Find out how Africa's intriguing kingdom won over one mom and her toddler with its kid-friendliness, remarkable people, and endlessly fascinating culture.
Morocco is one of the most engaging and satisfying family destinations we know. The country’s timeless culture, enduring traditions, and chic French mannerisms combine for a stunning travel experience. To children, Morocco offers a land of contrasts. Avenues are crowded with Mercedes, horse-drawn carts, and the occasional camel. Moroccan kids in leggings or blue jeans are walked to school by veiled moms in caftans and babouches slippers. Children spend days at work, weaving rugs or hammering copper tajines (couscous pots), or reverently studying the Q’uran in centuries-old medrassah (Islamic schools).
When I was assigned to do a story on exotic Morocco for CondÃ© Nast Traveler, it seemed so far from our child-proof home that I was uneasy about traveling there with my 15 month-old son. In fact, the capital of Casablanca is quite near, only a 6½-hour, non-stop flight from New York City. I was intrigued by Bogart and Bacall’s film, but not enough to base my trip there. I knew that the modern beach resorts at Tangier or Agadir would be easiest with a toddler. But this was my story, so I followed my own interests, and begged Royal Air Maroc, “Take me to the Kasbah.”
Kasbah of Marrakech
In less than an hour’s flight from Casablanca, we landed in the dusty pink kasbah, or fortified city, of Marrakech. (Note: this is the French spelling, English-speakers often use Marrakesh but you won’t see street signs written that way.) My son, suddenly over his jet-lag grumpiness, played with a guest’s puppy in the plush, Art Deco lobby of the celebrated Hotel La Mamounia (212/24-388600) while I registered. He explored ornately-tiled fountains, nooks, and crannies in the fragrant gardens outside our room, igniting smiles from the grounds keepers. By the next morning, the entire hotel staff warmly greeted him with “Bonjour, Monsieur Regan!“
Marrakech has much to offer. Just steps from the city’s fortified walls a family of camels waited for hire. As much as he disliked the swaying motion of his 10-minute ride, Regan loved stroking the silken curls of Aazia, a 40-day-old camel cub about his mom’s height. And he was immediately comfortable with the huge horse and uniformed coachman who took us on a carriage tour through the city’s stone-walled Kasbah. Travelers with older children will want to stop in at the medina’s Ben Youssef Medersa (or medrassah, an Islamic school) and the El Bahia Palace, a 19th-century palace that will give everyone a feel for what it was like to attend the sultan and care for four wives and dozens of others in a harem.
During a day trip to the scenic Ourika Valley, our driver (arranged by the hotel’s concierge) stopped a passing shepherd so we could pet his flock of sheep. When we reached the weekly souk (market) in the baked clay village of Erghmat, a spirited, noisy donkey auction was in progress. My family found “pets” everywhere. Instead of being bored while I shopped for kilim rugs, Regan played with the carpet factory’s house tortoise who had just come out of hibernation.
Marrakech’s bustling square, the Jamaa El Fna, does boast agile acrobats and colorfully costumed theater groups, but it’s the trained monkeys and charmed snakes that intrigue children and terrify Moms. Fortunately, our ace guide A. Bouskri Mohammed simultaneously lectured and kept young touts away so that we could linger over many performances and shopping opportunities.
Ancient City of Fez
The ancient city of Fez was the next big adventure. I’d booked another sultan’s palace-turned-hotel, the Palais Jamai (212-35-63-43-31). In addition to its pool and traditional Arab decor, the high style translated to family-friendly. Days began at dawn, to the tune of the muezzin’s loud, hypnotic call to prayer broadcast from minarets all over Fez. After a visit with gardeners tending the hotel’s landscaped grounds, we headed to the buffet breakfast. Whereas the hotel in Marrakech had proper booster seats, at the Palais Jamai, maitre d’s prop up little diners on green and gold-embroidered satin cushions for morning juice and croissant.
Visiting children eat well in Morocco because of the large variety of fresh vegetables and grains served at typical meals. (The French ham or cheese baguette is widely served also.) The traditional restaurants in Fez El-Bali were a particular favorite of ours, because the low tables and cushioned banquettes enabled my son to slip away from his couscous and explore. As everywhere in Morocco, he could stray only a few steps before someone would stop to play with him, engage him in conversation, or pick him up for a quick hug.
More frequent was a kiss on both cheeks, a customary Arab blessing bestowed on young children. I soon became accustomed to the whoosh of air and rustle of fabric behind me, a sure sign that some passerby had stopped to kiss the blond baby in his backpack.
Around the Country
In Meknes, stunning historic monuments impress all ages. The sweeping arches of the Tomb of Moulay Ismail open one after another to reveal tiled courtyards and gurgling fountains whose serenity brought a sudden hush to all of us. Nearby, the overgrown Er Rouah Stables, which once housed 12,000 of the King’s men and 12,000 of his horses, provides an ideal playing field for energetic and noisy youngsters.
Another field popular for football and kite-flying is along the shore of Rabat’s Bou Regreg River. The Kasbah, with dramatic views over the Atlantic, is a short walk away, and beneath it, the very lovely Ouidaya Gardens. Everywhere, the scents, textures, and sounds of Morocco provided constant input for his inquisitive mind.
The return flight was the final adventure, one made much sweeter by the Royal Air Maroc stewardess who gave her own lunch to my son, who’d napped through the meal service. It was yet another reminder of just how special the Moroccan people’s extraordinary affection for children is. And through this unforgettable assignment, I’d found a country where our family can return again and again.
Morocco for All Ages
Infants, Toddlers & Preschoolers: Depending on season, combine the beach at Agadir (very modern) or Tangier (a more exotic port) with the souks of Marrakech and ancient Fez. An efficient infrastructure and superb hotels make this trip fun for even the fussiest traveler.
Kids 5- 10 Years: Consider a 2-3 week drive/fly tour encompassing a variety of unique sites. From the big but colorful city of Casablanca, drive to the capital of Rabat, Matisse’s many-colored beach at Tangier, the hill villages at Tetouan and Chechaoeun, to Fez, the archeological sites at Meknes (including Volubilis), to Er Rachidia and Erfoud (oases and markets), past the desert town at Ouarzazate (where Lawrence of Arabia was filmed) to Zagora (then onto the Sahara), through elegant Taroudant (stay at the famed Gazelle d’Or), to Agadir, then inland to magical Marrakech.
Kids 12+: Follow either itinerary above, then allow 3-4 days for a jeep safari, originating from Erfoud or Ouarzazate/Zagora, to follow the nomadic Blue People of the Sahara to their hidden oases. Tour operators can organize this from abroad or in Morocco.
A portable child carrier is essential in the old souks, where the exciting flow of freight-laden donkeys makes it too dangerous for young children to walk alone or be pushed in a low stroller. Moroccan mothers also carry children on their backs, but in wrapped scarves — much simpler than my gear!
You won’t need many supplies, because shops in the local souk sell infant formulas, Babidou disposable diapers, and other essentials of toddler life. European sunblock and toiletries are widely available — but expensive.
Bottled water and fresh-squeezed orange juice are plentiful. Juice boxes in other flavors might be handy. Bring zip-loc bags and plastic containers to keep snacks and small souvenirs.
Arabic and Tamazight (a Berber language) are the most common languages, but your kids will enjoy practicing their French (widely spoken and taught in schools). Spanish and English are also common.
Contact your travel agent, or the Morocco National Tourist Office (in New York at 212/557-2520); in Orlando, where the Moroccans have a large presence at Disney’s Epcot theme park, at 407/827-5337; or in Montreal at 514/842-8111). Other useful websites for research are www.morocco.com and the government site, www.mincom.gov.ma.
In terms of personal safety, the streets of Morocco are considered secure, but families should watch valuables in crowded medinas and other tourist sites. Sightseeing with a licensed guide (arranged through your hotel concierge) is also recommended to keep the sometimes troublesome touts and carpet salesmen away. Because of acts of terrorism by Islamic extremists experienced in Casablanca in recent years, families should keep informed of the latest travel advisories at the Dept. of State site; travel insurance is a very good investment as well.
The country’s top hotels are extraordinary and Marrakech, in particular, has become so fashionable a destination that the tourist office says there are about 300 restored riads (small, walled compounds) that have become B&Bs. The Hotels & Riads Agency handles many elegant properties in and around the Medina and the fashionable Palmeraie district; US$200-US$350/N is not uncommon for a room and breakfast. The Moroccan National Tourist Office can recommend other choices in several budget ranges.
We highly recommend the services of an excellent English-speaking guide and driver, Asfalou Lahcen (simple called LAH-sen), who came from Maroc A La Carte; contact him at +212 (0) 62 45 40 37 (cell) or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Additionally, Royal Air Maroc (800/344-6726) and Air France Vacations (800/237-2747) arrange great budget packages with fine tourist class lodging, and Morocco is surprisingly inexpensive for such a stylish country. Current for 2010, 9 dirham = US$1. Don t spend everything; dirham are very picturesque souvenirs. Note: It’s easy to get a charge card advance at local banks.
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