The eight-night Royal Touch of Morocco package with Ya’lla Tours includes a full day in Marrakech. // © 2015 Mark Chesnut
Feature image (above): Sunrise camel rides in the Sahara desert // © 2015 Mark Chesnut
Portland, Ore.-based Ya’lla Tours offers itineraries in a variety of bucket list-worthy destinations, including Egypt, Israel, Cuba and Greece. Certainly one of the most legendary is Morocco, a land that’s been immortalized in movies, literature and art. Ya’lla offers six different tours as well as customized itineraries here, and company president Ronen Paldi said that the eight-night Royal Touch of Morocco package is one of the best for newbies visiting North Africa.
“The Royal Touch is probably the most comprehensive tour of Morocco for first-timers who want to cover, in eight nights, the most important sites in Morocco [including] the four royal cities: Rabat, Meknes, Fez and Marrakesh,” Paldi said. “If somebody has limited time, that would be the most ideal way to do it.”
Following the recent ASTA Destination Expo in Marrakesh, I joined this tour — and although the post-conference version for travel agents was slightly shorter and ran in the opposite direction of the usual itinerary, it still offered an enticing overview of several of Morocco’s best-known tourist attractions, providing multiple memorable experiences and countless amazing photo opportunities that kept my social media accounts abuzz.
Morocco is an incredibly diverse country from a geographic perspective, and the itinerary gives a good overview, passing through regions that range from the sprawling Sahara desert to the soaring Atlas Mountains and sunny Atlantic coastline.
The tour includes a driver and guide; ours was named Moulay, a man well versed at explaining everything Morocco, from history to politics to food to religion. We spent two nights in the city of Ouarzazate, which is home to the beautiful 17th-century Kasbah Taourirt as well as Atlas Studios, a massive movie studio complex that has provided settings for movies including “Kundun,” “The Mummy” and “Alexander the Great,” among others. Unlike mass-market studio attractions in the U.S., this is a real, working movie facility — imperfections and all — and guides take visitors through various sets, with lots of time to snap photos.
One of the most memorable experiences of the journey is the overnight stop in the Sahara desert, where four-by-four vehicles whisk travelers further into the sands for an evening in a handsomely appointed, permanent tent camp.
Guests enjoy traditional music performed live before a sumptuous dinner in the dining tent, and then tuck in for the night in amply-sized tents that come complete with large, comfortable beds, private baths and showers. It’s a good idea to turn in a bit early, as the most exciting activity starts in the dark of the pre-dawn hours: a camel ride further into the desert to watch the sun rise.
The Royal Touch tour spends two nights in Fez, where the old and new medinas provide opportunities to wander and shop the delightfully narrow streets, while a beautifully restored, 14th-century Muslim religious school, as well as the city’s former Jewish quarter, offer glimpses into the city’s rich history. A stop at the nearby city of Meknes is also included, with a visit to vast, 17th-century royal stables, a grand creation by Sultan Moulay Ismail that had the capacity for 12,000 horses.
Also impressive is the Mausoleum of Mohammed V, which sits majestically in the capital city of Rabat. Completed in 1971, the structure contains the tombs of the Moroccan king and his two sons, the late King Hassan II and Prince Abdallah.
Right next door is yet another much-photographed icon: Hassan Tower, a never-finished, 12th-century minaret that would have been the world’s largest (construction stopped after Sultan Yacub al-Mansour died in 1199). A series of unfinished columns from the mosque still stand as well.
One night in Casablanca, the largest city in Morocco, is included in the tour. Hassan II Mosque, which sits along the Atlantic Coast, is the third largest mosque in the world, with space for 25,000 worshippers inside and another 80,000 on the grounds outside. Completed in 1993, this towering venue is also the only active mosque in Morocco open to non-Muslims, so the guided tour inside is a unique opportunity to learn about the workings of Morocco’s most important religious institution.
Of course, no good introduction to Morocco would be complete without a stop in Marrakesh, the nation’s largest tourism destination — and the Royal Touch tour spends plenty of time here, too, with a full day of Marrakesh tours, including visits to Menara Gardens, the old medina and Koutoubia Minaret.
Accommodations — which range from traditional, riad-style properties in historic former homes to full-service luxury hotels — vary based on price and preference, and properties are divided into Silver, Gold, Platinum and Diamond levels by Ya’lla Tours. Travel agents can access hotel nightly rates using an online password provided by the tour operator. At least one or two meals — many of which feature tasty Moroccan cuisine such as tagine, skewers and freshly baked bread — are included in the itinerary.
Per-person prices for the tour start at $3,195 in the Silver level, and the tour operator offers a discount program called the More For Less Ya’lla Advantage, which reduces the cost per person by $700 for parties of four, and $900 per person for parties of five.