MOROCCO: FROM SEA TO SAHARA: A Tour with Alexander+Roberts September 15-27, 2019

Photos are by the author unless otherwise credited. Click on a photo to enlarge it and use your arrow to scroll through a series. I will be editing some sections and adding more photos soon.

“Why Morocco?” some friends asked when I told them where I was going. I had read many interesting articles in the travel journals and I knew that it had been a favored destination for many world travelers. Some of its popularity can be attributed to the beat generation. William Burroughs wrote about it in Naked Lunch (1959), a controversial book due to its revelations about heroin and sodomy. Others have had higher motivations according to an article on more recent rich and famous visitors (https://www.moroccoworldnews.com/2015/12/176305/morocco-the-playground-of-the-rich-and-famous/)

I looked at several well-known tour company itineraries and most of them changed hotels every night. Alexander+Roberts offered multiple nights in some cities with the added benefit of no more than 16 participants. In fact, we were only eleven friendly and compatible fellow travelers. I had a great experience with A+R in Russia the previous year, so I booked with my agent, Carter Goodman, at vacationstogo.com. Searching for a non-stop flight from New York’s JFK, I found the only choice was Royal Air Maroc, and the cost for business class was more than two thousand dollars less than the well-known US carriers. Service was comparable to other carriers going but I had a baggage disaster on the return, described later.

The itinerary began in Casablanca at 10:00 am on September 15. That meant participants really had to arrive the previous day or miss the Casablanca tour. That added the hidden cost of an expensive extra night that A+R didn’t cover. My flight arrived an hour later than scheduled and the driver  was not waiting in the lobby with a sign as promised. After a nervous half hour searching for the driver, someone in the lobby helped out with a cell-phone call to the agency representative in Casablanca. After some delay, the agency phoned back to say the driver was waiting outside the terminal. Both the driver and I were annoyed at the mixup that added stress to my arrival and a two-hour delay on the driver’s schedule.

I used the time in the airport to find the ATM and withdrew 2000 Dirham ($211 USD­). Wherever I have flown I have been able to get local currency in an airport ATM, sometimes finding one even in baggage claim. I have never pre-purchased local currency nor exchanged in a US airport prior to flying. ATMs give the best exchange rate; my bank, Charles Schwab, charges no ATM fee and refunds local bank charges. Almost everywhere I have gone, local guides have told me that the exchange desks and banks in the airport give the worst exchange rate. I always carry about 30 US one-dollar bills for tips.

So, finally in the hands of a good driver and my wallet enriched, I arrived at the Sofitel Casablanca Tour Blanche Hotel in about 40 minutes. Of course, the room is never ready for a morning arrival but the welcoming receptionist led me into the bar, ordered a mineral water, told me how to get the hotel internet on my laptop, and returned in less than an hour with the key to my junior suite. I was delighted with the amenities and the spectacular view of the Hassan II mosque. More challenging was finding which of the ten light switches worked for which light, none of which provided the wattage I am accustomed to, especially for shaving.

Unable to sleep on the flight, I was tired enough for a long nap, then did my daily 175 sit-ups, showered, and read a few of my favorite US newspapers online. I’m glad I remembered to bring my two-prong European converter, but I imagine the desk could have provided one. Not sure of where the next day’s city tour would take us, I opted to relax and cope with jet lag.  Later I walked two blocks to the medina, not really interested in shopping, especially so early in the tour. This is a small market with both handicrafts and produce, and later markets would turn out to have much of the same merchandise with a much larger selection.

Later I went to the roof-top bar and enjoyed a drink with a view of the grand mosque all lit up. The Sofitel’s Brasserie de la Tour was prominent on an internet list of the best restaurants in Casablanca. I chose the French rather than the Moroccan menu, familiarity and cowardice perhaps. My meal was so dreadful I wrote it up on tripadvisor.com, the first time I have ever trashed a restaurant on that site. Our farewell dinner there was significantly better fortunately.

Sunday Sept 15, Casablanca.

The Sofitel buffet breakfast is decent, although some of the hot trays were nearly empty; one can also order eggs benedict, pancakes and such, and the waitress put a basket of sweet rolls on the table. Our printed itinerary listed a city tour starting at 10 am. All but two of our group arrived the previous day also. I found them in the lobby waiting for a guide who didn’t arrive as scheduled.  The reception desk phoned the local agency; no answer. It took some time to get a live body on the phone and our guide, Jawad, arrived shortly after 11am. He had been given written instructions to start the tour at 1 pm. A+R and its local agency seem to have some communication issues. Jawad, our knowledgeable local guide, and Abdul, our excellent driver, stayed with us the entire tour. The 16-passenger air-conditioned van was spacious and  comfortable.

Our first tour stop was the Hassan II mosque, third largest in the world and the largest in Africa, completed in 1993. The king wanted it built on the shore of the Atlantic because, according to the Koran, “God’s throne is on the water.” It can accommodate 105 thousand worshippers inside and out. The stunning architecture reminded me of the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, with its soaring columns of Italian marble and Mosarabic details. It is lit by 57 Murano-glass chandeliers. The minaret, second tallest in the world, is 60 stories high. Tours inside are offered in many languages, and our English-language guide was excellent.

From the mosque we drove along the picturesque Atlantic coast to the fishing port where we had a seafood lunch at Ostrea.  The mosque is visible for many miles along the coast.

In addition to buffet breakfasts daily, we had three-course ala carte lunches and dinners daily with a choice of two bottles of beer or a half bottle of wine. After lunch we had over an hour in the colorful central market.  Below are some scenes from the central market. I’ve never seen so many olives in my life; the Moroccans eat them with every meal.

We returned to the hotel at 5:30 with only an hour to spare before pick-up for dinner. The welcome dinner was at Rick’s Café, made famous by the 1942 movie, Casablanca, starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. Actually, the restaurant didn’t open until 2004, but it was modeled after the movie set which wasn’t really in Casablanca but in a Warner Brothers’ Hollywood studio. One might suspect it is a tourist trap, but the nostalgic atmosphere and excellent food make for a pleasant dining experience, and the restaurant/piano bar should remain popular, “as time goes by.”

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Rick’s Cafe opened more than 60 years after the movie Casablanca.

 Mon. Sept. 16: Rabat, Meknes, Volubilis, Fes

We departed Casablanca at 9 am for Rabat, the national capital, where we stopped to visit the 12th -century Oudayas Kasbah. A kasbah is a walled city within a city. There are many in Morocco and they vary widely in size and original purpose. From the pleasant garden featuring mostly bougainvillea and plumbago, there is a nice view of the River Bou Regreg.

The highlight of the visit to Rabat was the mausoleum of King Mohamed V who led the modernization of Morocco before he died in 1961. The mausoleum was completed in 1971. Royal guards on horseback take turns at the entrance gate and colorfully garbed guards stand at all the doors of the impressive, marbled mausoleum. Below are scenes from the mausoleum.

From Rabat we traveled to Meknes, a UNESCO World Heritage site, founded as a military fortress in the 11th century. One enters the city by way of the Bab Mansour gate, decorated with Corinthian marble and tilework.

In Meknes we visited the royal stables dating from the late 16th century. It once housed 12 thousand horses but it was destroyed by the same earthquake that devastated Lisbon, Portugal in 1755. Since this day was way too long, it could have been shortened by eliminating these ruins.

We stopped for lunch at the small, charming Riad Yacout followed by another stop at Moulay Idriss, a town named for one of the country’s founding fathers. We had a long climb up and down many stairs for a hillside glimpse of the roof of his mosque, another site I would eliminate from the itinerary since the day was so long and we didn’t get to our riad in Fes until 8:30 that night.

The next stop, certainly worth the hour exploration, was another UNESCO world-heritage site, the Roman ruins of Volubilis dating from the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. It’s amazing what a huge city the Romans built to house their military and the colonists who helped cement their occupation of Morocco.

We still had another 90-minute drive and a winding walk through the Medina to finally arrive at our lovely hotel in Fes. The Riad Fes is a splendid Relais & Chateaux property in the heart of the medina, composed of five former buildings and gardens.

Our 9 pm dinner was excellent with a charming and efficient waiter, Youssef. In addition to its beauty, the hotel takes great pride in its superior service. I have to compose my notes and transfer photos from the cell phone camera to my laptop daily or I would never remember all the details if I waited until the end of the tour. It was nearly 1 am when I finally collapsed in bed.

Tues. Sept. 17:  Fes

After an excellent breakfast in the riad, we set out walking through the medina at 9 am. I guess my expectations were too high, but I found the medina rather shabby looking, and the fruit stands were plagued by revolting numbers of flies. After seeing flies cover a basket of grapes, I don’t think anyone in our group ate any of the grapes we usually found on the dining tables. (See the comment on health issues in the final section of this post). More modern shops in the market featured women’s wedding gowns, men’s caftans, shoes and slippers. Artisans banged away making copper pots outside the copper shops, and many shops featured the fine cedar woodworking. After lunch in a pleasant garden restaurant, Jawad led us to the leather works where workers plunged their feet into ancient vats of dyes to color the leather. Below are some scenes from the Fes medina.

Jawad arranged a driver back to the riad for those, like me, who were tired and chose to skip the old Jewish quarter and another palace. A siesta refreshed me and I had time for notes and photos before heading up to the roof-top bar with a sensational view of Fes at dusk. I could hear the call to prayer from at least 4 minarets while enjoying a mojito. Scenes from the bar below:

The group gathered again at 7:45 pm for a short ride to the Palais la Medina for dining and a Moroccan show. Numerous larger groups entered until the huge showplace was overcrowded. The five musicians didn’t entice me to want to buy a CD, but the exotic dancer and the magician were mildly entertaining. Photos below. We didn’t leave until 10:30 pm, ending another long but interesting day.

Wed. Sept. 18. Fes to the Sahara.

Early departures are a drag after late nights, but we were on our way shortly after 8 am because of the long ride to the desert camp. We passed cedar forests in the middle-Atlas mountain range, and olive groves dotted the landscape almost everywhere. Wealthy and middle-class Moroccans retreat from the summer heat to the mountain towns, graced with lovely chalets in the so-called Switzerland of Morocco. Here we made a pit stop in Ifrane, built by the French in the 1930s. Thankfully, Jawad skipped the itinerary calling for a stop at a Berber rug and artisan center or the day would have been much longer. We did make a brief photo-stop to see the Barbary macaques, a very tame group of monkeys who pose for the tourists. We stopped enroute at the Hotel Taddart and joined many tour-bus groups for lunch there. From there we descended through the Ziz River valley where date palms were the most prominent feature besides the green river meandering through the harsh, arid landscape.

On the edge of the Sahara, were met at Merzouga by the drivers of four-4×4 Misubishi vans that took us on an adventurous drive over the dunes to the Erg Chebbi Desert Camp. We occupied spacious tents with rustic bathroom amenities, 25-watt lightbulbs, and welcome air-conditioning. While still dusk, we were wrapped in headdresses and led to the waiting camels for a ride over the dunes to watch the sunset. I had been warned that camels stink and spit, but perhaps that refers to the two-humped dromedaries.  Ours were well behaved. Once mounted, the herder prods the camel to rise up suddenly with a sharp, scary jerk. Otherwise the ride is uneventful.

All the tour agencies include a camel ride in their agendas but I could easily have skipped this for another day in Fes. Our Moroccan dinner was adequate despite having to swat away the flies. The cold beer was very welcome. We gathered around a camp fire and listened some members of the staff play drums and Berber music before heading back to our tents. No internet here, of course. During the night, the generator broke down and the air conditioning went off and I awoke in a sweat and had a hard time getting back to sleep.

Thurs. Sept. 19: Sahara camp to Ouarzazate.

Having slept poorly, I was too lazy to shower early and join the 7 am group that boarded the 4x4s bouncing and skidding over the dunes to arrive at a spot to “watch the sun’s first golden rays strike the tawny desert dunes,” according to the printed itinerary. I’m waiting for someone to send photos of the event to see what I missed. With the generator still not operating, I showered and shaved with only the dim rays of a pen light. I did enjoy the coffee while waiting for the group to return for breakfast, a meatless array of high-carb breads and rolls a diabetic would have been unable to eat. We were on our way again shortly after 9 am.

After about 90 minutes the first stop was not on the printed itinerary. A local Berber led people down a deep shaft to see an ancient underground irrigation system that runs for many miles between villages. A small shop provided a shady area to sit and I chose to chat with the guide and the charming Taureg nomad who ran the shop. Bashir is 37 years old and has a wife and one-year old son. He seemed to enjoy flirting with an elderly woman from our group, and he was glad to pose for photos provided there was some remuneration.

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Bashir, a Taureg Berber nomad presided over the shop at our rest stop.

Next we took what the printed agenda called “one of the most memorable drives you’ll ever make.” I must have missed something.  The Todra river valley and its gorge and 500-foot cliffs are attractive but hardly jaw-dropping.

 

Nearby, we stopped for lunch at the hotel Kasbah Lamrani where our outdoor tables overlooked a lovely pool. I lost my appetite trying to fight off the swarming flies. We were on our way again in a little over an hour, making a two-hour non-stop drive to the Sultana Royal Hotel near Ouarazate. We arrived too late in the day to enjoy the beautiful pool or the other amenities of the deluxe resort hotel. Our dinner was served on a beautiful terrace at 8 pm and I was back in my villa by 10 pm, with time for the internet, my notes, and posting photos.

Fri. Sept. 20: Ouarzazate to Marrakech.

The breakfast at the Sultana Royal Hotel was a disappointing carb overload, the only protein perhaps in the yogurt. We departed at 9:30 for a visit to the Kasbah Lamrani that we skipped yesterday to make the day a bit shorter. It is an abandoned museum now, once occupied by a hated family driven out by the French. From there we returned to Ouarzazate to visit the Taourirt Kasbah. It was built in the 19th century by a powerful family that controlled the caravan trade route between Morocco and West Africa.

The kasbahs are starting to get mixed up in one’s memory. Next we drove past the Atlas Studios where many movies filmed in the area were produced and provided with sound stages. Nearby we stopped at another world heritage site, Ait Benhaddou, a ksar or fortified town with numerous clay towers and fortified castles. Scenes from numerous Hollywood movies were shot here including Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, The Man Who Would be King, The Jewel of the Nile, Cleopatra, and the television series Game of Thrones.

After touring the ksar, we athered for lunch at a restaurant overlooking the ruins. Friday is couscous day for Moroccans, a dish whose mastery is a must for prospective wives.  I have not eaten it often but, when I have, I find it rather tasteless, and this one didn’t improve my impression. The chicken in my tagine was so overcooked I left most of it on the plate. Thank goodness for the included beer or wine.

After lunch we departed for Marrakech by an old military road built by the French occupiers in 1936. There is some debate over how many hundred curves one has to negotiate during the long drive.

Despite construction delays (they are adding another lane) we arrived in Marrakech in four hours, checking in to the deluxe Hotel Jardin de la Koutoubia by 6:15. The hotel enjoys a favored location within a block of the medina. Its beautifully furnished lobby looks out on a spectacular swimming pool, a welcome amenity in a city noted for its hot climate. I was fortunate to draw a spacious suite with sliding-glass doors opening onto a furnished terrace overlooking the pool. What a delight to know we would spend four nights here.

The hotel offered a welcome cocktail at 8 pm, but it was a sweet beverage similar to a Caribbean planter’s punch. I paid out-of-pocket for a scotch instead. Dinner was served in a really impressive garden, as beautiful as any I have enjoyed in my travels. The candle-lit tables were separated from each other by greenery, and all eleven of us fit nicely into a large table in an alcove. The meal was delicious providing a relaxing ending to a long day.

Sat. Sept. 21: Marrakech

After a good breakfast buffet, we gathered in the lobby at 9 am and walked to the nearby boulevard where 4-passenger horse-drawn carriages were waiting to take us to the Menara Gardens, established 900 years ago as an orchard. It is more like a park than a garden given all the olive and fruit trees, but perhaps there are more flowers in the spring. The main feature is an enormous reflecting pool.

We returned to the carriages whose drivers dropped us off near Koutubia plaza, towered over by the minaret of a mosque of the same name. From there we walked to an ancient kasbah where, in 1917, the tombs of the royal family of the Saadian dynasty were uncovered and restored.

The palaces of the current royal family are not open to the public, but the nearby 19th -century Bahia Palace museum provides a good view of a royal residence. The palace was mobbed with tourists with long lines to see a royal tomb we gratefully omitted.

From there, Jawad led us on a brisk walk through the shops of the medina, ending at the Al Baraka restaurant, a 19th-century riad with a delightful garden in the heart of the medina. I found the kefta (meat ball brochette) more moist than some previous choices. The afternoon was at leisure and some participants chose to visit more upscale shops, sometimes with a guide from the hotel. I chose a siesta, some work on notes for my blog, and a late afternoon session of water aerobics in the pool. That’s my favorite recreation at home and I was delighted to be back in the water.

At 7:30 the group returned to the van for a drive to the sumptuous Palais Soleiman restaurant. I really appreciate the quality of the hotels and restaurants A+R provided on this tour, this one especially fine. We were seated at a huge round table too wide to converse with those on the other side. The food was excellent and I enjoyed my first fish tagine. Service was surprisingly slow for a restaurant of this quality and those who ordered coffee finally gave up after too long a wait. We got back to the hotel after 11 pm.

Sun. Sept. 22: Marrakech

The agenda this day called for a drive into the Ourika valley in 4x4s, with views of olive groves and citrus orchards with the Atlas mountains in the background. There were a number of planned stops including lunch. But I preferred to see more of Marrakech. Every internet site on what to do in the city raves about the Majorelle Garden. The agency did not include it, probably because of the steep admission price. The cab ride to the upscale neighborhood was inexpensive and I saw a sign that one could save time and money and skip the long entry line by going to the nearby Yves Saint Laurent museum to buy a combination ticket. The ticket cost about 18 dollars, and it allowed me to skip past the line at the garden. At 2 ½ acres the garden is not enormous, but it is a delightful oasis in the city. It was created by French artist Jacque Majorelle beginning about 1923. After his impoverishing divorce in the 1950s, the garden fell into decay, but it was purchased by fashion designers Yves Saint Laurent and Peter Bergé who restored the garden and made their seasonal home there (Wikipedia). I love gardens and this one did not disappoint, as the photos below illustrate.

The Yves Saint Laurent museum is small but surely attractive for fashionistas. I knew absolutely nothing of his designs but enjoyed looking at perhaps 40 dressed mannequins with the name and date of the show where they were introduced. Sorry, photos are not permitted in the museum.

I had read about another garden, the Jardin Secret in the heart of the medina. The cab drive dropped me at the correct alleyway but it was quite a walk into the medina to find the garden. The admission was just over six dollars. It’s another delightful oasis though not nearly as impressive as the Majorelle. It was a nice spot to sit and rest awhile and use the clean restrooms before searching for a lunch spot.

I opted for a fast food outlet near the hotel so I could get back to the pool early and then rest before dinner. At 7 pm we boarded carriages again for a ride to the restaurant Dar Zellij in the medina. The  appetizers and the tagines (beef, chicken, or fish) were fine and we finished at 10:45, walking to a nearby corner where Abdul waited with the van, ending another late but enjoyable evening.

Mon. Sept. 23: Marrakech

This was a day at leisure, although there was an optional morning cooking class. The menu did not appeal to me, and it was a delight not to be in a hurry to go somewhere. Two guys went golfing, and many women went shopping or enjoyed the hotel spa treatments.  I caught up on news from the US after breakfast, then walked to the nearby medina looking for the Marrakech Museum. It lived up to its reputation: nice architecture, not a great collection,

Seeking the museum, I wound my way through the labyrinth with my camera on zoom to catch photos of local people without their knowing they were being photographed. If one asks permission it is often denied, or a financial contribution is demanded. Only one woman in a black burka realized I had her in my lens and you can see the hate in her eyes in the portrait gallery below. Sorry.

I was back at the hotel by 12:30 and opted for a light lunch with fruit from the basket in the room and some junk food from the street. I knew another large dinner awaited later. We gathered at the same table in the garden alcove at 8 pm. It was one of the best meals of the trip for me, with a generous portion of fois gras, saffron risotto with prawns, and a huge ice cream sundae. I was back online by 10:30 and bed an hour later.

Tues. Sept. 24: Marrakech to Essaouira.

After a good buffet breakfast, I joined the group in the lobby at 9:20 am and we walked the short distance to the van where the porters had loaded our bags and we were on our way by 9:30, heading toward the port city of Essaouira on the Atlantic coast. On the other tour company agendas, this site was an expensive optional extra, so I was glad it was included. But I was somewhat disappointed with the city and would not recommend anyone pay extra and make the long drive to stay there. Our drive took us through an area where the Argan trees are prominent. The acorn-like nut is very popular with goats who climb the trees with incredible agility. It was a great photo-stop.

Nearby we visited a cooperative where local people grind the Argan into a paste and extract a liquid used to make cosmetic products like facial cream, massage oil, cooking oil, and edible pastes.

By lunch time we had arrived in Essaouira, formerly Mogador. The port was largely undeveloped until the 1500s when Portuguese naval expeditions established it as one of four fortresses on the Atlantic coast, supporting trade with West Africa and voyages further south. The present city dates from about 1760 when King Muhammed III tried to reorient the country toward the Atlantic coast and trade with Europe. He encouraged Moroccan Jews to establish commercial ties with Europe and, at one time, the city population included about 40 percent Jews. That heritage is largely in ruins today for numerous and complicated reasons one can explore online. The port became part of the French protectorate from 1912 to 1956. In the sixties it became a hippie hangout. Musician Jimi Hendrix visited in 1969 leading to an extensive mythology, mostly untrue stories, but a continuing commercial cult using his name.

We arrived at the port in time for lunch at a beach-front restaurant, Chalet de la Plage, a casual spot with a huge seafood menu. We should have skipped dessert but we didn’t know the hotel staff waited for our arrival with an array of sweets and mint tea. Our hotel is the first door as one passes through the high-walled city gate, another property in the Relais & Chateaux group, though showing some wear. Room amenities would place it a notch below four-star. The roof-top pool would be inviting in the hot summer but not with the cold winds we had during our visit. But it was a great location within walking distance of every notable site.

We had just an hour break before meeting our local guide for a walking tour through the vegetable and fish markets, the old Jewish quarter, and the fortress facing the ocean. We stopped at wood work and jewelry shops, returning to the hotel at 6:45.

For the first time, the group split up with different dinner hours; I joined two single women for a nice dinner in the pleasant hotel dining room. It was a restful finish to a busy day.

Wed. Sept. 25: Essaouira

The breakfast buffet was a let down from those in our other hotels but one could order eggs off the menu if patient. We had a 10 am gathering date in the lobby for Jawad to lead us on another walking tour of the city, revisiting most of the same places we saw the day before but lingering interminably in the wood working and jewelry shops. Like yesterday, there was a brisk cold wind blowing, though it warmed up later. Jawad did take us into the fortress for a more thorough visit with lots of time for photos.

I know the shoppers were pleased but, not being a shopper, and living where the handicrafts are world famous for higher quality, I found it a wasted day. That’s one of the trade-offs for group travel, and the guides linger to improve their commissions. Finally we walked to the van for another beach-front lunch in a casual restaurant. A few people stayed behind to enjoy a dune-buggy rental but most of us took the afternoon at leisure for rest. We had another nice dinner in the hotel restaurant with a gourmet menu from which I chose fois gras, lobster medallions, and prosecco. I skipped dessert to pack for our morning departure.

Thurs. Sept. 26: Essaouira to Casablanca.

After another miserly breakfast buffet, we walked to the van for a 9:15 departure, heading back to Casablanca for our last night. Most of the drive was along the scenic Atlantic coast, surprisingly undeveloped in many areas. We stopped enroute in Kechla for a tacky ceramic shop, but only one person made a small purchase. The lunch stop was really special at La Sultana in Oualidia, an off-the-beaten path property in the Small Luxury Hotels of the World group. The dining area faced an estuary off the Atlantic so we had a great view with lunch. Everyone loved the luxurious setting and we stayed a bit too long when we still had a long drive to Casablanca. The guide said that one agency in Marrakech ends its tours with two nights here. I would have preferred that to Essaouira. It would have been a relaxing way to end the trip, with spa treatments, and a town nearby for shoppers.

We had one more rest stop before arriving in Casablanca during rush hour, getting to the hotel at 6:45, not much time before dinner at 8 pm. I was surprised to be greeted by name in reception, but my room did not have the same great view of the mosque. The guide and driver never joined us for meals during the tour, but they were urged to attend the final dinner in the hotel dining room, and they seemed to enjoy themselves. We broke up before 10 pm, a tiring day like many before it. A few participants had to be up for a 5 am transfer the next morning, but several of us were lucky enough to have later flights and a 1 pm checkout.

Fri. Sept.27: Casablanca to NY JFK to Rochester NY

The breakfast restaurant was very crowded by the time I got there at a leisurely 9 am. Many hot trays on the buffet were empty and I had to ask for coffee three times before it appeared. It would have been nice to have waitstaff circulating with a coffee pot, and it took another long time to get a refill. It took a half hour to get the eggs I ordered. The Sofitel is a nice hotel but restaurant service is not up to the quality one expects from that brand. Fortunately, I enjoyed a long, leisurely morning reading papers online, catching up on notes, and repacking before a 1 pm checkout. Abdul drove six of us to the airport and two were on my flight to JFK. The 4 pm departure was delayed and we arrived in JFK about 45 minutes later than expected. The flight was very crowded and scores of bags circulated on the belt for another 40 minutes before I knew mine was not among them. Some airlines deliberately leave some luggage behind when they are overweight, but mine had a priority tag so I didn’t expect to be a victim. I was passed among three different agents before finishing the paper-work for my baggage claim.* I had planned 2 ½ hours between flights but had to race to get to the Delta gate to Rochester five minutes before boarding. The Delta flight arrived early, the rental car was waiting, and I got to my Brockport residence before midnight, exhausted and in a foul mood. It’s a shame to end a great adventure with such a shabby experience.

*(Royal Air Maroc and many other airlines outsource to a delayed-baggage tracking and delivery service, Global Baggage Solutions. But, when my bag arrived from Casablanca the next night, instead of flying it to Rochester, they waited until the next morning to send it Fed Ex. I was scheduled to return to Mexico October 2 but could not do so without my bag and 14 days of clothing. I thought I was going to have to cancel and rebook the Mexico flight. The bag was delivered at 2 pm the day before the Mexico flight, five days late. Who needs that kind of stress? Not surprisingly, I have not received a request to evaluate either the flight or Global Baggage Solutions).

COMMENTARY:

The Alexander+Roberts tour exceeded my expectations, but it was much more tiring than I expected. There were too many hotel arrivals late in the day with an even later dinner. I think I was the oldest participant in the group, so perhaps the younger ones were not as run down as I was at the end.

Going from hot days in the high 80s to ice-cold hotel rooms exacerbated a chronic sinus condition. The van carried a generous quantity of bottled water daily and, given the hot, dry climate, I drank a lot, but I’m sure I was still dehydrated without realizing it. I lost five pounds on the tour, surprising given three large meals daily. I did leave more on my plate than usual since many of the meals were overcooked to my taste.

Having led over 100 groups in Mexico, I am conscious of health issues and prevention of intestinal illness. Morocco reportedly has one of the world’s highest rates of hospitalization due to intestinal illness, and Marrakech one of the worst resorts in the world for such illness according to Morocco World News. Surprisingly no one in our group reported any intestinal issues despite the presence of so many flies in some places and consumption of raw salads. One fly can deposit one thousand microbes by landing on food.  We did dine in fine restaurants, drank only bottled water at all times, and were conscientious about hand sanitation.

In Russia last September with A+R, most evening meals were not included, perhaps because there were only seven of us, and I ended up dining alone often. The meals and beverages on this tour were unusually generous compared to most tours I have taken. I had to dine alone only at breakfasts when the tables were set for only two diners.

The hotels and restaurants on the tour were almost all exceptional. I would not have enjoyed the tour as much in economical hotels and cheap restaurants. Given the length of the tour and many long drives, the luxurious amenities were a comforting tradeoff.

The local operator for A+R messed up a few times, surely noted in evaluations submitted by other passengers as well. I am glad I did not take shorter tours offered by other operators, changing hotels every night. But I think the other companies that make Essaouira optional realize it’s not that popular a destination. I could have skipped it happily. Some of the daily schedules included some less-than spectacular sites that could have been skipped to make the long days a bit shorter. Of course, other participants may have liked them better than I did; that’s why the gods made chocolate and vanilla.

Overall, this tour offered one of the most complete itineraries of all the offerings I surveyed. It was much more all-inclusive than many tours, and the fine hotels and restaurants were a delightful addition. I highly recommend this tour to anyone wanting to experience Morocco in depth. Happy Travels to all.

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8 thoughts on “MOROCCO: FROM SEA TO SAHARA: A Tour with Alexander+Roberts September 15-27, 2019

  1. Thanks, Jim – I had time this afternoon to read your posting, and I did with great interest. I put comments at the end. As always, it’s a great piece. Susan *********************** Susan Ansara 4471 Superstition Dr. Las Cruces, NM 88011 ansara@me.com 575-649-8786 ************************

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  2. Hi Jim – loved reading the blog and seeing the pics of the gardens, buildings, food and goats in trees…what a hoot they were! I appreciate that you are open and stark about what you don’t like about any given tour as well as talking up the good bits – this trip looked like a vibrant mix of color and experience across the board. Nancy

  3. Jim, I enjoyed traveling virtually with you, and the photos were even better with your narration than when I first enjoyed them on FB.

  4. Casablanca of course means to me what it does to all of us: Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart, William Burroughs and the beats. At age 12, I wept when I heard that Ingrid was in bed with Rosellini. I thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world, and the media just ruined it.

    I had no idea that mosques could be THAT big. The prophet Isaiah complained that the Jews were foolish to think of Yahweh as living in a house [the Temple]. The Muslims think of Allah as sitting on the water—that makes more sense.

    So the folks in Morocco are addicted to olives! I guess we are all addicted to something. What are you an addict of?
    And the Roman ruins! The Empire brought world peace, yes, but at what a cost! The Roman military didn’t build all that, their slaves did.

    The shoes you show us in Medina are the kind I would like to wear. The Muslims know how to dress for comfort in their robes… and even the shoes! How mine hurt my feet!

    It must have been fun hearing the call to prayer from four minarets at once while drinking mojitos. The poor Muslims can’t drink, so they pray. I prefer mojitos too.

    My son takes off his shoes and washes and goes into the Mosques with the Muslims and bows down toward Mecca when he is in the Middle East. Next time you hear the minarets bawling at you, why not leave the mojito and go down and pray. If my atheist son does it, you can do it too.

    You in the blue headdress don’t look Arabic or Muslim or Nomadic. But you look like you are having fun, except when you are on the camel. I rode one in Cairo and I agree with your thought that there are better ways to get around.

    I agree with you also about their music. Scotch is necessary.

    The air conditioning went off. Yes, on this leg of the trip you were roughing it. But there is nothing for it, you have to do some of that in order to get out and see something.

    I love that stork nesting on top of the building. I thought the storks only did that in Stockholm.

    The only thing I knew about Morocco was legendary names like Casablanca and Marrakech, but now I have a vision of the incredible beauty of Moroccan architecture. Great photos.

    Why was the woman in the black burka mad when you took her picture? I love it when people take my picture, I like to ham it up. Is there something in the Muslim culture about this?

    Well, you took me on the tour with you. You know how to do it with comments on history and skipping the shopping and the photos: the way you put them together is a work of art.

    I think that the tour was really rigorous, sounds like the person running it was Judy Elliot. I’m happy to take it right here in my living room, and I’m also glad that I’ve had a big dinner already, because your descriptions of the food are so accurate.

    I did not know that a fly can put down a thousand microbes in one landing. I have read that hand-washing is the key to survival in countries like Morocco—and Mexico!

    The Muslims are busy washing their feet. WASH YOUR HANDS.

    ROSS

    • Ross, you are a comic at heart. I loved your response. I don’t do windows or prayer no matter what ghostly cult. Can’t imagine what your son gets out of it unless he likes the smell of hundreds of unwashed but devout faithful. We’ll continue this out of the public eye another time. Thanks for your interest.

  5. Thank you Jim. We never think about Northern Africa when planning trips. You took some great shots and your descriptions are like being there. You look good in the headdress. Reminded me of Lawrence.

    Randy

  6. Thanks Randy. It was an interesting adventure but I will admit I won’t be going back unlike Italy where one is drawn to frequent returns. Nine out of ten doctors tried camels. They all went back to women. Cheers.

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