By Jennifer Bain
What happens when a do-it-yourselfer lets go and outsources travel plans? When my oldest daughter wanted to visit Morocco and I was too busy to properly plan a first trip to Africa, I cautiously turned to G Adventures for help.
The adventure travel pioneer has a Canadian founder — Bruce Poon Tip — and promises an “intimate, authentic and sustainable” approach to small-group travel. Here’s why we let them guide us on a fast-paced trip from Casablanca to Marrakech.
To ride camels
Let’s skip straight to the desert camel ride because it’s the coveted experience. It happened on day four of our eight-day Morocco Kasbahs & Desert tour after a long drive from Fes to Merzouga, the gateway to the Erg Chebbi sand dunes and Sahara Desert. With our heads wrapped in scarves to fend off blowing sand, we rode camels (technically one-humped dromedaries, or Arabian camels) to a tented Berber camp. It’s actually hard to climb a sand dune because you sink in the sand and it’s too hot to go barefoot. Nights are downright cold but getting up to quietly await the desert sunrise is magical. This was all done through Hotel Yasmina in Merzouga, which provides luggage lockers plus showers and breakfast when you return from your overnight camel trek.
To visit a stunning mosque
Lucy and I flew to Casablanca a day before the group trip started to acclimatize to the time change and do some solo explorations. Staff at the Moroccan House Hotel hooked us up with Karim Rady, a private guide and driver who gave us a solid grounding in local culture — everything from religion and agriculture to food and drink. “Mint tea is our Moroccan whisky, without alcohol,” he advised. The busy city’s crown jewel is the Hassan II Mosque, which claims to be Africa’s largest mosque. It can hold 25,000 worshippers and boasts a sliding roof that opens for feasts, ceremonies and relief from the heat. Some 200 people work to clean and repair the mosque every day. You can only get in on a guided tour, but your fees make the mosque self-sufficient.
To go off itinerary
Once our guide Issam El Hadri (G calls them CEOs, or chief experience officers) gauged the temperament of our group, he made occasional suggestions to deviate from the itinerary. Those who wanted wine or beer got it (alcohol is “illegal but tolerated” in Morocco and small “bottle shops” sell it). On route to Todra Gorge, we choose a last-minute lunch in a family home instead of a restaurant and feasted on incredible vegetables and sweet vermicelli with peanuts, cinnamon and icing sugar. Afterwards, we walked through farmers’ fields to see local crops.
To see how leather is tanned
Get lost in Fes medina’s maze of alleys for discoveries at every turn. We feasted on kebabs and vegetable tajines at Berrada Family Restaurant and watched weavers work hand looms. But the most unique pitstop was at a tannery where we climbed up to the roof to look over enormous vats of natural dyes. We learned that the ammonia in pigeon poop helps soften cow, camel, goat and sheep leather. “People send us pigeon waste and we can send you a leather jacket,” quipped one tannery worker. I didn’t leave with a leather jacket, but I did nab a gorgeous orange purse.
To smell the (pink) roses
Between the sand dunes and Marrakech we drove through a pink-hued and perfumed land known as Rose Valley. Shops in Kalaat M’gouna are filled with rose-scented soaps, lotions, rose water and potpourri. “There’s a lot of pink in this valley — I think it would be heaven for Barbie,” joked our guide, who bought a large heart made of rose petals and then hung it up in the van as an air freshener.
To share a community meal
I haven’t made it yet, but I treasure the Onion Sauce Chicken recipe I got at a home-cooked Moroccan lunch in M’Haya created by the Association of Rural Women and Children (AFER). The group partners with G Adventures on these community lunches to create income for rural women so they can leave difficult family and relationship situations. Our meal revolved around chicken, with a stunning saffron-lemon sauce, but included an Arabic lesson and a chat about how the partnership has helped the non-profit tackle health issues, job training and illiteracy.