Recognising the spell Morocco’s winding medina lanes, carpet-piled souks and High Atlas peaks have cast on travellers since the hippy-trail days, the country’s tourist industry aimed to attract 10 million visitors annually by 2010. Five years later, the industry is halfway to its next staging post of 2020, hoping to double tourist arrivals to 20 million and become a top-20 destination.
Developments such as budget flights are certainly bringing Morocco’s surf beaches, mountain valleys and palm groves closer to Europe. On the ground, travellers can also enjoy increasingly chic accommodation, from medina hideaways to hilltop kasbahs – notably the riad hotels fit for glossy magazines. None of the country’s Maghrebi mystique is gone, but travellers can now explore the stirring landscapes and Berber culture in comfort and style. Equally, immersive, community-run tours and homestays offer opportunities to meet Moroccans and learn about their daily lives.
Morocco’s cultural, craft and culinary capital of Fez was once overshadowed by Marrakesh’s chic riads and restaurants. But anyone visiting in 2015 will see the city really coming into its own, as a host of glamorous, high-end openings have brought it a whole new level of sophistication.
Palais Faraj and Palais Amani have re-invented ancient palaces, restoring ornate zellige, intricate stucco and carved wood, while Hotel Sahrai has brought modern minimalism to the medieval city with a bold design of stone, metal and glass and a Givenchy spa. Fez has always been renowned for its traditional cuisine, and now Restaurant Numero 7, a stylish riad-turned-restaurant, is hosting global chefs as they turn market produce into gourmet fare while nearby The Ruined Garden serves up Fassi speciality pigeon pastilla, as well as contemporary takes on traditional dishes. Designers too are increasingly working with Fez’s famed artisans to create modern pieces using age-old skills. And in May, music will ring out across Fez’s labyrinthine medina, as the annual Fes Festival of World Sacred Music hosts an eclectic line-up, from Sufi chanters to international headliners.
Get lost in the medina. These labyrinthine old quarters, where mopeds and donkeys navigate alleyways and date vendors juggle mobile phones and sales patter, are Morocco’s chaotic heart and soul.
Brave the Tizi n’Test pass. Cross one of the notoriously tortuous mountain passes to the snowy peaks of the High Atlas. Mountains such as Jebel Toubkal, North Africa’s highest at 4167m, are famous for trekking and climbing, with more opportunities for hiking and village stays in the Middle Atlas, Anti Atlas and Rif ranges.
Go in search of white Saharan sands. In Merzouga or M’Hamid, hire a turban-wrapped guide and head between the dunes by camel or 4WD to a nomad camp for a night under the stars.
Alternatively, find a shady spot in a date-farming oasis village, or generate more static than a worn carpet when you try sand boarding.
Casablanca’s Hassan II Mosque, one of the world’s largest, has a glass floor overlooking the Atlantic waters beneath its rocky perch.
Fez medina, a millennium-old maze of souks and tanneries, is the world’s largest living Islamic medieval city and most populous car-free urban area.
On the Mediterranean coast, Ceuta and Melilla are Spanish-owned enclaves, with plazas, tapas bars and Gaudí-influenced architecture.
Most bizarre sight
Goats climbing frizzy argan trees in the Souss Valley to munch on the nuts.
Having graced Hollywood movies, Morocco’s varied landscapes and atmospheric cities have recently appeared in TV series. In the third season of Game of Thrones, Essaouira medina features as Astapor, where Daenerys acquires an army and her dragons fry the city’s cruel rulers. Rabat stood in for Tehran in the third season of Homeland, and the first season of Atlantis was shot around Ouarzazate – already nicknamed ‘Ouallywood’ for its film studio.
By James Bainbridge