Eureka………Ourika!

The Atlas Mountains-90 degrees on the ground and traces of snow still on the mountaintops.
The Atlas Mountains-90 degrees on the ground and traces of snow still on the mountaintops.

To escape the heat, hustle and bustle of Marrakech, I decided to take a 90 minute drive to the Ourika Valley. This is in the Atlas Mountains which have Africa’s second highest peak (after Mount Kilimanjaro). The drive was nice and the scenery beautiful. Endless greenery, rivers, and mountains with cool breezes,  which is needed after the heat of Marrakech and its surrounding deserts. There are many small villages, primarily composed of Berbers, who were the first inhabitants of the African continent over 10,000 years ago. Many of the older people do not even speak Arabic or French (since they never attended school) and some have never even been to Marrakech. But they are a very proud people, honest, hardworking and great cooks-their tagine (clay pot) cooking is to die for! The mountains provide the raw material (clay) to turn this:

 

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Into this:

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The last village in the Ourika Valley is Setti Fatma. The locals take advantage of the beautiful landscape of the Ourika River and its surroundings by setting up rustic riverside restaurants serving delicious tagine.

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And many of the local villagers live in other smaller mountain villages and walk down the mountain paths to get to Setti Fatma to trade or sell their crops or to shop. To do this, they must cross this:

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To get home:

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And no matter how high up the mountain or remote the village is, its central mosque can be seen from far away.

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Even the mountain goats were friendly (thank God there was no goat tagine on any of the menus!)

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There are even 7 waterfalls (one higher up the mountain than the other) that you can visit. These waterfalls provide the abundant, flowing water of the Ourika River.

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The Ourika Valkey and Setti Fatma were one of the best experiences I had in Morroco!

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Lots of camels or camel-ot?

Camel caravans in the Palmeraie
Camel caravans in the Palmeraie

Just outside of Marrakech is the rocky desert area known as the Palmeraie. It is called the Palmeraie because amidst this rocky desert are about 100,000 date palm trees-a virtual palm tree oasis which stretches for 140 square kilometers. Legend has it that during the Almoravid berber dynasty (long  after the Arabs brought the Islamic religion to the Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia), the Sheikh’s troops were eating dates after battle. They spit the dates on the ground and eventually the seeds ended up in holes in the soil pierced by their lances. From this, the Palmeraie was born. Nowadays, many people ride quads and camels in the Palmeraie. I took a camel ride for a few hours through the area and my legs were hurting (and blistered) for 3 days. All in all, it was a good experience, the highlight of which was a mid-point stop in a small village  (tiny is a better word) where the locals served us moroccan pancakes (like crepes) and delicious mint tea (aka “Moroccan whiskey”).

 

My tricked out ride-they told me his name was "Charlie Chan"-I just called him Tariq!
My tricked out ride-they told me his name was “Charlie Chan”-I just called him Tariq!
I was elected the self-appointed (get it) Al Sheikh al Jamal-the Camel Sheikh
I was elected the self-appointed (get it) Al Sheikh al Jamal-the Camel Sheikh
The Palmeraie
The Palmeraie
Remember to always look two camels in front and one in back!
Remember to always look two camels in front and one in back!

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A Berber village in the distance
A  village in the distance
Our berber tea house
Our tea house
Look at Hesham pour that tea (no spills) and those pancakes hit the spot!
Look at Hesham pour that tea (no spills) and those pancakes hit the spot!

All in all, a great day!

 

To Market To Market

Jemaa al Fena Square
Jemaa al Fena Square

You cannot visit Marrakech without visiting its medina, or old city. This is comprised of the central Jemaa al Fena square, the medina itself which is the old city within the fortified walls and the market or souq. No matter how battle tested you are, this is definitely an experience for all of your senses. As you approach the old city, you will first arrive at the Jemaa al Fena Square. In Arabic, this could be translated as “Execution Square” as this is where public executions were carried out (and no, not last week, many years ago). I chose to visit in the day when the square was mostly orange juice, water, and dried fruit sellers and there were not many people. But at night this place gets crowded: snake charmers, monkeys, boys dancing, and all kinds of food including tagine, kebabs and plenty of roasted sheep’s head. And plenty of people!

Oranges are plentiful and delicious in Morocco!
Oranges and Orange juice are plentiful and delicious in Morocco!

The medina is where the locals live and carry on their daily activities and also  there are many riads, tradtional moroccan houses where all rooms are built around a central garden. Many of these are now small hotels owned and run by Europeans. And by local accounts there are about 900,000 people living within the medina and its 19 square kilometer walls. Many of the people living in the medina do not have kitchens or running water so they must depend on community ovens (where for a monthly or weekly fee, they can have some one cook their seasoned meat or fish,  roast their nuts or bake their bread) and public hammams or baths.

Community oven in the medina
Community oven in the medina

The medina also has a beautiful collection of doors on the older properties. Many of these doors are hundreds of years old and are made with solid wood and designed with intricate tile work. By looking at a door, one could tell not only who lived in the home, but also their social status, occupation and religion.

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I guess this family were motor cross drivers
I guess this family were motor cross drivers

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There are also caravan sarai which were places where the traders from the sahara desert could stop to rest, leaving their camels below in the stables and central courtyards and they would sleep upstairs.

Former caravan sarai
Former caravan sarai

From the medina we reach the souq or market. Besides the shops selling souvenirs, there are skilled artisans selling brass, copper and silver items, tanneries where leather is cut, cleaned, dyed and finished into beautiful leather goods and berber pharmacies where the peoplr go for their local remedies (got stomach problems, drink a tea made with natural plants, herbs and flowers-they have being doing this hundreds of years and many pharmacies are in their 5th generation of family operators.) They sell items like argan oil for the skin and hair, black soap for exfoliation,  amber (as a scent and also to freshen clothes), rose hips and crystals. You name the ailment, they have a natural remedy.

Leather shops
Leather shops
Berber pharmacy selling natural remedies
Berber pharmacy selling natural remedies

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There are also many shops selling dried fruit, nuts and spices.

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And after a while your ears, eyes and nose will be on sensory overload and you will want to get out of here as quickly as you came. But unless you have a great memory (nearly impossible) or a guide, you are certain to get lost in this maze. Just string together a couple of of where is the central square questions every 100 yards and eventually you will find it.

Freedom at last!
Freedom at last!

But treat yourself to a horse and buggy ride back to your hotel. It is only about $10 and after this experience you deserve it!

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And this will also give you great views (and photo ops) as you leave the old city!

Leaving the old city
Leaving the old city

 

 

 

 

 

Le Meridien N’Fis-a great choice in Marrakech

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  There are many travel threads regarding where to stay in Marrakech. Some swear by staying in the medina, near the souks in a typical riad type hotel Others want to stay in a luxury chain hotel. I wanted a bit of both. An authentic experience of a Moroccan riad with some of the familiar trappings and consistency of a brand hotel (if this was possible). After plugging in all of the variables, I chose Le Meridien N’Fis. It is part of the Starwood brand of hotels (St. Regis, W, Luxury Collection, Sheraton). It is close to the action of the medina and souks (5 minute cab ride, 20 minute walk) but not right in the action. Its grounds are beautiful-designed like a riad in that its buildings surround a central garden (which was voted one of the most beautiful of all gardens in Morocco, Spain and Portugal). And it gives good recognition and perks to Starwood frequent guests. This was a great choice. After spending one day navegating the labyrinthine medina and souks, I am very glad that I did not stay there-the heat, crowds, sights (sheep’s head anyone?), smells and general activity were dizzying. But with Le Meridien N’Fis, I could experience this and quickly be back at my hotel for a dip in the pool, a snack or to relax in my room, before setting out to explore again. The hotel rooms are not as modern as the newer hotels, but this means the rooms are much larger. The pool area is beautiful with a poolside restaurant and bar serving grilled meats and vegetables as well as salads and sandwiches. There is also a Moroccan restaurant open for dinner only and a breakfast restaurant overlooking the beautiful gardens. A spa gives massages and facials using typical Moroccan products like argan oil (great for the hair and skin and also used as a medicine). And directly across the street is a shopping mall with a large Carrefour supermarket (at times a life saver) and other cafes, restaurants and shops. An added bonus-Le Meridien N’Fis is only 10 minutes from the airport, great both after a exhausted arrival and before a frantic, hurried departure. Finally, as in all parts of the world (and more so in the Arabic speaking world), security at the hotel is top notch, both for people and vehicles entering the grounds. This is mostly for piece of mind as Morocco is a very safe country.

  Morocco is a great country. Marrakech is a great city. Le Meridien is a great hotel to allow you to acclimate youself to them at your own pace.

A view of the hotel from the 4th terrace of the Menara Mall
A view of the hotel from the 4th  floor terrace of the Menara Mall.
The lovely pool area
The lovely pool area
Grilling at the poolside restaurant
Grilling at the poolside restaurant
A traditional Moroccan tea set up in the lobby serving.....
A traditional Moroccan tea set up in the lobby serving…..
...the ubiquitous spearmint tea (aka "Moroccan Whiskey")
…the ubiquitous spearmint tea (aka “Moroccan Whiskey”)
The beautiful garden
The beautiful garden

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“I’m off on the road to Morocco. Where is it? It’s just south of Spain.”

A view of Marrakech, Morocco right before landing
A view of Marrakech, Morocco right before landing

Totally exhausted after flights from Qatar-Dubai-Istanbul-Lisbon, I had about a 15 hour layover until my morning flight to Marrakech. I decided to book a stay in the Radisson Blu Hotel. This hotel is considered an “airport hotel”(one of two) but is about a 5 minute drive from the airport. Nothing glamorous or exotic, but a solid hotel, very close to the airport, where one can crash for the night -even more so since I booked a free stay with my “free night certificate” from the Carlson Rewards credit card (Carlson is the company which owns the RadissonBlu and Radisson hotel brands (at least that was true until a Chinese company bought them last week!) Incredibly, the hotel had one of the best breakfast spreads I have experienced on my trip but unfortunately, I was in a hurry to catch my next flight, so only suco de laranja, cafe com leite and pao (orange juice, coffee with milk and bread) for me!

 I had always wanted to add Africa to my list of continents visited and have always been intrigued by Morocco, so why not check two items off the list? I chose Marrakech since it also had more of that French flair. Many of the French remained in Marrakech after Morocco declared its independence from France and many more visit each year. Which means not only a great place to practice Arabic but also brush up on French! Since many groups had staked a claim to this area over the years (Romans, Berbers, Moors, Portuguese, Spanish and French) Morocco is an incredible melange and this shows in the culture, language, food and people. Even more interesting, unless you converse in MSA (Modern Standard Arabic) you will never understand the local Moroccan Arabic dialect (which is called Darija) since it is a mixture of Arabic, Berber (the original inhabitants of Morocco), French and Spanish.

 The flight from Lisbon to Marrakech is a short 2 hour flight. Surprisingly, the flight was operated by an ATR 100 propeller flight plane (not many of these flying New York to Miami!)

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 The flight however was very smooth and soon we were landing in Marrakech.

Africa from above
Africa from above
Over Morocco
Over Morocco
Over Marrakech
Over Marrakech
That was quick!
That was quick!

Ahlan wa Sahlan! Welcome to Marrakech. I think I will grab a “Moroccan Whiskey” (the ubiquitous and delicious spearmint tea!)

Lounging in Istanbul at the “Lounge of all Lounges”

No surprise here
No surprise here

I arrived at the airport in Dubai about two hours before my flight, but the immigration lines were so long, I barely had time to visit the new Qatar Airways Premium Lounge. I went to the lounge, had some cheese and crackers and a drink and it was time to board. I arrived in Doha, Qatar an hour later and had to quickly catch my connecting flight to Istanbul. About 4 hours later, I arrived at the airport on the Asian side of Istanbul, and had to catch a cab to Ataturk International Airport on the European side of Istanbul. Since it was 4am, the ride took about half an hour-if it were during a weekday rush hour, it would have easily been 2 hours! I arrived at Ataturk Airport in Istsnbul at 5am and with my next flight leaving at 11 am, I had plenty of time to enjoy the Turkish Airlines Flagship CIP Lounge, the “Lounge of all Lounges.” And while I previously visited and wrote about the Qatar Airways Al Safwa First Class Lounge being one of the nicest and most exclusive airport lounges anywhere, the Turkish Airlines Flagship CIP Lounge is much more enjoyable. Why? Because it checks all the boxes. Good and varied food offerings. Check. Quality drinks. Check. Relaxation rooms with beds, showers and televisions. Check. Electronic massage beds. Check. Newspapers, free wifi, computer workstations, a Concierge, a television room. Check. But it has much more. There are masseuses walking around the lounge offering free in chair back and neck massages (definitely needed after many tough flights and by the way, Qatar Airways charges for these at the spa inside their first class lounge.) There is a golf range, a movie room with a popcorn machine, a children’s playroom, a simulated Nascar track, Xbox games, a library, a pool table, a self-playing piano. And the food offerings are ample, varied and delicious. There is an olive bar,  a salad bar, a fresh juice bar, a soft drink, water, and bottled juice section, a coffee bar, a section making fresh simit (Turkish bagels), a grilled panini section, a deli sandwich section, a soup section, fresh fruits and a delicious dessert section. I could very easily spend a couple of days here. No wonder Turkish Airlines is consistently voted one of Europe’s (and the World’s) best airlines!

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Simit and a schmear
Simit and a schmear

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Self-playing piano
Self-playing piano

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Turks love their tea and it is good!
Turks love their tea and it is good!

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Fresh fruit tarts
Fresh fruit tarts
Are there enough newspapers?
Are there enough newspapers?

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Popcorn and...
Popcorn and…
....movie time!
….movie time!
Neat luggage storage lockers with digital locks
Neat luggage storage lockers with digital locks

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Will definitely keep the little ones (and their parents) occupied
Will definitely keep the little ones (and their parents) occupied

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A helpful Concierge
A helpful Concierge
A masseuse who...
A masseuse who…
...gives a great massage!
…gives a great massage!
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A great open air design

 

 

Good-bye Du-bai

leaving Dubai in style....Rolls Phantom style!!
Leaving Dubai in style….Rolls Phantom style!!

Leaving Dubai and the Burj al Arab is like leaving family or a close friend-sad for leaving, yet confident and happy to return in the near future. And besides, the Gringo with the Lingo has more travelling to do (much more!) I said my goodbyes and jumped into the hotel’s Rolls Royce Phantom and was on my way to the airport for a marathon Dubai-Qatar-Istanbul-Lisbon-Marrakech set of flights. I took one more look out the window of my suite to see the construction going on at the new North Deck, which will be a complex with 2 new pools, a Latin themed restaurant and several poolside cabanas. On the way to the airport I marveled at all of the new construction going on in Dubai-constantly and with each new building larger and better designed than the next. Enjoy the pictures!

The Burj's North Deck
The Burj’s North Deck
The sun sets on the Burj and my time in Dubai
The sun sets on the Burj and my time in Dubai
Burj Khalifa-the world's tallest building
Burj Khalifa-the world’s tallest building

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No need to leave the Burj to eat in Dubai!

 

Sweet and sour lobster at Junsui restaurant
Sweet and sour lobster at Junsui restaurant

Being at the Burj al Arab is great-the hotel is so luxurious, relaxing and comfortable that you don’t feel like leaving. Even when you must eat, the Burj makes it easy because it has 3 great restaurants, Bab al Yam, Junsui and Al Iwan. They all serve both ala carte and buffet. Bab al Yam is the poolside mediterranean style cafe which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. There is a great salad bar and appetizer section, many vegetable,meat and seafood selections and a grill where the chef will grill you chicken, beef, vegetables, fish or shrimp. A great dessert selection with the perfect assortment of sorbets to clean your palate.

Grilled lamb chops, shrimp and steak at Bab al Yam restaurant
Grilled lamb chops, shrimp and steak at Bab al Yam restaurant

Al Iwan is the Middle Eastern restaurant. With delicious mezze, pita, hummus, olives and stuffed grape leaves as starters, you definitely need discipline to leave some space for the roasted whole lamb over saffron rice and the Moroccan styled chicken and shrimp cooked in a tagine clay pot. There are also numerous and delicious selections for the vegetarians, with curries and steamed, seasoned eggplant. Dessert is a dizzying array of fresh dates, cookies, baklava, turkish delights and mint and green teas.

Stuffed grape leaves, garlic hummus and pitta as starters at Al Iwan
Stuffed grape leaves, garlic hummus and pita as starters at Al Iwan
Whole roasted lamb with saffron rice, chicken and shrimp tagine and vegetables as the main course
Whole roasted lamb with saffron rice, chicken and shrimp tagine and vegetables as the main course
Fresh dates, date cookies, Turkish delights and dried fruit for dessert
Fresh dates, date cookies, Turkish delights, baklava and dried fruit for dessert

Junsui is the Burj’s “pan Asian” restaurant. Pretty much, you name the Asian food and they have it or will make it. Japanese tempura, Chinese roast duck, Korean barbecue, Indonesian fried rice. This is one of my favorite restaurants due to the sheer variety of foods and flavors. My favorite meal-crispy Japanese fried chicken cracklings for starters, with the Sweet and sour lobster (incredible mix of fruity flavors and spice seasoning). And usually while many Asian restaurants are a let down in the dessert department, Junsui has its delicious tempura ice cream (think of a fried zeppole with vanilla ice cream inside) as well as an assortment of fresh fruit and tropical sorbets and ice cream and the ubiquitous Burj chocolate fountain for dipping!

Japanese fried chicken with soy sauce and mayonaisse at Junsui
Japanese fried chicken with soy sauce and mayonaisse at Junsui
Tempura ice cream at Junsui
Tempura ice cream at Junsui

All of this great food makes it all the more difficult to ever leave the Burj al Arab hotel. But what about not leaving your room? The Burj has that covered too as their afternoon amenities as well as room service dining are top notch!

Prosciutto di parma, hot pretzel bread, salt and pepper chips, nachos with guacamole and salsa as an afternoon amenity.
Prosciutto di parma, hot pretzel bread, salt and pepper chips, nachos with guacamole and salsa as an afternoon amenity.

The World’s Best Hotel!

Burj al Arab

After 11 days in Turkey (and still suffering from a cold and jet lagged), I finally arrived in Dubai. I was happy because I would be returning to the Burj al Arab (aka my “second home”), the world’s only “7 star hotel”. And the surprises started from the moment my plane landed. As I passed through immigration and customs, I saw someone with a sign with my name on it. I stopped and was led outside to a beautiful, white, Rolls Royce Phantom. The manager had sent it to pick me up.

Rolls Royce Phantom
Rolls Royce Phantom

As if this were not enough, when I arrived at the Burj, I was given the second surprise-an upgrade to a duplex two bedroom, three bathroom suite. Mind you that every room in the Burj is beautiful as the standard room is a duplex one bedroom, two bathroom suite, but my room had an additional living room and a kitchen besides the extra bedroom and bathroom.

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Honestly, these pictures do not even do the hotel justice-you must see it to believe it.  But I guarantee you one thing-after staying at the Burj al Arab in Dubai once, no hotel will ever be good enough afterward. It is without a doubt, “the world’s best hotel”!

Qatar Airways Boeing “Dreamliner” 787-Doha to Dubai

the seat converts to a lie flat bed
the seat converts to a lie flat bed

I have always wanted to fly Qatar Airways Boeing “Dreamliner” 787. The cabin design is sleek, the cabin air is better circulated, the lighting is more helpful in fighting jet lag by naturally resetting your body clock and the seats are lie flat, comfortable and state of the art.

the business class cabin
the business class cabin
this is usually the in flight bar but it was not open due to this being a 45 minute flight
this is usually the in flight bar but it was not open due to this being a 45 minute flight

Despite this being a less than one hour flight, there was a complete meal service (something United, American and Delta can learn from!)

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The flight was great-the aircraft engine was not noisy at all and it seemed as if we were not even flying. The meal was excellent and so was the cabin crew.  I hope to fly the Qatar Airways 787 again on a longer flight as well as their Airbus A380 and A350.