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Trip Report Morocco Odyssey with OAT

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Although I have returned from Morocco over 6 weeks ago, I finally have had the time to sit down and write this report.

Many Fodorites on this site have pooh-poohed organized travel - rather they would do it themselves. I believe there is a place for both. On this trip, my husband and I traveled with OAT - a tour operator that specializes in tours to unusual places and promises no more than 16 people. They held true to their word. This was the 3rd trip we took with them and we enjoyed it immensely.

We began by taking the pre-trip extension to Essaouira in late September. We were met at the Casablanca airport by our guide, Mohamed, whom we grew to adore. There were just 9 of us from various parts of the US and we bonded immediately.

We drove to our hotel in Casablanca, got settled in, and took a small walking tour of the neighborhood. I knew that our guide would be wonderful when it started to rain. He found us a small bar/cafe where we took refuge from the rain. He ordered tea and something to nosh on while we waited for the rain to let up. This was improvising and making lemonade out of lemons.

The next day we left Casablanca for a drive in a minibus to Essaouira, a resort town along the Atlantic. We made a few stops along the way to view the beautiful scenery, have some mint tea. We had lunch at L'Araignee Gourmand restaurant, a charming oasis on the beach in Walidya. We then continued the drive to Essaouira where we checked in to our hotel, the Hotel Des Iles overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and only steps from the medina. Dinner was in our hotel with the group.
Along the way, on the bus, our guide Mohamed talked to us about the country, the history, the culture and the social/political aspects. He was a former teacher and filled with knowledge and enthusiasm. I don't think we would have learned nearly as much had we been on our own as we did with him. This is just one advantage of having a tour guide.

The following day we spent around the town watching the fishermen haul their catch and sell them to local restaurants and others. It was exciting to see. We walked through the old town (medina) and up to the bastion. We were free for the afternoon and we walked around looking for the old synagogue. We had dinner on our own in the medina in a wonderful converted riad made into a restaurant, Dar Loubane. We were able to order a bottle of wine with our delicious meal. The ambiance was warm and friendly as we made the acquaintance of the owners.

The next day we drove into the countryside where we stopped to view some of the goats climbing the argan trees. Fascinating! We went to a local market where men came to buy/sell all sorts of goods. Donkeys and cows all over! The locals would haggle over the price of anything and everything - it was fun to watch and we felt like (well, almost) like locals. We continued on to an argan cooperative where we were shown how the argan pit is grinded into argan oil. Of course there were many items for sale - I bought.

That evening we were on our own again for dinner - we went back to the medina and had dinner at Ferdaous - surprisingly this time we could not order wine. The Moslem owners prohibited it. But the food was excellent. We even found a place that sold gelato.

The next day we left Essaouira, taking a different route back to Casablanca where we met up with the 7 others that would make up our final 16 travelers.

Rather than explain our day by day itinerary, suffice it to say that we enjoyed each and every day. Our route took us to Rabat where we saw the Archeological Museum, the Royal Palace and gardens. We left Rabat for Fez via Volubulis and Meknes, 2 places filled with history and ruins.

Fez (also spelled Fes) is a bustling city with the excitement of the tanneries (fetid smell made sweeter by sniffing spearmint) and the medina, a labyrinth of over 6000 streets and alleys. We had a home-hosted dinner here with a most fascinating family. Food was home-cooked and the conversation was stimulating.

After Fez, we traveled over the Middle Atlas Mountains to Erfoud where we learned of the Blue Men of the Sahara. This led us to our camel ride and off-road SUVs into a Sahara tented camp near Daya el Maider where we stayed for 2 nights.

One of the highlights of staying at this remote location was the opportunity to awaken before dawn and see the sun rise over the Saharan dunes. It was a sight to behold. Roughly 8 - 10 of us spread out and sat on different dunes so as to experience the sunrise amid total silence. It was absolutely spectacular!! We then took a walk along the dunes. I walked barefoot as the ground was not hot and I could feel the sand between my toes.

The accommodations here were spartan, to say the least - but we had everything necessary. The showers and toilets/sinks were shared. We had 1 lightbulb hanging in the center of the tent for light, but there was no other electricity. For 2 nights, it was fine. There was a covered area where we would gather at the end of the day and chit-chat.
We had stopped at a local shopping area before we got to the camp and stocked up on wine. This was made possible by Mohamed who told us we wouldn't have to bother carrying any bottles - he would arrange for them to go on the bus and would be brought to us at the camp. Just another convenience that he provided.

The 2 days at the camp were spent hiking to areas where we met up with local Berbers and nomadic families. The evenings were spent discussing the basics of Islam and other social issues. Mohamed was charming and quite learned.

After spending 2 nights at the camp we crossed the High Atlas Mountains and were all ready for the hotel at Tineghir and hot showers. In fact, most of us went to the local hammam to be scrubbed. This was an experience not to be missed. Some liked it - some did not. Mohamed also arranged for a woman to come to the hotel to apply henna to anyone who wanted it. I opted for my hand/arm and one ankle to be decorated. It lasted nearly 3 weeks.

While at Tineghir we visited another local market where there were donkeys, sheep, cattle for sale. We had lunch with students at a local school that is subsidized by OAT and Grand Circle Foundation.

After Tineghir we drove into the Dades Gorge, had tea with a local family before finally arriving at Ouarzazate, home to many motion pictures studios. Many films have been made here. En route we stopped to have lunch with a local imam. After lunch and enjoying a stimulating discussion about religion and politics, he said he would perform a wedding ceremony. Much to our surprise, my husband and I were chosen to be that couple! We were dressed in the local custom and a written contract was drawn up, witnessed and signed. It was just another highlight of our trip.

Om the way to Marrakech we stopped at the village of Ait Ben Haddou.
Finally, at Marrakech we took a horse-drawn caleche through the streets. We visited the Koutubia minaret, the Saadian Tombs, the Bahia Palace and of course, the medina.
The square in Marrakech, the Djemma El Fna is a sight in and of itself. What is so remarkable is the transformation that takes place in the evening. One must visit in the afternoon as well as nighttime to view this spectacle. It is truly Morocco at its best.

We had an entire day free in the city but many of us chose to form a group and hire a car/driver to take us to some other sights - the Majorelle Gardens and other sights. Mohamed arranged this for us and accompanied us as well.

After spending 3 days in Marrakech we drove back to Casablanca for 2 days to sightsee in more depth the city. We were able to see the religious houses of 3 religions - the Hassan II Mosque, the Sephardic Temple Beth El and Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic church.

We left the next day for home.

All in all I must say that the trip was wonderfully organized by OAT and by our leader Mohamed. He would stop the bus frequently for us to hike. He peppered the conversations with history, humor, social, political and religious anecdotes and made the trip so very entertaining and informative.

Water was provided daily, checking in and out of hotels was made easier, handling of luggage was eliminated and Mohamed made life easier and certainly more interesting.

Yes, there can be disadvantages to going with an organized group, but in this case I think there were far outweighed by the knowledge we gained about the country and the hassle-free aspects that we did not have to worry about.

I will gladly answer any specific questions any body has.

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