A country that has proven culture and tradition can sustain the test of time, Morocco is on our list of top experiential places to visit this year. From the nomadic Berber tribes to the vibrant city life, your journey through Morocco will leave you wanting more.
Morocco is an enigmatic country, at once ancient and modern, traditional and contemporary. A concoction of cultures – Spanish, French, Arabic, Berber – all share influence over the details that delight the senses on any given city street. It’s a country so much bigger than a breezy piano bar fit for Humphrey Bogart, or a bustling square packed with performers and steaming food stands. While city life is vibrant, historic, and exciting, there is another world beyond the walls of the Medina.
No trip to Morocco is complete without a visit to the quieter side of the Atlas Mountains, where rock kisses sand and the Sahara begins its long stretch across the north of Africa. This range divides the country: to the north, the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts with famous cities like Fes, Casablanca and the capital city, Rabat; to the south, vast open desert speckled with tiny oases and Berber settlements.
Lush palmeraies dot the desert landscape, often surrounded by settlements and villages taking advantage of the rare waters. Located just outside Ouarzazate and sustained by the Skoura palmeraie is Dar Ahlam, a 19th century Kasbah built on what was once a sultan’s hunting ground that has now been transformed into one of Morocco’s most elite hotels. “House of Dreams,” as the hotel’s name translates, is an understatement. Between your complimentary first massage in the secluded garden, peaceful desert picnics and thrilling mountainous treks, you may have to pinch yourself more than once. Elegant accommodations feature a refined modern décor with traditional touches and a variety of locally-handcrafted textiles. Discover an indulgent Hammam and treatments delivered by French-trained staffers at Dar Ahlam’s spa. Gourmet nouveau-Berber cuisine of local meats and organically-grown produce is on offer and guests will enjoy the culinary creations in a new place each meal – be it in the palm groves on plush pillows under billowing tents or private nooks in the main Kasbah, each vignette is carefully created by the attentive staff.
This gracious abode is isolated, far from fast-paced civilization but close to the swirling dunes and endless sandy vistas. Head into the silent Sahara and partake in sundowners on the sands, or extend the experience with an overnight stay (at additional charge). Dar Ahlam creates a magical evening in the desert, with candles cascading down the dunes that surround the luxurious furnished tent, a roaring bonfire completing the scene. Further excursions offer a chance to discover the Dadès and Draa valleys on four wheels, or four legs when opting for an authentic desert trek on the back of a camel or mule. The Dadès River valley also known as the Valley of the Roses, producing coveted flowers and rosewater imported for use in perfumes and products around the world. The valley flourishes ahead of the rose harvest each May, alive with color and intoxicating fragrance. Visitors in this area will also see Todra Gorge, a massive canyon chiseled by years of river flow. Cliffs speckled with shrubs and grasses, fireworks of green against the neutral sand and stone, rise up to 1,200 feet above the shallow trickle of the Todra River.
Morocco’s longest river, the Draa River, winds through the unforgiving rocky terrain bringing life to the endemic flora and tiny towns that have sprung up next to the flow. Life here currently is not unlike that of a millennium ago. Nomadic herders tend to sheep in the mountainous outcroppings, living their lives with few modern conveniences. For them, it may as well still be the Middle Ages. When traveling with Ker & Downey, you will meet these proud, simple souls and perhaps share a cup of tea in their homes within a cliffside cave. The Berbers possess their own language, style of calligraphy and unaffected way of life that is threatened by modernization and assimilation with each passing generation. Experiencing their modest hospitality may not be so easy in years to come.
Here lies the Region of the Thousand Kasbahs – stone fortresses rising out of the sand, beacons for ancient travelers and safe havens from desert marauders. One Kasbah travelers may find familiar is Aït Benhaddou, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that has been the filming location for several motion pictures. Nearby Ouarzazate, aptly nicknamed the “the Hollywood of North Africa”, is home to a large studio and post-production facility. Ouarzazate’s prime location on the cusp of the Sahara, coupled with low production costs and a supportive Moroccan government, makes it an attractive filming location. Producers of the 2010 blockbuster The Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time filmed for eight weeks in the Sahara and used over 3,000 Moroccans as extras. Gladiator, Jewel of the Nile, The Mummy and Lawrence of Arabia all employed local extras and craftsmen during their filming.
Today, Kasbah Aït Benhaddou is still home to a handful of Berber families, continuing to live and work in the city as their ancestors have for centuries past.
The desert side of the Atlas is best visited in the middle of a Moroccan journey, bookended by stays in Fes and Marrakesh. The rugged drive back over the range takes travelers through many small Berber villages where fine handcrafted wares can be procured to continue the journey as souvenirs. Most notable is the village of Tallatast, where residents are sustained by traditionally-made pottery and goat breeding. Outreach programs funded in part by tourism revenue have helped to build a school that offers reading and writing lessons to residents of all ages as well as a venue from which to help the younger generations learn traditional weaving and crafting methods. This project also helps to improve the health and quality of life of the residents with hygienic and life skills education – knowledge the children will need should they decide as adults to pursue a life in the cities.
Though the two worlds of Morocco are divided by the Atlas Mountains, modern influences continue to creep into the Berber settlements, threatening to make intimate encounters with these tribes a scarce experience in years to come. The sands of time in the Sahara long since paused are beginning to stir as Berbers start to assimilate into modern society, rushing to catch up with contemporary counterparts north of the Atlas. Ker & Downey’s Moroccan escape, Land of the Berbers, will present the best of the old and new of this enticing region: the color and splendor of the larger cities and the subtle elegance of the desert. The cosmopolitan country is best discovered on both sides of the Atlas, where visitors can still effortlessly experience a simpler era.