There are many reasons to visit Morocco. The people are warm and friendly and the country is easy to navigate and so geographically diverse that you can be hiking in the Atlas Mountains in the morning, and at the beach in Essaouira in the afternoon. Plus thriving cities like Fez or Marrakesh are never far away. Indeed, every corner of Morocco reveals an intriguing sensory experience—the sight of bright pottery and vibrantly colored cloth, the smells of spices or fresh baked bread, the sounds of the call to prayer and people speaking a jumble of Arabic and French, and, of course, an endless array of exciting taste sensations.
Moroccan delicacies, from tajines (braised stews cooked in a clay pot also called a tajine) to couscous cooked with meat and/or vegetables, aren't a secret. What might be unexpected is how many excellent wines are being produced in Morocco today. Indeed, many of the grape varieties used for wine making here were brought over, centuries ago, from Spain and the south of France. And despite the fact that Morocco is about 98 percent Muslim and Islamic dietary laws prohibit the consumption of alcohol, about 80 percent of the wine produced here is for consumption within the country. Many young, modern Muslims abstain from alcohol on religious holidays like Ramadan but drink wine in restaurants and bars.
1. Take a Cooking Class
By the time you've been in Morocco a few days, you'll certainly have tasted a tajine of chicken and preserved lemon, and what better way to take home a bit of the country than to learn how to make it yourself. Hands-on cooking experiences are all the rage here, and classes are offered at hotels, at restaurants, and by independent chefs and foodies. In Marrakesh, La Maison Arabe offers one of the best, and you don't have to be a hotel guest to sign up. The facilities are top-notch, and each student gets an individual station with a two-burner stove, sink, and room for a large cutting board and ingredients. The morning is spent cooking lunch, as well as visiting a community oven around the corner, getting an in-depth tutorial about the use of spices, and learning how to make classic Moroccan mint tea—a process much more elaborate than pouring hot water over mint leaves. The class is very reasonably priced, starting at 600 dirhams ($70 USD) per person, including lunch.
2. Hike, Eat in the Atlas Mountains
About an hour's drive outside Marrakesh, the Atlas Mountains are picturesque, their top peaks frequently snow-topped in early fall, but easily accessible for trekking and outdoor adventures. For the ultimate experience, head up to the eco-lodge Kasbah Toukbal, nestled above the town of Imlil, on Jbel Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa. The rustically restored mountain fortress, originally the summer home of a local feudal chief, is bedecked with wild flowers in season. All the delicious food is prepared onsite. Eating in the glass-enclosed terrace, surrounded by stunning mountain views, is best in daylight hours, but there are also interior dining spaces. Rooms at Dar Imlil, part of the Toukbal property but a 10-minute walk downhill in town, are less expensive than rooms at the fortress, though less scenic. Wherever you stay, you can sign up for mountain treks of varying lengths, from several hours to several days long.
3. Make Road Trip Stops for Lunch and Wine Tasting
Morocco is relatively small, and it's easy to visit several different cities and geographic regions in a short time. One way to break up a journey from Fez to Marrakesh, for example, is with a stop in Ben Slimane at Le Ryad des Vignes, part of the Thalvin winery of Domaine des Ouled Thaleb (lunch only, Tuesday through Sunday. Tip: e-mail email@example.com for more), one of the oldest wine makers in the country. Thalvin produces Syrocco (bottled in country as Tandem), a supple Syrah, which is one of the best-known Moroccan wines available in the US. Lunch is excellent, too—choices on the four-course, French-influenced menu might include duck a l'orange or fish St. Jacques, as well as an excellent cheese course. The experience is especially lovely if the weather is fine and you can dine alfresco by the pool. Obviously, this is best done with a designated driver. Even if you don't visit the winery, look for Thalvin wines while you're in Morocco, and once you're home.
4. Find Fresh Fish and Local Wine in Essaouira
The fishing boats bobbing are a good indication that the fish on offer at the line of restaurants along the shore are as fresh as can be. All the restaurants are good, and they're all busy at lunch, so grab a seat and point to which sea creatures you'd like prepared on the grill. There are plenty of lodging options in town, but one of the best is the Heure Bleue Palais, a Relais & Chateaux property where the lovely rooms surround an open courtyard. To complement l'Heure Bleue's excellent restaurant, the hotel has a selection of wines from the nearby Val d'Argan winery bottled just for them. And these wines are impressive—the winery was started by the French winemaker Charles Melia, a producer of Châteauneuf du Pape. For a day trip, take the 15-minute drive outside of Essaouira to visit the Estate de Val d'Argan vineyards, and have lunch on the property while you taste delectable selections.
5. Splurge on a Magnificent Moroccan Meal
Some of the best restaurants in Morocco are ones that take recipes that have been passed down for generations and add modern twists. At L'Amandier restaurant in the new Palais Faraj hotel in Fez, the chef works magic with traditional recipes that have fallen out of use. Start with a selection of delicate Moroccan cooked vegetable salads—carrots glazed with honey, grilled peppers, slow-simmered zucchini, or roasted eggplant, are all delicately spiced—but for the main event opt for the chicken with pumpkin jam and walnuts—with its smoky and sultry flavors, this is a dish to be remembered. For dessert, the chef has concocted a sweet take on the savory pastilla—instead of the traditional chicken and almond dish, flavored with cinnamon and layered between pastry, this version is a peach melba, with fruit and cream. Dine on the terrace, where the lights of the old city twinkle in the distance.
6. Eat Something Other than Moroccan Food.
Moroccan food is delicious and varied but at some point you'll be craving something different. The savvy choice in Morocco is to go French. With France such an integral part of Moroccan culture, there are plenty of French restaurants to choose from, starting with Grand Cafe de la Poste in Marrakesh's Gueliz area, outside the Medina. Majorelle Garden, is excellent, with a colonial bistro feel and top-notch food to match.
Insider Tip: This area has some excellent boutique shopping—a world away from the souk. Hadaya, Arabic for "present," has a tantalizing, eclectic, and not inexpensive array of clothes and home décor items, mostly made in Morocco.