It used to be necessary to transit through Casablanca — an undistinguished city alluring only in the minds of Bogie and Bergman fans — in order to connect to Marrakech and Fes, but those cities are increasingly accessible from major European gateways. And in November 2018, a high-speed rail line opened, reducing the journey between Tangier and Casablanca from five to about two hours. Most Moroccans see themselves as quite separate from the Middle East and practice moderate, tolerant forms of Islam. Berbers, the indigenous inhabitants of the country, regard Arabs as colonists as much as they do the French. The geographic diversity of Morocco might also come as a surprise, considering it encompasses sandy beaches, lush palm and olive groves, snowy alpine mountains and the sand sea of the Sahara. Marrakech sees millions of tourists each year, but much of Morocco remains unspoiled. When we visited the old ksar of Ait Semgane, for example, we felt like the first travelers to see the ruins.
Lines to clear immigration can be lengthy; a VIP transfer from the airport is well worth the expense, including access to the fast-track passport line (necessary even for domestic flights arriving in Marrakech). Ask your travel agent or concierge to make the arrangements.
In most Moroccan restaurants, the food is casually presented but rich in flavor. You also can’t help but encounter tagine, a slow-cooked stew or casserole. Common versions include chicken with preserved lemon and olives, and beef or lamb with dates and/or apricots. Argan oil, a wonderfully rich and nutty finishing oil produced only in Morocco, appears less frequently on menus than it used to, alas, perhaps because the oil’s newfound international popularity has pushed up prices.
The Atlas Mountains by Hot Air Balloon
Though the snowcapped Atlas Mountains are often visible from Marrakech, the best way to survey the beauty of the landscape is to take a flight by hot air balloon above the city at sunrise. Ciel d’Afrique, a reputable local firm, picks you up at your hotel and drives you to a village where the balloon is prepared for its ascent.
Hammam treatments appear on the spa menus of almost every luxury hotel in Morocco, and we highly recommend trying one during your stay. It’s similar in some respects to hammam rituals offered by many spas in Turkey and some in Germany. Expect a rub with local black soap, an exfoliation with a kessa mitt and the application of rhassoul, a mask of clay from the Atlas Mountains. And hopefully, the treatment may finish with an argan oil massage.
It amazes us how far the local wine industry has come in the past 10 to 15 years. Two successive kings have encouraged outside investment in vineyards and wineries, and that encouragement is paying off. White wines tend to be inconsistent. But if you keep to vin gris, rosé and red and watch for AOC-designated options, you’ll likely have some surprisingly pleasant experiences with Moroccan wine.
To phone hotels in Morocco, dial 011 (international access) + 212 (Morocco code) + city code and local numbers in listings.
Five hours ahead of New York (EST).
Spring (March-April) and fall (October-November) are the ideal seasons for a visit. Winter (December-February) can bring cold nights, and during the summer (May-September), daytime temperatures routinely climb to over 100 F. Places south of the Atlas Mountains are appreciably warmer in winter.
Moroccan dirham (MAD). Fluctuating rate valued at MAD8.96 = US$1.00 as of February 2021. Note: Some hotels quote rates in euros (€); €1.00 = US$1.20 as of February 2021.
Rabat, Tel. (212) 537-637-200. Consulate: Casablanca, Tel. (212) 522-642-000.