Introduction: The Last Trip (For Now)

Filed Under: reviews

I’ve been sitting on this trip report for three months now (where have three months gone?) because it just hasn’t felt like the right time to talk about travel details, and this particular trip was odd from the start.

This trip took place in early March, right at the start of this Pernicious Meantime we are all living in, and can only be relayed through that lens.

We are all familiar with the Before, and eventually there will be an After, but with the combination of being abroad, along with the trickle of news and the time zone we were in, every bit of this trip was imbued with the sense of being on the lift hill of a roller coaster, slowly ratcheting up into something unknowingly different. It was incredibly surreal, and I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to think about this trip outside the context of feeling the world pivot and change.

Knowing what we know now, would I still have taken a trip to Morocco when I did? No. I’d been working under the assumption that everywhere had some element of risk for a few weeks by then, whether that was a country with an ostensibly low case count or the local movie theater, and was taking what felt like reasonable precautions given the information we had at the time.

But things changed so rapidly that week. Ben started social distancing on the Friday I flew back. Airports were packed with people trying to buy tickets to somewhere, anywhere. I spent the transatlantic flight combing through news reports, journals, and other resources to summarize the situation for travelers, and building a coronavirus landing page so we’d have somewhere to collate what was becoming increasingly apparent would be a tremendous amount of information on the impact to the travel and aviation industries. By Tuesday it felt ridiculous for anyone to be traveling, and we were putting our efforts in to helping others get home. All in a span of eight, maybe nine days.

So as I talk about riads, navigating the Medina, comparing hammams, and rooftop dinners, I’ll try to stretch the perspective as much as possible. But I fully acknowledge that this snapshotted moment may not be relevant to anyone soon, or possibly ever.

Still, I’m sure I’m not the only one who could use a brief departure from ::waves generally:: and the cumin-dusted alleyways of Marrakech provide as good of an escape as any.

Anyway. Onwards.

A quick getaway to Morocco

Let me start by outlining a scenario that has been totally reasonable for over a decade of my life, and is currently borderline unimaginable:

I had to be in Washington D.C. for a conference through Sunday evening, and needed to be in Philadelphia for another conference the following Friday night. Going back to Spokane felt impractical (it would have taken all of Monday to get home, and all of Thursday to fly back across the country).

I would generally take an opportunity like this to see Ben in Miami, or squeeze in some New York meetings, but timing was such that those trips flanked this one anyway. And the long Northwest winters always leave me looking for sunny destinations in March.

So after looking at flight schedules, and the long connections or overnights that would be required to visit the Caribbean, or other ostensibly closer places, Morocco — with a direct late-night flight to Casablanca from Dulles — became the obvious option.

I invited my cousin Heather to meet me in DC and join the four-night jaunt. We considered staying in Casablanca, but with easy connections to Marrakech on both sides, decided we might as well continue on.

I booked our outbound flights on Royal Air Maroc, using 56,000 Etihad Guest points each for the business class tickets:

8 March | Royal Air Maroc 219 Washington Dulles (IAD) to Casablanca (CMN) departing at 10:15PM, arriving 10:20AM (+1 day) [787 “bunkbed” seats]
9 March | Royal Air Maroc 403 Casablanca (CMN) to Marrakech (RAK) departing at 12:00PM, arriving 12:50PM

Award availability was incredibly limited on the return, especially given that we had to travel on a fixed date, and at such a time that I could get to Philadelphia that night. The best option ended up being purchasing one-way tickets on TAP through the Amex International Airline Program. The business class tickets would have been $1250 each, but factoring in the 35% Pay With Points rebate through the Amex Business Platinum, they were 81,250 Membership Rewards each.

That’s roughly the same as if we’d booked through Aeroplan (which, granted, doesn’t have the best prices for Northern Africa), but there’s always a balance between price and flexibility. On the plus side we earned miles too, and 137,000 miles round-trip for business class is perfectly reasonable in my book these days.

13 March | TAP Portugal 1451 Marrakech (RAK) to Lisbon (LIS) departing at 12:45PM, arriving at 1:25PM
13 March | TAP Portugal 209 Lisbon (LIS) to New York (JFK) departing at 4:00PM, arriving at 8:00PM [A330-900neo]

This was to be paired with a carefully-timed series of trams and trains to Penn Station, and then Amtrak down to Philadelphia, which would have been a great adventure, and a solid use of my Amtrak Rewards, but…obviously none of that happened, and we just bought tickets on Delta back to Spokane from New York.

Where to stay in Marrakech

I could write a few thousand words on this (and many people have), but I think for this post it’s more useful to speak about options more broadly.

Without getting too deep into a history lesson, one of the hallmarks of French Imperialism in Morocco (and other countries) was the approach to urban planning. Spaces were preserved, divided, or developed as part of an overall strategy of control (and exploitation), with “modernization” efforts that were rarely of equal benefit to the local population versus French colonists. These preservation decrees and restrictions on improvements are still reflected in present-day Marrakech, so it’s an important bit of background.

The Medina

As the French were interested in “preserving” the “historic” city for both large-scale tourism and providing a contrast to the new and “enlightened” European quarter, heavy restrictions were placed on the medina during the protectorate period. Plans for a modern subway system were abandoned, and construction codes were revised to prevent blights like power lines, but did little to address overcrowding or local living conditions.

The side-effects of that era are reflected in the current medina. On the one hand, it’s picturesque and feels trapped in time. On the other, it’s inorganically stuck in a very colonial perspective of what “orient culture” should look like, versus what it may have evolved to authentically.

I have complicated feelings about Marrakech’s medina in general, which I might talk about more later in the series, but I am glad we stayed here, and I’d recommend that you do as well, at least for a night.

Walking through the maze of alleyways early in the morning was lovely, and something that would be hard to experience if you stayed outside the medina. And I don’t think you’d really get the thrum of the city in the same way if you just taxi’d in to the main square for an evening as you do when wandering around (pros and cons to that too).

The typical accommodation in the medina is a riad — a walled house with a courtyard. There are hundreds of these, at every price point, and with a variety of amenities. I’ll do a review of the one we stayed at, of course, but as most riads have fewer than a dozen rooms, there’s a huge range of options.

There are also a handful of boutique hotels, which might be a good alternative for those wanting a bit more infrastructure while still being close-in. But I’d suggest a riad, regardless of which neighborhood you choose.

Les villes nouvelle / The new city

This is probably the Goldilocks option — close to the medina, but with broad streets rather than warren-like alleyways, easier access to taxis, and large hotels with all the amenities. I do think it’s worth staying in the medina for the experience, but, having now done that once, I’d stay in the new city next time.

Again, there’s a range of options, from the historic La Mamounia to the opulent Royal Mansour (both bookable through Virtuoso and FHR!), along with numerous boutique properties, and some bigger chain hotels (a Sofitel, a Le Meridien, a Radisson Blu, Movenpick, etc.).

The Four Seasons is sorta adjacent to all this, and probably a good choice if you want a bigger resort that is still in walking distance to things, given the pricing is much more reasonable than the Royal Mansour, and is a bit more updated than La Mamounia (though the latter is undergoing a renovation this year).

The Palmeraie / Marrakech outskirts 

If you are coming to Morocco just to enjoy the sun, golf, sit poolside, and maybe have a tangine, staying at one of the large resorts on the perimeter of the city is…probably fine?

If you’re coming from Europe or the East Coast of the US it’s certainly convenient for a getaway, but given that even the Aman is situated like it’s a gated community’s clubhouse, golfing seems to be the priority for those staying on the perimeter of the city. We took a day to spend by the pool, and it was nice for that, but this area wouldn’t be my first (or second) pick for enjoying Marrakech, even though some of the hotels look incredible. You’d really be staying out here for the resort amenities (which is sometimes what we want out of a trip).

This was a quick trip, and an odd one. If I’d known it would be be months or years until my next international trip, would I have chosen to spend it all in Marrakech? Probably not. But if I’d known then what we know now, we probably wouldn’t have gone at all. And the time we spent in Marrakech further inspired me to spend more time in Morocco itself (I’m particularly interested in a trip to the mountains).

I definitely plan on reviewing our riad, and some of the activities we enjoyed, but if there’s anything in particular you’d like to know about please let me know! And thanks as always for following along!

  1. I’m guessing that conference in DC early March was FTU DC? I recall seeing one participant wearing an N95 mask and hoped he was ok. Back then wearing masks was discouraged unless one was sick. Knowing what I know now, however, all of us should have been wearing a facial covering!
    Looking forward to hear more about your Morocco trip!

  2. Trip reports from Tiffany are always a treat! I love your thought process: What do I do with 5 days in DC? Oh yeah let’s go to Morocco. Can’t wait to read the report.

  3. Marrakech, the worst place i’ve ever been. There are marvelous place like the El Badi Palace, but the Medina… what a s___hole. Even in the middle of the day is full of beggars, scammers, polluting motorbikes driving fast through the alleys. I’ve even been insulted just for walking and being a tourist. Riads can look good on Instagram, but for your own sanity please stay away from the medina. The new city can be a better option if you want to see the few good things that the city has to offer.

  4. I’ll be interested to hear of your experience there. I was in Morocco in 2008 and it was okay. There are a lot of great things to see there, but everything is very very spread out. Good thing you avoided Casablanca. It’s a dump with nothing to see. Though Marrakech was okay, my favorite things there were Fez and the town of Meknes nearby, some of the sights in Rabat, and the mountains, as you rightly suggest. Ouazazarte is an intriguing stop, and the Atlas Mountains/ doing a homestay up there was impressive. WE stayed in a riad in Marrakech and didnt love it. I did like seeing the Yves St Laurent house in Medina (cant remember the official name, but it’s worthwhile). I thought the medina and the big square were okay but even in 2008 I felt like a target as a tourist for scammers, etc. I’m glad I went to Morocco, but just be aware that the distances are vast and take some time to get to the various places. Next time check out Fez/Meknes, as well as the mountains. Skip Casablanca (the mosque there is the only thing worth seeing) and then maybe even skip Marrakech unless you havent seen the yves st laurent house or if you want to try one of those resorts you mention. I’d stay at La Mamounia if the budget allowed.

  5. Great report! How I miss these. Your description of the airport scene of people trying to get anywhere and somewhere was exactly what I felt on February 28th connecting at JFK after returning from Europe. It felt like that scene in the movie Casablanca with last train leaving Paris as the Nazi’s were moving on the city.

    About twenty years ago I visited the Medina area with a local and I’m curious to hear your next installment on what it’s like today.

  6. Your preamble sums up the feeling that first week of March so perfectly. I was also on vacation that week outside the US (a trip I’d been planning for a long time and highly anticipating) and my memory of it will always be colored by the steadily-increasing drumbeat of frightening news. We were in the UK, and every day we woke up and the news from Italy seemed to be getting worse. I had a fantastic trip, but in my mind it will always be linked to the sense of unease that hung over us, particularly during the latter part of the week.

  7. Unrelated to the trip report: I didn’t know you lived in Spokane (or nearby). I lived in Hillyard for several years, and also in Cheney.

  8. Yes, Fez and Meknes are more ‘real’ than Marrakesh, which has been spoiled by overtourism and ultrarich foreigners buying ‘picturesque’ homes. If I were to visit Morocco again I would skip Marrakesh.

  9. Marrakech and the medina are great first thing in the morning and last thing in the evening both before anywhere is open, and after all the tourists have departed.

    Marriott have an absolutely fabulous place in the medina, AnaYela – 4 wonderful bedrooms (yes, 4) and stupendous service from the manager and staff (and even down to a providing you a cellphone while you’re there). And it’s not expensive on points – only a Cat 4.

    The medina is great during the rest of the day if you avoid all the primary areas for tourists and go instead to the parts of the medina where the locals live and work.

    Lastly, I cannot finish without giving huge praise for the work of the Amal training center and restaurant, which is dedicated to the empowerment of disadvantaged women ( and which does some of the best food anywhere in Morocco (their tagines are sublime)

  10. I have to admit, I just do not have an overwhelming desire to visit Morocco. No offense, every traveler has their bucket lists…..this one is just not on mine.

  11. I loved Marrakech both times I was there, but it’s a place that was clearly changing rapidly (that over-tourism thing you mentioned).

    Agree completely with others that Casablanca is to be avoided (nothing there). Fez, Meknes, the High Atlas Mountains and beyond, that’s where the good stuff starts. Still, I think Marrakech is worth anyone’s time for at least a couple days. I found the Medina fascinating and a great experience (though the Medina in Fes was better, both seemed worthwhile).

    What a shame (and what a mistake) that you only went for a couple days – that’s crazy.

    Back when I was paying real money for flights, I set some personal minimum trip times: I wouldn’t go to Europe for less than 10 full days on the ground (2 weeks was my preferred minimum). To Asia, my minimum was 3 weeks. I figured it just wasn’t worth the money – and my time – to go that far away and only spend such a short time.

    Yeah, I get it that when using points, the flights feel (and kinda are) essentially free, but your time — and your opportunity to go anyplace — are not unlimited. Even with “free” flights I think it’s foolish to treat any trip to a far-away place as disposable. Now you will tell yourself that you’ve “been to Morocco” and will you ever go again, and see the more interesting parts of the country? Maybe, but it will be harder to convince yourself to do that – there are too many other places in the world will tug at you.

    Good for you for getting out and trying a bit of North Africa, but…going all that way, you only had what, two full days there (the first of which you’re gonna be jetlagged, the second of which you choose to spend poolside…?)…not what I would consider a good use of my time or points. But to each to their own.

    Next time, suggest you get out of the bubble and see some of the country…it’s a fascinating place with lots to see and do.

  12. Always love your reports. I guess I am a contrarian. I canceled a big International trip (thanks to you, I had great first class awards!) I had planned for mid-end of February through early March back in January 20th . What I read was happening in Wuhan then was too frightening. However since end of March when more reliable data became available, such as the data from the Diamond Princess, my concern ratcheted down and remains so. If nursing home data is removed, then Covid19 is scary, but not scary as I thought it would be when I read the craziness happening in January in Wuhan. I am hopeful things will be much more back to normal in the later summer than they are now.

  13. You captured Marrakech very well Tiffany. Like others, I highly recommend going to the High Atlas mountains. Also, Rabat, Fez and oddly enough, Tangier. I say Tangier because it is like having an out of body experience. You will probably hate it yet still enjoy it. You certainly will not forget it. Like worlds colliding. Crazy town.

    Thanks for the great writing skills, I always enjoy reading your work!

  14. Morocco is beautiful and historic but the conmen and touts are something I’ve never seen in over seventy countries. Not even close. There is really nothing to see in Casa but it’s the only place where I found any peace while out and about. Walking around Fez, Marrakech and especially Tangier, no sooner did you shake one tout there were another dozen on your tail. It is thoroughly out of hand. Tiffany did it right and visited the Medinas early in the morning. Any other time of day and the ancient, narrow passageways are clogged with motorbikes and exhaust.

    I’m not much for tour packages but I was told by an American woman traveling the Maghreb by herself that they’re the way to go there. She said Morocco can be a real P-I-T-A but has nothing on Egypt. With a tour, the guides will run interference with the touts and the touts have little to offer you since it’s assumed your lodging , meals and itinerary are already figured out.

    I want to go back as it is beautiful and interesting but will buy a holiday package. Also, I never made it into the desert which looks like an experience that shouldn’t be missed. I look forward to the rest of the report!

  15. I went to Marrakech with my best friend in 1990. Rule #1 was to hire a local guide if you want to walk around the Medina. There were dozens of guys touting their services in the main square. We picked one based on his English skills and if I’m being honest his looks. Of course we ended up visiting some stores at the end but we had an amazing trouble-free day.

  16. Tiffany: So glad you are back and safe. Being part of Ben’s little family, in times like these, we worry about each other. We too were caught abroad in the Beforetimes (Argentinian Patagonia). Borders closing around us, packed airports, over-full flights…really not sure if we were going to be stuck down there for 30, 60, 90 or more days was about as stressed as I’ve ever been, whether traveling or not. Not sure what we were coming home to either. It hit home when our plane approached LAX on a weekday morning 7:00a and all the freeways were empty. The world had changed.

  17. Voice Of Experience Here: Rule #0 is that nobody needs a “guide” to explore the medina. Nobody. That’s laughable. There’s nothing scary in there. No terrorists hiding behind a camel waiting to jump out and get you. No evil genie gonna take you away and sell you into white slavery. It’s an old neighborhood in an old city – and an interesting one that anyone with half a brain can easily manage. That’s all. There are nice people who live in there, friendly shopkeepers, plenty of other lost tourists. It’s a city. BFD. Yes, the streets are narrow, twisty and maze-like. That’s the fun of being in there! You get lost easily? Boo hoo. Just keep wandering, soon enough you will recognize landmarks that you have walked by before once or twice. Keep wandering, and you will pop out into the three-hundred-ring circus that’s going on in the main square.

    If you have enough common sense to wander around any large city without getting into trouble, then you’ll have no trouble in Marrakech’s medina. The touts hanging out around the medina gates will of course do their best to convince you that you will immediately perish if you dare enter without them. Of course they want you to think that. They’re looking for suckers they can lead to a carpet shop their uncle owns.

    If your goal is to pay too much for a carpet and lug it around Morocco before you finally head home, then by all means, hire a “guide” to help you. Maybe they can carry your new carpet for a little while. If not, then save your money. Ignore all the touts (you know, that’s really basic good advice everywhere)‚ walk confidently into the medina, and go have some fun wandering. You don’t need no steenking guide.

  18. I won’t really say the four seasons is in walking distance to any thing other than a big water reservoir, though it’s a fine resort.

  19. That first week in March…that resonates, I was in Asia at the time (HK, Singapore, KL) and it was so surreal as the restrictions and changes hadn’t hit Australia then. I came home for three days then headed back to Indonesia, and everything changed so rapidly. I knew I was heading home to isolation, so was basically following the new developments every day, but trying my best to just enjoy being able to go out and do anything normal…

    As for Morocco, it’s been a fair while since I was there (2011), I didn’t mind it but my OH hated it with a passion, mostly because of the constant hassling by the locals (she didn’t feel safe). I didn’t feel unsafe, it was annoying but part of what I knew to expect, but the constant scams and trying to extract money from you (bloke coming up to you and introducing himself “ah I recognise you from the hotel”…yeah, righto) sort of thing. I can’t remember the name of the place we stayed in, but that was a walled courtyard place from memory and was quite nice, the staff were lovely and the room was big and comfortable.

  20. @Bupkiss:
    Your first post put up a false equivalence of going somewhere for 2-3 weeks vs going somewhere for 4 days and staying “in a bubble”

    That wasn’t the option
    It was go somewhere for 4 days or not at all.

    Tiffany has already said that this trip inspired her to go back and visit other parts. In direct contrast to your assertion that she “will tell [herself] that [she] has been to Morocco” and now won’t go back

    Many/Most of us don’t have the luxury of 2-3 week vacations. We take what we can get.

    So I’d rather go to Vietnam for 9 days, Sydney for 10 days, and even Marrakech for 4 days… than not go at all

    And then if it felt “right” I can go back in the future

    So for instance, we did Saigon, Hue, and Hoi An over 8 days (not including flight).

    We will do Hanoi and Hmong Villages up north next time over 8 days
    A few years after that we will do Mekong Delta over 8 days

    We did the same with France
    1 week in Paris
    1 week in small town in Provence
    1 week in Lyon/Bordeaux

    Would 3 weeks be awesome. Yeah. But can’t do that.

  21. Can’t wait for your Riad report as I booked a real cheapie ticket with Easyjet for a 3 night stay In Feb., but haven’t decided where to stay yet.

  22. @ Joey — Yep! I also had a high-level DOT employee tell me that weekend that I was being ridiculous for not shaking hands…I’d love to know how he felt a week later.

  23. @ Dick Bupkiss — The challenge is that there’s no upper bound on the amount of time someone “could” spend somewhere. I can confidently say that you can’t really fully experience Sicily unless you spend a minimum of seven months there, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go for any amount of time that is available to you.

    The flight from DC to Casablanca was only ~7 hours, and the short connection to Marrakech meant that the full travel time was significantly less than it would normally take for me to get from my house to New York, Boston, or Miami. If I said I was going to those cities (or if someone from the east coast was going to London or Paris) for a long weekend, you wouldn’t think it was crazy, and there would be numerous “3 perfect days in ____” guides. Why is a city in Northern Africa different?

    The time was a sunk cost, and I feel like I made the most of it — it was a vastly better choice than spending the week in DC (where I lived for three years), or having $35 cocktails by a South Beach pool. And I went into the trip knowing that I was “going to Marrakech” not “visiting Morocco”. We got exactly what we wanted out of the trip.

    I know I don’t write nearly as much as Ben does, but this is very much how I travel. Cramming in quick trips is what has enabled me to go anywhere — I don’t get jetlag, and have far too many responsibilities to set a minimum threshold of “weeks” to see a new place — and I do return to cities and countries repeatedly. I’d been to Cairo a half-dozen times before bringing my family on a longer trip to Egypt, my Dad jokes that I’m in London as often as he’s in Costco, etc. My time is absolutely not unlimited (no one is more aware of that than me), and this is how I like to spend it when I can.

  24. my tip for the medina,

    dress in levis and nikes and get bugged and harassed by every vendor
    buy and wear a “muslim man dress” and head covering and NO ONE will bother you!

  25. I am overjoyed to see a new trip report written by you, Tiffany. I expect we are all in a state of greater general emotional lability right now, but I found myself momentarily overcome and felt a little silly. Still, I have to congratulate you. I’ve been paying particular attention to the language used to describe the pandemic by writers and corporations. “Pernicious Meantime,” is hands down the cleverest and most meaningful epithet I’ve encountered so far!

  26. @Tiffany – looking forward to reading your report. But what is it do that keeps you so busy so that it is impossible to take a week off? I’ve been trying to understand that through the years but honestly can’t figure it out. I use to do 3-4 day Europe trips and think that was fine, but now if I’m going to Europe I’d like it to be a week, and Asia 10 days. Then I feel like I really get into it. to each their own.
    On an aside, somebody mentioned something about going to Sydney for 10 days? That sounds crazy. Overrated city/ overrated country.

  27. @ guesswho2000 — Yeah, the hassling and harassment may just be a feature, or at least doesn’t sound like it has changed. In 36 states and 78 countries this was one of a handful of times I’ve felt actively unsafe, but during the day it was just annoying, as you say.

  28. @Tiffany: I love this turn of phrase: Pernicious Meantime. I think I’m going to have to steal that!

  29. @ Jason — I’m so sorry! I thought I’d answered this when you asked a few years back (after the Sheraton MLE review), but I see now that I didn’t. Apologies!

    Mainly, I try and keep up with Ben 😉 In broad terms, I handle the business side of this operation, for both the blog and PointsPros. We run extremely lean given what we do, and having a large Internet property requires constant attention, so… we both work a lot. We were getting closer to a reality where weeks off could be a thing for one or the other of us, but now we’re in a pandemic, so it will be awhile longer.

  30. @tiffany – thanks for the explanation! Looking forward to hearing about your trip as I always enjoy your takes on things. I posted my thoughts on Morocco above. Also- I was in Vietnam in February- second trip there. Loved reading your report on Vietnam and stayed at a great place in phu quoc (Salinda Resort) that was much more ready for prime time thAn where you stayed. But agree that the island has a long way to go. 100% agree with you on Hoi An. Love it for what it is. Keep it up!

  31. What a fantastic read. Thanks Tiffany. I flew to London from Melbourne (OZ) once for a 4 day weekend just for a rave party.

  32. For me, Marrakech was overrated. I don’t need to be constantly hassled, lied to, pick pocketed, etc.

    I did enjoy the train from Casablanca to Marrakech, though the moonscape isn’t very different.

    Carry on luggage ONLY into Morocco, you’ve been warned. (Pilfered, delayed or lost, otherwise.)

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