We are more familiar with magical Morocco than we think: How many times have you accompanied Bogart and Bergman to Casablanca for a drink at Rick’s Place? With the filming of “Lawrence of Arabia” among dunes of the Sahara, we got a good look at 11th century Kasbah of Ait Ben Haddou (now a UNESCO site). And movie mavens and Netflix aficionados will remember that taking off on the “Road to Morocco” is a zany caper in the company of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.
Today, those roads to and through Morocco—dotted with medieval cities and oasis villages, bordered by Atlantic beaches and running beneath the snowy peaks of the Atlas Mountains—are no less exotic and entrancing. They are, however, better paved, and thanks to an avalanche of hotel openings in the last few years throughout the country, roads major and minor lead to exceptional lodgings: from palace hotels and sybaritic seaside resorts to luxury desert camps and elegantly refurbished kasbahs and riads, and luxury desert camps—all destinations in themselves.
a sprinkling of hotel options
One of the most commanding roads through Morocco is the Route of the Imperial Cities. First stop, just up the coast from Casablanca is Rabat, the last of the Imperial Cities (founded in the 18th century). Its Tour Hassan minaret rises 144 ft. above a forest of some 300 columns of a mosque that was never completed; what was once quite complete is the Kasbah Chellah, originally a Roman city, now littered with ruins and saint’s tombs crowned by nesting storks. You can’t top a stay at Villa Mandarine, a wonderfully peaceful small hotel, set among gardens and orange orchards in the upmarket Souissi neighborhood. Antiques and local art abound throughout the communal areas, and comfortable rooms come with shady private terraces. Extra bonus: It’s close to the Royal Golf Dar El Salam, one of the 50 top golf courses in the world. Suites here run from $381 with breakfast.
It’s an hour’s drive on to Fez, the queen of the Imperial Cities and the spiritual mecca of Morocco. Among its hundreds of fascinating corners, essential is a peek through the carved entrance doors of the ninth century Kairaouine Mosque, a masterpiece of Andalusian architecture. Travelers will enjoy spectacular city views from the Merinid Tombs above the city; they’ll marvel at the Royal Palace with its stunning golden doors; and, of course, tarry for hours in the wondrous medieval Medina, the most fabulous—oldest university, maze of shops, covered spice markets, tanneries, textile-weaving quarters, food stalls, and the most architecturally beautiful madrasas (Koranic schools) in the country.
Many travelers would agree that Sofitel Palais Jamai continues to top the list with its unbeatable combination of comfort, elegance and proximity to the Medina. Till now, Marrakesh has had a monopoly on Morocco’s best boutique hotels; however, no more, for Fez is catching up fast in the design stakes, as many stylish and classy new properties prove. The new star in town, and right near the Medina, is the recently opened Palais Faraj. With 25 suites, this boutique hotel, with suite rates from $298 with breakfast, sets itself apart with 360-degree views of the city, a spa, health club and outdoor swimming pool. The hotel can arrange classes in Fassi cuisine and natural cosmetics by Moroccan women, as well as traditional Moroccan brocade weaving and pottery.
From Fez, most travelers take the most direct route for the 3-hour drive to Marrakesh, everyone’s favorite Imperial City and the destination that set the style for the luxury “riad experience” of staying in small but fine, private, restored and upgraded Medina houses. It all started with the legendary La Maison Arabe, which still sits atop the luxury list. But the most talked about hotel opening here in recent history is the Selman Marrakech. The property sits in a 15-acre park with 56 rooms and suites, plus five private riads, a French restaurant, a holistic spa and a stable of 16 Arabian horses. Double rooms start at $471.
The big upcoming opening will be the Mandarin Oriental Marrakech, set in 49 acres of landscaped gardens and olive groves, just minutes from the bustling Medina and golf courses. Guests will have a choice of accommodations: 54 one- and-two bedroom villas, each with heated pool, hot tub and open-air shower set within a private walled garden; seven suites, each with a rooftop plunge pool and views over the Atlas Mountains; and two spa suites offering an infinity lap pool. Public areas will feature two signature restaurants and alfresco dining poolside, and a 19,000-sq.-ft. spa.
Beyond Marrakesh, a road less-traveled nowadays heads west to the Atlantic Ocean and Essaouira, where clients will enjoy all the comforts and charm at L’Heure Bleue Palais, occupying a 19th century palace and a member of the Relais & Chateaux group, as well as the new Sofitel Thalassa Mogador. This picturesque, windswept, former Portuguese port has morphed from a surfing village into the new darling of coastal resorts.
“Morocco is a strong destination and continues to get stronger as future bookings show,” says Rami Girgis, Abercrombie & Kent’s (A&K) product manager for the Middle East and Northern Africa, and curator for the company’s full menu of Morocco vacation options. He points out the list of the destination’s selling points: Morocco is safe, culturally fascinating, and wonderfully appealing in its variety of activities and superb hotel offering. For instance, he points out that “high-end accommodations now extend all the way to the edge of the Sahara, where our guests can now sleep under the stars in the all-comforts Madu tented camp, explore the soaring desert dunes of Erg Chebbi by camel at sunset and sunrise, and enjoy an elegant desert dinner and Berber entertainment.”
In fact, that’s just what passengers aboard A&K’s 20-day Wonders of the World by Private Jet in 2015 will be doing. The jet will end its journey in Morocco, touching down in the town of Rissani, where guests will head out in 4x4s to the Erg Chebbi dunes and ride a camel into A&K’s exclusive tented camp, where A&K founder Geoffrey Kent will be waiting with cocktails in hand ready to watch the spectacular sunset. Evening festivities will include a traditional performance by Gnaoua tribesmen. After breakfast, guests fly over the Atlas Mountains to Marrakesh for three days and nights of special happenings, all while based at the fabled La Mamounia hotel. Departure is Sept. 17, 2015 priced at $108,000 pp dbl.
Kensington Tours’ eight Morocco itineraries are distinguished by a wide selection of upscale and interesting lodgings. At the high end, there’s the 12-day Signature Morocco with Relais & Chateaux tour, billed as a “private adventure fit for royalty” and featuring accommodations in elegant, five-star riads, including three Relais & Chateaux properties when exploring Fez, Marrakesh, Skoura, Casablanca and Essaouira. “Signature” means all private arrangements on this deluxe tour, priced at $6,595 pp dbl.
Abercrombie & Kent: (800) 554-7016; abercrombiekent.com
Kensington Tours: (888) 903-2001; kensingtontours.com or kensingtontours.com/agents/fit/Login.aspx
La Maison Arabe: lamaisonarabe.com
Mandarin Oriental Marrakech: (800) 526 6566; mandarinoriental.com/marrakech
Palais Faraj: palaisfaraj.com
Selman Marrakech: selman-marrakech.com/en
Sofitel Palais Jamai: (800) 763-4835; sofitel.com or sofitel.com/gb/business-to-business/index.shtml (travel agent login)
Villa Mandarine: villamandarine.com