In a world where everything has been photographed, shared, and Google-mapped, Morocco has held onto its beauty and mystique like a Golden Age starlet. Enamored by its desert landscape, ancient-meets-modern culture, and exotic hotels, on a recent visit I set out to discover the North African nation outside of its darling destinations of Marrakech and Fes.
Against the setting sun, my flight to Dakhla from Casablanca—Morocco’s largest travel gateway—began its descent. From the air, I expected to spot glowing dunes at dusk, but it was the ocean that caught my eye. Hundreds of fishing boats were headed out to sea, leaving misty-white wakes in their path. With this, I quickly was schooled in Dakhla 101: Fishing rules the sprawling town of 80,000 inhabitants. (Note to self: Add a fish feast to my itinerary.)
In Dakhla, I mingled surf and turf with ultimate abandon, starting with an off-road trek in search of lagoons created when the Sahara meets the sea. Luckily, the tide was out, so I got a full picture of the tidal pool’s Vatican-sized footprint as my feet squished and sank (slightly) into the desert-come-ocean floor.
Back on solid ground, my guide, Mohamed, ushered us toward a lonely cliff where we wandered down to an open-air restaurant at the edge of the Atlantic.
Viewfinder Tip: Hire a guide to help you acquaint yourself with surroundings in Morocco. Heritage Tours is one outfit to consider.
Our meal gave new meaning to the concept of fresh. Sitting in a blue rattan chair surveying the ocean like a lifeguard, I watched the restaurant’s rubber boot-clad servers as they plucked and shucked oysters from the sea. The finished product arrived in the half-shell, soaking in a cumin- and lemon-infused olive oil. The emulsion was so good, I dipped (and re-dipped) my bread in the stuff that was left behind in my plate.
Day two in Dakhla turned out swell as I paddle-surfed in the Atlantic in the shadow of 10-story sand dunes. Here, where the sand meets the sea, I hung out at the Ocean Vagabond (with a beachfront sister property in Essaouira, Morocco), a small hotel dotting the landscape with two dozen minimalist bungalows, a surf shop, a communal eating area, and an outdoor bar serving drinks with names like “kite loop” and “bikini.” Overcome by the locale’s exotic-factor and bucket-list “cred,” I started to plan a long-stay trip to return and surf beside the Sahara.
Keen to immerse myself in Morocco’s inland culture, the trip’s next wave took me to Taroudant, three hours south of Marrakech. Often called “Mini Marrakech” for its similar but smaller-scale feel (and similar backdrop against the Atlas Mountains), Taroudant is a busy market town brimming with energy, coffee, and commerce. Smitten with the scene, I was tempted to break out in song like Jasmine from Aladdin as I explored the 1,000-year-old ramparts wrapping the medina (though I held back at the risk of causing a scene).
Just outside Taroudant’s fortified walls, I began to pen my own musical as I walked through the ornate and lush grounds of La Gazelle d’Or, listed in Patricia Schultz’s book, 1,000 Places to See Before You Die. Part hotel, part orchard, part farm, and all Garden of Eden, La Gazelle d’Or dazzled my senses at first glance.
Once inside I was welcomed into a sanctuary of calm draped in decadence, Art Deco, and vases of fresh roses cut from the 250-acre estate. Strolling between the dining room, the pool, and my suite, I could hardly believe the scale of the property without walking to every corner. Occasionally, the far reaches of the relaxing resort came to me: the bowl of just-picked oranges sitting in my suite’s living room, the farm eggs served on my patio at breakfast, or the white horse grazing in front of my patio at dawn.
The final hideaway in my itinerary pulled me back to shore on a backcountry drive past grazing goats, rolling hills, and argan oil cooperatives. Essaouira is a magical and moody perch at the intersection of Morocco’s past and present. Within the age-old city walls, life teemed with the energy of a meeting place and medina wrapped into one. Outside its walls, a major fishing port gives way to a seemingly never-ending beach decorated with dunes, kite boarders, and camels.
At sunset I retreated into the warmth and time-tested luxury of Heure Bleue Palais hotel, built into Essaouira’s walls. Dressing for the occasion, I donned a cobalt frock to match the intricate yellow- and blue-tiled surroundings and sank into Morocco’s Moorish charms. Accompanied by a tumbler of Jack Daniel’s, I imagined Ernest Hemingway taking up residence in the hotel’s wood-paneled, leather-clad cocktail lounge. Suspended in the moment, my mind wandered back to Morocco’s mystique: After a week, I only had scratched the surface, but I knew I wanted much more.
Which Moroccan cities are on your must-visit list and why?