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Help needed with itinerary for 2 weeks in Morocco

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I'm trying to work out a two-week itinerary and would greatly appreciate some advice. I'm using frequent flier miles so need to book early. I haven't booked yet so I can easily add a couple of days onto the following itinerary if you think it's too rushed. We plan on hiring a driver/guide for the trip from Marrakech to Merzouga, Fez (or Chefchaouen) Here's what I have so far:

Day 1: Depart Chicago
Day 2: Arrive Marrakech in the afternoon

Question: Should we go directly to Essaouira on this day and then return to Marrakech before our trip to Merzouga to cut down on the drive for the next leg of the trip? Or should we spend one night in Marrakech, another night in Essaouira, and then back to Marrakech for a night before our trip to Merzouga?

Day 3 Marrakech (or Essaouira)
Day 4 Essaouira (or Marrakech)
Day 5 Essaouira (or Marrakech)
Day 6 Ait Benhaddou and Telouet Kasbahs, o/n Todra Gorge
Day 7 Skoura
Day 8 Merzouga, o/n Erg Chebbi
Day 9 Rissani o/n Midelt
Day 10 Chefchaouen or Fez

Question: Should we go directly to Chefchaouen for a couple days and then take the bus back to Fez? I figured it would be easier to get to Casablanca for our departure flight from Fez than from Chefchaouen. Or should we go to Fez for one night, do an overnight in Chefchaouen (taking the bus) and then back to Fez for a couple more days?

Day 11 Chefchaouen or Fez
Day 12 Fez or Chefchaouen
Day 13 Fez or Chefchaouen
Day 14 Train from Fez to Casablanca/home

Kind of rough at this point. Lots of moving around and distances to cover. I don't want the trip to be completely exhausting, and I don't want to feel like we're spending all our time in cars, trains, and buses. But I also don't know if we'll ever be back and I don't want to leave anything out. It all sounds wonderful.

Your input, as always, would be so helpful and appreciated.
Thanks,
Laurie

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    When are you going?

    We did not go to Essaouira or to Chefchaouen so cannot comment on those places. Also we flew into Rabat, which was an excellent transition point of entry. A good balance of Morocco and West. Stayed at the Villa Mandarine. Highly recommend if you go.

    Regarding Marrakech, I thought I would hate it but I loved it and wished we had spent more time there.

    I don't recommend staying in Rissani or Midelt. We ended up at the souk in Rissani and it was fascinating, but not a place to stay overnight. Our driver wouldn't even let us eat lunch there because he said there were no clean restaurants! If you were inclined to spend the night I would go to Ifrane or just go all the way to Fes.

    We went to both Todra Gorge and Dades Gorge (stayed at Chez Pierre) and liked Dades better. Dades is a little harder to get to so most people go to Todra. Actually my wife and I said if we were to do over we'd skip Todra and just go to Dades.

    We spent two nights in the desert. One night in a hotel outside of Merzouga on the edge of Erg Chebbi. Not a great place but liked being out there (no paved roads to the hotel). One night in a luxury tent (best night of the trip).

    Faced with a lot of moving around like you're planning we decided we needed to spend at least 2 nights in the same place so we stayed at Les Jardins de Skoura to do nothing. We could not have picked a better place to relax. Great food, wine, hostess, gardens. Wish I was still there.

    We liked the Telouet Kasbah. The drive there from Ait Benhaddou is interesting...hope you don't get car sick. Also we stayed at the Ksar Inghda (sp) in Ait Benhaddou and that was probably the nicest hotel we stayed at. Our room was a bit small but the hotel is elegant.

    Fes was probably my least favorite and that had everything to do with the number of people that are just plain shady. Having said that, I would not miss it. It's an amazing place, but low on the trust factor. Do go to Cafe Clock and to Dar Hatim for dinner.

    Happy to answer any questions you have. We had an incredible time. Tip: It's important to get the right driver when you head south. You'll be spending a lot of time with him. Our driver was wonderful. I thought it would be difficult being with a stranger for 7 days. When we said goodbye to him in Marrakesh I thought we were all going to start balling our eyes out it was so sad to let go of him. Just make sure your tour operator has vetted the drivers well.

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    Hi Laurie --

    Are you finding a direct flight into Marrakech from Chicago? Chances are, it's going to make a pit stop in Casablanca before going to M'kech, if so. In that case, if I were you, I'd just fly in and out of Casablanca. Then you could go down the coast to Essaouira (DO stop in El Jadida to see the old Portuguese city and the cistern...). If you fly into Marrakech, you'll lose a lot of precious time going out to Essaouira and back: it's a solid couple or three hours each direction. So, if you went Casa-Essaouira-M'kech, then you'd be well-positioned to do the rest. Depending on when you go, you should probably head to the desert first when it will be relatively cooler, so that when you head further north to Fez and Chefchaouen, it will be warmer there. Your plan going into the desert looks fine; I agree with BKD about Ait Benhaddou (don't miss it!) and about not bothering with Rissani on the way out (although I do know of a decent place to eat): go to Ifrane or Azrou on your way to Fez. I disagree with BKD about Fez, though. I loved it -- I've been twice for several days each time. I'm a mature woman travelling alone, and I didn't have any trouble at all. But I WILL say that I've heard many people express the same concerns about Fez as BKD, so obviously, you should be wary, but not fearful. I personally felt the souqs in Marrakech had a harder 'edge' to them than in Fez. But -- you never know. Anyway, it's going to take you two days, essentially, to get to Fez, and it's also going to take you a day just to get to Chefchaouen and another day from Chechaouen back to Fez (or Tangier or Rabat) where you could then get the faster train transportation to those major points, so if I have any concerns about your schedule, it's mostly that you may not have taken into account distances and travel time. And yes, I also hired a driver/guide for two of my trips (the first time, I just went on my own). It's a great way to travel, and would make a recommendation if you wanted it.

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    Thanks BKD and Elaine for all your great suggestions. I'm in the process now of changing things around a bit, based on your feedback.

    BKD, I like the idea of spending 2 nights in one place sometime during the Marrakech to Fez leg of the trip. Since Skoura will be our first night out of Marrakech, we may want to do a 2-night stay further along towards Merzouga (or maybe in Merzouga if there's an interesting place to stay.)

    Elaine, Unfortunately I'm locked into using United Airlines due to our frequent flier miles, and there are no direct flights to Morocco. Flights to Casablanca and Marrakech both have two stops, New York (or London) and Portugal. There are others, but they seem to be the best of the bunch. The layovers are all either too long or too short and seem to vary a lot depending on the day of the week.

    I've also been advised that I'm trying to cram too much into this trip so I think I'm going to let go of Essaouira, only because everything else is a must-see and I really do want to see the blue city of Chefchaouen. I have compiled a small list of recommended tour guides from trip reports on this forum, but would appreciate any recommendations that you have. I haven't contacted any of them yet.

    The only reason I have an overnight in Medlit is it seems to be the half-way point between Merzouga and Fez. If you have a better suggestion, I'd be all for it.

    Here is the latest version of my itinerary, which I'm sure I will keep fine-tuning.

    Day 1: Depart Chicago
    Day 2: Arrive Marrakech in the afternoon
    Day 3 Marrakech
    Day 4 Ait Benhaddou and Telouet Kasbahs, o/n Skoura, Les Jardins de Skoura
    or Kasbah itrane (Valley of the Roses)
    Day 5 Dades and Todra Gorge, o/n Auberge Le Festival
    Day 6 Merzouga, o/n Erg Chebbi
    Day 7 o/n Medlit
    Day 8 Ifrane and Azrou, o/n Fez, Dar Seffarine
    Day 10 Fez
    Day 11 Fez
    Day 12 Chefchaouen (may extend this to 2 days)
    Day 13 Fez - train to Casablanca?
    Day 14 home

    Thanks,
    Laurie

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    We did a similar trip a few years ago, though we only had 8 nights so were not able to do as many overnights as you are planning. I agree with BKD about potentially spending one night in Erg Chebbi (tent) and then one night in Merzouga. That is what we did and it really helped us not feel as though we were constantly getting in the car and moving around. We did not spend the night in Rissani but did have a very nice lunch at Kasbah Ennasra.

    We booked the transportation and desert portion through www.BlueMenofMorocco.com and absolutely loved our driver/guide Zaid. Here is a link to my trip report along with pictures:
    http://www.fromhometoroam.com/category/travels/africa/morocco/

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    Yes, I think dropping Essaouira on this trip is a good idea. You probably have lots of experiences with beaches, but visiting the desert is really "quintessential" Morocco. Unless you have a particular reason for wanting to stay overnight in the Todra Gorge, I'd recommend pushing on to Merzouga, getting there mid- late afternoon. Here I'll qualify my comments by saying I've only stayed at one riad in Merzouga (Ksar Merzouga), but I suspect tours from any of the other riads/hotels do much the same thing: they don't go into the desert for the overnight stay until about 5:00 or 5:30 in the evening when it's cooled down. So, when I've gone (3 times now), I've enjoyed the day's drive through the gorges, then having the next day (until ~ 5:00) to explore Merzouga and the other desert towns (Erfoud, Rissani) or just hanging out around the pool before getting' on the camel! (You can experience Gnaoua music at Les Pigeons du Sable in Merzouga, eg., or the Rissani market, depending on the day...) After you overnight in the desert, you'll be camel led back to your hotel for breakfast, and be in the road again nine-ish the next morning. That gives you plenty of time to get to Azrou -- really, don't bother with Midelt. (So think about that when you're working your schedule.) I think that would buy you the extra day for Chefchaouen, and I was glad I scheduled two days: you an get enough of the blue village in a day (in my opinion...) and then maybe use the next day to do the hike up to God's Bridge, (Just a suggestion: that's what I did.) I think you will be glad of two days in Fez -- and if you get bored (!) go see Volubilis!! The train back to Casa is a good idea. Morocco's trains are great!

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    Great advice, thanks! Instead of stopping in Midelt on the way to Fez, I will stop in Azrou. I'm trying to decide if I should take an extra day in Merzouga before or after our night in the desert. Afterwards sounds appealing as we'd be able to fit in a nice hot shower in the morning after our night in the desert. The reason I have an overnight in Todra Gorge is because I've read such wonderful things about both Jardins de Skoura and Auberge le Festival that I can't decide between the two. Plus after a full day of driving to Skoura, I thought it would be nice to have a day where we could take our time in the Dades Valley. I'm not a big mountain trekker, but would like to get out of the car and walk around the villages, etc.
    Do you think I should shorten Chefchaouen to just the one overnight since I mainly just want to walk around and view the architecture?
    As far as Fez, I would definitely like to take a day trip to see Volubilis. I might also try and fit in a cooking class on one of the days.

    jgg, your trip report was one of the first I read when planning this trip and has really inspired me. Blue Men of Morocoo is one of the tour guides on my list to contact once I have my itinerary ironed out.

    Thanks again,
    Laurie

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    I'd still say, put your 'extra' day in Merzouga on the front end. You essentially get that day by virtue of arriving late(ish) one day and having to wait until late afternoon the next before they take you into the desert. You come out so early the next morning, you get your breakfast and your shower by 9 a.m., and then there's really no reason to stay, especially considering your schedule and the other things you'd like to do. About Chefchaouen: yes, if you only want to see the town, just keep it to one overnight. That would give you a little extra time for Volubilis, which is definitely worth it. Have you decided when to go? I'm in Canada, so know what Chicago is like... don't be in the desert late June to early September... my advice!

    Elaine

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    I agree with Elaine to put the extra desert day on the front end. If you get a luxury tent, you'll have a hot shower for the next morning.

    I still don't see the attraction to Todra Gorge. My opinion is to stay at Chez Pierre in Dades Gorge after staying at Les Jardins in Skoura and head straight to Merzouga from Dade skipping Todra. Maybe some folks disagree, but Dades is much prettier and remote and Chez Pierre is a very nice place with excellent French food. Nice, nice folks there, too.

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    I haven't gotten flights yet, but I'm planning on mid March 2015. I have heard that Dades Gorge is nicer and less touristy than Todra Gorge. I was thinking we could spend time in Dades Gorge but then stay the night at Auberge Le Festival as it sounds like a nice place to stay, but I'm still researching. Thanks for the recommendation. I'll check it out.

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