I just returned from a 12-day tour of Morocco with Intrepid. My reasons for going were threefold:
1) I had not been to northern Morocco before
2) I had not been on an Intrepid Premium Adventure before
3) I wanted to see how Intrepid was managing tours post-pandemic
Read on for an in-depth review of this tour.
Arrival in Casablanca
The tour started in Casablanca, Morocco's commercial capital. I had arrived a day early to buffer for any airline delays. It turned out this was unnecessary as all my flights were on time and being "on the road" again was pleasurable throughout.
Intrepid met me at the airport and together with other travellers I was quickly whisked into town in a comfortable vehicle. Intrepid combined the arrivals of people on different tours, which was fine albeit a little confusing when you try to figure out who is in your own group.
After meeting the tour group in the evening we had a lovely dinner at a high-end restaurant in town.
The next day we spent the morning looking around the King Hassan II mosque, the third largest mosque in the world. I had been before but the visit had me floored yet again, what with the amazing architecture of the building.
The vehicle, local guides, Meknes and Rabat
After visiting the King Hassan II mosque we travelled in a small private coach to Rabat and Meknes. Our driver Said was a good driver and took few risks. The vehicle we travelled in was a 16-seater Mercedes coach with banks of two seats on the left and a row of single seats on the right. As we were only 11 travellers (Intrepid takes a maximum of 12 guests on premium tours), we had room to spread out. The view from the windows was mostly good although for some of the city sightseeing one had to crane one's neck to see what our tour leader was pointing out. The vehicle had air-conditioning and the temperature was comfortable.
Rabat didn't hold enough for me to be of interest (and I note Intrepid omits it from the trip in 2023) but we had an excellent local guide in Meknes who took us on foot through the old town.
Intrepid's local guides were of an excellent calibre throughout with those in Meknes and a kasbah museum later on standing out.
A health scare
One person on our tour came down with a suspected case of corona virus and Intrepid didn't hesitate to get her isolated and tested for Covid. It turned out to be a false alarm and the tour company's protocols worked well.
Volubilis, Fes and the disappointment
After an overnight in Meknes and a picnic under an olive tree, we continued on to the Roman town of Volubilis.
Now mostly in ruins, the site is famous for its mosaics. I particularly enjoyed the extensive remains of the basilica.
From here we travelled on to Fes, another of Morocco's imperial cities.
Fes is famous for its suqs, the labyrinthine alleyways and streets that make up most of the old city.
Unfortunately the departure dates of the trip are such that you get to tour the markets on a Friday, when most of the shops are closed.
Thus we missed out on the hustle and bustle these markets are famous for. It was a disappointment only partially made up for by visiting the suq in Marrakesh. The solution? Book the 15-day version of this trip which also includes the Blue City of Chefchaouen; this tour will get you to Fes when the markets are in full swing.
Still, we got a good view of the tanneries, the smelly colouring vats of the leather industry, another thing for which Fes is famous. Most of our group indulged in some serious shopping.
The tour has quite a few shopping stops, something which Intrepid claims is deeply engrained in the Moroccan tourism industry. Most of these stops are at high-quality shops but those looking for bargains or a small souvenir may have to do this on their own time.
The hotel in Fes was the much-touted feature stay of the tour and as such the interior of thie riad, a hotel located in an old mansion built around a courtyard, was spectacular. Despite this being the most luxurious hotel on the trip, service was spotty though, as if some of the staff was poorly trained.
One must have the right expectations for these hotels though. When a hotel brands itself as 4 or 5-star, as many of the hotels on this trip do, this should be understood as 4 or 5-star Moroccan rating. It may have all the facilities, but some of it may be a little warn or tired. Expect a missing shower curtain, a tap handle that falls off or an electrical socket in an unexpected place (like inside the bathroom, above the door).
Still, for adventurous travellers looking for comfort rather than luxury, all hotels passed the test. They were all lovely and quiet and except for Fes, service was always excellent and friendly.
Into the desert - long driving days with plenty of surprises
From Fes we drove over the mountains of the Middle and High Atlas into the Sahara. East of the mountains the landscapes are dry and some might find the drives, spread out over two days, monotous. However, it is here that Intrepid shines compared to all the other tour operators. While there are few real sights of interest, Intrepid gave us plenty of cultural impressions. We visited a nomad camp and a local market, had lunch with a family and listened to a musical group at another meal. None of these stops are described in the trip notes, which makes each of them a delightful surprise.
Tea in the Sahara
Soon it was time to mount our camels and ride off into the sunset to our luxury camp among the sand dunes of the Sahara.
The tents had proper beds and simple bathrooms with toilets and showers.
We enjoyed an evening of drumming around the campfire and stargazing. The night was cold, and, as the heaters inside the tents get turned off after bedtime, we donned our pj's.
The next morning we rode our camels back and by then I had mastered the art of getting on and off.
After arriving back in relative civilization, our journey continued along the Road of a Thousand Kasbahs, stopping at Todra Gorge for a short hike and to enjoy the views
Rest at an oasis
With this being a twelve day trip trying to cover as much ground as possible, the travel can feel intense. And after three long travelling days we were indeed ready for a break.
We found it in a delightful ecolodge in the Skoura Valley, one of the many valleys that tumble down the eastern flank of the High Atlas,
We stayed here for two nights and on the rest day in between we walked ancient paths through the oasis, visited an excellent kasbah museum and lounged around the hotel grounds.
The guide at the kasbah, a fortified house, had a contagious enthusiasm and acted if he visited his own museum for the very first time.
This part of the country has been dubbed the Road of a 1000 Kasbahs and while I stopped counting after the first ten, we indeed passed many. A highlight was the UNESCO-preserved kasbah of Ait ben Haddou, often used as a set for movies and TV productions, such as Lawrence of Arabia, Game of Thrones and Gladiator.
Here we visited a women's cooperative selling beautiful carpets and had lunch at another women's cooperative. Both are supported by Intrepid and both support many women who are either divorced or widowed and who would have fallen on hard times if not for the support of Intrepid and the travellers they bring in.
Another well-deserved two-night stay followed after travelling west, back across the High Atlas.
On our tour it was in the delightful Ourika Valley, known for its plentiful irrigation channels and pretty scenery.
In 2023 Intrepid has moved this stop to the much drier and higher Imlil valley, which will appeal more to serious hikers.
We had a morning walk through the valley, crossing several suspension bridges, visiting a market and seeing a bread-making demonstration.
The afternoon was spent at our hotel, drinking tea, chatting and lazing about.
Marrakesh and another improvement
On the penultimate day, Intrepid's trip notes call for a short drive to Marrakesh, a walking tour, followed by free time. Yet for some reason our tour of the city didn't start until 2pm, which meant we had virtually no free time in Marrakesh afterwards. It meant those of us who had not booked extra nights at the end of the tour had no time to explore what otherwise is a fascinating city. I note for 2023 Intrepid has scheduled an extra day and night in Marrakesh, which is a great improvement on the 2022 itinerary.
Our tour leader
Our tour leader Youssef was a delight to travel with. While we had to restate some of our questions at times, his English was excellent, he was well-organized and communicated well. Above all he had a wonderful laugh and a wicked sense of humor. When I asked him what to wear to the hammam, a traditional bath, he told me to wear a raincoat....
The final judgement
The tour was fast-paced with some long driving days but all the local experiences more than make up for that. Still, I would recommend travellers choose the 15-day version which spaces out the travelling a bit. If you have the time, also add the Essaouira extension, which gives you a few days to catch your breath in a small town on the Atlantic Ocean.
Intrepid has some things to iron out still, but overall I would give this tour a 7.5 ouf 10. It will appeal to people, looking for local immersion and with a sense of adventure who want to see and experience as much as possible in a short time, while staying in comfort.