Originally published 26 November 2010
Self-drive in Morocco
On a cold winter's evening not long after returning from a truly fantastic Christmas and New Year self-drive in Namibia, our conversation meandered around to possible destinations for a short-flight holiday in the spring. Several destinations were mentioned, but for various reasons discounted. Our discussion kept homing in on Morocco, but was then tempered by such questions as “Should we really be considering a seventh holiday there?" "Could there be another area to visit that would match the beauty of scenery, amazing colours and designs incorporated in the architecture we had previously enjoyed so much?" "Would there be a suitable route which could include the contrast between the tranquillity of tiny remote villages and frenetic activity of the city souks?" If we yet again returned would we come home slightly disappointed?
Out came our well-thumbed 1998 edition of the Lonely Planet together with the equally dog-eared road map of Morocco, so at least we would have some ideas to chat through with a member of the North Africa team at Audley the next morning. One area in particular - the Anti Atlas - looked as if it could be a possibility and we hoped that this suggestion would be feasible. The biggest stipulation for us was that it had to be a self-drive again.
We first realised that self-drive touring in Morocco was for us when, during our first visit to Marrakesh nine years ago, we hired a car for a couple of days. We loved seeing the rural way of life, exploring the snow-capped High Atlas mountains and travelling west to the beautiful old fishing port of Essouira. We enjoyed so much the freedom to see more than the usual tourist routes that, a year later, we decided to book another Moroccan holiday, but this time it would be a self-drive tour. Audley put together an excellent route for us. We started in Casablanca and enjoyed the magnificence of the huge Hassan II mosque which was followed by a well worthwhile stop to explore old Rabat, several nights to appreciate the delights of the Imperial cities of Meknes and Fez, a wander amongst the beautiful ruins to admire the detail and colour of the mosaics at Volubilis, not forgetting the biggest surprise of that trip - the quirkiness and magic of the little blue-washed buildings lining the traffic-free alleyways and main square of Chefchouen in the Rif mountains.
Returning visits to Morocco
Over the next two years we returned to Marrakesh several times as we introduced friends to the tranquil gardens, art galleries, museums and the beauty of delicate gebs/stucco plaster work on the walls and ceilings of the Palais de la Bahia, as well as the colours and fascinating geometric zellij designs of the floor and wall tiles of the Ali ben Youssef Medersa. And if it all got too quiet, there was always the hustle and bustle of the Djemaa el-Fna and adjacent souk to liven things up before enjoying delicious Moroccan cuisine and wine from the Cellars of Meknes at one of the excellent (often well-hidden) restaurants.
In early 2008 we once again felt the pull of the Moroccan magic and Natalie, one of Audley's North Africa specialists, put together a route which took us south of the High Atlas. Flying into Marrakesh, collecting the sturdy 4 x 4 vehicle which is essential for the type of terrain we knew we would be covering, we went over the mountains, through the magnificent Tizi n’Test Pass and spent our first night in Ouarzazate. We travelled eastwards along what is often and appropriately known as the Kasbah Trail, taking in the beautiful Dades and Toudra Gorges before reaching the largest sand dunes of North Africa, Erg Chebi, from which we watched the never to be forgotten silhouette of camels being lead along the brow of the dunes as the rising sun slowly turned the colour of the sand from deep purple to gold. We continued eastwards along the southern edge of the Jebel Sarhro mountain range, taking a detour along the date palm lined Draa valley before making our way via Taroudant to the coast and a return visit to Essouira where we could watch the activity in the port just outside the old city walls, or relax on the vast expanse of beach on the other side of the medina. All too soon, but with 1,600 miles of memories and hundreds of photos from the holiday, it was back to the almost completed, ultra modern and extremely attractive Marrakesh Menara airport for our flight home.
But to return to my phone call to Audley in January of this year: Natalie again answered my call (although I knew that any member of the team would have been as helpful). We chatted and I outlined our idea of a possible self-drive route in the Anti Atlas. Duly, in mid-May of this year, we were sitting on the terrace of the aptly named Hotel des Cascades surrounded by the most amazing gardens of roses, geraniums, hollyhocks and Arun lilies, looking down on a very inviting swimming pool, which to reach you had to pass pools and waterfalls all sourced from the natural streams descending into the valley below. All around us were the mountains of the western tip of the High Atlas through which we had passed to reach this superbly positioned hotel on the outskirts of the village of Imouzzer des Ida Outane. The sunset from our balcony looking down the valley was stunning and we later enjoyed tasty Moroccan cuisine in the dining room. The following day explored the area, not really having a clue where we were in relation to the map but not really caring as the drive took us through palm lined valleys, past isolated villages and everywhere, as for most of our holiday, there was dawn til dusk activity in the fields as the harvest was being gathered, mostly by hand. The next day we moved swiftly past the sprawling new suburbs of Agadir, and as we continued through the Ibel Tikwayne range of the Anti Atlas knew for sure that this holiday was not going to disappoint.
Off the beaten track
For several very pleasant hours we drove without seeing another vehicle, past remote villages set up on hillsides away from the main road or down in valleys below us before we found ourselves in the Ameln Valley where we soon searched out the Auberge Kasbah Chez Amaliya. We were immediately mesmerised by its setting in the valley with a stunning backdrop of beautiful mountains. What foresight the Dutch lady owner, Liesbeth, had a few years ago when she bought the land and since then devoted all her time and energy into creating this unadorned Moroccan-style hotel with the homely but not intrusive European touches for her guests to appreciate. We made full use of the lovely, fresh pool, and as there are only 14 rooms/suites in total and guests were usually out exploring this fascinating area, it was never busy. Part of me wished we could just totally relax here as it was so peaceful. However if we had done that, we would have missed one of the highlights of the holiday – the ethereal hues of pastel colours and an almost magical tranquillity of the Gorges Ait Mansour.
Reluctantly we left the delightful Ameln valley and Liesbeth’s hospitality, and took her advice on driving a minor road to the Col du Kerdous, past camels, goats, donkeys and sheep. Harvesting activity was everywhere as the mountains gave way to the lower countryside. We reached the coast and found our hotel, which was a new building in the style of a Kasbah and on the outskirts of Mirleft. The cliff-top situation, infinity pool, private access to the magnificent beach below, pleasant, discreet staff, simple yet delicious meals, comfortable lounge and terrace were all amazing. Even if all six rooms had been occupied it would have been a marvellous place to stay as its design was such that it felt like being in someone’s spacious home. However, by a huge chunk of good luck we enjoyed the exclusive use of the hotel for our entire three night stay! We could have lived there forever!
Regretfully we said our farewells to the staff at Kasbah Tabelkoukt before making our way north to Agadir and a pleasant area away from the main tourist areas. Our accommodation was the Riad des Golf, a stunningly elegant riad, built, owned and run by a charming French couple, with sumptuous suites, a lovely pool and if you chose to eat there, delicious cuisine. Accommodation definitely to be recommended. Continuing north the next morning through the major Argan oil tree growing area, we made our way to Essaouira and the first class Villa de L’O for two nights of total relaxation. We had requested a sea view room and were delighted to find that we had been given the only one on the very top floor of the old, beautifully restored riad. Not as large as some of the other rooms, it was totally decorated by wood with lots of mariner’s artefacts just like an eighteenth century captain’s cabin (but with modern conveniences!). Our own personal area of the terrace immediately outside our room, perfect for breakfast and sunbathing, added to the charm of our two days here. There was much to enjoy from the sunsets across the sea from the ramparts of the old city walls, to the fishing boats of various sizes coming and going from the port, as well as the beautiful sandy beach stretching round the bay.
Return to Marrakesh
Feeling sad that our holiday was so close to ending, and with only one whole day left, we travelled to Marrakesh and stayed at the luxurious Riad Kniza. Situated close the Dakoulla entrance to the medina it was, unlike some of the beautiful raids where we had previously stayed, easy to locate. The salons, library, peaceful courtyards and swimming pool were a welcome escape from the late May heat of the city. Surrounded by the atmospheric sounds of the local community and with satellite dishes, not present when we first visited Marrakesh 10 years ago, being dominant features in the foreground of the sunset view across adjacent roof tops, we enjoyed a delicious meal on the riad’s own roof garden. A beautiful conclusion to a marvellous two weeks exploring yet another region, which not only matched, but in some ways even surpassed, our previous holidays in this amazing country.
Morocco, we know, won’t be to everyone’s liking. But within its borders there is a fascinating eclectic mix of Arabic, Moorish, Berber and French influence reflected in varying degrees within its architecture, crafts, music, arts, language and cuisine. The adventure of self-drive we also willingly accept isn’t for everyone. There are times when we have driven for a few hours not really knowing where we are, when the track has unexpectedly petered out, when there has been a rock fall, or a bridge has been washed away in the winter storms. On this last trip we met not a single British person during the two weeks we were touring, we frequently wished we could remember more of our schooldays French, but overall this did not detract from the enjoyment of the holiday and there was a friendly, if sometimes shy smile everywhere we went. As for us - David and I feel there is the distinct possibility that we may well return yet again. Be ready for that phone call, Natalie!
To find out more about self-drive tours in Morocco speak to a Morocco specialist on 01993 838 420, or visit the Morocco section of our website.More info
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