I had wanted to go to Morocco for as long as I could remember. I watched a little-known Indie film called Hideous Kinky with Kate Winslet many moons ago and I fell instantly in love with the country and its mystical charm. I totally imagined myself as a hippie mother travelling around Morocco with my children on my hip feasting on couscous.
It only took 21 years since the release of the movie until the time I actually stepped off a plane into the exotic country I had been dreaming about most of my life. The only similarity was that I had my 6-year-old with me and that’s basically where my analogy with the movie ends. But this was where our very special Moroccan family trip began.
When I started planning our adventure, so many people said to me I don’t think you should be taking Travis to Morocco it is not a child-friendly destination. But I was adamant to prove everyone wrong. Or perhaps I had separation anxiety about being away from my only child for so long. But I was going to show them that this far-flung North African country was, in fact, a great option for family vacations.
We touched down in the largest city after which the much more well-known film, Casablanca is named. We met our guide, Larbi who would be accompanying us on our 2-week road trip. We spent 1 night in what felt decidedly like a European city, complete with a vibrant café culture to match. The streets surrounding our hotel, The Kenzi Tower, were lined with designer stores and coffee shops and we felt safe taking a stroll around the busy neighbourhood that evening as we acclimatized to our new time zone.
The next morning on our city tour we stopped for a photo-op at “Rick’s Café”. Built next to a garage of sorts it definitely did not exude the romance of the movie, and in fact, it is only there to satiate tourists, so we didn’t even bother to go in.
We spent some time at the Square of Mohammed V as Darren was trying to get some pictures of the fountain, which stopped working the moment we arrived. Fortunately, some of the locals had found a great way to make money from tourists, by offering kids a ride around the fountain in little motorised vehicles. They control them via remote but the children think they are actually driving, so this kept Travis entertained for about 10 minutes. Followed by chasing pigeons for another 5 minutes. It was the first time we got to see the brightly dressed “Guerrabs” or water bearers who used to make a living by quenching people’s thirst, but now get most of their Dirhams from posing for photos.
The highlight for us was without a doubt the Hassan II Mosque. The ornate detail of the mosaics and the marble and cedar carvings are simply sublime. Even Travis was impressed with the size of the prayer room, minaret, doors and Venetian sconces. Granted, when you are a kid, bigger is always better! This flamboyant complex, which took 6 years to complete is built on a promontory over the Atlantic Ocean and is worth including Casablanca into your itinerary for. What was interesting to note is that women do not have to cover their heads as is a given at many other mosques, but you are required to remove your shoes. You are given a bag to carry them with you instead of leaving them at the door or in shoe racks.
We continued on our journey to the capital Rabat, which is one of the four Imperial Cities. It is another coastal town but with a lot more charm and considerably more laid back than Casablanca. Chellah – a combination of Roman Ruins, an Islamic necropolis and pretty, overgrown gardens is a fun place to explore. What intrigued us most was the numerous cats that had taken over the ground and the rowdy storks that seemed to rule the roost from above. Then, of course, there were the boiled-egg-eating-eels, which are supposed to bring fertility and easy childbirth. Say what now? Why had no-one told me of this place years ago?
Kasbah of the Udayas was by far one of our favourite stops in Rabat. If I haven’t yet mentioned my love affair of doors, be prepared for a lot more swooning over these wooden masterpieces as our perambulation unfolds. The narrow streets of this 11th-century city within a city are painted blue and white and the walls encase a multitude of mesmerizing doors just waiting to be photographed. Apart from being historical and picturesque with sweeping views over the Atlantic, the kasbah was relatively quiet, without the maddening throng of tourists we were still to encounter in the more well-known medinas.
We also visited Tour Hassan and the Mohammed V Mausoleum where we took some snaps of the elaborately dressed guards on horseback, climbed (with great difficulty for some of us) the partially constructed columns and marvelled at the embellished ceiling of the tomb. So, all in all, a very eventful second day!
Day 3 took us to The Blue Pearl – Chefchaouen. Three words. Picture postcard perfect. I had planned the trip so we would be spending our 22-wedding anniversary here and boy oh boy was it a treat. The atmosphere was eclectic. It was busy but not overwhelmingly so and we felt relaxed wandering around the narrow streets, getting lost on occasion and just soaking in the ambience. What I particularly appreciated but only really noticed after visiting Fez and Marrakech, was the lack of haggling. It was our first time staying in a Riad and it was just as I had imagined. A little bit quirky, a little bit quaint and a whole lot magical. I was the only one in the family who got excited when we were served Moroccan mint tea on arrival, which actually happened at every check-in thereafter!
We spent the afternoon in the central square, Outa el-Hammam, which is dominated by the 15th century Kasbah, behind which we found a cute playground, filled with local children. Travis was able to let off some energy and got to play with some of the kids. The square itself is full of souvenir shops and restaurants complete with gorgeous rooftop patios. Yes, they are a little touristy and yes, they pretty much all serve the same fare. But the food was tasty and cheap and it is the perfect place for a spot of people watching.
We were awoken by the beautiful sound of the Adhan (call to prayer) from the mosque outside our window. On the itinerary for the day was a hike through the Talassemtane National Park. We experienced our first taste of Moroccan wildlife in the form of Barbary Macaque monkeys, but were disappointed to see other travellers feeding them Pringles and the likes! At the start of the hike, our guide told us that around the first corner we would be able to see the Mediterranean Sea so off we went all very gung-ho. He, however, stayed with the vehicle. After about the 7th corner we still did not see no sea, and little legs were starting to get weary. It was also uncharacteristically cold, and what we did see was traces of snow along the path and mountainside. Travis and I decided to head back, but Darren kept going further in case it actually was around the next corner. Eventually, he caught up with us and still hadn’t seen it either. Regardless, the views were spectacular and it was great to be out in nature and enjoying the silence and fresh air.
The drive to our lunch stop seemed never-ending, (a bit like our walk to see the ocean!). We thought we must surely be lost and we were all starting to get very hangry. When we got to Gite Dar Rihana, it was certainly worth the trouble. Picturesque views, divine food, and friendly hosts. The owners’ lively 3-year-old daughter kept Travis busy with a game of tag and was in tears that she couldn’t come with us when we left!
That afternoon I probably photographed over 100 doors from every conceivable angle. Some of which were nothing more than some wooden slats with some blue paint slapped on them! They made me giddy with happiness nonetheless!
We were sad to leave Chefchaouen but had so many enthralling things to look forward to. En-route to Fes, we had a few stops. First the little town of Moulay Idriss. It is one of the holiest cities in Morocco as is the birthplace of Islam in the country. It is also home to the tomb of Idris I, after who the town is named. About 5km away is the well-preserved ruins of the Roman City, Volubilis. A local guide led us through the interesting history and grandeur of what life was like in the 3rd century BC! From there we visited another of the Imperial Cities, Meknes. The main attraction here was the intensely adorned Bab (gate in Arabic) Mansour, which is the main gate into the old town but we just did a drive-by and had a quick walk around the Medina. We eventually arrived into Fez and settled into Dar Anebar, our cute guesthouse for the night.
It was here that we were instructed not to even attempt walking anywhere alone. Fortunately, we had one of the best guides I have ever met, Khlafar Elasefar. He led us on a perfectly paced jaunt around this beguiling UNESCO World Heritage site. Our first stop was at the 17th century Royal Palace, which is still in use by the king. Thus, we only got to admire the imposing 7 golden gates from across the road. They were surrounded by a number of guards in different dress. Travis, of course, thought it would be a good idea to try and cross the boundary line, even though he had been told umpteen times we were not allowed to! What is it with kids and their lack of ears?
The medieval streets of Fes El Bali, form one of the world’s largest car-free urban areas. We did still need to keep our wits about us when walking down the alleyways as donkeys laden with goods seemed to appear out of nowhere at every turn. Although I was in full helicopter parenting mode, I felt at complete ease as Khlafar led Travis hand in hand through the narrow streets and kept him wonderfully entertained.
Despite the overwhelming madness of the medina, Fes was actually another one of our favourite stops. It has long been considered the cultural, spiritual and intellectual heart of the country. Speaking of intellect, we visited Bou Inania Madrasa (Islam Learning Centre) and all I can say is MIND BLOWN! Intricate cedar woodcarvings, exquisite marble and graceful Kufic script adorned the inside of this immaculately restored Merenid monument.
No visit to Fes would be complete without a visit to one of the iconic although somewhat offensive leather tanneries. We went to check out the oldest (almost 1000 years) and largest – Chouara, from the best vantage point which is on the roof terrace of one of the leather shops. All the dye colours are natural and they still use the ancient craft of dying which includes the use of cow urine and bird poop! (These could be contributing factors to the pungent smell!) Dozens of workers are waist-deep in the stone vessels preparing the hides which will then be made into the slew of leather products lining the streets of Fez and beyond. Now as much as I was longing for warmer weather, I was grateful that on this particular day the sun was not beating down too harshly as the odour was somewhat tolerable. Travis seems to have inherited my smell-induced gag reflex so we were not sure we were going to get through this experience without a complete meltdown, but the customary mint leaves under the nostrils seemed to do the trick!
The next day was one of the longer drives, around 7 and a half hours with stops. I was a tad disappointed by the ski resort Ifrane which is known as Morocco’s Little Switzerland. Granted it wasn’t winter so there was no snow which I am sure would have made it more magical, but it seemed pretty dated and bland. It was a quick pitstop but didn’t quite live up to my expectations. The rest of the drive was pretty scenic although we did use the opportunity to catch up on some shut-eye and “online time”.
We finally arrived at our Desert Camp near Merzouga. Larbi, ever the optimist, tried to play down the intense sandstorm. He kept trying to convince us it was a once in a lifetime experience, that few get to witness. Well, he was right about that! Even growing up in Cape Town which is battered by the South Easter did not prepare us for this wind whipping. But we were determined to make the most of our only night in the desert and the Sahara Luxury Camp was beyond charming, as were the amazing staff. We managed to squeeze in a camel ride and at that height, we weren’t swallowing mouthfuls of sand so it was almost pleasant. We actually had the most fun jumping down the sand dunes and sinking into the ‘quick-sand’. I was looking forward to an evening sitting around the fire under the stars with my boys, reminiscing on the adventures we had had so far and getting excited for what was still to come. But alas it was not meant to be and we spent most of the night awake praying our tent was not whisked away in a Wizard of Oz type tornado. Not the most peaceful of sleep.
The next day the wind had still not subsided so we were pretty relieved when we were on the road again. We spent some time listening to the rhythmic melodies performed by the Gnawa musicians in Khamlia village on their traditional instruments. Their songs and dance are trance inducing and typically form part of a ceremony or ritual. They did encourage some of the tourists to dance with them, but we suddenly all got very shy and decided to make our exit at that point.
The rest of day 8 involved a drive via Tinghir, where we stopped for a walk in the lush palmeraie and through the fields where friendly Berber villagers were tending to their crops. We then proceeded to Todra Gorge, a striking canyon in the High Atlas Mountains. It is possible to hike from Tinghir through the canyon, which, for obvious reasons, we did not do. We stopped at the restaurant Timzzillite, right on the edge of the gorge and did our own 500m hike down the road to snap some scenic shots!
Our digs for the night was Xaluca Dades Hotel, akin to a mountain resort. It is definitely more of a group hotel and it was the first time we were dining from a big buffet alongside many tourist groups which felt a bit odd. The pool was freezing and the wind seemed to have followed us. They had a hot tub so that was where we whiled away the afternoon, enjoying the panoramic views of the Dades Valley and surrounding Berber Villages. This short respite was very much appreciated after a long day on the road.
The following day we headed to the beautiful oasis of Skoura, which was only an hour and a half away. We paid a visit to Kasbah Amridil, a 300-year-old living museum showcasing a fascinating insight into traditional Kasbah life. The family of the original founders still own and maintain it and it is very well preserved and worth a look in.
We all absolutely adored our next hotel, Ksar El Kebbaba, and wished we could have spent an extra night here! It was like staying in our own gorgeous Kasbah in the middle of the lush palm grove. We were upgraded to the Royal Suite, which had a bathtub big enough for all of us and more. We spent the afternoon exploring the villages with Darren on a mountain bike racing Travis and I on a quad bike. Not surprising Darren was still faster, but we had a lot of fun. The quaint restaurant was the backdrop for our family dance party that evening, that was until the other guests arrived for dinner! It was literally a case of Rocking the Kasbah!
The next morning, we were back at it again with a jampacked day of exploring. The first stop was at Atlas Studios in Ouarzazate, also known as Morocco’s Hollywood. It is the world’s largest film studio and many a well-known flick was filmed here including Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator and The Mummy. A great attraction for kids and adults alike, but don’t expect the glitz and glamour of Universal Studios!
Ait Ben Haddou is a distinguished example of a Southern Morocco Ksar or fortified village. We had some time to explore it on our own, which was a little tricky as the long, tangling red clay alleys all looked the same. Darren insisted he knew his way to the top, so we just followed him past a variety of artisans selling their wares and did amazingly make it. There are actually around 5 families who still live in this UNESCO World Heritage site and it is definitely a highlight on any Morocco itinerary.
We continued on the ancient caravan route, over the Tizi n’ Tichka (which means difficult) mountain pass. A series of switchbacks, hairpin bends and many a precipitous drop did keep us wide awake for this part of the journey which led us to marvellous Marrakech and the delightful Riad Kniza.
After a good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast, we started our full-day explorations of this vibrant city. Sooo much to see! First up was Djemaa El Fna, the central market place, bustling with locals and tourists alike. Entertainers jostle for prime position as they perform musical acts, dances and games. I was aware there would be snake charmers, but wasn’t prepared for how unethical I found their practice. Nor that of the poor monkeys dressed up and led around on chains. In fact, I was heartbroken for all the animals on exhibition in the square and this was the rather dark side of the country I did not want Travis to see. For this reason, we chose not to spend too much time in the square. We viewed the Koutoubia Mosque with its imposing Minaret which is the highest structure in Marrakech and then continued on to the grand Bahia Palace. We walked around the immaculate gardens and courtyards and stepped into some of the rooms that were open to the public. It was quite crowded so we moved on to the Saadian Tombs, a series of mausoleums housing the remains of important figures from the Saadi Dynasty. We had a quick amble through the old medina but from past experience, I know shopping is neither my husband nor my son’s thing. So being the bigger person, I sacrificed this to keep the peace.
We did also have to get ready for our afternoon activity which we were so very much looking forward to. Not only were we going to be seeing our dear friend Alain, who had arranged this incredible trip for us, but we were going to joining him at his apartment for a private cooking course! Chef Azzeddine Bennouna as he is more formally known is an award-winning executive chef who used to own 3 restaurants in New York. Travis donned his chef hat and whipped up an incredible vegan feast with just a smidge of help from Alain!
On our last day in Marrakech, I gave the boys the chance to relax a bit in the room while I hit the souks to do some shopping. I was armed with a cell phone from the Riad in case of an emergency, as well as a map pinpointing their location. Being directionally challenged, I tried very hard to memorise landmarks as I walked down the road so I could make my way back with ease. But my magpie instincts soon kicked in and I was drawn from one shiny object to the next. Before long I was deep in the medina but figured I would show people my map and they would direct me back. After every shop owner I asked, spoke no English and pointed me in a different direction, panic started to set in. So much so that I even thought it wise to follow a gent on a moped who said he would take me there, but actually seemed to be leading me further and further away into empty streets. I soon came to my senses, composed myself and tried to retrace my steps. Miraculously I did make it back in one piece and with a couple of shopping bags to boot!
After 10 days on the road and with activities every day we were ready for some downtime and had a leisurely 3 days planned in Agadir. The Sofitel resort was just what we needed with heated swimming pools and a more international array of food. (You can only eat vegetable tagine so many days in a row!) We took strolls along the lengthy beach beside camels, played in the rather rough sea and swam constantly. Darren and I had to pull straws about whose turn it was to be lifeguard parent in the pool and he definitely lucked out! It was the perfect ending to our Moroccan vacay, and when asked if we would like to return someday, we all answered with a resounding YES!
Travel tips for Parents to keep your sanity
Take ketchup – Yes really. This commodity wasn’t readily available and if you have a fussy eater it’s a must. I ended up collecting sachets wherever I could in case the next stop didn’t have any, or it “tasted weird’!
Swimming pools – I did a lot of research before we left and made sure that wherever possible the accommodation we stayed at had a pool. I, unfortunately, did not do my homework well enough as failed to check if said pools were heated. Even though one appeared indoors it was in a courtyard with no roof, which meant it was in fact freezing. A meltdown pursued.
Be prepared for the long drives – our vehicle had Wi-Fi, for which I was extremely grateful. And before you give me the bad parent spiel I believe in “everything in moderation” and on 8 hour drives a little bit of screen time was necessary for everyone’s well-being. I also packed an endless supply of snacks, which were depleted well before we got to the last stop.
Do a private tour – Having a private guide and vehicle gave us the flexibility to change our itinerary as needed. We could shorten certain visits if little (or big) legs were ready to give out and make as many “comfort stops” as we wanted. It is also so much more enjoyable than being herded like cattle in part of a tour group.
You pay to pee – Make sure you have lots of change, as most of the said comfort stops require that you pay to use the washroom, or if not at least leave a tip.
Dar or Riad – a Dar is a traditional Moroccan house with the rooms built around a courtyard. For it to be a Riad it must have an interior garden, ideally with a central fountain. Both are equally lovely. Provided you go with an open mind and not the expectation of these being international 5* hotels, you will not be disappointed.