Going Our Way: A 10th anniversary getaway to Morocco

By K.C. Summers
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 1, 2010; 1:14 PM

Who: Cynthia and Todd Thurlow, 38 and 40, respectively, of Ashburn

Where: Morocco

Why: 10th anniversary getaway

When: September 2011 for seven to nine days

Budget: $10,000

"We're celebrating 10 years together and wanted to see a part of the world that we have yet to visit. We are hopeful that Morocco will combine our passion for travel with a certain degree of romance and historical importance."

"You're wandering down a long, dark alley, and you start to wonder what you're doing there. Then you open a door and you're in a magical place exploding with color, tiles, gardens, a fountain."

Tour operator Christine Elbert is on the phone from Morocco, talking about riads, former private homes or small palaces that have been turned into guesthouses. Built around a central courtyard, they're furnished with traditional handmade furniture and textiles; some have terraces, gardens, swimming pools and private hammams (bath and spa).

You don't have to stay in a riad to have a great time in Morocco, but it adds romance and authenticity to the experience - which is what Cynthia and Todd Thurlow of Ashburn are looking for in their 10th-anniversary trip to the North African country next fall. Restored casbahs and desert resorts offer additional distinctive lodging options for the Thurlows, who want to combine luxury accommodations with local experiences and active pursuits. On their to-do list: museums, shopping, dining, hiking in the High Atlas Mountains, and perhaps a cooking class.

The first decision: Travel independently, or go with an escorted tour?

If you're up for adventure, Morocco is doable on your own, although you may spend more of your valuable vacation time than you'd like lost in the winding alleys of the medinas, or walled cities. Hire a local guide in each city, both to show you around and to help fend off touts. The Moroccan National Tourist Office Web site, www.visitmorocco.com, has a comprehensive list of government-certified guides organized by city.

With only a week in-country, you can hit the Big Four cities - Fez, Marrakech, Rabat and Casablanca - but consider mixing it up with a visit to the seaside resort of Essaouira, the snow-capped peaks of the High Atlas Mountains or the Berber villages of the Ourika Valley.

Frommer's (www.frommers.com) has several good suggested itineraries for one-week, 10-day and two-week stays. As for getting around, you can rent a car for maximum independence, but stick to daytime driving. Taking the train is easier; go to www.oncf.ma for fares and schedules.

If the logistics seem like too much to deal with, consider a custom tour. It's a good option for travelers who aren't the group-tour type but don't want to hassle with finding lodging and getting from city to city. You choose your own activities and move at your own pace, but you have a local resource to help you find your way, answer questions and point you to offbeat places. The tour operator usually provides private transportation and also may offer unique experiences, such as sharing a meal with a local family.

Of course, all this individual attention comes at a cost. Elbert, who runs Sahara Soul Travel (800-799-3080, www.saharasoultravel.com) with her Moroccan husband, said a nine-day private tour of Casablanca, Meknes, Fez, Marrakech and Asni, plus the High Atlas, would start at $2,990 per person double. The price includes lodging in five-star hotels; transportation in an air-conditioned minivan with a private English-speaking driver (plus a four-wheel-drive vehicle and camels in the desert); government-certified guides in major cities; entrance fees to monuments and museums; a cooking class; and daily breakfast and some dinners. Not included: international airfare, some lunches and dinners, alcoholic beverages and gratuities.

Other companies offering custom tours include Abercrombie and Kent (800-554-7016, www.abercrombiekent.com) and Journey Beyond Travel (765-387-4404, www.journeybeyondtravel.com).

Getting there: Expect to pay about $1,300 per person for travel from Washington to Casablanca next fall (as always, sign up for fare alerts from such sites as www.farecompare.com or www.smartertravel.com).

Royal Air Maroc is the only carrier offering nonstop flights from the United States to Casablanca, from New York's JFK Airport. (You can purchase tickets through Delta, which code shares with Royal Air Maroc.) To maximize your time on the ground, Elbert recommends buying an open-jaw ticket, from Washington to Casablanca on the outbound and Marrakech to Washington on the return.

Cost: Airfare from Washington will run about $2,600 for two, and a custom tour with Sahara Soul Travel starts at $5,980 per couple, for a total of $8,580. With a $10,000 budget, that leaves $1,420 for remaining meals, incidentals and gratuities.

Interested in having us help plan your trip? Go to www.washingtonpost.com/goingourway.

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