GT destination guide: Morocco

A journey across the heart of Morocco is a lesson in flavour and fragrance.

All photography: Elise Hassey

Elise Hassey

The key ingredient in mint tea is time. Well, time and mint, of course, but it’s time that matters the most. Every Moroccan has their own recipe for mint tea. But the one thing that each fiercely individual routine has in common with the other is that it should never, ever be rushed. In the desert, a single pot can take an hour to perfect.

Here, in a small village in the Atlas Mountains, our guide Abdul begins the ritual of pouring glasses and returning them to the pot, pouring and returning, the tea leaves muddling with the fresh mint over and over again. He will not be hurried. I am seated on a terrace draped in soft carpets belonging to Hassan and Safida – and Abdelhaid, their boisterous three year old – who opened up their home to us for a morning. A two-and-a-bit-hour drive out of Marrakech, the Atlas Mountains are home to the Berber tribe, who have lived in Morocco for thousands of years. It is beautiful up here, bare and crisp, the mountains capped with snow, and there is that sense of alertness which comes when you are really, really high. Everything feels sharp and clear. It’s a stark contrast to the Marrakech we’ve just left behind: teeming with life, quickening your pulse the second you step out the door, hectic and thrilling.

This day trip to the Atlas Mountains comes midway through our Abercrombie & Kent tour of the country, which begins in seaside Casablanca – “Here’s looking at you, kid” – before crossing the country to the densely turreted Fes, hopping over to the ochre-walled Marrakech and ending back on Morocco’s coast in the sun-blistered resort destination Oualidia. It’s an itinerary that takes in big cities and small towns, buzzy medinas and blissful spas, food and wine, markets and museums, and all of the history – and modernity – that makes Morocco so alluring. If you have never journeyed to the North African nation before, an eight-day trip barely scratches the surface of everything Morocco has to offer. But, as is so often the case with travel, you’ll just have to come back.

Abdul pours the final glass; the tea is ready. It’s strong – tangy from the green leaves, fresh from the mint, and sweet from the big chunk of sugar that has been dunked into the pot. It’s good. “Saha,” Abdul exclaims, raising his glass towards me. “Cheers.” The heat in Morocco sticks to your bones, like a tagine. It’s February and allegedly winter when I land in Casablanca, but I’ve come from London, where February really is winter: grey and grim, deep in the grip of a never-ending rain cloud. Casablanca, by contrast, is creamy and exquisite and every street sounds like the sea.

Breakfast is a plate of baghrir, the poetically named pancakes of a thousand holes, like a slim, flattened crumpet fashioned from semolina flour. Doused in amlou – a paste of honey, almonds and argan oil – and washed down with a thick, syrupy cup of Moroccan coffee, they are addictive. Moroccan coffee has much in common with the indelible Turkish variety. “When my mother was making coffee, I could smell it in the street,” jokes Mohammed, our guide for the week.

From Casablanca, we make our way inland to Fes. It’s even warmer here, closer to Morocco’s desert heartland. The rush of ocean air feels like a distant memory; Fes is dried out and toasted. At 10 o’clock in the morning, we walk through the entrance to Fes’ thousand-year-old medina, a snaking maze of more than 9000 alleys containing countless market stalls, 300 mosques, a historic synagogue and the world’s oldest university. It is silent. A motorbike chugs past, huffing and puffing as it trundles along. A few kids with fistfuls of coins are buying baghrir for breakfast. But then we turn a corner and the medina comes alive: the burning heat of the public ovens, where you can bring a disc of flatbread from home and bake it for a few coins, the sizzle of meat frying in cast-iron pans, stalls with spices piled perilously high like a pyramid, including ras el hanout, the famous Moroccan mix, an 11-secret-herbs-and-spices-esque blend unique to every stallholder. Round another corner and the streets are empty again, the air fragrant and still.

Fes is a study in contrasts: ancient and modern, frantic and serene. And spicy and sweet, as I learn at a cooking class held on the rooftop of the Palais Amani, a mosaic-riddled riad in the heart of the medina. It’s dusk and the light on the terrace is warmed over and coppery, like a spoonful of amlou. The Moroccan cuisine is “toujours le saveur,” declares Abdul, our teacher for the evening, dressed in pristine chef whites and, appropriately, a jaunty red fez.

I am making tagine – what else? – and zaalouk, a Moroccan entrée of smoked eggplant and spiced tomatoes, which is described as a salad but is served with wedges of flatbread still warm from the grill. Zaalouk is simple and moreish: grated tomato thrown into a pan with cumin, paprika and quite a lot of garlic, then mashed with the eggplant. And the tagine is just as good, an unfussy recipe of chicken, seared in a pan with an onion, turmeric, ginger, saffron, preserved lemon, parsley, coriander and green olives. The chicken cooks in the marinade, and then the whole thing cooks in that famous tapered clay pot, which traps all the flavour inside like a reverse cycle air-conditioner. The result is a cheerful yellow stew studded with green olives, like little jewels, where spice is applied for taste, not heat. For dessert, we experiment with a delicate jawhara, layers of crisp filo pastry filled with orange-blossom custard and dusted with cinnamon. Abdul hands out bottles of ice-cold Casablanca Lager. When I place my tagine into the oven, the call to prayer begins to echo over the rooftops, rippling through the city.

Morocco does a roaring trade in rooftops. Every riad in Fes and Marrakech seems to have one, done up with canvas pagodas and very thirsty ferns. A few days later, I sit on the rooftop at El Fenn, one of the city’s buzziest hotels, drinking a mojito on a sofa the colour of saffron. El Fenn is a scene. Every corner is styled like an Instagram flatlay, the music ripped from a Mykonos beach club. Madonna hired out the whole hotel in 2018 for her 60th birthday; Gwen Stefani and Gwyneth Paltrow have both checked in. The hotel, co-owned by Vanessa Branson – sister to Sir Richard Branson, whose own palatial pile Kasbah Tamadot is a luxurious retreat nestled high in the Atlas Mountains – is a reminder of Morocco’s enduring allure for creative types.

Marrakech is where Yves Saint Laurent made a permanent base, out of the azure-blue homestead known as the Majorelle Garden, which today is open to the public with an adjoining Yves Saint Laurent museum next door. Marrakech remains a creative hub. Meriem Nour, a Central Saint Martins-trained designer, is the owner of Hanout, an atelier for finely tailored kaftans in the heart of the Marrakech medina. Just outside is Plus61, an airy restaurant that looks like it belongs on the streets of Surry Hills, which is apt, given chef Andrew Cibej is ex-121BC and Berta. There are lamingtons on the dessert menu.

Ancient medinas, buzzing cities and, now, coastal retreats. My journey ends in Oualidia, a sleepy resort town three hours outside of Marrakech. Oualidia is a brief bus ride from Essaouira, a more bustling seaside city famous for serving as the location for several television shows and films you’ve definitely seen. (Essaouira is the real-life Astapor in season three of Games of Thrones, aka the city where Daenerys went full dracarys.) Seagulls provide a cacophonous soundtrack to a morning spent inside these sandstone walls. Mohammed estimates almost 80 per cent of Essaouirans make their living out on the ocean.

In Oualidia, it’s even more concentrated: this town of about 5800 people is the oyster capital of the nation. The coastal drive to La Sultana Oualidia, a tranquil coastal retreat, is lined with people selling their wares. Each oyster is as big as your fist and farmers journey out into the curved lagoon every day to bring them back for hungry punters. La Sultana is a true oasis: just 12 rooms, each decorated like a beach house in a Nancy Meyers movie.

There’s a first-rate spa offering the traditional Moroccan hammam, where steam is used to cleanse your body, followed by deep – and I mean deep – exfoliation. I leave feeling squeaky clean. Later, I walk to the hotel’s restaurant, situated in a sunken conservatory, for my last dinner. It’s a beautiful place to eat seafood – fat crayfish on a bed of spiced couscous, crabs bigger than their serving platters, legs dangling over the side – but also a little otherworldly. At the door is a long jetty that leads to a shack perched right out in the ocean. In high tide, it feels like you’re walking on water to get there. This is La Sultana’s oyster bar, a place to have a glass of something cold and a plate of a dozen oysters; practically dinner in and of itself. I drink a glass of Champagne. It’s 7.30pm and the sun is taking its time setting, really putting on a show, and after a week in Morocco everything feels revitalised and refreshed. Saha to that.

How to book:

Abercrombie & Kent’s private eight-day Mosaics & Medinas tour starts from $8750 per person, not including airfares.

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