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Weekend Unexplored: 3 Day Road Trip Adventure from Marrakesh to Skoura

Planning a visit to Morocco can be intimidating for anyone. Luckily for me, my friend who is practically a local was the chief architect of our adventures. We opted for a road trip with stops at various attractions between Marrakesh, Ouarzazate and Skoura in a private SUV with our driver and guide, Edouane. Specifically, we did not want to be the tourists that just check off boxes on an itinerary. We wanted to experience each place to the fullest and we accomplished that with our agenda.

Day 1: Marrakesh to Skoura

This was our longest driving day as it took over 5 hours at 30-40 miles per hour to our final destination over rocks, dirt paths and up and down windy mountain “roads”. This was not a car ride for folks with motion sickness, like myself. It was rough going and I was extremely happy when we finally arrived at Ouarzazate for a late lunch and a break from the car.

Along the way, we discovered a village nestled in the Atlas Mountains and watched an elderly woman carried foraged vegetables for her goats. This put me to shame as I usually take an elevator for 3 floors while this grandma trekked up a narrow path to her dwelling. The views from the car ride varied by the size of the rocks and random trees dotted along the road with small villages popping up in the arid environment; a far cry from the bustling Marrakesh. Discovering yellow cactus flowers sprouting randomly along the side of the road and sporadic fields of poppies made for an interesting juxtaposition between desert and life.

As the daily tropical rain started to pour in the early afternoon, we made it to Restaurant La Kasbah for a late lunch of delicious tagine, couscous and other traditional Moroccan dishes. Edoune picked this restaurant for us and it was surprisingly very good. I hesitated when I saw many foreigners in the restaurant as this had shades of a tourist trap. The cozy dining room filled with rugs and pillows beckoned us for nap; unfortunately, we still had a long drive from Ouarzazate to Skoura. As the image of old town Ouarzazate disappeared from the rear view mirror, we proceeded to the desert. First stop along the way was a cooperative that specializes in handmade linens and other textiles to support the local economy. It was educational to learn about the traditional embroidery techniques and to see the rainbow colors represented in the various offerings. We were not pressured to buy anything and the coop allowed us plenty of time to sift through numerous products. Eventually my friend selected some reasonably priced scarves for souvenirs.

Next we stopped at Fint Oasis for a 1-hour tour of the garden that miraculously cropped up in a dry and isolated area that was filled with lush palm groves, animals and village life. This area is composed of four traditional villages where donkeys still roam the streets freely. Interestingly, a number of Hollywood films including Babel, Prince of Persia and Kingdom of Heaven were shot in this area. Edouane had arranged for another local guide to walk us around the oasis. Lucky for us, the guide also invited our group into his small house. The joy of a baby goat poking his head beneath the door from one room to say hi and then his children playing around in the next room were eye opening. The gentleman was very proud to show his home to us and we felt privileged to be there.

As the sun started to set, we left for our hotel, Chez Talouet, situated on top of a hill in the middle of nowhere with sweeping views of the desert. There was something quite magical being the only few guests at this small inn. We had the inn to ourselves and ate dinner al fresco while the sun sets over the Moroccan desert. Life is good.

 

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Day 2: Soul Cycle did not prepare me for biking in Skoura.

We started our day with a traditional Moroccan feast for breakfast that carried us over for our 11-mile bike ride around the palm groves and oasis of Skoura and Kasbah Ameridil. A traditional breakfast dish was Baghrir, pancakes made from semolina flour and accompanied by various jams and nut spreads. My favorite was the Msemen, a thin pan fried crepe that was crunchy and chewy at the same time topped with a drizzle of honey. It was so delicious!

Next we met our Skoura guide, Ismel, for the day. We were equipped with old but functional mountain bikes and proceeded to bike along the back roads to Kasbah Ameridil. My first hour was rough going. The “flat and easy” paths were filled with rocks and craters and they were also windy and narrow. It was very different from biking at Soul Cycle or on a boardwalk at a typical beach town. Even though I was precariously balanced on my bike, I challenged myself to get over my fear and ended up having a blast. I did fall off my bike a few times or walked my bike over sections that I found too difficult. In the end, I was rewarded with sweeping views of Kasbah Ameridil along the way.

Once we arrived at the Kasbah Ameridil, Ismel took us on a guided tour filled with history and interesting facts about the architecture and technology that filled the well preserved 17th century fortress. Ismel noted that this fortress also appears on Morocco’s 50-dirham note. After 2 hours at the kasbah with never ending views of the surrounding palmerie, we biked toward the groves along narrow paths to admire the variety of vegetation that the villagers grow to feed their family. It made me appreciate the luxury of supermarkets back in the city. As the afternoon black clouds rolled in, we rushed toward Ismel’s house to escape the downpour and to eat a late lunch. As it was Ramadan and many eateries were closed, we were delighted to have Ismel’s mom cook lamb tagine, Moroccan salad and cake for us. The best food is always mom’s home cooking!

After biking another 2 miles back to the town center, we dropped off our bikes and went back to our inn to rest. As the sun set over the desert, I could not help but appreciated how insignificant I am when compared to the vastness of this land.

 

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Day 3: Val de Roses, Dade Gorge and Kasbah Telout

After another feast for breakfast, we made our way back to Marrakesh. The first stop was through a region called Val de Roses where all the roses are grown in Morocco. Most of roses are exported internationally. We stopped by another cooperative to do a short tour on rose oil extraction. Everything smelled wonderful, although, I do think this was a tourist trap. After, we drove up the Atlas Mountains to get a gorgeous view of the Dade Gorge. The weather had other ideas as it got progressively rainy, windy and cold. In the end, we stayed in the car while we had our friend run out in his shorts in 50 degrees F to take a picture.

After a brief stop for lunch, we headed to another remote area in the Atlas Mountains to visit Kasbah Telout, an 18th century fortress. This had to be my favorite stop of the road trip. Kasbah Telout is hard to get to without an SUV, thus most tours will pass by this gem. The intricate tiles were still intact while the hallways were in danger of crumbling down as we explored the fortress. More importantly, we were able to take our time to examine the murals without much disruption that was typical in Marrakesh. Our site guide was also mute so we attempted to understand him through hand gestures – another unforgettable moment on this trip.

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As we made our way back to Marrakesh, I pondered on the contrast between the more affluent city dwellers and the very simple desert farmers. These folks live with their definition of comfort and their simple happiness. I appreciated that they can be content with so little, especially in our materialistic and over complicated world. Of all the places I visited in Morocco so far, this portion was my favorite and not to be missed.

Check out our blog on Explore Marrakesh (Morocco) Like in Insider2 Days Chillaxing in Essaouira, Morocco,  and Essential Travel Tips for Marrakesh and Morocco

For related articles, visit the TRAVEL page or the World Travel Index.

Author: Chau Hoang

Spring Road Tripping to Normandy and Brittany in France (Mont St. Michel, Cancale, St. Malo, Dinan and Giverny)

Shoulder season is one of the best times to visit Europe and late spring is the perfect season to see the French country side. Hotel prices are still reasonable and most attractions are open and are not overrun with tourists. The highways in France are easy to navigate and with all the technological options, gone are the days of getting hopelessly lost and confused on the road. My cousin and I decided to do a 4-day road trip to visit towns in the western part of France as it is one area we have yet to explore. Our destinations for this trip were Paris to Mont St. Michel, Cancale, St. Malo, Dinan and Giverny on our return to the city.

Day 1: Paris to Mont St. Michel

Mont St. Michel, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a small island off the coast of Normandy that is topped with a medieval Benedictine monastery. Over hundreds of years, the ramparts were built around the island to keep the English forces out, which was followed by other buildings that lined the steep village streets. Most of them have now been converted into museums, hotels, restaurants and boutiques. Water rushes in and out of the bay each day and surround the island making it feel even more remote during high tide.

Getting there:

We drove from Paris to the new car park, approximately 1.5 miles away from the island, and took the shuttle to the entrance. As we were staying on the island at the historic Auberge Saint Pierre (250 Euro/night) and knowing that we would have to do a lot of walking to get to the hotel, we only took a small overnight backpack. We patted ourselves on the back for the smart decision as we saw many tourists struggling with their rolling luggage up steep hills and flights of stairs.

Lodging:

There are only a handful of small inns on Mont St. Michel, which were very expensive ($250+/ night) with many cheaper options outside of the island. We opted to stay inside the town to experience the village without tourists at night and in the early morning. This was the right decision for us as the island was deserted around 5pm, leaving only a handful of folks wandering around in silence. It was a completely ghost-like atmosphere juxtaposed to the bustling and crowded touristy vibe earlier in the day. We watched as the tides came into the bay during sunset, seemingly cutting off the abbey from the modern world. Waking up to sunrise over the island and to birds chirping outside the window was worth the pricey lodging.

Things to Do:

The best thing to do in Mont St. Michel is getting lost along the winding streets and discovering random sites along the way. The village itself is very small and can be walked within an hour or two. I would recommend the following sites:

1. Abbey of Mont Saint Michel (8 Euro/adult) – We walked along La Grande Rue and up the winding stairs to the abbey. We didn’t need StairMaster after that walk! The Abbey has many rooms to explore including the church, cloisters, refectory and monk’s promenade. It’s a great way to spend 30 minutes to an hour learning about the various purposes the abbey served over its colorful history.

2. The small graveyard below the abbey (where we struggled to make out names on the tombstones that had been faded with time) – This area also afforded Instagram-worthy views of the abbey.

3. Walk along the ramparts and see the differing perspectives of the Normandy bay, especially during the changing tides when water rushes in and surrounds the island.

4. There are other museums such as Logis Tiphaine Museum (a historic house of Knight Betrand du Gueslin), Historical Museum (a small museum that contains 1,000 years of the island history) and the Museum of Sea and Ecology (houses 250 ancient models of boats). We did not have time to visit these museums in person, but would have loved to spend some time there.

Place to Eat:

Everything in Mont St. Michel is average at best, with popular tourist choices such as crepes, simple French food, and pizzas. There are some places worth stopping by, but due to limited options, they tend to be swarmed by tourists.

1. La Mere Poulard – This is arguably the most famous restaurant in the village and also one of the most recognized in France. They are known for their rich and fluffy soufleed omelets whipped up in copper bowls and cooked over an open fire. We selected the set Menu Mere Poulard at 65 Euro per person, which included appetizer, entrée and dessert. In hind sight, it was too much food as everything was extremely luxurious. It was interesting to watch chefs make the omelets in the fireplace in a very countrified kitchen. Other than that, the omelet was very rich and the egg butter foam on the omelet was a bit over the top as all I could taste was fat. The food was good, but wasn’t worth 65 euro per person. I would recommend just going for 1 omelet to share for two people, which still costs around 40 to 50 euros.

2. Creperie La Sirene – This little creperie is hidden at the back of a souvenir shop and has a good selection of Breton galette, both savory and sweet.

3. Le Terraces de la Baie for a great view for lunch.

4. Coffee at any of the cafes along the ramparts for an afternoon break and to people and bird watch.

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Day 2: Cancale and Saint Malo

Nearby Mont St. Michel is Cancale, a place that locals recommend for the best oysters in France. We drove one hour from Mont St. Michel to the seaside market where there were various stalls hawking fresh oysters of the day. After browsing for 15 minutes, we selected a few dozen oysters from Jean D. Cancale including the Pied de Cheval at 6 Euro/each. It was half the size of my face and very meaty. The vendor gave us an impromptu shucking lesson while she prepared the oysters for us. She made it look a lot easier and faster than when I tried it at home. Afterward, we made our way to the “stairs” by the harbor with trays of goodies and proceeded to eat and throw the shells onto the “beach” like the locals. These were the freshest and tastiest oysters that we’ve had in a long time. Absent of being completely stuffed on oysters, we would have kept on eating. This is a must stop destination for oyster lovers.

Another short 30-minute car ride later, we arrived at a charming bed and breakfast, L’Hôtel Particulier Ascott, located in Saint Malo. This port city in Brittany has granite ramparts surrounding the old town. Walking through the cobbled streets of St. Malo’s old town feels like you stepped back into history and gives an authentic glimpse into Brittany’s seafaring past.

Lodging:

There are many reasonable options in St. Malo. We opted to stay at L’Hôtel Particulier Ascott, a quaint three-star bed and breakfast, to fully experience the country road trip. This 19th-century mansion sits in the residential area of Saint-Servan, right at the mouth of the Rance River and just 1,300 feet from the beach. The inn is managed by a sweet couple that provided just enough personal touches. We were made to feel at home right from the start. The room was small but very comfortable with modern amenities. Breakfast was served with an assortment of pastries, cold cuts and yogurt. The whole experience was what one would expect of a memorable European B&B.

Things to Do:

1. Cathedral – The main attraction in old town is the 12th century cathedral that was built in the Roman style and houses the graves of Jacques Cartier, a navigator who discovered Canada, and Duguay-Trouin, who I have no idea what he accomplished.

2. Walk the intra-muros – This district is all cobblestone streets with restaurants, boutiques, creperies and getting lost along the winding roads is the best way to explore.

3. Walk along the ramparts – Climb up the stairs at various access points in the old town to the ramparts and stroll along the bastions, guard towers, posterns, canons and sentries. You also get a panoramic view of the bay and its island. The loop should take about an hour to complete.

4. Castle – The 14th century castle is located at the Saint Vincent gate and currently houses the history museum of Saint Malo.

5. The various historical houses including:
– The 15th century stone house of Duchess Ann

–  The 17th century house that is half timbered and where the International House of Poets and Writers is currently located,

–  The Corsair’s Abode which was the 18th century Afield Hotel.

Place to Eat:

Saint Malo is known as a seafood destination in the Brittany region with many restaurants specializing in seafood towers. Some notable eateries that were recommended to us:

1. Le Beurre Bordier – An artisanal butter that is churned by hand in a wooden kneading bowl daily. The butter is then shaped by hand and struck with a box tress paddle to form a regular and made-to-measure packs. We purchased sampler sets for breakfast and gifts. I can easily say that this was some of the best butter I have ever had. They also have a restaurant, Autour du Beurre, which highlights their famous butter creations.

2. Le Comptoir Breizh Café – Their specialty is buckwheat gallettes and soup.

3. Le Chalut – This is a Michelin restaurant for seafood hidden in a maze of streets. Reservations are highly recommended.

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Day 3: Dinan

After a hearty breakfast in the beautifully curated parlor at the B&B, we drove 30 minutes to Dinan, a medieval village that is so pretty, it could fit into one of the Disney movies. The village is adjacent to the River Rance and is built up along the surrounding hills. The town has some of the best preserved medieval architecture in Brittany with buildings dating back to the 13th century. Dinan’s historic commercial center, Place des Merciers, is lined with Instagram-ready half-timbered and arcaded buildings. You can meander around the town for hours and not get bored of the normal town life.

Lodging:

Dinan is a small village so options such as Airbnb or the Ibis Styles in centre ville could be your best bet. There are a few high end options that are available by the river as well. We stayed at the Ibis Styles, which was an affordable option and reminded me of the Marriott Courtyard in the US. It was conveniently located right by old town so we were able to explore on foot and ditch the car for the day.
Things to Do:
There are a few sites worth seeing, but the best thing to do is to wander and get lost. The theme of this road trip was to explore and see where our feet took us, usually to pleasant surprises. Dinan is a small town and the architecture is very well preserved.
Walk along the ramparts and see what you can discover. The ramparts stretch along 2km around the old city and affords magnificent views of the town and Breton landscape.

1. Chateau de Dinan – This traditional 14th century castle includes keep and gate that join the medieval ramparts enclosing the old town. The castle visit encompasses a self-guided tour of its many rooms and has interesting facts about life in the medieval times. The audio guide is in French; however, they have placards in English in each room.

2. St. Sauveur Basicilica – This 12th century cathedral is situated in its own square and boasts Gothic and Romanesque architecture. The church is also surrounded by bakeries and cafes in case you need an afternoon break.

3. Rue du Jerzual – Dinan’s steep main street with numerous cafes and shops housed in buildings from the 13th century, which leads to the Dinan port.

Places to Eat:

There are many places to eat traditional Breton food and some recommendations are:

1. Crêperie Ahna – This small restaurant made the best crepes in town and is always packed.

2. Fleur de Sel – This restaurant has great regional cuisine. Reservations are highly recommended.

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Day 4: Back to Paris with a stopover at Monet’s House in Giverny

On our last day, we stopped by Giverny to visit Monet’s house at the peak of springtime. Since it was a week day, it was not overly crowded. If possible, buy the tickets online prior to going otherwise the ticket line can be very long (in French time). The flowers were vibrantly showcased in a formal garden like they were depicted in various Monet’s paintings. The famous pond and Japanese bridge are smaller than I had imagined, but very pretty nonetheless. One could imagine Monet spending hours amidst the inspiring visual splendor dreaming up his next creation. The other highlights of the attraction were walking around Monet’s house and admiring its well preserved furnishings and numerous canvases of art. The visit took around 2 hours and was just enough for a break before returning to Paris.

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This itinerary was short yet it allowed for us to see the best of each site and left us wanting to come back again soon. Western France is filled with small towns that time has seemingly left untouched that beckon to be discovered by those looking for the simple country life.

For related articles, visit the TRAVEL page or the World Travel Index.

Author: Chau Hoang

Explore Marrakesh (Morocco) Like in Insider

Marrakesh, with its kaleidoscope architecture and chaotic souks, can be overwhelming for the uninitiated. I had an opportunity to visit Marrakesh for four days with my friends who have been there numerous times and had local recommendations from their friend, Zach Idrissi, the owner of Amani Hotel. Having local guidance to ease me into this overstimulating experience was a welcome blessing since I was flying solo for most of my stay in the city. I also lucked out by going around Ramadan as everything was calmer and more laid back. The markets and attractions will close a bit earlier around 5pm, but the aggressive behavior in the souks will generally be less prevalent. This makes for an overall pleasant and safe experience for solo travelers.

Where to eat:

  1. Have an afternoon tea break on the terrace of La Mamounia and take a stroll in their manicured garden. You should check the availability for non-hotel guests as the hotel started to restrict non-hotel guests to certain hours for tea.
  2. Have dinner at Le Tanjia where there are daily belly dancing show and the food is fantastic. It has a great atmosphere for group or solo dining.
  3. Go to Al Fassia, a restaurant run by an all-women co-op, for traditional food. Reservations are highly recommended as this place was packed. Their specialty is traditional pigeon pie.
  4. Have dinner at Riad Idra, a luxury boutique hotel in the souk. Their chef makes incredible cuisine, which was served on their gorgeous roof top and beautifully designed French style dining room. Each meal was prepared fresh with ingredients purchased from the market that day. I was fortunate to have the chef customized my meals, which made it into a five-star dining experience.

Where to stay:

  1. Stay at a luxury 5-star hotel for one night such as La Mamounia for the experience. Marrakesh is known for having spectacular luxury hotels so this is a must do.
  2. Spend the rest of your stay at a riad in the souk. Riad are converted houses and mansions generally located throughout the souk. I would make sure that the riad is close to one of the main souk entrances because cars are not allowed in the area. These hotels are also incredibly difficult to find among the maze of streets so make sure your riad give explicit directions.

I highly recommend staying at Riad Idra, as the experience was better than some of the best luxury hotels I’ve stayed at around the world. It felt like home in this beautifully curated mansion. Each room has so much personality and the service was impeccable. For example, they provided slippers for each room, which were way too big for my feet. Without any notice to management, my slippers were replaced with my size after turn down service. My clothes were folded and put neatly away every day even though I left them strewn all over the place. They even helped me buy hotel quality tea pots at near market prices since I hated haggling at the souk. I would go back to this riad in a heartbeat.

What to do:

  1. Visit the Instagram-worthy Jardin Majorelle and the Yves St. Laurent Museum early in the day. The bright blue structures at Jardin Majorelle offset the green and browns succulent and cactus. If you are lucky, you won’t capture a fellow tourist in the shot. The Yves St. Laurent Museum houses legacy works from its namesake designer in an approachable setting. These sites can become overcrowded with tourists, which makes it hard to enjoy the scenery.
  2. Visit Maison de la Photographie for a curated collection of old photographs depicting Moroccan life and end the stay with a short break on the rooftop for mint tea.
  3. Book a morning cooking class at Maison Arab. This was a very informative and hands on experience. They are the best in town and the facilities are made for teaching purposes.
  4. Have your hotel help you book a spa day at La Baine de Marrakesh a few weeks in advance. The prices are reasonable and this is where locals go to get pampered. It’s a luxurious experience with reasonable prices, so it is very hard to get a reservation. Additionally, bring a bathing suit with you as there is also a small pool to chill out by if you show up early.
  5. Visit the Bahia Palace early as tourist swarm in and becomes overly crowded, a recurring theme in Marakesh.
  6. Visit El Badi Palace, which was unfortunately closed for renovation when I went.
  7. Visit the Sadian Tomb to see the intricate tile work after waiting for an hour under the blazing sun.
  8. Take a quick stroll into the souk. Unless you are ok with the haggling and the aggressive behavior of the vendors, I would only window shop. Always start bargaining at least 50% of the quoted price.
  9. See Djema El Fna (main square) at sunset from the rooftop of Cafe De France or Le Grand Balcon Cafe Glacie. Both have greats view of the square and only require buying a soft drink as admittance price. Another must do is to have fresh orange juice from one of the market vendors. This may be the best orange juice that I ever had.
  10. Spend a day relaxing at the hotel pool complex if you book a stay at one of the five-star resorts.

Sample itinerary:

Day 1

  • Arrive at Marrakesh and relax at the hotel
  • Dinner at Al Fassia

Day 2:

  • Visit Bahia Palace, Badi Palace and nearby Sadian Tomb
  • Lunch and explore the souk
  • Visit Maison de la Photographie
  • View sunset at Djema El Fna from a café rooftop
  • Dinner at Le Tanjia

Day 3:

  • Cooking class at Maison Arab
  • Tea at La Mamounia
  • Afternoon spa at La Baine de Marrakesh
  • Dinner at your riad or Riad Idra

Day 4

  • Visit Jardin Majorelle and Yves St. Laurent Museum
  • Spend the rest of the day shopping for souvenirs

The most important thing to do in Marrakesh is to be open to new experiences as the city can be a dizzying experience for first timers…If you do, you are likely to find yourself swept away by its complex beauty and the feeling that you just step into a version of the 1950’s Morocco.

Check out our blog on 2 Days Chillaxing in Essaouira, Morocco and Essential Travel Tips for Marrakesh and Morocco

For related articles, visit the TRAVEL page or the World Travel Index.

Author: Chau Hoang

Essential Travel Tips for Marrakesh and Morocco

Traveling to Morocco for the first time can be intimidating and overwhelming for many travelers, even for the experienced folks. The mélange of sights, sounds, and cultural differences in this vibrant city can trip many up. These are tips that can help make your arrival smoother and less stressful.

1- Book a transfer from Marrakesh Airport to your hotel. Taxis in Marrakesh have a well-deserved awful reputation for ripping off tourists and also refusing to turn on their meters. After a long flight, the last thing you want to do is haggle for a reasonable fare.

I highly recommend Marrakesh Airport Transfer. I booked online two days before my arrival with flight information. My driver was waiting for me after I exited baggage claim with my name on an easily identifiable sign and escorted me to a clean air-conditioned car. The cost was approximately $12 for a 15-minute ride to the Sofitel in the city center for one person. Prices will change depending on the number of people and the destination. I checked with my local friends and the price was reasonable for tourists. Locals generally pay a different rate in Morocco, usually 50% less. Additionally, this was much cheaper than the 30 euros quoted by Sofitel or 20 euros from other riads. (Riads are traditional Moroccan houses or palaces located in the medina that are converted into bed and breakfast.)

2- Do not exchange a lot of currency at the airport. The exchange rates at the airport currency bureau are always a scam. I would recommend withdrawing only a small amount from the ATM before exiting the airport, just enough for a day of expenses. If you have Euros with you, then this is not necessary as most people will accept Euros until you can exchange for dirhams.

Head to Hotel Ali (Rue Moulay Ismail), located around the corner from the post office in Place Jemaa El Fna, where the exchange rate is the BEST in the city. This exchange bureau is open 24 hours. My guide and drivers also confirmed that is where other locals exchange their dirhams for Euros. For example, the rate at the Sofitel and at the airport was around 9 dirhams to 1 usd while the rate at Hotel Ali was 9.3 dirhams to 1 usd.

3- The maximum fare for a taxi anywhere in central Marrakesh for tourist is 50 dirhams. The average local fare by meter is around 25 dirhams; however, 99% of the taxis will not turn it on. Instead, you will need to ask for the price and confirm it before getting into the taxi. Most will quote 10 euros at the start, which you should scoff at and say it only costs 25 dirhams but you’ll pay a little more. You will likely settle on 50 dirhams.

4- Cash is king. Most places, unless they are hotels or high end restaurants, do not accept credit cards. When they do, most will tack on a small fee to use it.

5- Dress conservatively. Even though Marrakesh is a major metropolitan modern city, it is still a Muslim city. In an Arab culture, men will stare at women (somewhat menacingly accordingly to my local guide), even if they mean no harm. It’s part of the culture and dressing appropriately will make you less of a target, especially in the souk. I would suggest knee-length sleeveless dresses that cover the shoulders and bringing a light jacket or scarf with you.

6- Ignore all catcalls or flattery. This is a way that vendors get you into the store and you will have a hard time leaving. Just walk on unless you really want to go into the store. Remember to bargain hard and target for a price, at minimum, at least 50% less than the initial quote.

7- Ignore street kids who “nicely” offer to guide you to your destination in the souk. They will demand at least a few euros for their efforts and often in an aggressive manner.

8- Download an offline map and wander. I generally feel safe in Marrakesh as a solo traveler, but the medina is a maze. It’s ok to get lost and discover its grungy beauty during the day. I always download the destination map on the Maps.me app so I can use it without data.

9- Staying in a riad is a must-do experience in the medina. Finding your riad is another thing. Make sure your hotel let you know where the taxi should drop you off. Cars are not allowed in the medina and there are often hundreds of riads. Most drivers will not know where they are located. The drop-off point is crucial to finding your hotel effortlessly. If you have a lot of luggage and the riad is far from the entrance, you may need to get a guy with a cart to carry your luggage. This should cost around 30-50 dirhams.

I would recommend staying at Riad Idra in the medina. My experience was equivalent to a stay an exclusive luxury hotel that treats you like family.

10. Wear your seatbelt in the backseat. If you are traveling by car outside of Marrakesh, there will be numerous checkpoints in and out of every village and you can be fined around $30 for not wearing your seatbelt.

11- Ramadan is the best time to visit Morocco. Even though the closing hours for most attractions are earlier at 5pm instead of 7pm, there are fewer tourists and the locals are less boisterous. It’s the most relaxing time to visit Marrakesh. It’s especially a good time for female solo travelers to explore Morocco.

Marrakesh is a wonderful bustling North African city that is generally safe for solo travelers.These tips will help you become a pro at navigating the nuances of the city.

Check out our blog on 2 Days Chillaxing in Essaouira, Morocco

For related articles, visit the TRAVEL page or the World Travel Index.

Author: Chau Hoang

2 Days Chillaxing in Essaouira, Morocco

Essaouira has to be Morocco’s most laid back beach town and luckily, only a short 2-hour drive from Marrakesh. When I asked my local friend to help me plan my Morocco vacation, she suggested this sleepy seaport town. At first I didn’t know what to make of it because it’s not a resort town dotted with luxury hotels that one would expect. However, the chill atmosphere there provided a much needed respite from the bustling city. It felt very much like a backpackers’ haven.

I decided on a short 2-day trip to Essaouira, leaving Marrakesh at 9am and returning the next day at 3pm. This turned out to be just enough time to sample what the town had to offer in short period. Essaouira is known for ocean sports such as kite surfing, so if you are into that, then you’ll need a few more days. I booked my own private transfer through my friend’s recommendation with Hiba Tours, which cost 160 euros or approximately 190 dollars. The car ride was comfortable and Jamal, the driver and owner, was very professional and friendly. There are cheaper alternatives such as buses and shared cars; however, I did not mind paying more for convenience.

After checking into the Villa Quieta, I took a 5-minute cab ride to Skala de Port, the main center of town.  I noticed right away the friendlier and nonchalant attitude of the locals as compared to Marrakesh. Most are going about their business and do not generally mind tourists. This is different from Marrakesh where you are constantly asked to pay… even for a photo. I wandered along the seaport admiring the famous blue boats that are synonymous with this town. As seagulls flew around trying to catch scraps from the fish market, it made for beautiful dynamic photos. I was lucky to witness local fisherman unloading their treasures, sparkling sardines, to the market and to see local women bargain for their meal that day. The sights, sounds, smells and attitude are very different from the city…it felt like I had landed into people’s daily lives and caught a glimpse of the actions. A fun fact if you are a Games of Thrones fan, the show filmed Daenery Targaryen’s acquisition of the Unsullied soldiers here, so you’ll be able to visit places showcased on the series.

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An hour later, my stomach was growling so I walked toward the seafood shacks that lined the port streets. Since it was Ramadan, only one seafood shack was opened. It’s not a tourist friendly activity as you will have to barter in French for the price of the seafood. It is almost guaranteed that you’ll be ripped off, but it still made for an interesting experience. I knew I had grossly overpaid for my lunch, but I was very hungry so stomach won over brain. I selected a few sardines, squids and sea urchins for the restaurant to grill and proceeded to share a table with another tourist. The experience was great until I left. One restaurant staff kept aggressively demanding more money from me even though I already paid the crazy inflated sea food price before sitting down. As I sped away, I felt as if I was being chased by the menacing vendor, which soured the whole experience for me. Maybe because I was eating solo so people felt they could take advantage of me. This could be different if you travel with others.

I was agitated from the experience because I felt genuinely unsettled for the first time. These things happen more often than not in Morocco…so I had to remind myself to let it slide. I then wandered around the medina and city center for the next few hours in relative peace. What a contrast from one bad apple!

 

As I admired the view from the ramparts, I met a fellow traveler from London and his friend from Marrakesh who became great company for the rest of the day. The best part of traveling solo is meeting great people from around the world in the most unexpected ways. We decided to take a 30-minute walk to the Ocean Vagabond restaurant to laze away the afternoon. Ocean Vagabond was highly recommended by my friend for good reasons, the outdoor patio is shaded and has lounge chairs and beds for you to relax comfortably. As we waited for the sun to set over the ocean, I could not help but smile at the stillness of my state of mind…a rare occurrence in this overstimulated world.

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For dinner, I checked out a new riad, Salut Maroc, that has live music and sweeping views of the ocean and ramparts from their terrace. The service and food were excellent and the interior is a mix of trendy Moroccan aesthetic mashed together by a mad hatter. Somehow, it works and becomes a visual feast. Dinner with acoustic indie music was a perfect way to unwind from the day’s activities.

After checking out of the hotel the next day, I made my way to Sidi Mohammed Ben Andallah Museum. Half of the fun is trying to find this museum housed in a 19th century mansion in the medina. This small museum has a nicely curated collection of artifacts, weapons, pottery, jewelry representing the history of the region. It was a good escape for 20 minutes and cost 10 dirhams. Not wanting to repeat the same experience for fresh seafood from the day before, I went to Chez Jeanrot Chalet de la Plage, another recommendation, for lunch. The restaurant is located on the beach around the corner from the port entrance with a beautiful terrace overlooking the ocean. The prices are reasonable by western standards in a very customer friendly space. I chatted with fellow travelers and sampled the expertly grilled sardines and fresh sea urchins, the two items you must eat in Essaouira. A fellow diner summed the dining experience up nicely… “sometimes you just don’t want the hassle for lunch”.

Walking along the beach and watching families hanging out and children competing in impromptu soccer matches reminded me that no matter where we are, we are all alike. People just want to spend time with their loved ones and unwind after a long day. This is the essence of Essaouira.

Places to See: Skala du Port, the Citadel, Skala de la Kasbah, Ramparts, Fish Market, Medina, Sidi Mohammed ben Abdallah Museum

Places to Eat:

Lunch: Chez Jeanrot Chalet de la Plage and Ocean Vagabond

Dinner: Salut Maroc (for sunset drinks and live music) and Zahra Grill at Riad Zahra

Marrakesh to/from Essaouira Transfer: Hiba Tours or What’s App +212 673 598443

Special thanks to Zach Idrissi of the Amani Hotel Appart for his recommendations.

For related articles, visit the TRAVEL page or the World Travel Index.

Author: Chau Hoang

House Tour: An A-Frame House Obsession

A-frame vacation houses from the 1950’s to the 1970’s are making a strong comeback, especially with current owners upping their Instagram game. These deceptively simple structures resemble an equilateral triangle. The first floor has an open layout for all the typical living spaces. The roof covers the rafters and goes all the way to the ground forming the “A”. The second floor is comprised of horizontal collar beams creating a sleeping loft. What makes these A-frame houses magical are the minimalist aesthetics and the harmonization with the natural surroundings. We discovered the A-Frame Haus located in Utah recently on AirBnB and fell in love with this delightful vacation home.

This cabin was built 30 years ago by the grandparents of the current owners. They spent a few years renovating this house and have now listed it as a vacation rental. There are three bedrooms and three bathrooms that comfortably fit 6 guests. It also has a panoramic view of Utah’s mountains for those seeking to escape from everyday stresses. The styling of this house is simple, comfortable and welcoming at the same time. It is all in the details.

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Find more information about the A-Frame Haus here.

For related posts, visit our DESIGN page.

Author: Chau Hoang

Photos courtesy of Kate Osborne @aframehaus

Review: Anantara Mai Khao Phuket Villas

Phuket has always been on my list to visit whenever I am in the southeast Asia due to the inordinate amount of enticing beach photos that are published on social media. On my recent trip to the region, I was able to fit a few days in Phuket. The biggest question while researching the popular destination was where to stay because Phuket is renowned for its amazing luxury resorts and party towns. After receiving advice from my Thai friends, I opted to stay in the northwest region of Phuket as the weather is better there in November and my main objective was to relax. I selected a 5-day stay in a pool villa at the Anantara Mai Khao Phuket Villas located near the Sirinath National Park. Did the 5-star resort meet my expectations?

Positives:

This 91 villa-only resort is catered to honeymooners and high-end clientele. The location is approximately a 20-minute cab ride from Phuket International Airport. Each villa has an infinity pool making it a perfect spot to hide away for days. Alternatively, there is a large scenic infinity-edge beachside communal swimming pool and direct beach access from the property; one of the few resorts with direct access to a semi-private beach in the region. Due to conservation regulations, there are no amenities on the beach itself so most guests will either be at the pool area or in their own villa. The busiest time at the beach is during sunrise and sunset (obviously).

Negatives:

Because the villas are spread out and bicycles, which are complimentary for guests to get around are scarce and usually broken, it can be a trek to reach the main facilities on the property. There are a lot of mosquitos in the area, even after daily spraying from the hotel. We had to use 4 coils around us every time we sat outside and would still get bitten. Lastly, the management’s response to my issues are not at the level of a 5-star hotel.

Final Hotel Assessment: 1 (terrible) to 5 (excellent)

4.5

Reviews of hotels from various sources (i.e. Trip Advisor) are accurately reflecting the current condition of the accommodation

I generally agreed with the overall positive reviews on TripAdvisor. The resort is highly ranked on TripAdvisor and Booking.com.

Hotel room description is the same as the booking information website: (5)

Pictures do not do the villa justice. The layout is wonderfully designed so there is a view and access to the pool from each room in the villa. The size of the smallest pool villa was large by any standard. The villas are cleaned twice a day, which keep the rooms spotless and fully stocked with every bathroom amenities imaginable. The interiors are decorated in tropic chic with the comfiest King size bed that I had slept in a while. A Bose wireless speaker is available for guests to use so we could play our own music anywhere in the villa. Overall, the room felt like an oasis for a weary traveler and exactly what I was looking for with this escape.

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Check in Process: (5)

Guests are greeted at the main pavilion and are quickly given a cold towel and juice to temper the heat and humidity, even in November. Check-in was quick and then we were driven in a golf cart to our villa. A quick tour of the amenities followed once we arrived.

Food/Beverage Services: (5)

The breakfast buffet was a highlight of this resort. Even though there are fewer guests than a traditional hotel, the selection and variety were made for triple the occupancy. The selection of juices available each day was astounding and a healthy start to a lazing session later. The quality of the ingredients and flavors of each dish made it one of my favorite buffets among many excellent ones that I have tried in Asia. My friend and I ate so much at breakfast that our only other meal was dinner each day.

Lunch was available at the restaurants on site or via room service. We used room service to order fruit plates and snacks and they arrived very quickly. For dinner, we ate at seafood shacks around the hotel as we wanted a change of scenery, thus I can’t comment on the dinner options in the resort. If the breakfast buffet was any indication, dinner should be at international standards.

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Issue resolution from management: (2)

I had an accident while staying at the resort where I fell in the pool and landed on the stairs. This resulted in a badly scraped and bloody arm and a very bruised back. We could not find the first aid kit in the room and later found out it was in a pretty box with no first aid signage. I limped to the lobby and asked for bandages. The concierge asked if I should see a nurse, which I had assumed it would be the resort’s nurse. The hotel actually called the hospital nurse to come and bandage me and then gave me a $50 bill for the visit. When I disputed the charge because I was not told of this fee prior to the treatment, the answer was that it was my responsibility. I was charged $50 for bandages and saline solution.

After a few irate calls later and requesting to speak with the manager, the hotel waived the fee. It was a frustrating experience as I was injured on the property and would have bandaged myself if I could have found the hidden first aid kit. Management could have facilitated this experience much better and not nickel and dime their guests, especially for a resort demanding an average of $500 a night per villa.

Customer Service: (5)

The staff are the nicest people around; although, I generally find that to be the case with most of Thailand’s best hotels. English is spoken by the main lobby staff, however other hotel workers sometimes struggled beyond basic English requests. I had brought along a swan floaty from New York and the staff kindly blew it up for us and also packaged it for my friend to take it on the plane with her at the end of the trip. The meticulous and friendly staff elevated the experience at the Anantara.

Spa: NA

There is a renowned spa at the resort with luxury level pricing. Thailand is known for spas so if this is something that you want to experience, I would recommend it. I had my fair share in Bangkok so I opted to skip this service.

Amenities: (4)

Beyond the amenities in the villa, the hotel offered bicycles for guests to get around the resort. The problem is finding the bike and half of the time, mine was broken. The hotel really needs to invest in more bicycles and ensure that all of them work properly. There is also a small gift shop next to the restaurant. A tiny gym is available near the beach along with the restaurants. Overall, the resort had enough amenities to keep guests occupied for the ultimate getaway; however, I would not recommend this resort for families. It is just not that type of clientele.

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Overall Rating: (4.5)

The experience at the Anantara Mai Khao Villas was what I had hoped for. It was the ultimate private and relaxing getaway from a busy lifestyle. I took off half a star for the mishandling of the pricing dispute as this is something that management should have dealt with better. I highly recommend staying at this resort for your next visit to Phuket.

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For related articles, visit the TRAVEL page or the World Travel Index.

Author: Chau Hoang