26 August 2009
Tina Barnard, manager of a Wexas travel sales team, travels to Morocco on a familiarisation trip with agents from other tour operators.
Our driver for the trip, Khaled, and our tour guide for Marrakech, Mohamed, met us on arrival. Both were very friendly and took us safely to our hotel, the Es Saadi, only ten minutes from the airport, for a two-night stay.
At the Es Saadi we had the privilege of staying in the Palace. Met on arrival by the owner, the charming Elizabeth, we were greeted with traditional Moroccan mint tea and invited to get a bite to eat in the casino (in the same resort, just next door). It was after midnight, however, so we had to have a quick glimpse of our rooms and freshen up a bit first. The palace rooms were very impressive; I was lucky enough to have a room with a balcony and sun terrace. All toiletries were truly Moroccan in the grand bathrooms. We all made it to the casino and had a bite to eat and a couple of glasses of Moroccan wine whilst reflecting on a very long day of travel caused by the airline overbooking. Moral of today: fly BA, Easyjet, or even Ryanair, but do not fly Atlas Blue.
We were up early for a site inspection of the Es Saadi. We first had a look round the old hotel. It’s a bit tired but perfectly suitable and would definitely benefit someone looking for all the resort amenities of the Es Saadi, without the budget of staying in one of the grand palace rooms.
Then, we were lucky enough to see three of the newly finished villas – all different themes; these really are a proper hideaway with private pools and 5-star service. There is also a group of two-bed apartments suitable for a family of five with a possibility of interconnecting two to accommodate up to ten people. These are located off the other side of the giant lake-sized pool for a little more seclusion for families. With gardens, a nightclub and casino, giant pool and good food I can see why people go to resort hotels!
We then did a bit of sightseeing, seeing the old palace were many films have been made and learning a bit of history and detail about how Moroccan art has been made throughout history, before a spin around the souks. Shopping in the souks can be great fun or rather daunting depending on your own mood at the time. As the streets of the souks are more rabbit warren than Park Avenue it is very easy to get lost – so it’s highly recommended to always have a guide with you when going walkabout. If you are really into shopping, head deep in to the souk - again, take a guide - as you need to break through the shell of very touristy shops on the edges.
After an entertaining morning we nipped in to the Villa Des Orangers for an inspection and lunch. This is a larger riad – a traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden. It’s larger than average as it was originally three houses that had internal passages and doors knocked through to make a four-star deluxe residence. Riads are a great place to stay, as they tend to be right in the thick of things and an oasis of calm – the bulky walls blocking out all noise from the hustle and bustle of Marrakech.
Lunch was beautifully fresh and would have satisfied any palate. To work off lunch we had a nice walk around Menara Reservoir, an ancient reservoir fed by a long system of pipes from high in the Atlas mountains and a great place where locals go to have a picnic under the olive trees and buy bread to feed the huge carp in the reservoir.
We still had time for a couple of hours by the pool before getting ready for dinner at La Tanjina in the medina (only ten minutes from the Es Saadi). We had a prime table upstairs with a view of the mosque and enjoyed the smoke and sounds of revelry billowing in the distance from Djemaa El Fna, the central square and heart of the Old Medina. Dinner was beautifully traditional starting with pastilla (a pastry with pigeon and currants), followed by a traditional Marrakech tagine of lamb. After two very long days we all happily headed back to the Es Saadi and said goodbye to Mohamed, just in time for a nightcap and bed.
We set off early for the long drive – nearly three hours – to Casablanca. We were only being taken to ‘Caza’ to be shown that there is nothing interesting there and so to not send clients with a certain ‘40s romantic film in mind, only to be disappointed.
Casablanca is an industrial port town that only has one attraction – a behemoth of a mosque that stands on the point across from the mini lighthouse. After a welcome walk around the outside of the mosque, we were taken to a pier for lunch. We had some gorgeous oysters followed by a seafood salad, which I was not so sure about but ate nonetheless (oh boy, I’d remember that later).
After lunch we jumped back in the van and were taken about 45 minutes up the road to Skhirat for a one-night stay at Le Amphitrite Palace. This is quite a nice hotel, loved by affluent Moroccans. It’s on a great beach next to the summer palace. As the hotel was full we needed to wait for our rooms, so we used the time wisely by swimming in the amazing Atlantic Ocean waves (great for body or boogie boarding, but not surfing) and getting some sun. That evening we had a lovely meal in Nostra, a Mediterranean restaurant. Everything was beautifully cooked, however I just could not eat – that’ll be the oysters. After dinner we were taken to the Moroccan bar for a private belly dance and, a good giggle later, we did our own site inspection of each other’s rooms. The suites are huge and very accommodating. Just time for a quick nightcap while staring out to sea, then bed, ready for another early start tomorrow.
It’s a very quiet drive to Fes. As soon as you come over the ridge, Fes is like going back in time. The old city is very dense and bustling, however, a lot slower speed than the dizzying pace of Marrakech.
We were lucky enough to be staying at the Palais Jamaii. This very large grand hotel was once a palace, steeped in history and artefacts, as well as stories of ghosts. My room was one of the only ones at the hotel without a panoramic view of the city; however, I did have a wonderful balcony and views of the mosque and ancient ruins, the remains of the city walls.
Our Fes tour guide, Abdul, met up with us to take us on a whirlwind tour. We went first to the pottery factory on the outskirts of town to see pots, tagines, mosaics and anything else clay you think of being made. We were then taken to Riad Mason Bleue for lunch. A stunning riad; these are such dramatic places to stay.
After lunch we had a great walk through the souk. This is a much more relaxed souk than Marrakech, giving you time to really look around and take in the people, architecture and exotic smells. Speaking of smells the wonderful smell of spice was about to change. Walking around these narrow alleys with shallow shops it’s easy to not think about what is on the other side of a wall. Abdul handed out sprigs of mint to each of us before heading in to an upstairs shop. This was the tannery, it smelt of death but the dyeing pits were an amazing sight to behold and the leather goods came in all sizes, shapes and colours; great bargains to be had.
After shopping we headed back into the maze. We then meandered our way, faithfully following Abdul, to find we were all of a sudden next to our hotel. We popped in for a freshen up before heading back to the other side of the medina, to the sister of Riad Mason Bleue, the Mason Bleue for dinner. Confusing, I know, and both are wonderful properties. The Riad is closer to the outskirts and combines three riads (they’re working on the fourth) and the Mason Bleue is only one riad and right in the medina.
Dinner was beautiful, the same thing we had for lunch, but that is how it works when everything is very seasonal. After a lovely dinner we headed back to the hotel for a nightcap and a well deserved rest.
Moral of the story: if you do not feel right about something do not eat it, trust me! And do not fly Atlas Blue. Otherwise I would love to go back to Morocco and take it at a slightly slower pace. Definitely recommended!