his army for as long as they cared to stay.

With his younger brother, he rode out to meet the harka, accompanied by a bodyguard of five hundred mounted warriors and behind him trailed the infinite army of mules and horses that he had requisitioned. Madani observed every detail of protocol, prostrating himself before the sultan in the snow and touching his forehead to the ground. The Sultan had no choice but to accept his offer. After all, he knew that without prolonged rest and food he and his army would never reach Marrakech. He therefore graciously accepted and within five hours he and his army were installed at Telouet. The diffa , an endless banquet at which course succeeds course, spiced chickens and pigeons, couscous, and whole roast sheep and kebab and almond pastries and sweet mint tea – long after the guest can eat no more, lasted all through the night.

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By some unguessable means, Madani found the resources to prolong this situation for several days, while the sultan recovered his strength and his army munched its way through a few more thousand sheep. The day before their departure, the Sultan made Madani his personal khalifa , or representative in the region, giving him nominal command of all the tribes between the High Atlas and the Sahara. Of infinitely greater significance, he made him a present of a considerable amount of modern arms and ammunition. This included the 77 mm bronze Krupp cannon, the only single heavy weapon in all Morocco outside the Imperial Cherifian Army. From then on the surrounding tribes regarded Telouet as a veritable arsenal of modern warfare.

To be continued...

© Sun Trails 2016. All rights reserved. This article is based on excerpts from the book 'Lords of the Atlas' by Gavin Maxwell. 

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Lost Kingdoms (8- 10 days)

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This 9 day off- the- beaten- track Morocco tour leaves Marrakech over the High Atlas mountains, reaches the Sahara to then take you deep south into a mystical land where not many have ventured before. 

We follow the old caravan route from Marrakech over the High Atlas mountains, past UNESCO world site Ait Benhaddou, along the Draa river with its Biblical villages and lush palm grove and into the Sahara desert.  After riding a camel and having dinner under the stars, spend the night in Erg Chigaga dunes, in the safety of your private tent. Then, ride through the desert, have tea with the nomads and pick up milennia- old fossils. Later on, continue south, and uncover some of Morocco's besh hidden secrets, with the distinct feeling that you are the first person to ever walk there. We are now quite far from any beaten tracks.Trekking up a river bed to find yourself in the middle of primordial gorges, their wax- like lava walls appearing to have caught time suspended. Century- old granaries, fierce mountain- top fortresses, where the village folks still stock their grains. The ruins of a 17th century mosque, hidden in the middle of a palm grove. The millennia old rock engravings, portraying wild animals, hunters and some of the first letters of the Berber alphabet. Then, we head north into the Anti Atlas and spend a night in the highly picturesque village of Tafraoute, a heaven for trekking, hiking and mountain biking. End the tour with some pristine Atlantic beaches, absconded behind towering sand dunes, before reaching the 'small Marrakech' - Taroudant. 

Click here to see detailed map

Day 1: Marrakech- Tizi n Tichka – Telouet – Ait Benhaddou ( 3 hour drive).

Leaving Marrakech behind, we soon take on the High Atlas. Breath taking panoramas and hair pin curves succeed while the route follows one minute out in the open, the next under dense pine trees. Shortly after reaching 2200 meters altitude, you leave the main route to reach the village of Telouet and the Kasbah of the Glaoui. From the ensemble of three ruined kasbahs only one has maintained its reception rooms where intricate zellij patterns and precious wood greet the eye. Pacha Glaoui had employed the most skilled artisans to build and decorate his main residence and, in its golden age, armies, stables and Christian slaves were confined within its walls while a flourishing Jewish community managed the nearby salt mines.

Then, our road follows Ounila valley with its mosaic of gardens and tiny douars. Occasionally the valley turns into a canyon, where the nomads have dug centuries ago galleries of grottos to stock grains. Late afternoon is the time to visit UNESCO site of Ait Benhaddou, the postcard- like adobe citadel. With a bit of luck, the crowds have already deserted the place. A fat, red sun, only underlines the beige tones of the mud and straws mixture and through the covered passages and stone walls, the past filters itself into the present. In spite of the local ‘guides’, the best is to just lose yourself in its derbs and explore the honey – comb structures. Spend the night in a refurbished Kasbah, in the vicinity of Ait Benhaddou. 

Day 2: Ait Benhaddou – Ouarzazate- Agdz – Zagora ( 3 hour drive)

Today our trip of Morocco will follow the mythical Draa Valley, a route so often used for centuries by the caravans bringing gold, slaves, ivory or feathers from Mali or Ghana. But first, locally sourced breakfast – better had on the roof terrace from you can admire the palm grove below. Entering Ouarzazate, you are welcome to visit the world famous film studios, where lately scenes of Game of Thrones were shot. Leaving the plain behind, the road climbs, twists and turns its way up through bare calcified gorges. Right after the pass you catch a first glimpse of the valley and the oases, a green river of palms snaking up into the haze bordered by the Kasbahs, adobe guardians rising as if from the earth where the green gives way to the desert. There is no road sign but somehow you become aware you have entered a different land, le grand sud.

Right after Agdz, we turn left and will stop to wander around the eerie kasbah of Tamnougalt. Biblical adobe villages border the palm grove. It is worth visiting at least one of them – perhaps the one where most of the population is still black, descendants of former slaves- the Harratin. A picnic lunch by the river, under the palms, is quite a treat. Or perhaps discover the rock engravings at the end of a dusty off road track. We reach the tranquil town of Zagora late afternoon. We will stop for accommodation and dinner in a beautiful guest house nested inside the palm grove. 

Day 3: Zagora – Tamegroute – Mhamid – Erg Chigaga ( 3 hour drive)

After breakfast, our 4x4 Morocco tour will take you through adobe villages bordering the route and the first patches of sand start to show. The nearby village of Amezrou, carries on the Jewish tradition of silver crafting and the adobe synagogue still stands. We will stop for a break in Tamegroute where century old Qorans and Arab treaties on astronomy and sciences are neatly arranged behind glass windows in the zaouia’s library.  The same village carries a pottery tradition known throughout Morocco Watch how the clay is being turned into emerald pots and dishes inside traditional earth ovens and glazed into its particular emerald green cover. Before long, our tour reaches M’hammid, where civillization ( or at least the tarmac ) ends. 

The next two hours of our tour make full use of the four wheel drive as rocky desert gives way to gravel and then sand dunes, past the occasional water well and oasis. The anticipation built doesn’t quite prepare you for the spectacle ahead of you- these are the dunes of Erg Chigaga. Just as you enter the dunes, you are meeting the camels. Ride a camel into the dunes as the sun is slowly dipping into the horizon. While the staff of the camp is unloading your luggage, you climb onto the highest dune you can find. There is nowhere else you would rather be. Have dinner in front of your tent, by the camp fire, under starriest sky. At night, dazed by the millions of stars glittering above, the silence is so thick you feel you could cut a strip and wear it as a scarf as you fall asleep. 

Day 4: Erg Chigaga – Lake Iriki – Foum Zguid – Tata ( 4 hour drive)

Should you have missed the sunrise… well, try not to. After toddling across sand dunes, our trip reaches the perfectly flat Lake Iriki, nowadays completely dry, where the Draa river used to form its estuary. Later on, we will have tea with a family of nomads and search for fossils. Then, we take on the hamada, the much dreaded stony desert, to finally reach Foum Zguid. Farewell Sahara, hello tarmac... Though the dunes are behind, the immensity is still present. The tarmac swirls past barren plateau and sun- burnt ridges while you barely cross another soul. Continue south and stop by the nearby waterfalls. A couple of hours later, reach your accommodation for the night, a five- century old noble house erected on a top of a village overlooking the palm grove. The many hidden corners, passages and patios will delight adults and children alike. Food is rustic, locally- sourced and really tasty.

Day 5: Tata – Akka – Icht ( 2 hour drive)

In the morning have breakfast on the roof terrace – one can hardly imagine a breakfast with a better view. Spend the morning learning how a water clock works in the nearby palm grove, preparing traditional bread in the village stove, visit the grottoes or trek by the cliffs. Picnic in the nearby palm grove to then reach a very old Berber village where you will be able to push the gate of a 18th century old granary, recently restored. Inside the palm grove an unfinished mosque from centuries ago stands as a silent guard.  Your accommodation for tonight resembles an African lodge more than a Moroccan kasbah. The owners, former rally pilots, are the most welcoming hosts and have plenty of stories to share over the hearty dinner. 

Day 6: Icht

Today, we will discover the local area and its not- so- obvious attractions. The remoteness of the spaces is why most people would come and stay here. But don’t let yourself be fooled by the appearances. In the surroundings, at the right place and time of day you can glimpse foxes, eagles, wild boar, hares, mountain gazelles, bustards or partridges. After breakfast, leave the guest house and take the route to the old village at the foot of the local djebel. Visit the old streets of the village, the museum created by Abdesalam, and the women’s cooperative who make colorful rugs and other home objects ( who also adorn the rooms of the guest house). Then trek to Ait Ouabelli and head south after crossing two beautiful dry wadi ( rivers). Discover the pre-Berber tombs (burial sites of over 3000 years) and a stunning rock engravings site. Picnic within a beautiful wild oasis under the shade of the palm trees. Time to climb some dunes (on foot or 4x4 ...) Heading north now, over an ancient dry lake, we will cross nomad herders with their camels and goats. And at the day’s end, you get to return to surroundings that, given the middle- of- nowhere coordinates, are impressively indulgent.

Day 7: Icht – Tafraoute or Icht – Guelmin – Sidi Ifni -  Mirleft ( 3 hour drive)

Today we will leave the deserted plains behind and, depending on your preference, will reach the Atlantic coast or a most picturesque village high in the Anti Atlas. In the winter months, we recommend the latter. Then and there a subtle but undeniable transition happens: where desert vistas and acacia trees give way to abrupt cliffs, barren mountains and almond trees. Only one hour drive away, you’ll wander through the 70 odd rooms of the local granary overlooking the village from 600 meters high and see where locals used to stock grains, raise bees and collect rain water. It was also used as a back drop in times of attack from a different tribe or the nomads from the Sahara. After a Berber omlette and a coffee in a local gite, trek up the river bed to find yourself in the middle of primordial gorges, their wax- like lava walls appearing to have caught time suspended. Natural pools of deep- green transparent water appear here and there, where fish swim. The climb is sometimes steep but you’d do it again in a heartbeat. At the end of it, the 300 meter high gorge opens up and you can make your way back through the deserted plateaus above. Back inside the vehicle, a most stunning off road crosses the Anti- Atlas , via one of the former piste des legionnaires

If choosing the other variant, after the visit to the granary and the gorges you will follow west, reaching the Atlantic coast at Sidi Ifni. As the road unfolds in turns and twists from Goulmine, reputed otherwise for its weekly camel souk, moisture from the Atlantic layers the landscape in a prismatic haze and argan trees and white- washed houses come about. Follow the sea side route and stop at the natural beach arches before reaching Mirleft. Here the most amazing view over the Atlantic awaits you on the terrace of your accommodation for the night.  

Day 8: Tafraoute / Mirleft – Taroudant ( 3 hour drive)

If you have decided for Tafraoute and if any energy left from the previous day, hop on a bike and explore the local gorges and awe at the games of light and shade the palm grove and the bare mountains offer. For those interested, a few tracks are available for trekking or rock climbing. As you thread your way through the gorges and deep red villages, there will be a flash of quicksilver to your left: an oasis of deep- green water, ringed by a white granite bed of rocks, glinting in the sun. The local painted rocks and Napoleon’s hat are also worth a detour. Or the Lion’s head… After lunch, take the route over the Anti Atlas and stop on the way to admire the 360 rooms of a local agadir, set on 5 stories where rock slabs are used as staircases. The route then goes up to arrive in the tranquil town of Ighrem to then descend on Taroudant and its fertile plains, the snowy peaks of the High Atlas in the background. If you've decided for Mirleft the previous evening, relax by the beach to then follow the Atlantic coast and stop in Sous Massa natural park a bird watcher paradise. Nearby, in Tifnit, fisermen caves dug into stone line the dramatic beaches. Arrive in Taroudant in the evening. 

Day 9: Taroudant – Tizi N Test – Tinmel – Asni – Marrakech ( 5 hour drive).

Also called sometimes ‘Petit Marrakech’ Taroudant is in fact older than its northern sister. Its walls were built by the Saadi sultans back in 16th century when the city was their capital and the main base to attack Portuguese invaders on the nearby Atlantic coast. In this quiet town where most folks go around on their bycicle, hop on a caleche and have a tour around the city walls or wander the souks best known for silver, honey and argan oil and imagine how Marrakech used to be 30 years ago.

Back on the road we are now taking up the imposing High Atlas this time reaching the Tizi n Test pass at 2100 meters, surrounded by snowy peaks. After the pass, our Moroccan itinerary serpents its way through the mountains and scattered Berber villages. At first sight just another Berber village, Tinmel is the birth place of the Almohad dynasty, who shaped a great empire in the 12th century stretching from Senegal all the way into Spain and Algeria. The open air mosque was built on the model of the mosque in Cordoba and the remains are worth a visit. Later, as you cross Asni, to your right you can wave hello to Mount Toubkal, the highest peak in Nothern Africa and have lunch at Richard Branson's nearby Kasbah Tamadot.

If you prefer, you can also return to Marrakech via the highway from Agadir, after having enjoyed some time on the beach just north of Agadir. The beaches around bohemian Taghazout are embraced by a warm sea current and you can swim in the Atlantic most of the year. Agadir is only a 1 hour drive from Taroudant and 3 hours on the highway to Marrakech. Arrive in Marrakech in the evening. Drop off at your riad/ hotel for the night, the train station or the airport. End of the tour. 

You may choose to follow the original tour itinerary as described on the website or have us create a tailor made itinerary around you. Please note that all our tours of Morocco are private  and, all along, stops are accommodated as often as you desire, for you to visit a site, take a stunning photo or stretch your legs. 

We believe our guests deserve to be spoiled and stay only at the best properties while on a customized tour of Morocco. We spend a great deal of time and effort to anonymously test and hand- pick the best boutique and luxury hotels, Riads , eco lodges and Kasbahs across Morocco. These select properties are constantly monitored and updated. Each one of them is inspired by and reflecting the culture, architecture and cuisine of its location. Upon enquiry, we provide a day- to- day customized Moroccan itinerary with the names of the accommodations suggested at each overnight.

Please find below the resumed itinerary (driving times don't include stops):

Day 1: Marrakech- Telouet – Ait Benhaddou ( 3 hour drive).
Day 2: Ait Benhaddou – Ouarzazate – Agdz - Zagora ( 3 hour drive).
Day 3: Zagora – Mhamid – Erg Chigaga dunes ( 3 hour drive)
Day 4: Erg Chigaga – Lake Iriki - Foum Zguid – Tata ( 4 hour drive)
Day 5: Tata- Akka – Icht ( 2 hour drive)
Day 6: Icht
Day 7: Icht – Goulmine – Sidi Ifni - Mirleft or Icht – Tafraoute ( 3 hour drive)
Day 8: Tafraoute/ Mirleft – Tiznit – Taroudant ( 2 hour drive)
Day 9: Taroudant – Asni – Marrakech or Taroudant- Taghazout - Marrakech ( 4-5 hour drive).

Feel free to let us know if you would like to include a site/ activity of your own in the itinerary. If you don't know where to start, some ideas are:

- visit the nomad grottoes and Berber granary;
- learn about life in the palm grove, the khetarra irrigations, the pottery craft, the olive oil press;
- hot air balloon flight over Marrakech and its surroundings;
- traditional Moroccan hammam ( steam bath) with eucalyptus soap body scrub;
- lunch at Richard Branson’s Atlas Mountains retreat;
- bake bread with the local ladies in the village's oven;
- trekking/ hiking around Tafraoute;
- surfing or wind- surfing on the Atlantic coast.

Below you will find our rates based on two persons travelling together, with the relevant accommodation option:

Dreamers: 1395 €/ 1500 US $ / 1200 £ per person ( double room & basic desert tent);
Privilege & Dreamers: 1855 €/ 1990 US $/ 1600 £ per person ( double room/ junior suite & luxury tent with en suite shower and toilet);
Divine: not available for this tour.

Pricing is tentative and can vary slightly at different times of the year. If you book your tour to take place in December, January ( outside end of the year holidays), February, July and August, you will be charged our low season rates. We can only quote an exact rate once we have agreed on the precise itinerary, accommodation option preferred, the extras you would like to include and the duration of the journey. Discounts apply when 3 or more persons share the vehicle(s). You can also choose to mix different accommodation ranges within the same circuit.

Our rates include:

- private use of the English fluent driver- guide and the modern air- conditioned Toyota 4x4;
- boutique/ luxury hotel accommodation for 7 nights;
- Sahara camel trek and private basic or luxury tent for 1 night;
- 8 three- course- meal dinners and 8 breakfasts for 2 persons;
- refreshing drinks inside the vehicle all along the itinerary;
- local English speaking guides;
- admission fees to all local sites and attractions;
- 24 hours travel assistance with Privilege level;
- gasoline and highway tolls;
- transport insurance, VAT and visitors tax.

Most of our guests prefer adding an extra day to either allow for some relaxing time by the beach in Essaouira or trekking in the Atlas Mountains. 

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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. 

luxury tent erg chigaga

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.

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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 !