Two Weeks in Morocco

From Marrakech to the High Atlas Mountains
Matt Livey

Morocco may be only slightly larger than California, but the country offers travelers an incredible diversity of experiences. In less than two weeks, I went from the spice-filled souks and perfumed palaces of Marrakech to the cool alpine majesty of the High Atlas Mountains. I explored abandoned kasbahs and ksour (fortified villages) amid palm-filled oases and rode a camel over immense dunes in the Sahara. A snowstorm and a sandstorm buffeted me within three days of each other. Morocco is never boring. 

Morocco” still sounds exotic and far away to many American ears, but Europeans increasingly regard Marrakech as a place for a long weekend. Indeed, one young Englishwoman I met rented an entire riad (traditional courtyard house) for her bachelorette party a few years ago. I also spotted quite a few groups of Chinese tourists, who no longer need visas to visit Morocco. The country is not undiscovered.

Most tourists keep to a narrow range of sites, which means popular places such as the Majorelle Garden have become overrun. But it also means that it’s surprisingly easy to escape the crowds. Even in Marrakech, one need only turn a corner to find an unspoiled alley or a small square. A good guide helps, and if I’m being perfectly frank, paying for expensive hotels helps as well. The experience of staying at Dar Ahlam’s private desert camp is worlds away from staying in crowded Merzouga.  

This itinerary follows my most recent visit to Morocco, which included Marrakech and the southwestern part of the country. I recommend traveling in spring or autumn. Winters are uncrowded but too chilly for swimming in the beautiful outdoor pools.  

For our editor's full trip report from Morocco, see the May 2018 Hideaway Report.  

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    • Stay at one of the finest hotels in the world, Royal Mansour
    • Indulge in a traditional hammam treatment
    • Visit Bahia Palace, Dar Si Said Museum and Dar El Bacha Palace
    • Wander the colorful souks of Marrakech
    • Dine at Royal Mansour’s La Grande Table Marocaine
    • Experience the alpine grandeur of the High Atlas Mountains
    • Go on a guided hike with access to Berber villages
    • See Ait Ben Haddou, a magnificent ksar built on the side of a dramatic mesa
    • Stay at Dar Ahlam, an impressively restored rammed-earth kasbah
    • Overnight in the Sahara at a desert camp
    • Explore olive and palm groves amid abandoned kasbahs

Day 1 : Arrive in Marrakech

Before you depart, make sure you have arranged a VIP arrival transfer. You’ll be met after you exit the aircraft, rather than at the crowded and slightly chaotic entrance of the airport. More important, you’ll have access to the fast-track immigration line. The standard queue can be up to two hours long, or more, on a high-season Saturday. Bring along some small American bills for tipping your driver so that you don’t have to wait in line at the airport’s one ATM.

Transfer to La Maison Arabe, my longtime recommendation in the convenient Bab Doukkala neighborhood adjacent to the heart of the souks, or the palatial Royal Mansour, which ranks among my favorite hotels anywhere in the world. It stands a 10- to 15-minute walk from the center, and this property, the beneficiary of the king of Morocco’s essentially unlimited budget, is reason alone to come to Marrakech.

You’ll likely arrive in the midafternoon. Take some time to relax and settle in at your hotel, and perhaps arrange for a hammam treatment. This traditional exfoliation and massage ritual is an ideal antidote to jet lag.

Have dinner in one of the informal restaurants in your hotel, either Le Trois Saveurs at La Maison Arabe or Le Jardin at the Royal Mansour.

Day 2 - 4 : Marrakech

Take three full days in Marrakech. I recommend hiring a guide for two half days, giving you time to visit major sites like the Bahia Palace, Dar Si Said Museum and Dar El Bacha Palace as well as the souks (as of this writing, the Ben Youssef Madrasa is closed for renovations). 

That also gives you time on your own to explore. Wander the souks, visit other museums like the new Orientalist Museum of Marrakech and the Maison de la Photographie, take a cooking class and/or head into the Guéliz neighborhood to visit Musée MACMA and shop. It’s also important to leave time to relax at your hotel. 

Regardless of which hotel you choose, be sure to have one dinner at La Maison Arabe’s Le Restaurant and one at the Royal Mansour’s La Grande Table Marocaine, two of the best restaurants in the country.

Day 5 : Marrakech – Atlas Mountains

Depart Marrakech after breakfast and drive across the Kik Plateau to Kasbah Tamadot. This castle-like Mediterranean villa has awe-inspiring views of the Atlas Mountains, a glamorous infinity pool fringed by cypresses and a fine restaurant. 

After lunch on the terrace, relax by the pool, have a spa treatment or take a guided walk in the surrounding countryside.

Day 6 : Atlas Mountains

Take a full day to enjoy Kasbah Tamadot. The guided hikes can be a bit steep, but you’re rewarded with panoramic views and access to untouristed Berber villages. When you return, the pool and spa await, as do well-maintained mountain-view tennis courts.

Day 7 : Atlas Mountains – Skoura

It takes a full day to transfer from Kasbah Tamadot to Dar Ahlam in Skoura, but the scenery along the way ranges from beautiful to breathtaking. Drive out of the Asni valley up to the Tizi n’Tichka pass, where we encountered the snowstorm (an issue only in the depths of winter). 

Cross over the High Atlas Mountains and return to acacia-studded desert on the far side. Make a short detour to Ait Ben Haddou, a magnificent ksar built on the side of a dramatic mesa. It’s touristy, but it’s so beautiful that it still merits a visit. The views from inside are splendid, but even if you see Ait Ben Haddou only from afar, it’s worth the detour.

Continue on another hour to Skoura. Now a small town, this palm-filled section of the Dadès Valley was a major ancient caravan crossroads, as evidenced by the numerous crumbling kasbah towers rising above the treetops. 

Check into Dar Ahlam, an impressively restored rammed-earth kasbah amid well-maintained Mediterranean gardens. Dar Ahlam may be expensive, but its intoxicatingly mysterious atmosphere and high level of service make it worth the splurge. Meals and house beverages are included.

Day 8 - 9 : Skoura

Take two days to enjoy Dar Ahlam and Skoura. A driver and guide are included with the rate. We explored olive and palm groves dotted with abandoned kasbahs, and even poked around inside some of them. A drive through rocky desert led us to a dramatic river gorge, where, somehow, the staff conjured a three-course hot lunch complete with the wines of our choice, served under a romantic tent.

Back at Dar Ahlam, take time to relax by the inviting garden pool. The spa is as atmospheric as the rest of the hotel, but it’s a little rough around the edges.

Day 10 : Skoura – Sahara

I arranged an overnight in the Sahara with Merzouga Luxury Desert Camps, and though I enjoyed the camp itself — tents came with wood floors, king beds and running water — the staff in the main office were clumsy and disorganized. I recommend taking advantage of Dar Ahlam’s private desert camp instead. 

The drive to the Sahara is long, but again, the scenery is never less than mesmerizing. Even in cloudy conditions, the desert sunsets take your breath away. In addition, it feels especially luxurious to experience the comforts of such a camp while surrounded by such an inhospitable environment. 

Day 11 : Sahara – Ouarzazate – Marrakech

Depart the desert. If time permits, you might return to Dar Ahlam for the evening so that the day isn’t quite so long and tiring. We drove from the desert through the Anti-Atlas Mountains all the way to Ouarzazate, passing by numerous picturesque and entirely unspoiled ksour. 

Eventually we reached the scenic Draa Valley. Before we turned toward Ouarzazate, we detoured to Ait Semgane, a mostly abandoned ksar near Tassawant, which we explored entirely alone. Wandering among the ruined and semiruined townhouses is an experience I won’t soon forget.

We then flew from Ouarzazate back to Marrakech (note that this flight is not daily). Even though this is a short domestic hop, make sure to arrange a VIP transfer and access to the fast-track immigration line (even domestic air passengers must clear immigration for some reason). 

Transfer to Amanjena, a splendid resort in Marrakech’s Palmeraie.

Day 12 - 13 : Marrakech

Take two more days to relax at Amanjena after your adventures in the countryside. 

If you find yourself in need of culture, pay a visit to the new Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden (MACAAL), about five minutes away by car from Amanjena. Have lunch afterward by the pool at the adjacent Mandarin Oriental, Marrakech hotel.

Day 14 : Depart Marrakech

Return to the airport and fly home.

Two Weeks in Morocco

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