Country Profile: Morocco

Twenty years ago the sole territory of intrepid backpackers, Morocco is nowadays an easy-to-explore, family-friendly North African delight, only 4-hours flying time from most of Western Europe, where Berber, Islamic, European, African and Arabic influences collide and commingle in intoxicating combinations. Medieval cities and ancient fortresses. Bustling souqs (markets) and tree-shaded city squares. Wild Atlantic beaches and snow-capped High Atlas Mountain peaks, not to mention the lure of the Sahara Desert sands to its eastern extent.  Add in great food (tagines, couscous, sizzling brochettes), fabulous accommodation in cozy guesthouses, luxury hotels and atmospheric riads (traditional townhouses), year-round sunshine, and friendly people who will spoil your children rotten, and Morocco has all the makings of a marvellous family adventure – without any of the travel hardships of yesteryear.

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WHAT’S WHERE?

Fez

Grab your children firmly by the hand and set out to explore the marvellous Medieval mayhem that is the city of Fez’s UNESCO-rated medina(Old City): some 10,000 alleyways all stuffed full of merchants, mules and glorious, crumbling architecture, a living museum that your little ones will never forget. Snack from street stalls, hold your noses at the tanneries, and haggle for souvenirs with the best of ‘em.

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Fez Tannery, courtesy of Daniel Duce

The Atlantic Coast

With 3000km-worth of coast to choose from, you’ll likely find what you’re looking for on Morocco’s windswept Atlantic beaches (though note that serene, swimmable stretches of ocean are few: think boogie-board rather than doggy-paddle).  Ignore the eminently missable package-holiday hub of Agadir, and concentrate instead on the northerly reaches, which runs from the beautiful coastal city of Essaouaira up to lovely, whitewashed Assilah, with its historic medina (beware, though, that the lovely latter resort town swells to bursting in summer: try to visit in Spring or Autumn – see When To Go below –if you can). In between long walks along the sands, swim in the bath-like waters of the Oualidia Lagoon, spot birds on the Merja Zerga National Park lagoon (also known as the Moulay Bousselham Lagoon; December-January sees the biggest avian numbers) near the lovely fishing village of Moulay Bousselham, linger in a Casablanca city café, or stroll the stunning Kasbah Des Oudaias in the country’s capital, Rabat.

The High Atlas Mountains

If your kids are up for a bit of trekking, the High Atlas is your place, particularly in Spring (April to May), when the snows have melted, the flowers are out, and the temperatures are still balmy.  Multi-day mule-supported treks to remote Berber villages on the Kik Plateau are eminently doable even with toddlers in tow, and can be arranged from around the village of Ouirgane; guided by Berbers, your little ones will soon be happily bobbing along on mule-back. A highly recommended outfit for arranging several-day hikes with children is the friendly and highly amenable Atlas and Sahara Tours. If, however, you’re not convinced, consider a scenic ride by car instead: the R203 road, which climbs up and over the Tizi-n-Test Pass, is one of the country’s most gorgeously dramatic.

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Atlas Mountains, courtesy of dyonis

Tangier and the Mediterranean Coast

Not top on many tourists’ itineraries, but the city of Tangier – so close to Spain and yet so far – has been beloved of artists and writers for centuries. It makes an easy wander with children, who will likely fall for its busy beach (where it’s camels, not donkeys, that ply the sands for riders’ pleasure), its Grand Socco square (take tea at the Café Central or Tinglis), and its souq.  Elsewhere along the Mediterranean Coast, the autonomous Spanish city of Melilla (one of only two: the other is Ceuta) is known for its architectural masterpieces – both ancient and modern – perfect for parents with that sort of passion. The pretty blue city of Chefchaoun, meanwhile – which many declare Morocco’s most beautiful – is a lovely, well-developed and hassle-free place from which to take trips into the surrounding green foothills of the Rif Mountains.

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Courtesy of Dimitry B.

Marrakech

Simply stunning is how we’d best describe the glorious, scent-heavy maelstrom that is Marrakech. Founded almost a millennium ago and still going strong, Marrakech is the place to rest up in a fancy riad (traditional townhouse), make night-time forays into the inimitable Djemme el Fna (central square) with its storytellers, snake charmers and manifold food stalls, explore palaces (visit El Bahia and El Badi), 16th century Saadian tombs and wander the unsignposted backstreets that, to our children, signify something from a fairy tale. If you want a little more calm and quiet than the city itself can provide, consider basing your family in the Palmeraie, where swish resorts such as family-friendly Jnane Tamsna dot the palm groves.

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Djemme El Fna, courtesy of Grand Parc

The South & The Sahara

The rolling dunes of the mighty Sahara hold an allure like almost no other.  Ouarzazate, a former caravan staging post, makes up the modern administrative centre of the area (don’t miss the Sunday Market); nearby, Oasis Fint makes for a serene, out-of-the-way side trip.  Heading out into the desert proper, past the green palmeraies (palm groves) and kasbahs (oasis villages), watered by run-off from the High Atlas Mountains, you’ll soon move into the land of shifting sands and rolling dunes. Peek in at picturesque Kasbah Amridil, and though touristy, the stunning, UNESCO-rated Kasbah town of Ait-Ben-Haddou (get there early or late in the day to avoid the day-tripping crowds). For a true taste of the desert sands, visit the (also rather touristy) dunes at Erg Chebbi near Erfoud, at Merzouga, or those stretching out into the desert around Zagora. For something truly off the beaten track, consider a night at the budget Riad Nomad, near remote Berber villages, some 305 desert kilometers from Ouarzazate.

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Sahara Sands, courtesy of Celso Flores

OUR TOP  PICKS WITH KIDS

  1. ESSOUAIRA.  Explore the laid-back city souqs, chow down on seafood, learn to kite-surf or windsurf, stroll the beach, or find a fab family photo opp on the scenic old city ramparts. There are lots of wonderful family-friendly stays here – many with pools; we love simple Riad Baoussala, outside the city itself, but there are dozens of other little luxury bolt-holes scattered all about.
  2. OUALIDIA LAGOON. Paddling perfection for little people  in this increasingly chic, but still small-scale resort town, about 3 hours south of Essouaira. There are great accommodation options for families in need of some respite from the rigours of the road: try  lovely, luxe La Sultana.
  3. OLD FEZ. It might be entirely discombobulating, but getting lost (together) in the colourful labyrinth of Fès al Bali (Old Fez) medina is a must. Supremely child-friendly stays are to be had at beautiful Riad Laaroussa, right at the heart of the medina, where Moroccan cookery classes are available to guests big and small.
  4. MARRAKESH Your kids will likely never forget the sights, sounds and scents of Arabian Nights-ish Marrakesh, where every backstreet twist or turn leads to some unexpected treasure. When it all gets too much for them (or you),  take a trip to the restful Majorelle Gardens in Gueliz (under 9s go free), of Yves Saint Laurent fame.
  5. THE DESERT What child doesn’t want to see the Sahara? Climb just a couple of dunes, sand-surf, or venture out on camel-back for several days into the great beyond. We recommend remote, family-friendly Sawadi, a beautiful little B&B-come-ecolodge set on a working farm, or  lovely Kasbah Ellouzenear stunning Ait-Ben-Haddou (see The South and The Sahara above).
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Ait-Ben-Haddou, courtesy of Tomasz Dunn

WHAT’S THE CATCH?

  • When we were first in Chefchouan many years ago, it wasn’t the cosmopolitan place it is now. Indeed, we were pursued all through the Rif Mountains by locals wanting to sell us huge blocks of hashish. These days the hash scene is far quieter, but you may still scent out the occasional fragrant pipe or two.
  • Hassle from touts can be tiring. Be firm if you’re pursued by a faux “tourist guide,” a carpet salesman, or whomever else tries to grab your attention the unpleasant way.  Respond with a firm “No thank you,” too, if salesmen try to press trinkets into your children’s hands, in the hopes that your little ones will persuade you to buy them.
  • In 2011, a terrorist bombing rocked Marrakesh’s main square, killing 17 people, most of whom were tourists. Since then, visitors have kept safe. The UK Government cites a “general threat from terrorism;” the Australian government suggests you “exercise a high degree of caution.”

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 WHEN TO GO

  • There’s never really a bad time to go to Morocco, though unless you’re trekking in the High Atlas mountains, you might find summer (June-August) too hot for comfort.  Spring (March to May) is probably Morocco’s busiest time for tourism (especially over the Easter-time school vacations in Europe), but for good reason: the weather is warm, and the countryside is still green from the winter rains and snows.  If you’re visiting in Autumn (September- November) or winter, (Dec-February) bear in mind that it can get cold at night, especially in the desert, when temperatures might fall below zero.
  • Some families may find travelling during the Muslim month of Ramadan difficult: Muslims during this period abstain from food and water during daylight hours. Though most won’t expect non-Muslims to do the same, restaurant choices may be limited, and some shops, attractions and services may run on reduced opening hours.

FAST FACTS

Size: 446,550 km² 

Population: 32.52 million

Capital: Rabat

Languages: Modern standard Arabic, Berber, French.

Currency: Dirham

Major International Airports: Marrakesh, Fez, Tangier, Agadir, Casablanca

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