Adventure is on the itinerary for Peter Johnston as he explores the exotic cities of Marrakech and Essaouira as guest of Intrepid Travel.
Irresistibly exotic, Morocco has long been a powerful draw for travellers with a taste for adventure. Its cities and resort promise a thrilling contrast to Western life, and the reality more than lives up to high expectations.
I visited the Moroccan cities of Marrakech and Essaouira with the specialist company, Intrepid Travel, which caters for small groups in pursuit of big adventure. Intrepid offers more than 1,500 itineraries in over 120 countries and prides itself on providing insightful, real experiences for curious travellers. They use local guides and choose locally owned hotels so that the financial benefits of tourism flow back into the community.
For Intrepid and its travellers it’s all about tourism with a light tread. If you join one of their groups, you’ll find a strong emphasis on sustainability and respect … respect both for the environment and the local culture.
In Marrakech, our first stop was the Mogador Opera Hotel, situated in the ‘new town’ just ten minutes’ away from the central Medina, the densely packed walled city dating back to the highpoint of the Berber Empire in medieval times. The surroundings were extremely cosmopolitan with wide boulevards and western brands such as H&M, Zara and McDonalds, but the hotel itself has a very traditional vibe. I felt that, by western standards, it didn’t quite live up to its 4 star billing, but I was glad to stay somewhere so centrally located, with decent facilities and helpful local staff.
I was also extremely glad to be accompanied by Intrepid’s friendly and incredibly knowledgeable guide who proved an absolute treasure, steering us safely and relatively unhassled through the maze of alleyways and souks of the Medina. This characterful central area of Marrakech really is an assault on the senses; noisy, dusty, full of strange smells and sights and packed with people tugging at your sleeve an encouraging you to buy their goods.
The guide’s reassuring presence enabled us all to enjoy the colourful experience and relax into the (to us) uncomfortable art of bartering for everything we wanted to buy. Spices, pottery, gemstones, jewellery … and of course ‘genuine fake’ designer brands abound. We all succumbed to a bargain or two as we explored the souks, stopping here and there to enjoy incredible street food or imbibe coffee or mint tea, served to us in gilded coloured glasses. The experiences also helped the group to get and the atmosphere was friendly and relaxed, even in the hectic, heady city centre setting of Marrakech!
After two days in Marrakech, it was a transfer to the coastal resort of Essaouira where we stayed at the Riad Benatar, which was arguably a tad basic, but comfortable and very Moroccan in style and atmosphere. The hotel has a charmingly quirky feel about it and I have to say I loved its breakfasts, and would especially recommend its beautiful little spa where traditional massage is offered alongside a range of relaxing and re-energising treatments.
Intrepid’s travellers – and they come in all ages with the majority falling into the 45-50 bracket - can opt for the style of travel and accommodation which best suits their personal taste and budget. All have the air of authenticity which is a hallmark of the business, and all have been carefully chosen and assessed.
‘Basix’, as the name suggests offers basic accommodation, limited inclusions such as activities and meals and relies mainly of public transportation - perfect for an independently-minded traveller who likes the sociability and, perhaps, the security of a group.
‘Original’ which accounts for around 70% of the company’s trips, offers 3* accommodation and uses a mixture of public and private transportation to get around. More meals and activities are included.
‘Comfort’ is aimed at those who want a little more in the way of home comforts and expert escorting. It offers 4* accommodation, usually private transportation and most meals and activities are included.
After the mad rush of Marrakech, Essaouira seemed like a bit of a haven. There is a busy Medina area here too, but it’s not quite as bonkers as in Marrakech and Essaouira has the advantage of a great beach. It was nice to soak up the sunshine by the sea as well as soaking up the feel of Morocco in the souks and touring the sights.
There is a range of themes and special activities on offer with every style of holiday and, as I discovered, guides are great sources of inspirations for what to see and do in any location – often identifying fascinating opportunities and attractions which don’t necessarily figure in mainstream guide books.
Morocco is of course a Muslim country and it is important to respect their customs and traditions. Your guide will steer you, but as a general rule, you should dress modestly, particularly if you intend visiting places of worship. Respect people’s privacy and, if you want to take a photo, it’s only good manners to ask for and receive permission before you start snapping
Although the major cities here are fairly westernised, alcohol is not widely available. Neither of the properties we stayed at served alcoholic drinks but, if you search hard enough, some bars can be found serving a refreshing beer or two.
Ramadan is the fasting month for all Muslims. During this month no food, drink or smoking is permitted during daylight hours. While non-Muslims aren't expected to fast, it's recommended to try to avoid eating, drinking or smoking in public during daylight hours.
As a very positive footnote to my short break in Morocco, I was delighted to discover The Intrepid Foundation which provides travellers with an opportunity to give something back to the many wonderful communities visited by Intrepid Travel customers. By donating – even a small sum – travellers can make a difference in local communities, in health care, education, human rights, child welfare or the protection of wildlife and the environment. In Morocco, The Intrepid Foundation proudly supports the Horizon Association which builds prosthetics and wheelchairs for people with disabilities. The charity also provides day services and physical rehabilitation for children with mental and physical disabilities.