Transformative treks, Berber beaches, and a desert oasis await in the Atlas Mountains, Essaouira and OuarzazateIf your mindset for 2019 is more is more, 1) we salute you and 2) we’d like to direct your attention to Morocco. Marrakech, with its legendary hotels (hello, La Mamounia), spellbinding botanical displays (we see you, Majorelle Garden) and much-talked-about museums (bienvenue, Musée Yves Saint Laurent), is a natural place to start. But if you’ve already visited the Red City, or, if you’re planning a multi-city itinerary, set your sights on other parts of the country…
Kasbah du Toubkal, at the foot of the highest mountain in North Africa
Escape to the Atlas Mountains to both recharge and reinvigorate your adventurous side. The remote location (electricity was still scarce here just a decade ago), means you can focus on lounging by the pool or taking to a nearby trail.
Getting there: This is the geographical equivalent of dipping a toe in the world beyond the Red City. You’ll still fly into Marrakech’s Menara Airport, then it’s just a 45-minute drive to the mountains.
Where to stay: Fortunately, Richard Branson discovered and bought Kasbah Tamadot during one of his balloon expeditions so you don’t have to (save your own ballooning for other real estate ventures). Here, you can sleep in a luxury Berber tent with a private deck and sun loungers (some with a private Jacuzzi, too) or splurge on the Master Suite, which is a mini version of the kasbah with its own pool. Another option is Kasbah du Toubkal, which sits in a national park at the foothill of Jbel Toubkal – the highest mountain in North Africa. The hotel is so secluded, it’s a 15-minute hike from reception in the village of Imlil to the actual property. But don’t worry, your luggage will arrive by mule.
A Berber-style tent room at Kasbah Tamadot
What to do: High-style hiking is the name of the game in the Atlas Mountains. Take your pick of casual rambles through local villages and more advanced half-day treks down the Imane Valley or along the Reraya River. Hardcore amblers can even arrange to scale the Jbel Toubkal for the ultimate view of the Sahara. If your sense of adventure lies mostly in your tastebuds, take a cooking class at Kasbah Tamadot, where you can learn to whip up traditional soups and tagines.
How to fill your suitcase: Save space for your very own clay tagine pot. Once you’ve mastered all the recipes in your cooking class, you’ll want to recreate some of that magic back home for friends and family.
Fishing boats beside Essaouira’s port
ESSAOUIRA Essaouira’s big draw is the beaches, but the port city on the Atlantic coast also has its own medina. The blue-and-white walled city – with its maze of souks and main square, Place Moulay Hassan – offers a reprieve from all that sun and sand.
Getting there: The most convenient option is to fly into Essaouria’s Mogador Airport. However, if you’re flying from somewhere that doesn’t have direct flights to Morocco’s coast and you’d rather not swap planes, the drive from Marrakech’s airport is about three hours.
Where to stay: Beach and Berber-style digs come together at Rebali Riads, an oceanside hotel that’s family friendly. And speaking of the kids, they’ll also feel at home at Le Jardin des Douars, which has suites and villas with multiple bedrooms. There’s also a dedicated pool and dining room just for adults in case you’d like to tan or sip a tea without the tots. For easiest access to Essaouira’s medina, consider Heure Bleue, Madada Mogador or Dar Maya – all of which are so close to the souks, you can practically smell the mounds of saffron for sale from your hotel sanctuary.
The gardens in bloom at Le Jardin des Douars in Essaouira
What to do: If you come to Morocco’s coast, you’ve gotta spend at least one afternoon on the beach. Essaouira is ideal for surfing (both by wind and the hang-ten type) as well as kiteboarding, but if you’d prefer to stay dry, you can go horse riding along the water. In the medina, wander through the fishing port in the early evening to see the boats come in with their fresh haul. You can even sample some of the bounty at one of the nearby stands grilling the catch of the day.
How to fill your suitcase: Load up on argan oil, aka ‘Morocco’s gold.’ Essaouira is home to argan collectives, such as the Marjana Cooperative, that support local women. Stop by, see how the oil is extracted, and peruse a selection of argan hair and body treatments.
The palm-shaded pool at Dar Ahlam
Ouarzazate may be a less familiar, but that’s probably only by name. If you’ve seen the films Babel, Gladiator or Lawrence of Arabia – all filmed here – then you’ve had a glimpse of this desert paradise in south-central Morocco.
Getting there: From Marrakech, catch a Royal Air Maroc flight to Ouarzazate Airport (a quick 40-minute trip), or hire a driver (a four-hour car ride).
Where to stay: It’s too bad ‘oasis’ gets thrown around so much in travel writing because when you find a place truly deserving of the word, you’re almost at a loss. Dar Ahlam is a true oasis in every sense of the word. The restored 19th-century kasbah doesn’t look like much when you make your way up its dusty driveway. But enter and you’ll find a maze of opulent interiors, including nooks swathed in rich fabrics and lit by hanging lanterns meant for enjoying either a glass of wine or a good book, as well as 13 suites and a villa. Find your way to the grand drawing room and the space opens up to a terrace, outdoor heated pool and lush gardens scented with almond blossoms.
Desert glamping at Dar Ahlam in Ouarzazate – gateway to the Sahara
What to do: Ouarzazate is the gateway to the Sahara desert, so use Dar Ahlam as your base between 4×4 rides and camel treks across the dunes. The hotel can also arrange for a night under the desert stars in one of their luxury tents.
How to fill your suitcase: Buying a rug in Morocco is a rite of passage, so try your hand at textile haggling in the laid-back villages of Ouarzazate. You’ll find fewer crowds and therefore less pressure than in the bustling souks of Marrakech.