Royal Air Maroc: Better Than a Magic Carpet!

My love affair with Morocco continues, but that will be a post for another day. Being a woman of my word, I will instead use this post to make good on my promise to report back on our experiences with Royal Air Maroc.

Faithful readers will recall that we flew business class TO Morocco, so that we could stretch out in the lay-flat seats and catch a few zzzz’s. We didn’t want to be totally exhausted when we arrived in Casablanca. As reported, business class was a luxurious experience with several unexpected bonuses.

Because our flight from Casablanca was scheduled to depart around 1 PM, we decided coach would be just fine for our return flight. And it was.

It is entirely possible that our experience was impacted by Covid, and when travel returns to normal, flights will once again be full. But not today. Mike and I had the row to ourselves, thoroughly enjoying having an empty seat between us. We didn’t feel cramped, the seats were comfy, but not as plush as business, and there was plenty of room in the overhead bins. The passenger in front of us had the entire row, so he was able to stretch out across all three seats.

Okay, so this was the first time I’d seen this really cool window feature. Instead of having a shade, there is a little button below the window that gradually lightens or darkens the pane, so you can be shielded from the sun’s brightness and heat, and still see outside.

Lunch was rather good. The orzo was sprinkled with cinnamon, the chicken had a delicious sauce and best of all, the wine was free! The second “meal” was not so good. In fact, it is as pretty pathetic and there was no accompanying wine to ease the pain. So, in addition to a guaranteed seat to yourself that has an almost infinite number of adjustments, you get much better food (and drink) in business class.

The seat back entertainment in coach and business is identical. Even if it were different, that would not have been a selling point for me because with my iPhone and iPad, this girl is all set. I keep the flight map on the screen so I can watch our progress, while bopping in my seat to my favorite music or reading a book on one of my I-thingies. Fortunately the seats have outlets, so I can recharge if the need arises. It doesn’t take much to make me very happy, and yes, wine helps.

In business class, we received a little bag with hand and face cream, lip balm, ear plugs, eye mask, a comb and socks. But guess what? People in economy also got a goodie bag. It only contained socks and an eye mask, (neither of which I EVER use) but still, that’s more than other airlines do for us folks in steerage.

Because of my Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card, we were able to use the Pearl Lounge at the very uncrowded Casablanca Airport, so our airport wait was quite comfortable.

Bottom line: Air Maroc worked out really well for us. We were able to fly at reasonable times. Those on the Air France return flight had to get up at 3:30 AM, and had a “box” breakfast. We got up at 8 AM, had a delicious buffet breakfast, and because our flight was non-stop, arrived at JFK about 15 minutes after the Air France Flight. Others on our trip had their flights changed multiple times. Ours did not. Best of all for OAT travelers, another member of our group was able to fly Royal Air Maroc and have the arrangements made by OAT, because of their code share with American Airlines. That would definitely been our preference! I must have had a new OAT rep, who was unaware of that option.

Ouarzazate

I know you are probably wondering how in the world to pronounce the name of this Moroccan city. Well, wonder no more. “Ou” sounds like our “W”, so when you come to Morocco and want to stay near the movie set for Game of Thrones, book a riad in “ WAR-za-zat”.

We spent two nights in Ouarzazate, staying at the beautiful Dar Kalifa. During the 1900’s our riad was the court house of Pasha Glaoui. This very powerful Bedouin chieftain was France’s ally against Sultan Mohammed V, and was instrumental in getting the Sultan exiled to Madagascar in 1953.

Unfortunately for France and the Pasha, the Sultan was beloved by many Moroccans. His removal resulted in unrest and uprisings in Morocco. As a result, de Gaulle reinstated Mohammed V (who changed his title from sultan to king) in 1956; simultaneously Morocco gained its independence. Pasha Glaoui had clearly made the wrong choice. So what became of this traitor? He traveled to Paris, knelt at the feet of in submission to Mohammed V, who forgave him. Their actions reunited the warring factions and made it easier for Mohammed V to regain his throne. Glaoui died of cancer in 1956, Mohammed V died in 1961.

I have to admit, it was pretty thrilling to think about all the history that must have taken place within the walls of our riad. It isn’t easy to find—you walk along some narrow passages to get there, but it is worth the walk to discover this spectacular dwelling.

Be forewarned: there are MANY steps in Dar Kalifa, and they all seem to be a different size.

Can you guess why Ouarzazate’s nickname is WallyWood? The dramatic scenery and the perfect lighting from sun filled days have made it a favorite spot for film makers.

Many of the locals work as “extras” in movies like Gladiator. Our local guide, Mohammed has been in several movies. Here’s his picture, so you can look for him in Season 4 of Game of Thrones.

Mohammed with his visual resume

Mohammed never had the opportunity to attend school. He spent his childhood ferrying tourists across the river on his donkey. Although he was never taught to read and write, he became fluent in English, French, Spanish and a few other languages, by listening to tourists he transported. I find that amazing—what an impressive and intelligent man!

Mohammed’s children: 2 girls, aged 13 and 6 and 1 boy aged 10, all attend school, and are teaching their dad to read. Mohammed told us he thought his family was complete, but his “coronavirus baby” arrived 8 months ago!

Most tourists visiting the area want to spend time in Ait Benhaddou, stopping at one of the two studios in town. Before Covid, Mohammed told us during high season Ait Benhaddou received more than 1,000 tourists per day.

Instead, we visited Asfalou Village, for what OAT calls “A Day in the Life”. There, we spent the morning with an extended family, visit their home, learning how the women make bread and the men make bricks.

For the afternoon, we visited the Women’s Association, a beneficiary of the Grand Circle Foundation. The Association’s objectives are to build women’s self confidence and to empower them. The women learn to bake cookies, which are sold to hotels and to tourists. We sampled some during our visit and they were so delicious, we all bought more.

While there, we all decorated our bodies with henna—even the men.

But the highlight, for me at least, was playing dress up. Unfortunately, my first choice for spouse was feeling under the weather that day, so I had to go with a substitute for this Berber wedding.

For you movie buffs, I’ll end with a list of some of the movies and TV shows filmed in this area.

  • Lawrence of Arabia (1962) Sodom and Gomorrah (1962) The Man Who Wished To Be King (1975)
  • The Message (1976)
  • Jesus of Nazareth (1977) Bandits, Bandits (1981)
  • The Diamond of the Nile (1985)
  • Killing is not playing (1987) The Last Temptation of Christ (1988)
  • Tea in the Sahara (1990) Kundun (1997)
  • The Mummy (1999)
  • Gladiator (2000)
  • Alexander (2004)
  • Kingdom of Heaven (2005) Babel (2006)
  • Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010)
  • Game of Thrones (season 3, 2013)
  • Game of Thrones (season 4)

For the curious—the photo at the top of this post shows the artist doing paintings using a sort of “invisible ink”. He heats the paper over the flame to make the colors appear. This “invisible ink” , used for secret messages sent during French occupation, has been repurposed!

On The Road Again

Who knew that driving all day could be so delightful? The scenery between Fes and the Sahara is varied and spectacular. It also doesn’t hurt that the nine of us are traveling in a bus that could transport more than forty passengers. We are up high, so we all get panoramic views.

This photo was taken from the window of the bus.

We had several stops along the way, including an opportunity to stroll through a forest.

Mike provides scale, to give an idea of the size of this Lebanon cedar.

My favorite stop, however, was our visit with the Barbary monkeys.

Don’t even THINK about touching that tangerine!
This monkey was much friendlier. She was fine as long as I was at her level, but when I stood up, I frightened her and she scampered off.

The hotel where we stopped for lunch had this beautiful map, which included our departure and destination, and stops along the way. I’d mark our route out for you, but it is too difficult to do on an iPhone. But I’ll give you a rough idea of our route: we started at Fes, on the top, by the palm trees and ended in what the map calls ‘Arfoud’, (Erfoud) near the bottom. Ultimate destination: off the map on the bottom, near the camels.

Outside of major cities, Morocco has few traffic lights. Instead, they have numerous traffic circles, (if you’re from Massachusetts the correct name is ‘rotaries’. We Massachusetts natives have our own special language).

I particularly liked the circle in Midelt, which highlights their #1 product. Can you guest what it is?

If you guessed “surgical masks” , you’d be wrong. Mostafa had our driver (Mohammed) go around the circle twice so we could all snap a photo of the “Big Apple”.

Our stay was at a lovely hotel close to the Sahara Desert. Although I am so sorry for the Moroccans working in tourism, I must confess it HAS been rather nice having these beautiful hotels and pools all to ourselves.

Most people would be delighted to see that huge, luminous full moon. Not us. Why? We were hoping for dark desert skies for our resident astronomer’s lecture the following night.

If you’re wondering why in the world I’m blogging rather than experiencing the majesty of Morocco, fear not. This is being written while on the bus heading to Ouarzazate. I’m using Verizon’s Travel Pass for internet connectivity. And I’m looking up from my phone frequently. And yes, as usual, my blog is several days behind our experiences.

Helpful Hints for the OAT Morocco Trip

We still have 6 days before our trip ends, but some members of the “Friends of OAT” Facebook page will be traveling to Morocco soon, and have asked for hints. This post is especially for you, but I hope it will be useful to others as well.

Options

  • Pre-trip to Chefchaouen- if it is offered, don’t miss it!
  • Optional trip to Tetouan – I’d pass on this one and spend time in Chefchaouen instead. You’ll see plenty of medinas and mellahs on the main trip. If you’re lucky, your guide will do what ours did, and take the slow, scenic route to Tangier.
  • Optional trip to Volubilis and Meknes – we enjoyed it, despite having seen mosaics in Sicily and ruins in Ephesus. Full disclosure: we are ancient history nerds.

Packing

  • The weather in October has been perfect so far. All that we’ve really needed is a light jacket. I will confess to wearing my heavier pants for the sunrise in the desert. I packed ‘em, so I’m using ‘em.
  • I didn’t bring shorts because I had read wearing them would be culturally insensitive. Having seen young Muslim women with all kinds of outfits, I have concluded shorts would have been okay in many places ( but not all).
  • I was prepared to be taking off my shoes frequently, so only packed slip- ons, no sneakers. The number of times I’ve had to remove my shoes – one.
  • Most of the riads and hotels have lovely pools, so it is a good idea to bring a bathing suit, especially when you are in the Sahara. We just got back from a very refreshing hour at a hotel pool located about 15 minutes from our tent.
  • So far, everywhere we’ve stayed has had a hairdryer. Some are attached to the wall; others are like what we use at home.
  • I thought I’d be rinsing clothes out in the sink. That would have worked out fine, but I had no place to hang them. I suspect our riad would frown upon my hanging my “small” (as they say in Africa) from their balcony.
  • Laundry service is available in Fes, Ouarzazate and Marrakech. So far, we have used the service in Fes. It was convenient, inexpensive and well done.
  • At times, it would have been nice to have my LUMIX 150 with its zoom. But those times were unpredictable, and I wouldn’t have wanted to carry it with me all the time. Bottom line? My iPhone takes photos that generally meet my needs, so I was fine leaving my camera at home. For the true photographers out there (we have one in our group), carrying the camera is well worth the additional weight.

Food

The food has been great. No one in the group has had digestive problems. Most of us have avoided uncooked vegetables, but one couple, who has lived all over the world, has been eating everything without any issues. Me, I take no chances. I eat what Mostafa, our guide, tells us is safe.

Miscellaneous

  • I didn’t need to bring packs of tissues. Every bathroom, so far, has had an adequate supply of toilet paper. Be sure to drop the used paper on the waste basket. Don’t flush it.
  • I brought Vicks VapoRub for the tannery visit. A little dab under each nostril helped to block the stench.
  • So far, it has been easy to charge phones everywhere, including the Sahara .
  • You CAN get cell service in the desert. Just no Wi-Fi
  • Be sure to bring a back pack. I also brought the bag my sketchers came in as a small backpack. I have used it more times than you can imagine.
  • If you want good quality scarves, buy from the weaving shop on Fes. If you don’t care about quality, then you can get a great deal in the market in Rissani. I did both.
  • I also bought a caftan in the Rissani market. It has been perfect for the desert! There will be photos in future posts. I’m not pressing my luck by uploading big files.

I feel so very fortunate to be on this trip. Perfect weather, great food, breathtaking scenery, once in a lifetime activities, welcoming, friendly Moroccans, congenial travel companions and excellent guide. Who could ask for anything more?

Morocco, FINALLY!

When we signed up for this Overseas Adventure Travel trip in August of 2019, the world was certainly a different place. Even 20 months after shutdown, Covid STILL has a significant impact on our daily lives. I will admit, we had some reservations about leaving home, even after being fully vaccinated, but through Facebook, I was able to connect with Rocky and Julie who traveled to Morocco with OAT in September. They kindly “friended” me, and because of their photos and posts, we felt comfortable forging ahead. My goal is to do likewise, but rather than posting on Facebook, I’ll be communicating via this blog. So, if you want to tag along with us to see whether you’d feel safe visiting Morocco, just sign up and you’ll get a notification via email whenever I post.

This first post might be boring for those who are not planning to become future Morocco travelers. It’s really a compilation of information I would have found helpful, prior to leaving home.

Getting there

Initially, we were flying to Casablanca via Paris on Air France, stopping in Paris for four days. Although we normally enjoy being on our own, because of Covid, we realized that we wanted the comfort of having a guide look out for us. Plus, with different countries having different rules, we figured those four days were a complication we could do without, so I hit the internet, to determine whether it was possible to get from JFK to Casablanca non-stop.

The only non-stop I could find was via Royal Air Maroc, which has one daily round-trip flight. It is a codeshare with American Airlines, but unfortunately OAT does not have an agreement with those airlines, so we were on our own. I’ll be honest—it was a little complicated, because with the code share, we had two different flight and booking numbers, and two different customer service phone lines. AND, although we booked and paid through the American site, we couldn’t use that site to select our seats. We also were unable to check in on-line, and print our boarding passes, something we normally do. A hassle, yes, but we avoided changing planes in Paris, and we arrived in Casablanca seven hours earlier than we would have if we’d stayed with Air France.

Royal Air Maroc

Our flight was scheduled to leave JFK at 8:40 PM, so we left our house at 3:45 PM because of NY traffic. It took almost 2 hours to get to the airport, but checking in and getting through security was relatively easy.

Our flight would arrive in Casablanca at 8:30 AM local time, 3:30 AM our bodies’ time. (It actually departed and arrived on time!) Knowing how poorly I do with sleep deprivation and jet lag, (picture a toddler who needs a nap) we decided to book business class on the way over so we could stretch out and sleep.

Business Class also included admission to the Primeclass Lounge in terminal 1. I’m not sure if Covid is responsible for the food offerings, but let’s just say that particular perk was not a selling feature.

Like USA Airlines, Air Maroc has lay flat seats in business class

I was surprised that dinner was provided on an 8:40 PM departure. In fact, I thought the appetizer was the whole deal and it was enough for me, so I skipped the hot entree. All I can tell you is there were three choices. We also got a decent breakfast.
The business class perks that WERE selling features were a special line in passport control and priority luggage handling, so it was waiting for us when we arrived in baggage claim. In fact, the whole process went so fast and so smoothly, we were off the plane, through passport control, baggage claim and customs, had gotten money at the ATM and were outside the terminal in 25 minutes.
To make the cost reasonable, we opted for economy on the way back. I promise to report on THAT flight too, so you, dear reader, will know what to expect from each option, should Air Maroc be in your future. Our return flight departs shortly before 1:00 PM, versus 7:30 AM (the Air France option), so we should be rested enough to deal with whatever version of economy Air Maroc offers.

Arrival

Our hotel, the Radisson Blu, arranged for a car to pick us up at the airport. The cost was 500 MAD and we were able to pay with our credit card. Our guide had warned us that only passengers are allowed inside the terminal, so we knew to look outside for our driver, right after we hit the airport ATM for some local currency. He also told us the most we could withdraw is 2000 MAD, ($235.22) delivered in 100 and 200 bills, so we were prepared for that.
It took about an hour to get from the airport to the hotel, because of traffic and a couple of accidents.

Mohammed VI’s image is on the front of all bills, but the reverse varies. The hotel changed a large bill for us

Packing

Mostafa, our guide, sent us a wonderful welcome email, full of useful information, like where we would be able to have laundry done, (Fes, Ourazazade and Marrakech), and what to pack (bathing suit and hairdryer, among other essentials.) For a while, we seriously considered traveling with carry on only. After very carefully reading the luggage allowances on Royal Air Maroc’s website, I became concerned that ONE carry on meant just that, with no “personal item” allowed. We would have been really bummed if we had eliminated things that we wanted to bring, only to learn at the airport that one of our two carry-ons would have to be checked. So, out came the duffle, and in went more ”stuff”. Mike was able to easily include his laser pointer and binoculars, in anticipation of the dark skies in the Sahara. He’s an astrophysicist, so interested fellow travelers can look forward to a professional explanation of what we are seeing in the heavens.

Map

The image at the top of this post was created courtesy of Google maps. The cities we will be visiting are listed in order, with the blue pins giving you an idea of the ground we will be covering. Are any map aficionados out there? If so, this link will allow you to get additional information about the cities we are visiting by clicking on the blue pins.
https://goo.gl/maps/Np8GEL1ripWqEgx57

For the past two years, we have been “Wishin’ and hopin’ and thinkin’ and prayin’, plannin’ and dreamin’ “ about traveling to Morocco. (Who remembers that song? Extra credit if you remember who sang it.) Right now, dreamin’ is Mike’s choice, but I’m going to check out the pool so I’ll be sunnin’ and swimmin’.