Now trending: The North African country of Morocco. Here’s a travel guide and how to do keep the flame alive long after your trip of a lifetime…
Of all the travel trends blowing up in recent year, exotic destinations have got to be our fave. Short weekend getaways and trips to world’s biggest cities are great and everything, but with the world becoming smaller (with technology and better connectivity between countries), visiting the globe’s lesser explored destinations is now officially the ‘in’ thing. Just two months ago, I visited Morocco with my family. And while the North African country isn’t exactly under-the-radar for the rest of the world, it’s not a popular destination for those of us who live here in Singapore.
Morocco changed my life, and opened my eyes to the country’s reality, beyond the camels, the beautiful riads and decor stores. Keep reading for a travel guide, as well as how best to keep the vibe going post-trip.
Unless otherwise stated, all photography is by Nafeesa Saini.
Ride a camel in the Sahara…and camp under the stars
On your Morocco bucket list should be camel riding in the desert. Travel deep into the Sahara desert on the back of a friendly camel as the sun sets. Then, as night falls, chow down on a hearty dinner in a tented camp before heading out to the desert for a bonfire accompanied by live music from the Berber tribe. Wake at sunrise to watch the dunes shift colours, before hopping on a camel again and continuing your journey from Merzouga, a town near the desert. Be warned that unless you’ve signed up for glamping, your real adventure lies in staying in your tent. The traditional Berber ones are sparsely decorated with simply beds stacked with blankets, with a single bathroom and no shower. You’re lucky if the flush on the toilet works.
Visit Djemma Al Fnaa
No Morocco trip is complete without visiting Djemaa El Fna: Morocco’s most famous square. There’s no place in this country like this – it’s a destination of magic and wonder, especially when the sun sets and the square teems with music, tales told aloud to enthralled crowds, snake charmers, fortune tellers and henna painters. By day, the square is a shopping paradise, made up of multiple souks. Everything you’d want to lug from Morocco is found here, whether you’re a home decor devotee looking for poufs, baskets, lamps or carpets, a man who loves his leather satchels or a foodie on the hunt for exotic spices. I often got lost in the labyrinth of stalls, taking ages to rummage through rattan goods and baskets in particular. Always put on a poker face when haggling – always ask for half the price offered, never let them see how eager you are and you’ll likely score a boast-worthy bargain.
Wander the cerulean alleys of Chefchauouene
It’s a little out of the way but the ‘Blue Pearl’ of Morroco is a paradise for photographers. Located just beneath the Rif mountains, the village is a haven of stacked blue-washed buildings connected by seemingly random staircases. Take your time to wander around on the cobbled streets, say hello to the stray cats or dart in and out of the handicraft shops.
Lesson learnt: Skip the major carpet shops here and head instead to the stalls just outside the Kasbah (a heavily walled fortress housing a garden, museum and art gallery). I met a charming elderly man who sold me two handwoven kilims (made in the mountains, no less) at a steal. To top it off, he gave me a complimentary Hand of Fatima pendant and blessed it. It was a huge, heartwarming change from the usual pushy store owners who ply you with mint tea and aggressively urge you for your “best price”.
See the electric blue Majorelle Garden
You can expect great things from one of Marrakesh’s most visited sites. Astonishingly bright primary colours greet you at every turn, with exotic plants and trees lining the beautiful patheways. Purchased by Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge in 1980, the garden is a beauty with marble pools and raised pathways.
Next door to the garden is the YSL museum. You don’t have to be a fashion devotee to want to visit – the property, with its Moroccan stone design and architecture, is stunning and houses tens of thousands of drawings, photographs and key haute couture pieces in a bid to pay tribute to the designer’s legacy.
Visit Roman ruins
Roman ruins isn’t the first thing you’d think of when it comes to Morocco but that’s exactly what this city has. Situated just outside the city of Meknes, these ruins belong to Volubilis: a city occupied from prehistoric times up to the Islamic period. It eventually fell to ruins, before being partially excavated in the early 20th century. What remains today are soaring arches ancient columns and statues of former royalty. Pay a small fee and either take up the services of the many tour guides stationed outside, or choose to wander around the city on your own.
Stay in a gorgeous riad
No Moroccan trip is complete without a stay in a stunning riad (a traditional house) – the older, the better. Unlike most houses around the world, you won’t see windows facing the outside to abide by Islam’s preference for privacy and inward reflection. Staying in one is like staying in a palace, as these are often ornately designed, massive with incredibly high ceilings, and come with private and luxe courtyards, as well as swimming pools. The North African country has so many across its many towns, but we’ve picked just a handful of our faves for you to choose from.
Located within the medieval (we’re talking 9th century here) city of Fes, Dar Bensouda is a dream. Its surrounds are as real as it gets, with children of all ages playing till the wee hours, cats rummaging through piles of trash littered everywhere in the streets and the labyrinth of alleys only lit up by dim (and I mean really dim) street lights. Stepping into Dar Bensouda truly feels like another world. The palatial, 17th century riad is an architectural masterpiece, with a jaw-dropping courtyard, secret passageways and winding staircases, as well as royally decorated rooms with incredibly high ceilings. Facilities include a gorgeous pool and sumptuous courtyard and a rooftop which overlooks Fes and the shrine where the founder saint Bensouda is buried.
Riad Yasmine, Marrakesh
The riad on everyone’s lips now is Riad Yasmine: an eight bedroom private boutique hotel located in the heart of Marrakesh’s medina. The riad is a green paradise amidst the crazy city bustle, with a gorgeous green pool in the middle of its courtyard, plenty of greenery and boasts Moorish architecture – think elaborate geometric patterns and wood carvings. Rooms are as sumptuous, with earthy furnishings, multi-textures.
Dar Meziana, Chefchaouene
Don’t feel guilty about staying in your riad all day at Dar Meziana. The traditionally decorated riad is home to rooms with plush furnishings, plenty of lamps, lights and intricately carved ceilings. Have an early dinner in the dining room, before heading up to the rooftop which boasts panoramic views of the Rif mountains in Chefchaouene.
Keeping the flame alive…
…with Morocco (and Morocco-inspired) goods
Nothing beats shopping in Morocco’s souks, but if you want to keep the vibe going in Singapore, here’s where you can get the country’s goods. Check out Bohemian (available via Affordable Style Files) for its selection of basket bags – these are made from sustainable palm leaf and rattan, and come in all sorts of shapes, from round to rectangular, with short and long straps. Bohemian is also where you can stock up on colourful handwoven Berber baskets. But fastest fingers first as these go incredibly quick.
Hunting down other Moroccan home decor goods and wares isn’t easy, but we’ve found some of our favourites. Under-the-radar store Maghrebi stocks traditional tagines, teacups (for serving sweet mint tea of course), as well as lanterns.
Want to shop the Pinterest-worthy pouf? Home decor store Maissone stocks hand stitched leather ones in an array of colours, including natural tan, black and blush pink.
Alternatively, brands everywhere seem to be inspired by this North African city. Zara recently put out a collection inspired by the city – think basket bags, babouches, and tassel and fringe stitched dresses and embroidered jackets – with French designer Jacquemus also showing a Marrakesh-inspired collection at Paris Fashion Week recently.
But more what really takes us back to Morocco is its smells – oh how we long for a whiff of the souks’ freshly-ground spices or just-brewed mint tea, served piping hot in a a little tea cup. While we can’t ever replicate the scent in Singapore, we can trigger our memories with perfume, specifically the Hermessence collection by Hermes. The five scents are reminiscent of our adventures in the souks; perfumer Christine Nagel used the heady, spicy and woody, scents of musk, myrrh, agarwood, and cedar to express her love for the the Orient.
The best way to reminisce (or get to know) a destination is to read about it from an insider’s perspective. Blogs we love include MarocMama: a food and travel guide from an expat point of view as well as Moroccan Must Haves: a travel, fashion and lifestyle blog which details life in the North African country.
But all the blogs in the world can’t quite convey the magic of Morocco. Pick up a book instead to transport yourself there, like Richard Hamilton’s The Last Storytellers: Tales from the Heart of Morocco. Anyone who’s been to Morocco will know that Marrakesh’s Djemma al Fna is the city’s pulsating, vibrant heart. The famous square is home to storytellers who, night after night, weave exciting tales to halqa (listeners who gather around) which typically involve kings, thieves and scheming sorcerors. Hamilton’s compilation of tales captures this ancient art form perfectly.
Also check out Hideous Kinky: an autobiographical novel written by Esther Freud (the great granddaughter of Sigmund Freud). It veers on the darker side, but takes readers (and audiences, as the book was made into a film too) on a soul-seeking journey in an exotic locale.
…with bars and restos
Few things quite hit the spot like Moroccan food – the cuisine is best characterised by its aromatic spices and interesting flavour combinations. For an authentic taste, head to Deli Moroccan and Middle Eastern Cuisine. Te resto serves kofta tagine, sweet mint tea and stews the way it’s made and served in Maroc.
And then there’s The Ottomani. Although it’s a modern Middle Eastern bar, it gives us (sexy) Moroccan vibes with its brass and chrome furnishings, woven carpets and earthy toned interiors.
Still need to relive your Moroccan memories? Or need further proof of why you need to make Morocco your ‘IT’ destination? Check out a video I made to see Morocco in a minute.