Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Five Tips for Planning a Trip to Morocco with Kids

Despite Morocco’s popularity and the explosive growth of tourist infrastructure, it’s still a logistically intensive country to visit. Add kids to the mix and you have the recipe for the best – or worst – family vacation ever. Founder of and Family Travel Expert Amie O’Shaughnessy shares the five tips for navigating the country with kids.
We recently visited Morocco with our then 8-year-old and hit many highlights including Marrakech, the High Atlas Mountains, Ouarzazate, and the Sahara Desert dunes at Merzouga. Despite bad luck with the weather, we had a tremendous experience and I highly recommend traveling to Morocco with kids.
I found that Morocco is on the top of many travel bucket lists, particularly now that so many other places in North Africa are experiencing political turmoil. Here are our five tips to optimize travel in Morocco with kids:


1. Unless you plan to visit a single major city and stay there, use a reputable tour operator with years of experience in Morocco to manage and coordinate all ground logistics.

There’s quite a bit of driving down remote roads required to visit the different parts of the country. You need someone experienced who knows exactly how to manage the itinerary to be in charge. Once you are in the countryside, it’s as rugged and “foreign” as it gets — it’s the beauty and the reward of Morocco — but you don’t want to be navigating through this terrain unaided with kids.
We selected Kensington Tours for our trip and were thrilled. A private driver and guide accompanied us everywhere, and not once did we feel scared or vulnerable, as we knew we were in good hands.

2. Ease into the experience by starting the trip in Marrakech in a kid-friendly resort.

Although Marrakech isn’t Kansas, it has hosted Europeans for years and has familiar elements to it, which helps ease kids into exotic environment.
Although the old Medina is the heart of the city, it’s a chaotic place with zero room for kids to safely roam on their own.  Opt to stay in a kid-friendly resort where children can be free to run and play. We stayed at the new Four Seasons Marrakech with a supervised kids’ club, glorious garden, and a wonderful family pool.  It’s only a 10-minute drive from the action, but offers an oasis from the elements. Moreover, the kids’ club provides a way for parents to explore the city on their own.
We also stayed at Hotel Beldi and loved this boutique property for families. Although it has fewer amenities than the Four Seasons, there’s an immense garden, beautiful pools, and an incredible pottery workshop for children.


3. Design an age-appropriate itinerary. Unless you take a helicopter, there is no way to avoid long drives between attractions.

Our trip to the Sahara Desert involved two days each way just to get there. Although we saw incredible sights on the journey there, this road would be a nightmare with very young children who can’t entertain themselves in the car for hours at a time.
If you have children 7 and under, spend your time at a family-friendly resort in Marrakech and pair that with one other destination that is 2 to 3 hours away via car versus taking a multi-stop road trip.

4. Spend an afternoon in a Moroccan home.

Kensington Tours arranged for us to have traditional lunch in a Moroccan home. Of all of our adventures in Morocco, this was the most memorable activity for our son as he was thoroughly immersed and engaged in the experience.
The act of hospitality is a deeply rooted Moroccan tradition and nowhere can you experience this better than in a home. We shared couscous and tea with a family and learned first-hand how radically their lives differ from ours. At the same time, we shared many moments of laughter and joy while interacting with one another and remembering that people are people, irrespective of where or how they live. Lessons like this are the essence of travel, at any age!


5. Prepare diligently to ensure healthy and safe experience Morocco.

Moroccan food is fantastic. We ate everything and never had a problem, although part of the value of a tour operator is they thoroughly scout out all restaurants ahead of time.
That said, there are no guarantees and we met a few travelers who had experienced stomach issues. For healthy travel with kids for a list of supplies to bring so you are fully prepared self-medicate. Definitely visit an overseas medic clinic before you travel for an update on required vaccinations.
If you drive over the Atlas Mountains (necessary for many itineraries and recommended for beauty), the road is steep and narrow — a quintessential white-knuckle drive for the average traveler. I wouldn’t want to self-drive in this terrain.
Regardless, ensure your medical coverage includes an evacuation program where a helicopter can transport anyone in the family to a hospital in or outside of the country, if necessary. We get our coverage through our American Express card, but there are other providers offering this coverage as well.
Knowing you are well prepared while traveling abroad is the secret to enjoying the experience and remaining confident that you are well equipped to handle any situation that comes your way.
What’s on your family’s bucket list? Share your tips for turning kids into world travelers.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Get A Taste Of Morocco With This Beef Tagine Recipe

A good friend of mine went to Morocco a few years ago and brought back a recipe using a tagine, a two-part cooking vessel that has a large circular bowl shaped bottom and a conical top.  The top is designed to create moisture to keep foods from drying out when being slow cooked.  The original recipe that my friend Sara McGhie gave me was for chicken.  You can check out that recipe here.  But, I've created a new beef recipe using some of the same spices, but with a few additional touches of my own. 
According to Sara, beef isn't very common in Morocco, but the spice combination will give you a pretty authentic Moroccan flavor.  Plus, if you'd like to experiment, you can try this recipe with lamb or goat.  A key ingredient is preserved lemon and I've provided a bit of information about where to find it following the recipe.  If you don't want to invest in a Tagine, you can make this recipe with a large pot or Dutch oven.  Just be sure to keep the temperature low and add additional water if the mixture dries out during the cooking process.
Beef Tagine
serves 6-8
This recipe is for a larger tagine, about 13" in diameter or larger.  If you're using a smaler size, consider cutting the recipe in half.
3 tbl Olive Oil
2 lb Beef Round, cut into 2" chunks
4 cloves Garlic, peeled and smashed
1 cu Fresh Cilantro, loosely packed, roughly chopped
1 tsp Chili Powder
1tsp Paprika
2 tsp Cumin
2 tsp Ginger
2 tsp Tumeric
2 tsp Cinnamon
1/2 tsp Pepper
1/2 tsp Salt
1 lg Onion, thinly sliced
1 Red Pepper, seeded and thinly sliced
1Yellow Pepper, seeded and thinly sliced
2 lg Sweet Potatoes, peeled, quartered and sliced into chunks
2 cu Beef Stock
1 cu Water
1 can Chopped Tomatoes, 14oz size
1 cu Golden Raisins
1 cu Cooked Garbanzo  Beans (chick peas), rinsed and drained
2 Preserved Lemons*
Cooking Equipment
1 Tagine, a two part cooking vessel, often ceramic, with a wide circular bowl shaped base for cooking a tall conical top
Place garlic, 3/4 cup of the cilantro, chili powder, paprika, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, salt and paper on a cutting board and finely chop everything together.  Place the mixture in a sealable bag and add beef.  Shake the bag to coat the beef with the mixture.  Meanwhile, pour olive oil into the bottom of the tagine and heat over medium high heat until oil is hot.  Place beef into the hot oil and sear it for about 5 minutes per side.  Pour any extra spice mixture from the bag over the beef after you've turned it once. 
Remove the beef from the tagine and set it aside.  Add the onions, green peppers and red pepper and sauté for about  minutes, stirring occasionally. 
Place the beef over the onions and peppers.  Arrange the sweet potatoes over the beef and top with the chopped tomatoes.  Pour the beef stock over the mixture and add enough water to cover the beef (the potatoes may be partially above the water).  Bring the liquid to a simmer and reduce the heat to low.  Place the top on the tagine and cook for 1 hour. 
Peel the lemon and separate the skin from the flesh.  Discard the flesh chop half.  Slice the othe half in narrow strips.  After an hour, add the garbanzo beans, golden raisins, the chopped preserved lemon and half of the stops of preserved lemon.  Cook for an additional 30 minutes.  Add the remaining preserved lemon and 1/4 cup of Cilantro and serve over couscous.
*Preserved lemon is available online, at specialty stores like Sur la Table or ethnic markets like the Middle Eastern Bakery & Grocery at Clark and Foster in Chicago's Andersonville neighborhood. 
Basic Couscous
makes about 3 1/2 cups
2 1/2 cu Water
1/4 tsp Salt
1 1/2 cu Couscous
Bring water and salt to a boil.  Remove from heat and stir in couscous.  Cover and let sit for 5 minutes.  Fluff up the couscous and serve.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Morocco for a Week Only

On the fly I was pulled into a birthday bash in Marrakech with a friend and she suggested to we do a rapid tour of Morocco before the big party. I first of all looked at the flights for the most strategic route and found Royal Air Maroc had the only non-stop NY-Casablanca flight, which saves hours spent detouring through Europe. Fortunately, one of my old friends lives in our destination of Casablanca. The flight's not that bad really -- Royal Air Maroc is not quite royal shall we say, but Morocco is a transit point for East Africa flights, so there was a lively gang on board in printed batik mumus.
Landing in Casablanca, I stayed at the small art deco hotel called the Hotel Le Doge. The hotel was perfect for a quick nap, some strong coffee and a croissant on the sunny balcony before heading out to the second largest mosque in the world, Hassan II along the seaside. The green tile work is incredible as you walk outside past the fountains to find the side entrance for the tours, which you have to take but you can wander off and explore. There is a sea of carpets inside as the waves pound outside and dozens of chandeliers line in the main prayer hall. But don't lose the group -- you need to see the mushroom fountains in the hamam downstairs. Walk away from the mosque to get a better view of it from the sea walls. The rough seas churn the surfers, perfectly aligning their hurling forms in front of the mosque.
The new medina is worth a look around, but having just gotten off the overnight plane I was not in the mood to bargain yet, so I just poked around and tested the pricing. But I was, however, in the mood to eat... For sure, stop in Dar Hatim near the medina, which serves lovely Moroccan couscous in a quiet garden.


For dinner we met an old friend of mine and her husband at a cool restaurant called Cabestan. The bathrooms have ocean views, walls of windows looking out on the crashing waves. The restaurant has excellent seafood and a snappy crowd. Don't forget to bring your good shoes and jacket -- the locals do dress.

Fez is my dream -- the oldest imperial city in Morocco and a world heritage site. Wandering around the medina with no cars and endless shops can keep you busy for days. I would recommend a guide since it's not easy finding your way around and I didn't have days to get lost.
We landed up at the Riad Laarousa, a subtly renovated riad right in the middle of the medina. Up and up stairs to a lovely room with the fire place going, looking out over a green garden. Then up to the roof for a glass of wine and views across the medina, which nothing can compare to. Hit the main sites -- the University of Al Karaouine, the 14th century Koranic College and take a walking tour of Bab Boujloud Museum of Moroccan Arts.
We had some great dinners in Fez. The Riad would make up anything you wanted. My travelling partner was on an all-meat diet, which took some time for the waiters to understand. One night the hotel arranged a dinner in a local house, which was fantastic partly because the hostess was so charming and warm. A jolly old fellow came to pick us up and return us, for we would never find our way back. He didn't talk, so it was sort of like a silent meditation walk. The hotel features a small hamman and spa, which you have to try after a day in the streets -- we all need a good scrubbing in a dark room.

The best-preserved Roman ruins are on the way to Marrakech -- they are incredible. The most amazing mosaics sit out in the open. We wandered there for hours as the boys beat the trees to get the olives to come down. A perfect day.
Somehow my friend wiggled us into La Mamounia -- now my favorite hotel. Dark and mysterious with a hundred year old groves outside your window and a fun scene at night. It's hard to leave, and, I must admit, it made me not as quick to step out in the morning. But we did, of course, shopped and shopped and shopped. Please see my shopping list below -- its most of the ones you have heard about.
On the top of all lists is the Garden of Yves St Laurent, which was packed with fussy French tourists snapping away. The highlight for me is the Berber Museum in the gardens, since I am always looking at textiles. Please read the Paul Bowles book, Let It Come Down, while you are there. I did enjoy shopping for rugs at Mustapha Blaoui. They have great Berber rugs, flat leather, and reed rugs from Mauritania.
Yacout for dinner one night is a must -- lots of food and a great flamboyant presentation. Also, I would recommend having dinner at the Royal Mansour, a new hotel near the Four Seasons. Beg to see the newly made Riads; they are over the top. Stop in the 19th century Bahia Palace and note its ornately carved cedar wood walls and intricately painted ceilings. One of my favorite places is La Maison de la Photographie -- a three-story house with hundreds of photos of old Morocco -- great for gifts and not so dear.
Oh yes, and the party at the Four Seasons was a blast. So you can see a lot in one week in Morocco if you hire a good driver and speed a bit. The cities are not so far apart, and there is a lot of see and eat -- bargain hard.

1. Casablanca - Hotel LeDoge
2. Fez - Riad Laaroussa
3. Marrakech - La Mamounia Marrakesh

1. Terrasse des Epices, a rooftop escapes from the medina, Marrakech
2. Yacout Restaurant, Marrakesh
3. Dar Moha, Marrakech
4. Dar Hatim Restaurant, Casablanca
5. Cabestan Ocean View, Casablanca.

1. Mustapha Blaoui - Great rugs. Arset Aouzale no. 142 Bab Doukkala, Marrakech.
2. Tres Des Nomads
3. Place Bab Fteuh - Silver jewelry and African beads at Boutique Bel Hadj (212 5 24 44 12 58)
4. Akbar Delights (212 6 71 66 13 07) - African and Indian fabrics.
5. Ben Rahal (212 5 24 43 32 73; 18 rue de la Liberte Beni Ouarain) - Tribal rugs, Tuareg tent mats handmade in Mauritania with reed and leather.
6. La Maison de la Photographie (46 rue Ahal Fes; 212-5-24-38-5721)

Monday, 23 April 2012

Morocco: Walking tall in the Rif Mountains

The last town I visit is perfect. Chefchaouen's blue-rinsed medina walls are calming and beautiful, with washes from robin's egg to deep ocean. A self-proclaimed capital of wool, water and hashish, this northwestern town is hugged by the brilliant Rif mountains, casting a permanent shade of tranquillity over quietly proud locals.
There are few things as soul-nurturing as solo hiking, so I wake up on the first day of the year with a plan - to go and stay alone. I head north around Jebel El Kelaa, passing lambs and Youssef and parties of Rif Berber women dressed brightly, all with traditional red and white-striped cloths tied around their waists. They greet me animatedly, expressing surprise that I am alone - I nod when they hold up a single finger. The older women suggest I tuck my scarf around my chilly ears before they beckon me to follow them, but I shake my head, smiling away any lack of understanding.
I carry on for hours, with the company of shepherd boys wheeling tyres down a road and Berber men tilling their fields, chanting motivation (Aisha!) to their donkeys. I am offered shouts of Ola! and Akchour? - a nearby pot-producing village.
I keep setting end points for myself only to reach these and see a little more of the vista that is rolling hills breaking into a green valley; it's all too much to consider turning back.
As I round a corner to gaze upon the heart of the blossoming valley, I am summoned persistently by a matriarch on a particularly prime piece of land, basking in the low afternoon sun. I am beckoned to sit; containers of olives are opened, gestures are made for me to help myself to a large vegetable tagine, fresh bread and sweet mint tea. I eat as she speaks, her eyes so penetrating and intelligent that I think this is the first time I've ever seen eyes. Her words are ethereal and whipped in space; so completely other to the Berber I've heard. I try to understand but fail absolutely, managing only to communicate between mouthfuls that yes, I am alone, "solo".
I am devastated that I understand nothing of what she has to say, but then again, I'm not either. I am laughed at for taking a photograph of their donkeys.
Steep, rusted grey cliff faces and a 70-year-old woman with an entire dead tree on her back keep me going, even though I am now unsure of whether or not to turn back in light of the approaching cool evening.
A man not older than 21 walks towards me in red wellingtons. Before I can salute, he purposefully puts down the two large bags he's carrying and sticks out his hand to shake mine. His face has the kindness of someone who's never been hurt and, as we stumble through any language that isn't our first, I feel a sincere friendship that can really only occur through haphazard, misunderstood meetings on mountain roads. I ask advice, he sighs with confusion, speaks, slaps his leg, pauses with helplessness, offers me food. As I tear off a piece of bread, he explains that his family lives over yonder mountains. We end our conversation with another handshake and a grin I may not ever forget.
I go against his advice (probably) and carry on down the road that is at once snaking far down into the valley. I am torn. I need to see what's down there, but the threat of cold is quite real. I stop. I stand. I think. I go. I stop. I stand. I go back. I stop. I decide that the answer will come to me.
I wait a minute before a construction truck - the only vehicle I have seen the entire six hours of walking - rumbles around the bend. Waving the droopy, ruddy-faced driver down, I ask which way is best to get back to Chefchaouen. He gestures for me to get in. I jog around and climb up to sit next to another passenger, Ridouan, who smokes a cigarette, incurious. I can't pronounce the driver's name. I offer mine but it seems of no consequence. We manoeuvre the large truck around narrow, tight corners listening to jangly tunes - one in particular, over and over - off the broken mp3 player. Our mutual understanding, again, falls far too short, and as a team, we would have failed. Any sort of team, it wouldn't matter. But we make good spectators. Ridouan points out bunnies in neighbouring fields. I point out mountains and birds. The driver points out ladies in the bush. I am offered coffee, water, cigarettes, a jacket, and when I compliment his driving, the driver very sincerely offers me the wheel.
We rumble right up onto cliff faces, passing a group of Spaniards abseiling down the rock, until we reach a café where the truck is replenished with building material. I sit sipping my coffee, surveying birds of prey circling a peak; Ridouan sits with a large group of male friends at another table. The driver drags a chair next to me - I am inwardly pleased - and, with a smile and an espresso, slaps down his cigarettes, rolling paper and a hunk of hash the size of a grown man's thumb.
When we leave, the truck rumbles back the way we came. Bummer. I deal with it as soon as that lovely tune plays over the intermittent speakers for the eighth time. Like a lullaby. We drive the roads I walked, stopping to swap some stories with a farmer. We divert and dump the building material while a group of men look on - one young, squint beauty of a boy in particular stares me down. I am again foiled, and we turn around and head back down the narrow, bumpy roads for the second time; past my lunch spot, past the cliffs, past the café. It's about now that the driver tells me he isn't going to Chef at all but to Tetouan. There might be mention that if I marry him this could all change - and I am intrigued - but I accept a drop-off at a main-road junction. He seems none too perplexed. I have just enough time to pee behind a café wall before catching a grand taxi (an old Mercedes that only leaves when packed with seven people) to Chefchaouen.
I return to my backpackers just as the sun is well and truly setting, through child-shrieking streets smelling of chocolate and cinnamon, bliss and winter pinching my cheeks and a swell of humanity that surpasses any fatigue I may feel.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Morocco Profile

Map of Morocco
The Kingdom of Morocco is the most westerly of the North African countries known as the Maghreb.
Strategically situated with both Atlantic and Mediterranean coastlines, but with a rugged mountainous interior, it stayed independent for centuries while developing a rich culture blended from Arab, Berber, European and African influences.
Morocco was a French protectorate from 1912 to 1956, when Sultan Mohammed became king. He was succeeded in 1961 by his son, Hassan II, who ruled for 38 years. He played a prominent role in the search for peace in the Middle East, given the large number of Israelis of Moroccan origin, but was criticised for suppressing domestic opposition.
A truth commission set up to investigate human rights violations during Hassan's reign has confirmed nearly 10,000 cases, ranging from death in detention to forced exile.
Tiles in Marrakesh A former capital, Marrakesh is famed for its architecture
After his death in 1999 Hassan was succeeded by his son, who became King Mohammed VI and was seen as a moderniser. Mohammed VI introduced some economic and social liberalisation, and in 2011 he revised the constitution in response to "Arab Spring"-style protests. However, the monarch still retains considerable power and can veto most government decisions.
Morocco has expressed interest in becoming a member of the European Union, its main trade partner, but there appears to be little enthusiasm for this within the bloc.
To the south, the status of Western Sahara remains unresolved. Morocco annexed the territory in 1975 and a guerrilla war with Algerian-backed pro-independence forces ended in 1991. UN efforts have failed to break the political deadlock.
To the north, a dispute with Spain in 2002 over the tiny island of Perejil revived the issue of the sovereignty of Melilla and Ceuta. The small enclaves on the Mediterranean coast are surrounded by Morocco and have been administered by Madrid for centuries.
Morocco has been given the status of non-Nato ally by Washington, which has praised its support for the US-led war on terror. After deadly suicide bombings in Casablanca in 2003, Morocco launched a crackdown on suspected Islamic militants.

Preserved lemons-a Moroccan staple

One of the most used ingredient in Moroccan cuisine is the preserved lemon. It is very easy to make. Here's the recipe:
You will need:
-3, 4 lemons 
-cinnamon sticks
-bay leaves 
-black pepper corns
Slice each lemon in four, but not   all the way through. Hold the lemon open and add salt. 

Take a jar, ad some salt at the bottom, and then place the lemons in it and ad more salt. 
Press the lemons down to release their juices and to make room for the remaining lemons 

Ad the cinnamon sticks and the bay leaves and finally pour water. Close the jar and store it in a dark place for 5, 6 weeks. After opening the jar store it in the fridge. 

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

The Majorelle Garden

The Majorelle Garden is a botanical garden in Marrakech, Morocco, which was designed by the  French artist Jacques Majorelle in 1924. Since 1980 the garden has been owned by Yves Saint-Laurent and Pierre Bergé.