Spending a Week in Morocco in Winter
Morocco in January
Bunny has rarely taken holidays in January although this is the prime time for great hotel discounts, cheap flights and fewer people. In other words: just her thing.
Last year, she decided to finally get down to Morocco which had been on her travel radar for many years. She fancied the look of the many gorgeous Riads in Marrakech, enjoying some quiet time in the desert, eating exotic food and the possibility of catching some winter sun.
Having grabbed a direct Austrian Airlines flight from Vienna to Marrakech at a great price, she turned her attention to potential hotels. La Mamounia was on her bucket list, but it didn’t quite feel right for this trip. Another interesting option that caught her attention was Richard Branson’s Kasbah Tamadot but she was not sure staying in the mountains would be such a great experience in January…
When she read about the Erg Chigaga Luxury Desert Camp in the Lonely Planet Morocco guide, she was immediately sold. Her e-mail exchanges with the camp co-owner Nick further convinced her that she should, indeed, combine her Marrakech experience with an extended stay in the desert. That way, she would get to enjoy not only the luxurious Riad side of the country, but also the intriguing Sahara and some of the “real Morocco” that lay between those two experiences.
Below is a day-by-day recap of Bunny’s week of wintery fun in Morocco.
Bunny’s Itinerary in Morocco
Day 1: Marrakech Riad Luxury and Jemaa el-Fnaa Madness
Bunny landed in Marrakech around lunch time. She had visions of a quick getaway to the hotel, followed by a delicious lunch on a sunny terrace. The airport gods decided otherwise. After landing, she quickly realized that this would be a Central Asian type of airport experience. Excruciatingly slow.
After battling the crowds and the airport staff for a good while, Bunny finally emerged in the Moroccan sun and met her driver outside the airport. Bunny's mood further improved when she arrived at her chosen abode for the first night in Marrakech.
La Sultana offered a very warm welcome, accompanied with a cup of tasty almond milk and a delicious walnut-stuffed date. The Bunnies’ first dose of sweet Moroccan mint tea soon followed, served in a gorgeous room with a lit fireplace in the corner. Then it was time for a tour of the hotel which was everything you can expect from a luxury Riad: gorgeous, exclusive and traditional - all at the same time.
When the tour ended at a luxurious salon, Mr. Bunny didn't quite realize where he was: this was, in fact, the hotel room in which the Bunnies were staying. That gave Bunny some giggles (it is always satisfying to laugh at Mr. Bunny’s expense).
The room (Dromadaire) was very spacious and luxurious, particularly the palatial bathroom, with gold-plated faucets and a bathtub encircled by ornate marble pillars. Not exactly Scandinavian chic but fabulous nonetheless. The ever-critical Mr. Bunny noted that the towels were a bit threadbare, not the kind of thick and fluffy variety you would expect from a luxury establishment, but Bunny was in hotel heaven.
After settling in, the Bunnies decided to head out to the infamous Jemaa el-Fnaa square. What a mad place it was! The place was full of hawkers, entertainers, snake charmers, captive wildlife, exotic smells and hustle and bustle at every corner. If you didn’t want to part with your money, it was best not to look at anyone or make eye contact with anyone. Bunny felt very sorry for the captive monkeys and gave a wide berth to the snakes, basically minding own business and keeping her head down at all times. Jemaa el-Fnaa is not what Bunny would call a relaxing place.
She did persist though and had a light lunch on the terrace of Café Argana on the square. The food was nothing remarkable but at least she could sit on the terrace and observe the action in peace from a comfortable distance. Only later did Bunny learn that the café had been the scene of the 2011 terrorist attack in Marrakech. Never mind.
Afterwards, Bunny decided to check the local markets and indulge in some souk action. She quickly realised that it was not for her. She hates crowds, bargaining and hassle and that is basically what the souk experience boils down to. It is nice to observe for a bit but exhausting in the long run, Bunny says.
More her cup of tea was the Royal Hammam treatment Bunny reserved for herself and Mr. Bunny at La Sultana that afternoon. While the scrub was a bit more vigorous than she had anticipated, the spa itself earned full marks from Bunny. It was an opulent and ornate space, with a gorgeous heated pool and a functioning fireplace which gave the lounge a nice golden glow.
Bunny had also reserved dinner at La Sultana. The setting for dinner was beside the beautiful outdoor pool at dusk. Bunny was pleasantly surprised by the vegetarian options available, which included Harira soup, a selection of Moroccan salads and a delicious mushroom risotto. Bunny also had her very first taste of Moroccan wine which she wholeheartedly approved of. The impeccable service, beautiful surroundings and soft sounds played by a local musician completed the romantic atmosphere. Bunny will keep the details of later that evening to herself.
Day 2: Driving Across the Atlas Mountains
The next morning dawned a bit chaotic. Mr. Bunny (bless him) managed to jam the hotel room safe shut and the repair man was slow to arrive. When the service at breakfast turned out to be equally slow, Bunny started to worry about being awfully late for their next transportation pick-up.
For the days to follow, the Bunnies had opted for a 5-day package offered by the Erg Chigaga Luxury Desert Camp. This included a drive across the High Atlas Mountains, staying in a remote guest house for the first night, followed by three nights with activities in the desert camp itself, and ending with a 9-hour drive back to Marrakech, partly via a different route, on the fifth day.
After successfully checking out from La Sultana, the Bunnies met their driver, Mohamed, who was wearing traditional Moroccan garb including a headscarf, and started their expedition into the mountains.
There was amazing mountain scenery along the way and, surprisingly, also lots of snow! In addition, it was freezing cold. Every time Bunny asked Mohamed to stop for pictures (and this was often), Mr. Bunny was muttering something about needing long underwear… It really was that cold.
You don’t really feel you’re in Africa when you are covered in snow and freezing your ass off every time you leave the car. But the Bunnies learned that the road had actually been closed two days earlier due to snow, so they were actually rather lucky to be able to pass without incident.
The highest point on the driving route was the Tizi n'Tichka pass at 2260m. Just before that, the Bunnies stopped at cafe Aguelmous for a nice Moroccan lunch. Berber omelettes, bread, olives and the sweet mint tea tasted particularly good on the sunny patio, while breathing the fresh mountain air.
After lunch, the drive took Bunny past some more Berber villages, verdant valleys, winding roads and lots of truck traffic on the narrow passes. The Bunnies also drove past Morocco's Hollywood studios near Quarzazate and a number of locations where films such as Gladiator and Babel had been shot. Bunny still hasn’t seen these films but she was told that Morocco’s Hollywood studios were actually quite a big deal in the movie business. Her ears only piqued when she learned that part of the Sex and the City 2 movie was also filmed in Morocco…
In the early evening, the Bunnies finally arrived at their accommodation: Kasbah Azul, a lovely guest house in the Draa valley. At the guest house, an excellent dinner, with some Moroccan red wine, and, much to the delight of Mr. Bunny, a sweet dessert, was waiting for them.
The Bunnies’ brightly-coloured room was comfortable but a bit chilly at night, despite the heater. In the morning, the Bunnies concluded that Kasbah Azul must be absolutely delightful in warmer months, when you can use the outdoor pool and enjoy the lovely gardens and its blooming fruit trees.
Day 3: More Driving and Arrival at the Desert Camp
The drive on the second day gradually became more and more exotic. The first break was at Tamnougalt where the Bunnies took a tour of the kasbah with a local guide. It was very quiet, the Bunnies were practically the only tourists there, and the atmosphere was mesmerising. It was nice to break up the driving for a bit and Bunny felt quite privileged to be hopping around the old empty fortress.
Back on the road, the scenery started changing the closer Bunny got to the camp. Flat-topped acacia trees started appearing and the feeling slowly morphed into something decidedly more desert-like.
The last stop before the desert camp was M’Hamid, where the Bunnies had lunch. This would also be their last dose of Wi-Fi for the next four days! Soon after M’Hamid, the tar road ended and the rest of the journey was driven literally on the desert sand. It was a bit bumpy but Bunny was dazzled by the scenery and so didn’t care.
The Bunnies arrived at the desert camp around 4pm in the afternoon. They quickly learned, much to their delight, that they were the only guests in the camp that night. A private luxury camp in the Sahara for just the two of them! Winning!
The camp looked like a lovely oasis in the middle of the picturesque desert. Bunny thought her tent was very glamorous, despite the fact that there was no running water. Instead, there was a lovely wooded-platformed bathroom inside the tent where you could wash with the help of two buckets of water, one cold, one hot, and a ladle. It was a nice feeling to wash yourself this way. In addition, there was a chemical flush toilet. All in all, the tent was definitely luxurious, with plush carpets, traditional furniture and a sumptuous double bed. Bunny was very happy, especially when you consider it is in the middle of nowhere.
Friendly Bachir, who was in charge of the camp for the night, greeted the Bunnies upon arrival and advised them to hike up the closest dune to experience the Saharan sunset. The Bunnies sat on top of the sand dune for ages, admiring the endless desert and listening the profound silence around them - with a glass of chilled Moroccan Chardonnay in hand no less. What a great arrival that was!
Then it was dinner time inside the “restaurant” tent. It was a lavish meal of various Moroccan dishes, with a lovely cinnamon fruit dessert. Afterwards, the Bunnies lay on the cushions by the open pit fire in the middle of the camp, taking in the seemingly endless number of stars in the night sky. It was a marvelous feeling to experience the authentic remoteness of the Sahara in such luxury and comfort.
Back in the tent, invisible hands had started a gas heater which had been working wonders while the Bunnies enjoyed their dinner. It was nice and cozy inside their tent. What made it even better, were the numerous hot water bottles that the camp’s staff had tucked inside the luxurious bedding. Bunny’s sleep that night was blissful.
Day 4: Riding Camels and Star-Gazing
Bunny got up early the next day to take some photos in the golden morning light. She was totally mesmerised by the contours and the colours of the unending sand dunes.
Afterwards, the Bunnies had breakfast outdoors, with coffee, pancakes served with jam and honey, freshly-squeezed orange juice, yogurt and muesli. The plan for the day was to go camel-riding but the weather quickly turned into a sandstorm. So the Bunnies were forced to take it easy at camp instead, lazing in the bar tent, reading and waiting for the winds to die down.
After lunch, the weather improved and Bunny decided it was time for the camel ride. What fun it was! The ride was a bit bumpier than Bunny had anticipated based on her wealth of horse-riding experience, but coupled with the amazing dunes, the quiet, and the overall vastness around them, the feeling was quite special. While Bunny rode along, a lot of other camels were curiously looking on - presumably they had not seen a Bunny ride a camel before.
Later that day, the camp’s owner Nick arrived with a friend, the lovely Emily from Wild Morocco who organises authentic desert tours in Morocco, including stays in the luxury camp. The Bunnies enjoyed some conversation with Nick and Emily by the fire, learning a lot about Morocco, desert life and local politics in the process.
For sunset, the Bunnies were whisked by car to one of the area’s biggest dunes not far from the camp. It was quite a hike up the gorgeous dune, with hard-working Bechir lugging behind the Bunnies, carrying everything from picnic blankets to a wine bottle and glasses. For a moment, Bunny felt a tingle of guilt about having such a privileged existence.
The sunset that evening was even more gorgeous than the previous day. Looking around at the endless sea of dunes before your eyes, it was also difficult to believe that the desert was only about 30% sand.
Returning to camp, Bunny learned that the staff, with impeccable timing again, had turned on the heater in the tent and fetched hot water for pre-dinner ablutions. The Bunnies spent a long time at the camp fire before dinner talking with Nick and Emily about their fascinating business projects over wine. Yet more wine flowed at dinner, making the rest of the evening a bit of a haze in Bunny’s mind.
However, she does remember that it was an extremely clear evening for star-gazing. After dinner, the Bunnies returned to the camp fire, propped on massive stitched pillows to again gaze at the starry sky. Laying comfortable by the fire, Bunny could even see the cloud of the Milky Way.
Day 5: Hiking in the Desert, Sand Boarding and Sunset Drinks on the Dunes
The next morning, Bunny woke up with a hangover. What a surprise.
Nevertheless, the day’s plan was hiking in the desert and, being a good soldier, Bunny stuck with the plan. It was tough going at times but the Bunnies managed almost two hours of hiking in the relentless Saharan sunshine. The scenery was surprisingly varied with dunes giving way to even sand which eventually changed to dry, cracked mud with plenty of rocky formations too. Mr. Bunny kept mentioning “Tatooine” but Bunny didn’t know what the hell he was on about. In the end, the guide led them to a real oasis where Bunny spotted an abandoned ramshackle car in the sand. It was too good a photo opportunity to pass up.
Afterwards, the Bunnies visited a Berber family for tea. Bunny was humbled by the resilience of the family, who were living in the harsh desert conditions with few material possessions. But the kids were just like kids anywhere else in the world: happy and cheerful to be playing in the desert with dirt on their faces. Bunny paid generously for the tea and it was more than a fair exchange: a genuine moment with the family for some cash that would really help them.
After the Berber family visit, the Bunnies walked further to a water spring where they encountered two baby goats that had been born a day before. Cuteness overload alert! This is also where the Bunnies decided to have the picnic lunch that the camp had prepared and packed in advance. All in all, the hike felt like a great achievement by that point of the day.
Before sunset (their last in the Sahara), the Bunnies walked up the camp’s nearby dune with a sand board kindly provided by Bechir. It was time to try a new sport. It turns out, sand boarding is not that hard - unless you’re Mr. Bunny. Bunny laughed heartily at Mr. Bunny’s repeated, failing attempts to stay standing on the board while sliding down the dunes. It was great fun.
The Bunnies played on the dune for a long time, well past sunset. Walking back to camp in the pitch-black desert, they were guided only by the candles and blazing fire down at the camp.
That evening after another sumptuous dinner, the very talented staff at the desert camp organised an amazing drumming session by the fire. Bunny just lay back, enjoyed the music and stared at the stars above. This was north Africa at its best, she thought.
Day 6: Long Drive Back to Marrakech
Bunny got up early again for their last morning in the camp. There’s something about the desert that stops you from lingering in bed in the mornings…
After breakfast and good-byes, the Bunnies headed off again into the desert with their driver, but this time taking a different route back to Marrakech. Fueled by some upbeat Malian music blasting in the jeep, they drove for three hours in the desert without as much as a glimpse of another vehicle let alone human being. Instead, there was an abundance of sand, camels, acacia trees, interesting rock formations and plenty of poisonous apple trees. In a word, it was remote.
The first break came at Foum Zguid, where the Bunnies had some lunch at Cafe Chigaga, a place of local charm with the self-proclaimed best French fries in all of Morocco. Then the road continued to Tazenakht, a town famous for its carpets. It was a colourful place to drive past but Bunny wasn’t too tempted to stop. She just doesn’t like carpets of any kind, anywhere, ever - and she wasn’t going to make an exception for the Moroccan ones.
After Tazenakht, Bunny started getting a bit sleepy in the car although the scenery was certainly interesting. Around Ouarzazate, the Bunnies drove past a goofy, out-of-place gas station that, turns out, was fake and used for the movie Hills Have Eyes 2 (another one Bunny has not seen…).
After approximately a 9-hour drive, the Bunnies arrived at the wonderful Riad Kniza in Marrakech. It had been an interesting, if somewhat exhausting, day for the Bunnies, and it was lovely to be back in the lap of luxury for their last two nights.
Bunny had pre-arranged another Hammam experience at Riad Kniza for that evening. The Riad’s spa was beautiful and the Moroccan body scrub felt divine after the long day. It was also very much needed to remove all the residual sand that accumulated and stuck to Bunny’s fur during the desert expedition.
Afterwards, the Bunnies enjoyed a tasty Moroccan dinner at the Riad’s restaurant and soon retired to bed, spent but very happy.
Day 7: Marrakech and Roof Top Dinner
Bunny’s last full day in Morocco fell on a Friday, so many of the shops and souks were quiet. She was grateful for that and happily hopped around the city despite some light rain. She was amused to notice how many cafes and restaurants had adopted the name of the places recommended in the Lonely Planet guidebook. She must have passed at least five "Jardin" restaurants…
Since it was raining, she decided to check out the Museum of Photography, although it was a bit tricky to find at first. Comparing the old photos, dating as far back as 1870, to the city today, it was fascinating to see how little some things had changed in Marrakech.
The Bunnies also ventured back into the madness of Jemaa el-Fnaa, including one of the restaurants with a balcony overlooking the square. They really fancied a drink but were not able to find beer or wine on offer anywhere nearby, despite their best, very motivated, efforts.
Suddenly, Bunny got the urge for pizza. Mr. Bunny knows better than to put up any resistance when this happens, so soon the Bunnies were on a long trek to the nearest chain pizza restaurant they could find in Marrakech. There are only so many portions of vegetable Tajines and Couscous a little Bunny can eat in a week…
Friday night’s dinner was the highlight of the Marrakech portion of the trip. Bunny reserved Maison MK for a five-course dining extravaganza, including pre-dinner drinks and canapés on their chic rooftop terrace. Bunny loved the views of nighttime Marrakech afforded by the terrace and thought that it provided just the right atmosphere for the highly-anticipated dinner to come.
The (vegetarian) dinner itself, including leek cumin velouté, Kaab Lghzal ravioli and mojito mousse, was easily the best food the Bunnies had in Morocco. Even the bread, with infused butter and olive oil, was great. Sadly, Bunny has since learned that the restaurant is now permanently closed. What a shame.
Back at Riyad Kniza to close the evening, Bunny asked the staff to light the fireplace in her room. They kindly obliged and Bunny enjoyed a glass (or was it three?) of wine to celebrate her last night in Morocco.
Is it worthwhile to visit Morocco in January? Absolutely! Bunny loved her trip. Although the weather wasn’t very warm, it was sunny, with clear skies most days. It was also relatively quiet in Marrakech and positively empty in the desert.
As much as Bunny loved her stays at luxury Riads, the unmistakable highlight of her trip was the intimate and unforgettable time in the heart of the desert. She believes she would have missed something essential without having journeyed into the desert and stayed at the luxury camp. It may be a long way to get there, but it is totally worth it.
Bunny is now dreaming of returning to Morocco in summer time. Sleeping under the stars in the desert is firmly on her bucket list.