Last month, I went on a 10-day trip to Morocco with my family that completely changed my life. I’ve been very fortunate to travel outside the US plenty of times, to many destinations across the Atlantic, but there was something about this particular trip that exceeded all the rest.
I believe a lot of it has to do with the fact that this was our first family trip in years, dating back to when spring break was still a thing for us. Now that my two sisters and myself are older & working full-time jobs, it’s been harder to plan family trips that allow for all 5 of us to get away for more than 5 days together. Luckily, my parents found a sweet spot in early January (8th-18th) to surprise us with an experience unlike anything I’ve ever imagined.
I went into this trip not knowing what to expect & left with more appreciation and respect for a country that has completely captured my heart. I can’t wait to share every single detail about this trip with you all & hope you’ll be inspired to travel to Morocco by the end of my two-part recap. In the meantime, here’s part one of our journey – enjoy!
TRAVELING TO MOROCCO
We departed JFK Airport at 7pm on a direct flight to Casablanca via Royal Air Maroc airline. There are only two (direct) flights out of JFK to Morocco each day – one in the morning & one at night. The benefit of taking the evening flight is that you can sleep on the plane (about a 7.5 hour flight) and arrive the following morning on Morocco time. This was the best option for us, as we had a whole day scheduled to make stops along the drive to our first destination – the city of Fes.
I’ll be honest – Royal Air Maroc was very much a “dated” airline & the service/amenities were reflective of that. I wouldn’t go into it expecting the bells & whistles you get from United or Delta on an International flight. You get a tv and in-flight food, but don’t be surprised if the tv doesn’t work & the flight attendants don’t care enough to help you fix it or reassign you a seat. Also don’t be surprised if you ask for extra butter because its missing from your meal & get a response like, “No extras for Economy class..” LOL. The perk of flying it is that it’s the only direct flight into Morocco, so if that’s something of importance to you, then it’s worth taking. But if you’re someone who expects to be treated like a King/Queen on every flight you take, then I suggest paying up for the Business Class..
Planning Our Trip + Getting Around
In the past, we’ve always purposely taken the road less traveled so we can get an authentic experience of the country we’re visiting, outside the tourist hot spots & into the heart of the land. As advised, traveling by car would be our best bet in order to see and do as much as we could within our 10 day stay. In Morocco, the major cities are between 4-6 hours apart, separated by mountainous and/or desert terrain. Needless to say a majority of our trip was spent in the car, with all three daughters sardine packed in the 3rd row of our van.. It was tight but we made it work, and was totally the way to go at the end of the trip after getting to see everything we did.
We met our driver & tour guide at the Casablanca Airport the following morning. Morocco is 6 hours ahead of NYC (East Coast) but thankfully the evening flight allowed for us to adjust to the time change fairly easily. Our parents booked our trip through a travel agency called Casablanca Tours, which set us up with a tour guide & driver to stay with us throughout our trip, from beginning to end. I’D 100% DO THIS IF YOU PLAN TO SPEND SEVERAL DAYS IN MOROCCO. Not only did we have someone to show us around each destination & lead us to the right spots to dine/shop, but we also never had to worry about our bags or stress over how we’d be getting to our next destination. The reason we all got along for 10 days is because of this, so I highly recommend booking a guide & driver if you want to elevate your experience and eliminate the stress that comes with traveling in general.
Our guide Mustapha has worked with our driver Ayoub for several years, so they have a great existing partnership and dynamic that we instantly appreciated as a traveling family of five. We got to know both men very well by the end of our trip, which made it so bittersweet when it was time to leave. Our trip was as amazing as it was because of Mustapha & Ayoub – they truly made all the magic happen behind the scenes and we couldn’t be more thankful for them both!
*If you’d like to book Mustapha (& Ayoub) for your Morocco adventure (trust me, they will make your trip THE BEST EVER), then be sure to reach out through his contact info below – be sure to mention me as a reference!
Mustapha Bifoul | E: email@example.com | Tel: +212 6 37 22 18 07
WINTER IN MOROCCO
If you live in NYC or any northern city on the east coast, then you’ll be delighted by the winter weather in Morocco. On average, it was 40-50F by mid-day with cooler 30s in the morning & evening. I was comfortable wearing a puffer coat and sweater with jeans or cargo pants each day. Some occasions, it got warm enough to wear a maxi skirt/dress during the day. Personally, we found visiting Morocco in winter to be an incredible time to be there. It’s not the high season, so you can expect less tourists and less crowds at certain hot spots/cities as a result.
THE SECOND LANGUAGE IS FRENCH
If you’re one of those people who chose to take French over Spanish in school, then you’ll be the source of communication amongst your group when visiting Morocco. Of course, you’ll find that many people speak English in the major cities, but you won’t be smooth sailing if you travel outside to the remote towns/villages. French is the second main language spoken in Morocco, and you’ll find a lot of people speak it in places of business (restaurants, hotels, etc.) All those years of taking French seemed to pay off for me most this trip, as it all started coming back to me after a few days of flexing it in conversation. I used to be pretty great at speaking French (took it for 10 years from Kindergarten – 12th Grade) but made the foolish mistake of not continuing it in college after testing out of the entrance exam. So naturally, I lost a lot of conversational knowledge (still can understand pretty well though!) After this trip, I’ve been inspired to take it back up & make it a 2020 goal, along with planning a trip back to Paris or Montreal in order to practice all I’ve re-learned!
AGRICULTURE & TOURISM ARE TWO OF MOROCCO’S TOP INDUSTRIES
These two go hand-in-hand, as the country greatly depends on both to maintain status quo. Morocco is known for growing many varieties of fruits & grains, as well as raising cattle & livestock for quality meat and by-products (cheese, milk, etc.) Everything we ate tasted so fresh because it didn’t travel far to get to our plates. As a precaution, we only ate meat dishes at reputable restaurants or at the select places our guide Mustapha took us to. We avoided eating the skins of most fruits if we could and only drank bottled water; all of our hotels had filtered water to allow us to brush our teeth but we still never drank from the tap.
DRESS CONSERVATIVELY & BE MINDFUL OF RELIGIOUS PRACTICES
Morocco is predominantly 99% Muslim with the remaining 1% consisting of Christian, Jewish, and Baha’i. In the winter, we didn’t have to think too much about what we wore provided it was mostly consisting of longer layers. If visiting during the high seasons of spring/fall or early summer, it’s strongly encouraged to dress on the conservative side more so as a means of respect. Think along the lines of sticking to crew neck T-shirts over v-necks or tank tops and wearing skirts/dresses that hit at the knee or lower (no mini skirts, high slits, or shorts.) Cover your shoulders when entering/visiting any religious sites such as synagogues or places of prayer. Morocco isn’t like the UAE so you won’t be “verbally” attacked for wearing something on the shorter side but it’s best to cover up if you want to avoid any unwanted attention.
Days 1 – 3
CITY OF FES
WHERE WE STAYED
Riad Mayfez Suites & Spa
Our first two nights in Morocco were spent at the beautiful Riad Mayfez Suites & Spa, a tucked away oasis in the middle of the Fes Medina. You’d never know such a place existed amongst the maze of pedestrian alley ways making up the city center. We had to walk about 6 minutes with our bags to get there, as cars can’t fit down these narrow streets, but little did we know what an absolute treat we’d be walking into.
Riad Mayfez Suites & Spa is not your ordinary hotel, as it came into fruition from an existing palace that has been family owned for several years. When you walk in, you feel as if you’re in the private courtyard of someone’s residential home, complete with three surrounding buildings where guests are welcomed to spend the night. I stayed in a beautiful guest suite with my two sisters, complete with a private staircase leading up to the room & a private terrace overlooking the courtyard. There’s also a larger rooftop terrace that boasts beautiful views of the surrounding Medina where we enjoyed glasses of wine after a long day of exploring. If you’re looking for a place to stay that’s in the heart of it all but still provides all the feelings of luxury, privacy, and intimacy expected, then this is the hotel you absolutely must stay at when visiting Fes!
WHERE WE ATE
The Ruined Garden
Right around the corner from our hotel is The Ruined Garden, a charming outdoor restaurant surrounding its customers with varieties of plants & foliage. Here is where we got our first taste (no pun intended, but somewhat is) of Moroccan cuisine, which was nothing short of outstanding. Our guide Mustapha recommended this place and we couldn’t get enough of the atmosphere along with our many delicious shared plates of Moroccan delicacies – from couscous to chicken/veggie tagine to the homemade bread (OMG..mouth is watering now thinking about it.)
L’Amandier au Palais Faraj
Located on the top floor of the beautiful Palais Faraj hotel is L’Amandier, a restaurant offering Moroccan & Mediterranean Cuisine along with stunning panoramic views of the ancient Medina. This was one of the more intimate, smarter dress places we chose to dine at during our trip and the food + atmosphere was reflective of such. I had the most delicious plate of spinach linguine that my entire family just had to try themselves, along with several shared apps that were both non-dairy & vegetarian-friendy!
WHAT WE DID
On our way to Fes from Casablanca we stopped at the Volubilis Ruins, a partly-excavated, Roman site of a former Berber city located outside the city of Meknès. Its development dates back to 3rd Century BC and it remained inhabited up until the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake, which buried most of this ancient city with mountains of dust, rock, and debris. Despite having its main center structures excavated and restored for tourism, much of it still remains underground yet to be excavated further. I honestly think this was one of my favorite stops on our trip that provided me with a strong understanding of the Berber culture and its importance in Morocco’s ancient history & throughout today. Read more about it here.
Cimetière Israélite + The Fort at Borj Sud
Two tourist stops we made while in the city of Fes – one located in what’s called “New Fes” and the other related to the older parts of the city. Despite being in what’s now dubbed as the newer part of the city, the Cimetière Israélite (Jewish Cemetery) we visited dates very far back in time according to many of the plaques commemorating those buried amongst the tombstones. It sort of reminded me of what Santorini looks like, with the colors of pure white and blue. The second place we visited was Borj Sud, a fortress overlooking the old city of Fes & the ancient Medina where our hotel resides. Those were some of the most beautiful panoramic views I’ve seen & really showed me how enormous the city actually is (with all its maze-like streets and alley ways.)
Poterie de Fès
Hands-down, visiting this pottery workshop was one of my favorite parts throughout our entire trip. What was so unbelievable was witnessing how precise everything is made, yet 95% of its entire creation and design was done by memory over measurements. These pottery artists are so accurate with their timing in order to ensure each piece of pottery made has a perfectly-fitting lid or coaster to go along with it, without fail! If you check out my IG Highlight “Morocco Part 1”, you’ll see what I’m talking about & it’ll blow your mind – especially the frame(s) of the artist assembling the mosaic table, on the floor with the tiniest sized tiles laying color-side down, perfectly placed in a pattern he knows by memory. Needless to say, we spent a solid two hours in the showroom and purchased a bunch of beautiful, one-of-a-kind pieces that I can’t wait to receive (we had the ability to ship them from the workshop via DHL, so we didn’t have to worry about packing them in our suitcases & facing inevitable breakage.)
*It was difficult to find the website but I managed to locate the correct FB page; I’ve also included all the information from the business card below for reference should you decide to stop by (which I highly recommend you do!)
Quartier de Poterie (or Poterie de Fès) | 32, Aiin Nokbi Route Sidi Hrazem – Fès, Morocco 30000| Tel: +212 05 35 76 16 29
Silk Weaving Workshop
Our guide Mustapha led us through the narrow, winding alleys neighboring the souks in the Medina to this tucked away Silk Weaving Workshop. Once inside, we were standing in an enclosed courtyard surrounded by 2 open-air stories of scarves & tapestries. We got to touch and feel the different types of silk threads used to create specific types of headscarves and wraps, along with got a tutorial on how to properly wrap a headscarf to wear – you can see that step-by-step action on my IG Highlight “Morocco Part 1” as well.
La Belle Vue de la Tannerie
Our final stop in Fes was at La Belle Vue de la Tannerie, where we got an up-close experience seeing (& smelling..) how the hides are made into various leather items (from jackets to shoes to decorative household poufs.) Morocco is a very sustainable country, so every single part of the animal is used as a means of human consumption (literally through its meat or figuratively through its hide.) Now I understand learning about this won’t excite several of you but at the end of the day, running tanneries in Morocco is part of the culture and serves as a means of livelihood for most families.
Two things I learned here: 1) The test of quality leather can be determined through a lighter. Real leather WON’T burn at the touch of the flame, whereas something not genuine will ignite within seconds. And 2) Tanneries smell really bad, but luckily mint leaves can help keep the fumes at bay. So make sure you get a bushel to hold right to your nose & I recommend avoiding a visit on a particularly hot day…
If you’d like to visit this beautiful Tannerie, right in the heart of the Fes Medina, please find the contact info below:
La Belle Vue de la Tannerie | 64, Derb Sidi Bouazza, Blida Chouara, Fès Medina, Morocco | Tel: +212 05 35 63 79 50
Days 3 – 4
ROAD TRIP TO MERZOUGA
WHERE WE STOPPED ALONG THE WAY
Located in the Middle Atlas Mountains, the town of Ifrane is known for its alpine-style architecture & nearby ski slopes and forests. It reminded me of a place I’d see in Montréal & Switzerland with a touch of that quant downtown ski resort vibe. Although we didn’t stay longer than enjoying one cappuccino, it was so neat to see how vastly different parts of Morocco are as you travel outside the major cities (like Fes.) I would have never known the country of Morocco would transition from desert to pine forest to snowy mountain within a couple miles.
Barbary Apes of Azrou
Our other main stop, on our road trip to the desert, was visiting (& feeding) the Barbary Apes that live in the Cedar Forest of Azrou. Now I’ve had experience being surrounded by wild monkeys before when we were in Bali, which is a memory that briefly reminded me of how devilish they can be (from taking your sunglasses and only returning them if you provide two bananas, not one..) However, these Moroccan monkeys were surprisingly shy in comparison and shockingly gentle when taking a select piece of fruit out of our hands. There were tons of tourists when we stopped by the site to take a look, but there were plenty of monkeys (adults + babies) to feed and they couldn’t have been sweeter. I’m so glad we stopped by & got to experience this despite our initial hesitations, from previous monkey behavior.
THE SAHARA DESERT
WHERE WE STAYED & DINED
Merzouga Luxury Desert Camp
After 6+ long hours in the car, we finally arrived at our second Moroccan destination – The Sahara Desert. In order to get to our accommodations, we transferred from our tourist van into two 4WD vehicles that drove us off the main road & over the sand dunes from the village of Merzouga, located right outside the desert access entry point – Erg Chebbi. About 20 minutes later, we arrived at the site of our evening residence – Merzouga Luxury Desert Camp inside the Sahara Desert! And omg you guys, little did I know just how much these next 12 hours were going to be unlike ANYTHING I’ve ever experienced & more.
Merzouga Luxury Desert Camp offers 10 spacious luxury tents, complete with full-sized beds and private bathrooms (yes, running water!) Despite it feeling like true winter once the sun went down, there were still a handful of guests choosing to spend an intimate night in the desert; which made it super fun to converse with new people while sitting around the bonfire, sipping wine, and watching the moon rise over the dunes. Consider this the destination to escape, unwind, and enjoy the beauty of solitude amongst the stars – a truly spectacular nomadic experience.
Dinner was hosted in a large tent that welcomed all its guests with private tables for each party. We had a variety of delicious Moroccan cuisine plates and enjoyed listening to the gracious staff as they played live Moroccan music on drums following our meals.
WHAT WE DID
Sunset + Sunrise Camel Rides
When we arrived the evening before, we made it just in time to catch the sunset on camelback but it felt somewhat rushed as our surroundings quickly became dark & cold. So we opted to wake up extra early to catch the sunrise on camelback as well. Honestly, nothing will ever compare to what I got to witness amongst the sand dunes in the Sahara Desert that morning, surrounded by my entire family & feeling incredibly grateful for everything and everyone my life. I used to think those sunrises on the beach back home were the definition of magical (and they still are) but on this particular morning, it was simply something else to see. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to put my feelings & emotions into the right words to describe it, so it’ll remain a memory that makes my heart swell more frequently.
Phew – Part One is finished! I know there’s a lot to take in here and I won’t doubt that probably most of the information I shared isn’t useful to you at the moment, but I appreciate you taking the time to read my words & be educated through my experiences. My hope is that someone will be inspired to travel to Morocco after reading this, or someone who’s visiting for the first time will come across my post and feel better prepared for their trip of a lifetime. Even if neither happen, I’m thankful to be able to share what I’ve witnessed on a platform such as this.
Here’s an overview of Part One’s Road Map