On The Road Again, Mustapha.

Traveling alone is a joyful experience, I don’t get lonely, and I am rarely frightened. My recent Nineteen Day Camel Caravan through the Kingdom of Morocco reminded me of one slightly chilling moment in Wadi Rum, Jordan. The driver of the 4×4 desert vehicle had a pendant dangling from his rear-view mirror, the more I stared at it, the more alarmed I became. I realized it was a photo of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator who was not fond of Americans, to say the least. My guide realized I recognized the mini shrine and quietly mentioned: he gave us free oil for many years, the driver worships him. On a visit to Oman, seeing camouflage nets covering tanks near a five-star resort, quick geography bolt – oh, the Strait of Hormuz is just a mountain passage away…trivial flashes reminding me of what a tiny world we live in.

I arrived in Morocco for a Nineteen Day Camel Caravan, to explore major cities, small rural villages, and the Sahara Desert with our expert local team, it was while driving through massive linear Sahara sand dunes that the swaying pendant memory flooded my consciousness. However, this time I was with my trusted driver Mustapha. Driver is really an unsuitable description in many contexts; Mustapha was the manager of my ever-changing schedule, bodyguard, cultural ambassador, language tutor, and fanatical seeker of Champagne in a dry Muslim country, he wore at least twenty hats while shepherding me safely across the country.  

Madame should always have bread in the car! Of course, schlepping one of my camera bags!

You may recall my Tribute to Samer, my dedicated driver in Jordan. This is my homage to Mustapha. When our clients set out in cities or untamed countryside, our hand selected teams are their safety net. My complicated roaming about for nineteen days was extremely well planned, and we never experienced a glitch, due to Mustapha’s dedication and his constant connection to our trusted team based in Marrakech. I mentioned that in London, our dear Neville rarely let me out of his sight, even with GPS, I have no sense of direction. If I wandered a bit, Mustapha was like the FBI, I would peer back from an ATM or a souk path and I was never out of his sightline. Morocco has strict hotel procedures, my arrival was always announced in advance. Doormen, luggage carts, all my needs had been shared and VIP Five-Star greetings prevailed. Whisked to suite, Champers on ice!

Several of our clients have already savored Morocco with the fine detailed itineraries organized by our local team and traveled with the ever resourceful and fun Mustapha! Due to the pandemic, I hadn’t traveled for over two years, and this was a very ambitious Journey – begin big, why not?! Most may know, I am rather obsessive about the arrival and solemnly believe the mantra that a driver or guide can make or break a trip. Imagine traveling nineteen days in a car with an incompatible traveling companion?  Mustapha and I had many significant passages, a 9-hour drive day, several 5-hour drive days and if we couldn’t bear spending hours and hours together, we would be in serious trouble! In this case, I would be judging everything from a client’s point of view, a fussy Virgo traveler, business owner, and someone who hadn’t traveled in over two years. Poor Mustapha had his work cut out for him!

A seventeen-hour slog to Casablanca through Charles De Gaulle, and due to a tennis injury, I had reserved a wheelchair for my airport transfers – it turned out to be essential in Paris, such a massive confusing airport. My Casablanca VIP arrival team insisted I be delivered to the car in the wheelchair; I’m sure when Mustapha saw a wheelchair bound traveler, he assumed he would also add Nurse duties to his list of titles. Massive bags loaded, a suitcase filled with fancy winter clothes for Madrid and Paris as well as Moroccan summer clothes; I mentioned I wanted to ride in the front seat of the car for better photographs. Of course, I am here to make your trip perfect. As I re-read my initial post from the Four Seasons in Casablanca, I mentioned my charming driver Mustapha and I would depart for an epic adventure the next morning; within an hour of my arrival, he had already achieved positive reviews!

We had guides arranged in every city, dining reservations, private visits to charming gardens. Mustapha could double as a guide, he’s well-travelled, speaks five languages, and has spent hours with our clients and their guides. He has an amazing memory – he became my ‘Travel Whisperer’ to our team and to hotel staff. Many of the hotels had wine lists, some even had cocktails, a delicious reward after a nine-hour drive day. One evening at the lovely Relais & Chateaux property, Villa Des Orangers, I was sitting in an intimate salon with roaring fire, oud musician in the garden, my private story tellers arrived, followed by a waiter with the perfect Rye Manhattan on a silver tray! I almost burst into tears, it was day fourteen, and I was a bit weary, it was exactly what I desired, he advised staff of my favorite cocktail. Our clients expect these little miracles, I was wowed by the gesture and his memory!

My Nineteen Day Camel Caravan was the perfect blend of history, culture, touring in major cities and through date studded deserts. If you think of the assets we can attribute to travel, trust and resilience come to mind. Traveling alone, my drivers and guides become my local ambassadors and ultimately trustworthy friends. I remain friends with my glorious guide in Bhutan, our renowned guide in Rwanda. These accidental characters become an intrinsic piece of our travel lives. What a gift to treasure, a Journey for the wonders, the layers of personal experiences and ultimately a friend who added wisdom and depth to my travel.

Day Two and already kindly schlepping my camera gear.

A few specific experiences. My goals were established for the Journey – this is my work, with pleasure of course, but I had specific photo locations I wanted to visit, Mustapha knew the lists – if a guide got me off track, he was the policeman. At some point we established several code phrases. If I said Mustapha: I am craving Scrambled Eggs, he knew guide was off track – doing a great job, but not on my track, he either dismissed the guide or nudged the guide back to my plan. It was a gentle method of keeping me happy and a kind way of dismissing a guide if I was exhausted! We also had a ‘ratings system’ for fabulous sight-seeing a Ten Camel Day was the initial high bar. Eventually, we bumped to a Twenty Camel Day and a Hundred Camel Day.

I love meeting locals, when we discussed this, I told Mustapha do you think a family in Madrid or Paris will invite me in for tea? Never! Moroccans are warm, gentle, and generous people, if you say yes to tea, and you should never say no, be prepared for an elaborate tea ceremony with vessels and platters of homemade breads, nuts, and dates! He mentioned his family lived near Marrakech on a farm, would I want to stop? Emphatic yes! There is an in depth post on my visit but his dear mum and darling auntie warmly welcomed me – without a common language. Auntie had never seen a tourist except on TV and within five minutes she laid claim to me – she was keeping me, even though Mustapha told her I needed coffee served in bed every morning, and I didn’t clean or cook, she was unwavering, The Tourist was hers. We giggled for over an hour with no common language, we communicated our affection for each other. It was a Twenty Camel Day, with deep levels of culture, this is what I love most about my travel. Seeing Morocco through the lens of a well-informed interesting native Berber, Mustapha provided layers of inspiring local culture to my Journey.

Always perfectly polished, dress shoes in the muddy Rohuna Garden.

All along the drives through the countryside, near the dramatic gorges of the Dades Valley and Ziz Valley teeming with towering date palms as far as you can see, we saw numerous goat and lamb herders, I am insanely attracted to baby goats and lambs, shouting for one every time we saw a flock! Of course, we didn’t stop, he would slow for photos, but they aren’t pets. As we made our way to Essaouria, along the side of the road were the iconic Argan trees with goats climbing in the tree branches – a truly fanciful Dali-esque sight. Mustapha quickly stopped and said run! The owner, his young son and daughter were under the tree, the tree literally filled with goats. It was kismet, the little girl recognized the lustful look on my face, walked over and plopped a darling baby goat into my arms! Heaven! Another Twenty Camel Day goal achieved!

Finally, my own little goat!

Travel offers so much more than photographic images, one should become immersed in a culture’s history, language, customs, and delicious cuisine. As you explore cultural distinctions, you may discover that we’re all not so different after all. I was humbled by an invitation to the village home of one of the staff members of Dar Ahlam, he and his wife lived nearby, a grand table of tea and nibbles awaited me. Mustapha’s family more than welcomed me, they embraced me and despite no common language, we communicated.

Mustapha was an excellent navigator, an easy to be with travel friend, searcher for bubbly, I can add fifteen more titles to the list. He is truly an excellent listener, and he sincerely wants clients to enjoy their experiences, he is a dedicated people pleaser. Besides always having yet another packet of tissue for a bathroom, always having a coin for the bathroom, always knowing what I should tip here or there, with nary a complaint when said questions were repeated numerous times a day. Without asking, always schlepping my camera bag, my pashmina, never mentioning that I kind of engulfed the front seats with my essential bags. I relied on him completely and experienced a little self-doubt on my travel capabilities when the days were winding down and I would need to function on my own in Europe. He made it very easy to be a tourist; I was not my usual manage everything, be in total control traveler.

When I met our team at La Mamounia for cocktails, they told me if they could clone him there would be dozens of Mustapha’s in their basket, he is the absolute finest Client Ombudsman, our clients are in the very best hands in Morocco!

I survived Nineteen Days of Camel Caravan and I would do it again in a heartbeat!

Shukran, Tanmert, Mustapha!

“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.” Anthony Bourdain

Nomadic Lifestyle – Luxury in Morocco

Look for me here, my Nomadic cravings for Morocco will soon be realized. Always on the move, just as a desert camel roams, I will be exploring the finest hotels and experiences to share with our clients. Searching for wide open spaces, places to breathe and roam freely – Morocco is the destination!

Imperial Suite Ocean room with bed, corner windows with Atlantic Ocean views
Four Seasons Casablanca
White lounge chairs around outdoor swimming pool, tropical plants
Four Seasons, Casablanca

Looking forward to my epic adventure across Morocco, beginning on the Atlantic Coast of Tangier and leisurely making my way across Central Morocco to the Atlas Mountains and Marrakech. The spine of Morocco, separating the Atlantic from the Sahara, the Atlas Mountains soar up to the snowy summit of Mount Toubkal, and comprise the High, Middle and Anti-Atlas. 

This Journey can be designed for culture and art aficionados, photography bugs, and hikers – to include day treks in untouched wilderness, this is more than souks and the Sahara. Mountain biking has become more and more popular in small groups, take on the cols and gorges in the High Atlas Mountains. Pedal through the cedar forests of Ifrane National Park. Water sports can be enjoyed on the El Abid River and falls provide the perfect location for canyoning and walking the gorges. Morocco offers something for every desire. The Four Seasons Casablanca will catch me on arrival before I mosey out the next day. Begin with a fine hotel in a city and move toward the vast deserts with endless horizons.

Tangier, Morocco

In the heart of the Kasbah on the highest point of the Medina of Tangier with panoramic views across the Straits of Gibraltar you will find the little gem property La Tangerina. La Tangerina has a real feeling of inner sanctum yet you are just yards from the souk and a short walk from the port and seafront.

La Tangerina

Typical to my travel, I stay at multiple hotels, seeing glossy photos online is not quite the same as bed hopping, visiting spas, ordering meals – it truly is an experience which a website nor a brochure provide. And there is a hotel for every taste, our unique fingerprints are indicative of our individual must haves in a hotel.

The distinctive soundscape of the five times daily call to prayer, adhan, will echo throughout the cities and villages.  Tangier, a white-walled city perched between Morocco and Europe, was long a haven for the literary and artistic avant-garde—and black sheep—of Europe and America. Poets, artists, and lovers have wandered the streets, enhanced the villas, and designed the hidden gardens for eons. Rohuna, Umberto Pasti’s horticultural paradise will be my first morning expedition in Tangier; capturing stunning vistas and verdant fields, Rohuna, was twenty years in the making mingling spectacular views and cultivated gardens and outdoor rooms within the vast garden. The Spirit of Eden, A Garden in Northern Morocco by Umberto Pasti  was published in October by Rizzoli.

Eden Revisited: A Garden in Northern Morocco: Pasti, Umberto, Ngo, Ngoc  Minh, Sartogo, Martina Mondadori: 9780847864805: Amazon.com: Books

Wake up to Tangier, then on to Chefchaouen, the ancient blue city known for the striking, blue-washed buildings of its old town. The Blue Pearl of Morocco. Leather and weaving workshops line its steep cobbled lanes. In the shady main square of Place Outa el Hammam the red-walled Kasbah, a 15th-century fortress and dungeon.

Chaouen Morocco - panoramio (12).jpg
Chefchaouen Photo by Hiroki Ogawa

Stopping in the ancient city of Fes, absorbing the rich culture along the way. The overland Journey continues onward to Riad Fes, a Relais & Chateaux property, luxury within the riad, a proper five-star hotel composed of five noble houses interconnected by marble staircases and dimly lit candlelit corridors.  The property is situated amid a private walled in garden off the maze of narrow streets, 13th Century buildings and busy markets. Fez, founded in the 9th Century, is Morocco’s best preserved old royal city. Donkeys and mules are commonly used for transportation in the old city’s maze of narrow streets.

Riad Fes combines a subtle mix of Andalusian sumptuousness and Moroccan art de vivre, the Riad Fès reflects its prestigious past and the refined civilization to which it belongs. This majestic palace is an authentic example of Hispanic-Moorish architecture. It offers panoramic views of the magical spectacle of the sun rising over the Fès Medina, and the Atlas Mountains. Hammams and massages, fountains, smoking-rooms, sophisticated cuisine, and a trendy lounge bar.

Riad Fes is renowned for luxury, dining, and refined service.  Guests enjoy the splendor of the ancient noble Fes families, in a one thousand-and one-nights Andalusian-style atmosphere.

I’m looking forward to a sunset aperitif on the roof top with the ethereal muezzin call to prayer in the background. The panoramic view of the Fez medina and the Atlas Mountains on the horizon.

After three days exploring Fez, I will continue my Journey, my private driver, Mustapha, is with me for the duration of this overland expedition!  With a stop at Sahara Desert Luxury Camp, under the jet-black star-studded skies, nights are spent around a bonfire, entertainment provided by local nomads swaying to traditional music.  At night, glamping in a luxury tent with a magnificent blend of a traditional Moroccan style and contemporary decor.

Two nights at Dar Ahlam. On the fringes of the Moroccan desert, shaded by the palms, lies Dar Ahlam. Located in Skoura, a charming remote traditional Berber village in the South on Morocco – Province of Ouarzazate, away from the touristic paths. Terracotta colored stone meets sapphire skies as this traditional Kasbah cuts an imposing shape across the landscape. Unwind in a haven of manicured lawns and fragrant almond blossom. Or step out into the wilderness of the desert for a night under the stars, where you will soak up the elegant beauty. Activities are created by the visionary founder Thierry Teyssie, Dar Ahlam, which more than lives up to its Arabic translation as the ‘House of Dreams’. Bringing a sense of showmanship learned during his days as a French actor to his Moroccan Kasbah, all the world’s a stage for Thierry when it comes to creating unique experiences for his guests. Can’t wait to see what his dreams produce for my stay!

The décor changes with the seasons, sumptuous fabrics and colors bringing the environment to life. Days at Dar Ahlam are long and luxurious. Without the distractions of television and technology, you can really unwind. Instead, indulge in a massage under the olive trees or head off for refreshments by the river. Spend a balmy evening atop the Kasbah, aperitif in hand, before feasting on a freshly prepared supper under the vast sky. Meals are served in surprise locations; activities are designed around your tastes and delightful diversions are typically offered daily to each guest.

Exotic and exhilarating, Berber culture has its oldest roots in the Atlas Mountains. Follow my path to the award-winning Kasbah Tamadot. Sir Richard Branson’s stunning retreat nestled in Morocco’s beautiful Atlas Mountains.

Divided into the three sections, the High Atlas in central Morocco, south of Marrakech, are home to Mt. Toubkal and the eponymous national park, the highest peak in North Africa. These drop down to the lower peaks of the Anti-Atlas further south, where you can hike to peaks such as Jebel Aklim with spectacular views across to the highest in the north. The Middle Atlas in the far northwest are the backdrop for Fez and Meknes, more set up for day trips than full on mountain immersion.

One common denominator, all the mountain ranges have in common: The Berber people. Berbers are a welcoming people with strong traditions, it’s more than dates and rosewater. Traditional subsistence farming is the norm in the Atlas Mountains, with small farms producing nuts and fruits, local sheep and goat herders can be seen along the roads.

And eventually reaching Marrakech to explore luxury hotels and charming riads in the medina. On the way, a brief escape to the coast, to Essaouira, and another lovely Relais & Chateaux property, L’Heure Bleue.

Heure Bleue Palais, Essouira

Situated on the Atlantic coast 2.5hrs from Marrakech is the laid-back fishing village of Essouira, famous for its Gnaoua music and artistic scene.  Many local and foreign artists have settled here continuing the vibe that attracted visitors such as Jimmy Hendrix and Cat Stevens (Yousuf Islam) in the 1960’s.

Once an old Portuguese fishing village, Essouira is a perfect place for those who wish to wander the souks for wooden carvings that it is famous for, to stop and enjoy fresh seafood and local wine while watching the fishermen come in with their daily catch.  For a more active alternative the kite and board surfing is excellent here and there is horse riding, camel riding and golf available. 

Hotel
Heure Bleue Palais, Essouira

Along the path, I will visit a rare Moroccan winery, as you know, a Muslim country does not indulge in spirits. The Val d’Argan winery, which is nestled in a valley between the sea and inland plain, the Val d’Argan area benefits from the mixed climate of ocean breeze and Saharan heat, producing wines with unexpected flavors. The 30ha property includes olive and Argan trees, from which the domain has taken its name. These trees grow only in Morocco and yield an olive-like fruit. The estate also produces Argan oil.

The Heure Bleue Palais is not an ordinary hotel, it is a house steeped in history but also men and women serving their guests. Like a pearl in an exceptional setting, the Heure Bleue Palais welcomes you in Essaouira. At the heart of the bay of the ancient Mogador, this palace has for word of order the well-being of its guests. The Blue Hour Palace lives in the heart of Essaouira and its Medina World Heritage Site by Unesco. Heure Bleue Palais has an extraordinary location: at the gates of the historic old city known as the Medina, the hotel is also just minutes away from the beach and surrounds of the city. 

hotel
Heure Bleue Palais Premium Suite

For many years the main square, streets and lanes of the Medina come alive with Essaouira’s calendar of musical festivals, including the Gnaoua & World Music festival, the Alizés musicale and the Andalusies Atlantiques festival. 

Hotel

It’s time to dream again, borders are open, boosters are available, the world is anxious to welcome travelers and we are excited to begin curating Journeys again for our dear clients! Several epic Journeys are in planning stages, time to escape!

“To get away from one’s working environment is, in a sense, to get away from one’s self; and this is often the chief advantage of travel and change.” ~Charles Horton Cool