Mint tea, Moroccan-style (Photo: Morocco Tourist Board)
Article 01 July

Morocco Travel Blueprint: 4 overland adventures

Millions of travellers have fallen for the charms of Marrakesh, but how many know about Morocco's laid back fishing villages, wild mountain trails and berber homestays? We've uncovered a few of North Africa's hidden highlights - just keep them to yourself

Morocco is hardly a newcomer to the travel scene. When the 1960s Hippie Trail was in full swing, the Marrakesh Express was one of its most well-trodden routes.

Since then, Morocco has become an increasingly big player in the world of independent travel, offering a taste of the truly exotic, barely four hours' flight from the UK.

The recent boom in converting riads (traditional townhouses) into boutique hotels has gone hand-in-hand with the opening of Moroccan skies to budget airlines, repackaging Morocco as a city-break destination. Tourist numbers have rocketed, and the love affair with all things North African shows no sign of abating.

But Morocco is a big country, and it contains far more than just the trendy hotspots highlighted by the weekend travel supplements. There are plenty of mountain villages, desert palm groves, picturesque fishing ports and ancient imperial cities that the beaten track merely runs past, rather than through.

Hidden corners

Few other countries can match Morocco's rich blend of culture and geography - Muslim, African and Arab, plus a long history of intellectual and artistic exchange with its European neighbours just across the narrow Strait of Gibraltar. Its climate is such that while the northern, temperate half of Morocco is famed for its olives, the south - where the country runs into the sands of the Sahara - dedicates itself to the date palm. Between these regions, four great mountain ranges ripple south from the Mediterranean coast, all ripe for exploration.

The Rif Mountains are a perfect example, offering the chance to spot monkeys while hiking, and to explore pretty, Spanish-influenced towns such as Chefchaouen. At the foot of the Middle Atlas range sits Meknès, an often-overlooked imperial capital, and the nearby whitewashed holy town of Moulay Idriss.

Away from Marrakesh, central and southern Morocco is dotted with valleys such as Aït Bougomez and Ourika, where new community tourism projects and village cooperatives are constantly springing up; here, too, the M'Goun Massif offers some of Africa's best trekking. And if you really want to get away from it all, the Atlantic coast appears to go on forever southward, through the Art-Deco-clad port of Sidi Ifni all the way into Western Sahara - a newfound haven for surfers.

1. Meknès & the Middle Atlas

Imperial cities and cedar trees (one-two weeks)
Fez - Meknes - Volubilis - Moulay Idriss - Azrou - Ifrane National Park - Ifrane

The rolling landscape at the foot of the Middle Atlas is the old agricultural and political heart of Morocco. Most visitors start and finish their trips in Fez, but there are plentiful attractions outside this grand old city.

The imperial city of Meknès, Fez's near neighbour, initially feels modest in comparison, but more than holds its own in terms of history and architecture. The vision of the 17th-century ruler Moulay Ismail, it has all the grand walls, ceremonial gateways and narrow souqs you could wish for, and it beats Fez on public spaces, boasting massive Agdal Basin Lake and a great café-lined square made for people-watching.

The mosaic-strewn remains of the Roman city of Volubilis sit nearby, overlooked by the whitewashed holy town of Moulay Idriss. A reputation for piousness restricted visitors to photo-opportunity stops here (it was rumoured that non-Muslims were banned from overnighting), but now several homestays and small hotels have sprung up to attract travellers. Promenading on the main square at sunset, with not a single tourist in sight, is a feeling to be treasured.

From the area's olive groves and vineyards (most of Morocco's wine is produced here), head into the mountains. The Berber town of Azrou makes a great base for exploring the Middle Atlas. Haggle at the huge and unmissable Tuesday market, then reach for your hiking boots and delve into the wooded landscape. There's particularly good trekking to 'Ain Leuh through cedar forests to the waterfall of l'Oum er-Rbia, although there are plentiful trails - the area falls inside the newly minted Ifrane National Park.

Just north of Azrou, and still inside the national park, Ifrane itself shatters just about every preconception of Morocco you may have. Instead of an ancient medina, this town looks like picture-postcard Switzerland with its alpine chalets and neatly manicured lawns. It's a popular Moroccan holiday spot quite ignored by foreigners, and its woods and lawns throng with picnickers in summer and snowball-throwers in winter. The nearby lake of Dayet Aoua is good for camping, hiking and birdwatching. Everywhere you go, you'll be offered trout for dinner: the Middle Atlas is famous for it.

2. Tangier to the Rif

Spanish flavour amid the mountains (one-two weeks)
Tangier - Tetouan - Martil/M'Diq - Chefchaouen - Talassemtane National Park

Northern Morocco, where the Rif Mountains rise up from the Mediterranean Sea, is one of the least visited yet most charming parts of the country. The colonial division of Morocco saw this part of the country ruled over by the Spanish, rather than the French, an influence still felt through both architecture and language.

Start your trip in Tangier, the port city that still carries a whiff of the decadence associated with the Beat writers and jet-setters that flocked here in the 1940s and 50s. Tangier has had a bad rap from some travellers due to the hustlers that follow the day-trippers from Spain, but the city has invested a lot of money in renovating public spaces and sprucing up the medina overlooking the port. Fashionable riads have followed, and the city has a great restaurant and café scene.

It's an hour's drive to the foot of the Rif Mountains and the old Spanish colonial capital of Tetouan, which has a stunning setting, particularly in the spring when the hills riot with wildflowers. It's a town in two halves - a World Heritage-listed Moroccan medina of winding streets and markets, and the bright-white boulevards of the Ensanche, full of recently restored Spanish Deco buildings.

It's a short taxi ride from here to the Mediterranean - pick either Martil or the slightly trendier M'Diq for great seafood. Both towns are popular with holidaying Moroccans, yet virtually ignored by travellers.

Turning inland, and deeper into the mountains, all roads lead to Chefchaouen, the jewel of the Rif. Its medina is one of Morocco's loveliest, with almost every building painted cornflower blue and finished with terracotta tiles. It's the right size to get comfortably lost in for an afternoon, possibly buying a local woollen Berber rug, before finding your way to the cafés on the main plaza for a restorative fruit juice. It's almost too relaxing.

Chefchaouen's green slopes are ideal for day walks, but there's plenty of choice if you want a longer trek. One option is the four- to five-day trek from the town through Talassemtane National Park. A mix of deep gorges, oak forests and high pastures, you also stand a good chance of spotting Barbary macaques.

3. The southern Atlantic coast

Wild dunes, rare seals and a path less travelled (ten days)
Agadir - Souss-Massa National Park - Mirleft - Tiznit - Tafraoute - Sidi Ifni - Western Sahara

To many people, Agadir is Moroccan mass tourism writ large. It's a fair point, but looked at more as a gateway to the rewarding southern Atlantic coast it starts to take on a different complexion.

Souss-Massa National Park, just south of Agadir, contains a series of spectacular landscapes, from cliffs and dunes to inland forest. You could spend several days tramping, but the richness of the birdlife is the biggest draw. European migrants (particularly water birds) over-winter here, and Souss-Massa holds half the world's population of the endangered bald ibis.

The dramatically beautiful coastal road continues to Mirleft, the sort of laidback and slightly funky fishing village that some travellers dream their whole life of discovering. It has a clutch of modest yet cool hotels, and days revolve around beachwalking, cafés, poking about in the market and fresh fish for dinner.

It's also worth travelling inland to Tiznit, an old Berber caravan town with a sleepy walled medina and a name for excellent silver jewellery. Its grand mosque is more reminiscent of the wood-studded mudbrick mosques of Mali than anything elsewhere in Morocco.

Tiznit is the gateway to the red granite Anti Atlas. Continue on to Tafraoute in the Ameln Valley. It's an area perfect for exploring by mountain bike, with attractive villages, prehistoric petroglyphs and the surreal Painted Rocks - giant boulders spray-painted primary colours in the 1980s by a Belgian artist.

Rejoin the coast road at Sidi Ifni, an old Spanish port with an architectural fantasy of grand Art Deco buildings. From here you're heading into Western Sahara, where few travellers ever tread. A colonial hangover from Spain, the region is claimed by Morocco, although its status remains undecided under international law due to the local Saharawi population seeing things rather differently. Not that you'd notice at first glance; massive investment has made this a de facto part of Morocco.

The towns of Laâyoune and Dakhla are modern and thriving, with surfing a popular activity; the nearby bird-rich Rio de Oro lagoon supports a small colony of Mediterranean monk seals - the world's rarest seal. After Dakhla, there's no further option but to turn north again – or take the paved road that leads all the way to Mauritania...

4. Hidden corners of the High Atlas

Deep valleys, high passes and Berber hospitality (two weeks)
Marrakesh - Demnate - Azilal - Ait Bougomez - M'Goun Massif OR Marrakesh - Telouet - Anmiter - Ouarzazate - Agdz - Zagora - Erg Chigaga - Dades Valley

Marrakesh is the jumping-off point for this itinerary. After the throng of the Pink City's big attractions, take the pace down a gear by heading out to some of the less-explored parts of the High Atlas.

There are plenty of entry points into the mountains, but a lesser-used one is through Azilal to the north-east of Marrakesh. En route, stay at Demnate, a Berber town with mixed Muslim/Jewish heritage famous for its raucous saint's day festivals.

Azilal is the base for exploring the loveliest of all High Atlas valleys, Aït Bougomez. Lined with hillside terrace farms and orchards, the valley's three main villages of Aït Bououli, Agouti and Tabant have all formed associations covering everything from carpet weaving to food production, guide training and health and education projects, putting the region at the vanguard of Moroccan ecotourism. Trekkers will be delighted at the proximity of the M'Goun Massif, one of the wildest yet least-visited hiking areas in Morocco.

Alternatively, the highway running south-east from Marrakesh climbs to twist and hairpin across the breathtaking Tizi n'Tichka Pass. A little beyond, it's worth exploring the grand ruins of the kasbah at Telouet, which once grew rich taxing the caravans of this old trading route. The nearby farming village of Anmiter offers homestays with Berber families.

Over the spine of the mountains, Ouarzazate is a good hub. It has a beautifully restored kasbah at its heart, but arguably more fun to visit is the Atlas Film Studios just outside town, where you can poke around film sets from some of the Hollywood blockbusters filmed in the region.

From Ouarzazate, turn south towards the Drâa Valley, where the road passes through narrowing gorges and land dries up as the desert rushes nearer. Stop first at the oasis village of Agdz, with a kasbah and green swathes of date palms. Faced with recent drought, the village has formed a community organic garden project that welcomes visitors. From here, the better-known charms of the Sahara - Zagora and Erg Chigaga - can easily be explored.

Alternatively, backtrack to Ouarzazate and the Dadès Valley. Here you'll find the rosewater town of Kelaâ M'Gouna, the hillside town of Boumalne du Dadès and the truly spectacular Dadès Gorge. Hiking boots are strongly recommended.