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Usual Suspects Head for Casablanca

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

WHO: Eva Melanson, 63, of Waldorf, and three female friends.

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DREAM TRIP: Morocco.

BACKGROUND: The quartet, whose ages range from 58 to 64, have taken an annual trip to Europe the past four years. Next fall, they wish to travel to Morocco. They'd like their 10-day itinerary to include Marrakech and/or Casablanca and, of course, a camel ride. Melanson's budget is $3,000, but she won't complain if it's less.

OUR SUGGESTIONS: Fly Air Maroc from Washington (connecting in New York's JFK) to Casablanca, where you should plan a full day of activities. Organize a tour ahead of time; the District-based Casablanca Travel and Tours (202-337-0800, http://www.arabwebsite.com/Casablanca.html) offers a full-day outing with lunch for $85 each or provides a car and driver for $160 total -- or hail a cab from place to place.

DAY 1: Divide your time between La Corniche, an esplanade with golden strands and oceanside cafes; the Ain Diab neighborhood, rife with supremely fresh seafood restaurants; Mohammed V Square, which contains the Mahakama Law Courts and the Habous Quarter; and Boulevard Muhammad V, which is lined with boutiques, standout architecture and the Marche Central, a jumble of souks selling everything from turtles to genie-style leather shoes. In addition, non-Muslims can take a guided tour of the Hassan II Mosque, second in size only to Mecca. For a "Casablanca" fix, grab a snack and souvenir at Rick's Cafe (248 Blvd. Sour Jdid), a Bogart-themed Planet Hollywood of sorts.

Overnight near the Casa Voyageurs train depot, so you won't have to stumble far to catch the train to Marrakech the next day. The Ibis Moussafir Casablanca (Boulevard Bahmad Place de la Gare Casa, 011-212-22-401984, http://www.ibishotel.com) is a well-regarded chain steps from the station. Rooms start at $58 a night, including breakfast.

DAYS 2-4: The train to Marrakech has about nine departures daily, so don't fret if you sleep through the first few. The ride takes just over three hours and costs $16 for first class. (Hassan Samrhouni of Casablanca Tours urges travelers to spend the extra bucks for first class and to avoid the train over the holidays.) Info: http://www.oncf.ma/voyages/offre-trains.htm.

In Marrakech, don't go express; instead, spend a leisurely two or three days exploring this crazy quilt of a city. The heart of Marrakech lies in Jemaa-el-Fna (Place of the Dead), a market square that transforms daily into a circus of snake charmers, monkey handlers, fortunetellers and food venders. Restaurants and shops ring the plaza, and cafes with rooftop decks provide guests with mint tea, petits fours and aerial views.

After a pick-me-up coffee, wander the old medina, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and its souks, artisan workshops and monuments. Drop in at rug shops and discuss Berber patterns over mint tea, or snack on pastries sold from mobile kitchens. You may want to hire a guide (ask at your hotel) for the medina portion, or leave behind a trail of dates.

If you thought Versailles was overdecorated, check out the designs at such opulent palaces as El Bahia and El Badia, next door to the Saadian Tombs (also worth a peek). For flowers, Islamic art and a bucket soak, head to Le Jardin Majorelle, which includes the Museum Majorelle and is near a popular hammam, or public bathhouse. And, bien sur, don't leave out the mosques, such as the city's largest, Koutoubia Mosque; only Muslims can enter the holy building, but its minaret and intricate exterior are equally uplifting.

For accommodations, spend your nights in a riad, a traditional Moroccan house with an interior garden. The properties vary in price, with some starting as low as $53 a night. For options, see such booking sites as http://www.riadsmorocco.com and http://www.riads-marrakech.net.

DAYS 5-9: From Marrakech, you can sign up for a full-day camel excursion to the Sahara, but then you'd miss out on the Berber villages, gorges, cedar forests draped with apes, etc. A better option is to take a four-day tour from Marrakech to Fez that pairs the sunset camel trek in Erg Chebbi at Merzouga with such sights as the Kasbah Ait Benhaddou, Rose Valley and more. Many operators organize this type of excursion, such as Authentic Morocco (011-44-845-0944-725, http://www.authentic-morocco.com; from $412 per person) and Morocco Explored (604-393-3715, http://www.moroccoexplored.com/2-moroccocameltreks.html; $507 per person based on four guests). Besides meals, transportation, camel, etc., the price also includes an overnight in a nomadic camel-hair tent-- or a hotel room if you don't sleep well on sand.

DAYS 10-11: The Moroccan capital of Fez is one of the country's marquee cities. It is home to the oldest and largest medieval city in the world, and its medina (also a UNESCO World Heritage Site) out-cities its main urban center. Besides visiting the usual dried-fruit sellers, weavers and silversmith shops, test your stomach at the pungent tannery near the Karaouine Mosque. Of course, don't ignore the "new" city, Fes el Jadid, which dates from the Middle Ages and contains the Jewish quarter and the Royal Palace. (Like Marrakech, you can hire a guide for the day or do it on your own by cab; ask at your hotel for recommendations.)

For lodging, spend your night in the frenzy of Fez. The Jnane Palace (Avenue Ahmed Chaouki, 011-212-37-6692-17, http://www.sogatour.ma/web_eng/jnanpalace.html) is a five-star property with a Moroccan restaurant, tea salon and shuttle to the Royal Golf de Fez, an 18-hole course. Rates from $120 through Orbitz. You can also opt for a riad; check the listings at RiadsMorocco.com (011-33-1-42-08-1833, http://www.riadsmorocco.com). Riad Zamane ( http://www.riadzamane.com), for instance, is an elegant home in the old city, with rooms from $130 a night.

DAY 12: On your last day, take a break from city life and taxi over to the nearby spa town of Moulay Yacoub, replete with thermal baths, pools and a hammam. A good, long soak will make the four-hour train trip ($20) back to Casablanca -- and the seven-hour flight home -- that much more enjoyable.

SPLURGE: In Marrakech, indulge your appetite and wallet with a traditional Moroccan feast, where you will be lavished with food, drink, belly dancers and music. Le Tobsil (22 Derb Moulay Abdallah ben Hezzaien, Ksour-R'mila; $76 each) comes highly recommended; a flashier option is Chez Ali (011-212-2430-7730, http://www.ilove-marrakesh.com/chezali), a "Fantasia" show outside the city with tented dining rooms, tribal performers, a fanciful horse show and fireworks; $50 per person.

If you prefer to be your own mini-master in the Moroccan kitchen, try a one-day cooking class in Fez. Lahcen's Moroccan Cooking (011-212-15-8661-44, http://www.fescooking.com) takes guests on a souk shopping trip, then teaches them how to prepare a three-course meal in a riad, with entrees including such classics as tagine and pastilla (no pigeon-trapping required). Cost: about $40 per person for groups of two or more, plus about $13 more for ingredients.

TOTAL COST: Through Casablanca Travel and Tours, the Air Maroc flight costs about $650 round trip from New York's JFK; add about $150 to fly from Washington. The four-day camel trek costs about $400 to $500. Staying in midrange lodging, expect to pay about $480 total. Train travel is $36. Total cost for the trip, not including food, tips, incidentals and splurges: about $1,800 per person.

-- Andrea Sachs


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