800-876-0168 Unforgettable small ship cruise vacations, by Sue Bradley.
Operating as usual
Moroccan Small Group Travel – This is the end of our Moroccan adventure, and we’ve had several people reach out and ask questions about this trip, so here are the most common questions:
Who goes on these trips? – our group consisted of 11 people: 3 Americans, 4 British, 2 Canadians, 1 Irish, 1 Swiss, and of course, our Moroccan guide. The age range was 17 to late 60s. Eight of us were over 55.
What does it cost? -- Under $200 per day. This includes all transportation, accommodation, several meals, and most of our activities. The value is really quite outstanding. In other parts of the world, the cost may be slightly higher, but it is still tremendous value. We’ve done a few trips with small group travel companies, and I find it is usually less expensive than making my own arrangements.
Do I have to be super-fit? -- No… we’re not. You need to able to walk unassisted for an hour, with some uphill. Overland trips are all rated as to the physical requirements.
Where can I travel to? -- Almost anywhere – small group travel companies operate on all 7 continents. If you wanted to experiment to figure out if this type of travel is right for you, there are lots of small group tours in the United States and Canada – a great way to check it out.
Do you recommend Intrepid Travel? -- Without hesitation for the right person. Just like the cruise lines, there are several different land tour companies, and no one product is perfect for everyone. What I loved most about our trip to Morocco was how much of it we were able to see in 11 days, AND the depth with which we were able to see it, thanks to our Moroccan guide.
The first “foreign” experience for cruisers is often Alaska. I guess that makes sense – it is very different than the lower 48, and you get a stamp of a maple leaf in your passport from the Canadians.
The next outing is usually to Europe, which also makes sense not only because of the rich history and cultures there, but also because for those of us in the Eastern time zone it’s only about 6 or 7 hours away (about the same as Alaska!)
Once you go beyond Europe, it’s much more of a commitment to get there, so many people think twice.
Australia / New Zealand (ANZ) are on my radar for a few reasons. The first is quite personal – I lived in Australia for 4 years as a child, so it is part of who I am. The second is that New Zealand is easily one of my favourite destinations on the planet, and I am long overdue to get back (the last time I was there, I was pregnant with our son, who is now 18).
There is no doubt that Australia and New Zealand are a long way away. The two big airports in North America for flights to Asia and Australia are LA and Vancouver, and it’s a 15-hour flight from either to get to Sydney, and almost as long to Auckland.
That’s a long way, and if you’ve only got a week to spare it’s a non-starter. For those with a bit more time, it’s well worth exploring. Here are some reasons why:
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P.S. Give us a call at 800-876-0168 to book your next trip.
Essaouira – In the local language, the name of this city means “image” – and this is very appropriate for this picturesque Atlantic port. People have lived here since pre-historic times, and there are remnants of different periods of history everywhere. Most notably, the fortress walls still stand (and are a great place to get photos).
You may have already seen pictures of this city – Game of Thrones Season 3 was mostly filmed here.
Besides tourism, there is a sizeable fishing industry in this city of 100,000.
The Medina of Mogador (as Essaouira is sometimes called from it’s time being occupied by the French) is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Oulad Berhil – Today is a transition day between the desert and the ocean – and there are a lot of miles between those two things, so we’re overnighting in this small town at a family Riad (a Moroccan Inn) with a really interesting backstory.
This site is formerly a palace owned by a Danish business person. When he died in the late 90s, he left the entire property to the local Moroccan that was his personal driver. He now runs it as an Inn for travellers like us. The grounds are really interesting, and surrounded by walls on all side (really, what palace isn’t?)
Along our journey we also stopped to see an unusual sight – goats standing in trees. It seems the Moroccan goats have learned to climb the argan trees to get to the berries. They then eat the fleshy part, and spit out the pit, that the locals then collect to press into argan oil. Who knew goats were part of the production chain for this expensive crop!
Desert Camp at Erg Chigaga Dunes
This desert camp about 70 kilometres from the Algerian border – we really are in the outback now.
Despite its remoteness, the accommodations here are very comfortable. There is potable water, mobile phone reception (incredibly), and flush toilets – all the comforts of home. What’s different from home is the 360 degree view of the never-ending Sahara Desert, with the dunes neatly stacked up on three of four sides of the camp.
This makes for stunning photos – particularly at sunrise and sunset.
It’s also a great place for a camel ride (because you can’t go to the Sahara, and NOT ride a camel!). This was slightly more exotic than the pony rides you took your kids to at the zoo, but not quite as adventurous at it might sound. The camels were all tethered to each other, and under the careful guidance of our hosts. It seems that camels can be temperamental and occasionally cranky – they’ve been known to bite the occasional tourist if they’re having a bad day. Luckily… no injuries for our group; but some fantastic photos, and stories to last a lifetime.
Driving in the Sahara -- not for the faint of heart.
Journey into the Sahara
They said “desert camp”, but I heard “dessert camp” – so I was trying to figure why we were travelling so far for a piece of cheesecake. Tomorrow I’ll talk about the camp… today’s all about getting there and back.
We drove through the desert, past the occasional oasis, and sand dunes as far as the township of Tamegroute – where the paved roads end. En route, we stopped at a pottery cooperative, where artisans still make their wares in the traditional way, with wood-fired kilns. We also had lunch with a local family, and visited the underground casbah before transferring to 4 X 4 vehicles for the journey into the Sahara.
There aren’t any paved roads to our destination, and driving through sand dunes, is not unlike driving in a really bad snow storm, so I was happy NOT to be driving. We stopped at a well along the way, that was just like you see in the movies – nomadic people stopping to give themselves and their animals a drink. What I didn’t expect was the solar panel on the well so the nomads could also charge their iPhones.
We also stopped at a village of a nomadic family. In the winter months they live in the desert, and in the next few weeks, they will transition to the mountains, where the weather is a bit more moderate for the summer.
Zagora – Today we journey south further into the Sahara Desert, but first we had to make a stop at the Atlas Movie Studios at Ouarzazate. If you can imagine visiting old movie sets, like at Universal Studios California – but in the desert (with a fraction as many tourists!)
Unlike California, the Atlas Studio is NOT constrained for space, so many of the former movie sets here still stand – partially to give passing tourists something to do, and partially because they can be re-used for subsequent productions.
Some productions you may have seen that were done here: Gladiator, The Mummy, Game of Thrones (Season 3), The Living Daylights, Babel, Prison Break (Season 5), and Aladdin. There are even more productions for TV and Film releases in Europe and Africa that you’ve probably never heard of (yep… the United States is NOT the only TV and Film market in the world!)
After our brush with Hollywood (East), we followed the Draa Valley towards Zagora, an oasis town, surrounded by Palm Tree plantations to keep sand out.
The word “oasis” is used to describe a comfortable escape, but this is an actual oasis – a community, surrounded by desert, with high walls, and a palm tree farm used to protect against the sand storms that rip through here seasonally. Our local guide (with some English translation help from Mohamed) took us through the casbah here at Zagora. People live simply, but they have electricity, internet, potable water, and a sanitary sewer.
It also appears they have something we have lost – community. As we wandered through this town, people were outside, interacting with their neighbors – just like we used to.
Ait Benhaddou – (Easy for YOU to say). You might not have ever heard of this place, but you’ve definitely seen it. The iconic old section of this town on the eastern side of the High Atlas Mountains at the edge of the Sahara has been in many Hollywood films and TV productions. Most notably, this former stop for Caravans has been a backdrop for Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, and Game of Thrones.
Mohamed, our Intrepid Travel guide, also took us to visit two womens’ cooperatives to see first-hand how this business model is improving the lives of local women. Tawesna Teahouse produce pastries and teas for the many visitors that visit this historical site. The rug-making cooperative Akhif Glaoui, is similarly run by women who keep this artisan craft alive, and make a living for their families and communities.
Do you ever stay at a hotel or resort, and when you get your final bill, you have to sit down when you see it, because you think you’re either completely misunderstanding or maybe having a stroke?
This happened to me a couple times recently.
Bob and I were doing some domestic travel earlier this year and stayed at various hotel and resort properties along the way.
Each of the places we stayed was lovely, but I was quickly reminded of the incredible value per dollar you get with cruise vacations. The transparency of the value equation is also far superior on the water than it is on land.
Now, I am well aware that with some cruise lines, it’s easy to get into a situation where your end-of-cruise charges far exceed the fare you paid to get on the ship in the first place. But you get what you pay for. When you’re paying just $75/night for a cruise that includes accommodation, all your meals, and fantastic entertainment, you should expect an upcharge here and there. If you really dislike this arrangement, then you’ll want to try a more inclusive cruise line.
But back to my original rant…
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P.S. Give us a call at 800-876-0168 to book your next trip.
Aroumd -- Today it’s time to leave the urban comfort of Marrakech, and begin to explore some of the rest of southern Morocco. We joined up with a small group of like-minded travellers for this adventure, through Intrepid Travel. We really like this method of exploring: the group size is small (there are only 11 of us), and our guide, Mohamed, is a local with a deep and personal knowledge of this fascinating region. Travelling with Intrepid is a bit like visiting a place where you have a hyper-organized friend (Mohamed) that takes care of you, and shows you around.
The journey from Marrakech to Aroumd is only about 3 hours, but we gain over 5000 feet in elevation as we ascend the High Atlas Mountains. Needless to say, I was surprised, and a bit unprepared for the wet snow. Yes… I am fully aware of the irony of leaving the North American winter to get to Africa, and experience snow.
The first two hours was a scenic drive up winding mountain roads. The last hour, we hiked to reach our accommodation for the night. The walk was not too strenuous (albeit, through wet, sloppy snow). Luckily we had donkey-support to carry our luggage, so we got to truly enjoy the unique scenery and vistas.
Tonight we stay at a gite run by a Berber family. They took us for a guided walk of their village, and cooked us a traditional Moroccan meal of tajine and couscous, while we huddled around the fire in their main room, and dried off out the day’s wet clothes. There is no central heat here, but there is electricity and (believe it or not) high speed internet.
Marrakech, Morocco -- Modern and urban; traditional and tribal; European and Middle Eastern. Marrakech is a collision of cultures. Most of the city is newer, but designed and styled like many of the traditional earth-colored buildings seen across Morocco.
This city has been here since 1070, and some of the old-city walls still remain. Today, about 1 million people call Marrakech home.
The old Medina (a UNESCO world heritage site) is a stark contrast to the new area we are staying in. If you want to buy a carpet, a traditional Moroccan garment, or maybe see a snake charmer – it’s all available in the Medina.
King Mohammed VI has been on the throne of Morocco since the late 1990s, and is quite progressive by many standards. He has been committed to building a solid tourist industry, and that is evident here in Marrakech. Even though the country only reopened after the pandemic a few weeks before we arrived, this place is open and ready for biz.
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