From laidback beaches to the chaotic hubbub of Marrakech, the majesty of the Atlas Mountains and the lonely Sahara, Morocco has everything you could wish for in a road trip destination
Cheap, short flights from Europe to Marrakech are fast making the city a weekend break as simple as Paris or Rome. It’s amazing to think you can spend the weekend in Africa taking in souks, spices and sun without shelling out a fortune. But as overrun with tourists as Marrakech may be, they’ve yet to infiltrate the rest of this beautiful and varied country in such numbers – a country perfect for a road trip.
It’s tempting to spend months travelling to each and every corner of Morocco, from the tip of Tangiers down to the coast neighbouring the Canary Islands. But for those with less time and who don’t mind leaving the obvious attractions of Fes and Casablanca to another visit, start on the west coast and make a beeline for the east. On this route you’ll get a taste of golden beaches, fishing ports, city life, mountain ranges, green valleys and barren desert that sums up what makes so many people fall in love with this country.
Essaouira on the west coast is a great place to relax from the stresses back home – it’s a laidback surf dude paradise completely different to the rest of Morocco. The walled labyrinth of the old town is easier to navigate than it looks and there are some gorgeous riads, or guesthouses, tucked away inside with fantastic views over the rooftops. Outside the city walls you’ll find a busy fishing harbour with rows of bright blue fishing boats and the day’s catch laid out on the steps. Pick your fish and watch it grilled in front of you – it’s the freshest you’ll ever eat.
Morocco can be heavy on the meat and fish, so if you’re craving some vegetarian relief Chez Francoise has veggie treats served up by Francoise, a very friendly woman who we ran into again in the desert on her holidays, where she still recognised us and stopped for a chat.
Essaouira’s white sand beach is windy and perfect for surfing, and it’s reasonably cheap to hire a board for the day. If you’re happier on dry land, camels replace donkeys for a beach ride.
Regular clean and comfortable buses make the two-and-a-half-hour journey to Marrakech fly by, but if you’re still in chilled surfer mode you’re in for a shock. This city never sleeps, from the imam’s early morning call to prayer to the chaos of the souks and the nightly circus of the Djemaa el-Fna. You’ll either fall in love immediately or want to run screaming for the Atlas Mountains. A little respect makes things a lot easier – keep reasonably covered up, recognise this isn’t a boozy trip and don’t throw yourself at your boyfriend/girlfriend in public.
There are plenty of museums, palaces and gardens to see – the Jardin Majorelle takes some beating, with its bright blue villa and leafy gardens – but this city’s real attraction is just wandering through the streets, taking it in. You can’t avoid a visit to the souks, the central market, and it’s a miracle if you don’t get lost inside. The array of spices, herbal cures, tea sets and rugs is Marrakech’s most famous feature.
Chill out at one of the many hammams, where you’ll get the most thorough washing of your life, before spending the evening in the Djemaa el-Fna main square. After eating at one of the restaurants overlooking it, join the crowds watching storytellers, snake charmers, musicians, dancers and magicians.
When you finally stumble dazed and confused away from Marrakech, the long journey to the Sahara desert will seem like a welcome relief. It’s a five-hour bus journey through the Atlas Mountains to the desert border town of Ouarzazate but with the amount of hair-raising twists and turns in the road it seems a lot longer.
Roads climb high into the mountain range, are very narrow and at points have sheer drops on both sides, so when the driver is cheerfully taking corners thousands of feet up through a thick fog and your fellow passengers are loudly vomiting, you may wonder what possessed you to get on board. It is, however, the only way to the desert, and the views are some of the most awe-inspiring in the whole country, if you can bring yourself to look out the window.
There’s not a lot to do in Ouarzazate (although it is home to a film studio used in The Mummy and Kingdom of Heaven), but if you’re strapped for time this is as good a place as any to plan your desert trip. We planned ours with Desert Dream, as persistent as any of the town’s massive number of tour companies, but lovely people and worth every dirham.
Depending on who else wants to leave that day you could be with a group, but we travelled with just a guide for five hours through the stunning Draa Valley, a lush landscape of palm trees and the Draa River. If the towns so far had a European feel, you know you’re in Africa on this amazing drive. There are plenty of kasbahs and Berber villages to stop at along the way and it’s fascinating to see life in the more rural communities of Morocco.
So at the end of this long, dusty road is your final destination, the Sahara desert. Berbers who’ve lived their entire lives moving from camp to camp here are your very welcoming hosts and their tents are surprisingly comfy in a sandstorm. Camel treks can be anything from a couple of hours to a couple of weeks depending on how long you’ve got, and you’ll probably want to stay much longer than you think.
Our final evening in Morocco was spent in the pitch black, atop two surly camels who were being relied upon as the only ones who could find the way back to camp (which they did, admirably). It’s a long journey here from Marrakech, but one you’ll remember for far longer than a weekend in the city.
Ryanair, easyJet and British Airways all fly to Morocco.
The following restaurants are recommended:
Chez Francoise: 1 Rue Hommane el-Fatouaki, Essaouira
Restaurant Ferdaous: 27 Rue Abdesslam Lebadi, Essaouira
Chez Chegrouni: 4-6 Djemaa el-Fna, Marrakech