Travel

Drive Through the Deserts and Ancient Cities of Morocco

Plus green mountains and ocean towns along the way.

Starcevic/E+/Getty Images
Starcevic/E+/Getty Images
Starcevic/E+/Getty Images

If we said you could drive from green mountains to red deserts to blue oceans-as well as blue cities and ancient, maze-like villages-you might think we’re being overly ambitious for one vacation. But Morocco’s wide-ranging landscapes are packed into a country about the size of California, and can be seen over just a few days on an easy road trip.

Starting at the northern tip near the Mediterranean Sea and within eyeshot of Spain, you’ll want to spend about a week driving south to Marrakech. Verdant mountain scenery covered in wildflowers transforms into starry desert vistas, leading to chilled-out surf towns by the ocean, followed by dusty walled cities full of bustling souks. Morocco is an all-out feast for the senses scattered along a 935-mile-long route.

Crevous/Shutterstock
Crevous/Shutterstock
Crevous/Shutterstock

Few countries pack the hospitality, versatile landscapes, and culinary trifecta punch of this storied North African land. Wind along curved roads surrounded by cliffs, indulge in heaping platters of fresh oysters along the coast, and get lost in medinas before kicking back in wind-swept coastal towns with mellow surf vibes.

From Tangier to Marrakech-with stops in Fes, Chefchaouen, and Essaouira-here’s how to drive through Morocco to see the most of the country.

franckreporter/E+/Getty Images
franckreporter/E+/Getty Images
franckreporter/E+/Getty Images

Best time of year to visit Morocco

Morocco has been called the “cold country with the hot sun.” And if you’ve ever visited here during the winter and wished you’d packed another layer despite the streaming sunshine, that saying will make a lot of sense.

Visitors are often surprised by just how chilly Morocco can be, particularly from November through January. Summer, on the other hand, ushers in absolute hair dryer-style heat, with June through August bringing the mercury to the max. Temperatures tend to stay warm bookending that period, from late spring into fall.

Moroccans will often tell you their favourite season here is spring, particularly March through May. Temperatures are mild, the sun warms instead of sizzles, and orange blossoms perfume the air. Spring is also the perfect time for a windows-down roadtrip, with cool star-filled nights still in the mix. But luckily Morocco is a year-round kind of place.

T. Schneider/Shutterstock
T. Schneider/Shutterstock
T. Schneider/Shutterstock

How to drive in Morocco and rent a car

You can rent a car in major Moroccan cities at airports and ports of entry, including in Tangier, Fes, Casablanca, and Marrakech. One-way rentals are widely available and cheap (sites like Orbitz and Expedia tend to offer good deals). Opt for a major international rental car company–Avis, EuropCar, Budget and the like–and be prepared that a hold will be placed on your credit card (required for rental) as a deposit.

Most roads in Morocco are paved and safe for non-4×4 vehicles. But be aware that most car rental companies rent primarily manual (stick shift) cars. If you require one with an automatic transmission, expect rental rates to be considerably higher, and be sure to specify that in advance of your arrival. Be sure to take photos of your rental car before leaving the lot and make the company aware of any damages (even minor scratches) to avoid any problems when you return it.

Avoid driving at night in Morocco as streetlights are not widespread and there might be animals on the road, as well as surprise pot holes. Have your paperwork handy for any police stops on the road. Driving is on the right side of the road, same as the US, and seatbelts are mandatory throughout the country. Cell phone use is not allowed while driving unless you have a hands-free system.

Kanuman/Shutterstock
Kanuman/Shutterstock
Kanuman/Shutterstock

Tangier to Chefchaouen

Whether you land in Tangier by ferry from Southern Spain (boats leave from Gibraltar, Tarifa, or Algeciras) or fly into Tangier Ibn Battouta International Airport, prepare for sensory overload in the best way upon arriving in Morocco. The port city straddles the line between continents, with a whitewashed medina overlooking the deep blue Mediterranean sea.

After you’ve toured the city’s impressive Kasbah and shopped for lanterns, spices, and the ubiquitous Berber carpets in its souks, settle in to feast on the fruits of the sea at Le Saveur de Poisson, a seafood restaurant casually tucked inside an 18th-century palace with a fixed menu and killer fish soup and tagines.

From Tangier, you’ll want to start heading to Chefchaouen, Morocco’s famous blue-coloured city, where you can get your Instagram fix in fifty shades of cerulean. It takes about two hours to drive the 70 miles south along the N2 highway and up into the beautiful Rif Mountains.

But don’t rush this part of the journey. Before leaving Tangier, detour just west of the city to see the Hercules Caves and Cape Spartel, near the entrance to the Strait of Gibraltar, where the Mediterranean Sea and Atlantic Ocean meet.

Shortly before arriving in Chefchaouen, the Akchour Waterfalls make for another worthy detour. Just 45 minutes northeast of town, a short jog east off the highway leads you to a big, clear pool, where you can sink in to refresh from the road.

Mitzo/Shutterstock
Mitzo/Shutterstock
Mitzo/Shutterstock

Chefchaouen to Fes

The next stretch is a 3.5-hour drive to Fes. Here, the journey unspools along ribboning mountain roads with stunning views of the Rif. These peaks are particularly beautiful in spring time, when they turn emerald green and flutter with red poppies springing up in idyllic meadows.

It’s worth staying a few nights in a fabulous riad in the heart of Fes’s medina, where there’s only foot traffic (as well as donkeys, and the occasional daring moto) to contend with. You’ll want to park your car in one of the lots outside the walled old city, and walk around the endless shops, market stalls, and mosques.

Marouane Hammou/Shutterstock
Marouane Hammou/Shutterstock
Marouane Hammou/Shutterstock

Fes to Ifrane

You could break west from Fes and make straight for the coast, but we love this option to head south into the surprising cedar forests of Ifrane in Morocco’s Middle Atlas mountains.

A tidy little university town, Ifrane is dotted with peaked-roof, alpine-inspired architecture and is often called Morocco’s “Little Switzerland.” During the winter months, you can even get in some casual downhill runs via the two ski lifts at Michlifen Ski Station, a few miles outside of town.

Year round, you can spot barbary apes along the hiking trails within Ifrane National Park, or stroll easier trails to see waterfalls at Source Vittel.

streetflash/Shutterstock
streetflash/Shutterstock
streetflash/Shutterstock

Ifrane to Essaouira

This part of the trip is about the road, with plenty of stops along the way. You’re in for a big driving day (count on eight hours without stops) as you depart Ifrane’s forested surrounds to head west to Morocco’s Atlantic Coast. You’ll have a chance to pull over in Rabat and Meknes, which is often likened to a mini Fes and has a particularly appealing medina.

Bypass busy Casablanca in favour of stopping for lunch along the pretty lagoon in Oualidia, a scenic spot that’s considered the Moroccan oyster capital and where they’ve been farmed since the 1950s. There’s no shortage of restaurants in Oualidia hawking oysters along with massive lobsters, mussels, clams, and sea urchin eggs. But it’s hard to top the ocean views from La Table de la Plage, a seafood restaurant at the spectacular lagoon front beach hotel, La Sultana Oualidia, where you might be tempted to stay the night in one of the 12 rooms.

If you do continue on to Essaouira, aim to arrive in time to enjoy sunset from a perch along the city walls or at the chic rooftop at Taros Bar. Here you’ll often find live music, and you can sip a Moroccan wine or an inexpensive cocktail for a sundowner.

zodyakuz/Shutterstock
zodyakuz/Shutterstock
zodyakuz/Shutterstock

Essaouira to Taghazout

Don’t rush your time in Essaouira. This is where one of Morocco’s prettiest and most laid-back, white-washed medinas meets the windy coastline. You can easily spend a few days soaking in the spectacular coastal scenery. Learn to harness the wind with lessons from Ananas Kitesurfing. Or feast on grilled sardines from casual kiosks right in the port. To save money, do like Moroccans do and buy your sardines straight from the fishermen. Then pay a modest sum at most any seafood restaurant in town to have them grilled up and served with Moroccan bread called khobz and tomato, onion, and cucumber salads.

On your way to Taghazout, Morocco’s coolest surf town, detour about 30 minutes south to the uber-chill coastal enclave of Sidi Kaouki to see if the swell is breaking at the reliable beach break. Sidi Kaouki Surf Station has boards for rent and offers lessons if you’re up for paddling out.

It’s less than 90 miles south from there (about 2.5 hours) to reach Taghazout, which has been luring the intrepid surf set since the 1970s. The city brims with boutique hotels and villas catering to the waves-meets-yoga niche (DFrost and Surf Berbere have affordable weekly package deals).

After a great day riding (or just watching) the waves, sip something frosty for a sundowner at World of Waves, a family-run hotel and restaurant right on the beach.

Steve Photography/Shutterstock
Steve Photography/Shutterstock
Steve Photography/Shutterstock

Taghazout to Marrakech

The drive inland to Marrakech from Taghazout takes about four hours, passing through Berber villages and the rocky landscapes of the Agafay Desert as you approach the legendary red-walled city that’s the last stop on this road trip.

Consider spending a serene night in a Bedouin-style glamping tent under inky skies splattered with stars at a spot like Agafay Luxury Camp or Selina Agafay before finishing out your Moroccan adventure in the Marrakech fray.

In Marrakech, shop for textiles, leather goods, and mosaic works in the medina’s endless souks. Or set out on that vintage sidecar tour you’ve seen all over Instagram. Or just kick back and take in the human sideshow known as the Jemaa El Fna that takes place every night in the city’s main square-a circus of food vendors, snake charmers, storytellers, and more that feels like the very essence of why we travel the world, distilled.

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Terry Ward is a contributor for Thrillist.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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