Category Archive for Morocco
Come aboard my magic carpet, and fly with me through a Moroccan fantasy hotel: Royal Mansour Marrakesh!
My film team and I have been invited to stay at many wonderful places, but Royal Mansour was unlike anything we’d experienced. If you’re a dreamer like I am, inspired by the art and culture of Morocco, then you’ll understand why this five-star riad is so special.
(PS: don’t miss out on my current Japan travels, which you can see on my social media @lacarmina and linked in the top right sidebar.)
It sounds like a tale from 1001 Nights: Royal Mansour was the vision of King Mohammed VI, who employed over a thousand craftsmen and spared no expense to make this dream a reality. (Book a stay at this hotel & learn more here.)
My friends and I felt like Scheherazade, wandering the king’s palace in a daze. In a single picture, you’ll find a million details: the tiles, marble, gold, and carved arches.
You can imagine the fun we had, exploring the riads and hidden lounges, and taking photos along the way. Each area was lit to perfection — such as this reception area with a glowing chandelier.
The space made me feel like Alice in Wonderland, so I wore a romantic white dress by Liz Lisa (I’m currently selling it on my Depop, in case you would like it!). I played around with some color edits, to emphasize details of the architecture.
Let’s start from the entrance. Marrakesh’s Royal Mansour is only minutes from the bustling Square of the Dead, but the atmosphere couldn’t have been a bigger contrast. We drove through peaceful, opulent gardens and arches until we reached the grand entrance.
An adorable “lobby girl” greeted us, wearing a red cap, military-style outfit and white gloves.
At Royal Mansour, guests don’t stay in rooms. They get their very own three-storey riad, or Moroccan house with an open courtyard.
My jaw dropped when I realized I had one of the 53 private riads all to myself. I stepped past a blue-tiled foutain, into a living room furnished with the finest furniture.
The riad was fit for a Moroccan princess: a kitchen, rooftop terrace with a swimming pool, and my own elevator. Every detail, from the antique star lamps to the cushions with glass beads, was exquisite.
My bedroom looked like an illustration from a centuries-old storybook — yet it had all the latest amenities including free movies. I spent an hour soaking in the giant marble tub that lies behind these curved wooden doors.
Outside, the gardens were blooming with palms, purple bougainvillea and pomegranate trees. The landscape artist – Spain’s Luis Vallejo – also designed the gardens at the Alhambra palace in Granada (which we visited).
The heart of the hotel is its main courtyard, a palatial arrangement around a cross-shaped fountain.
Mohammed VI began building Royal Mansour in the 2000s, and brought in the “crème de la crème” including architecture firm OBM and the French interior designers 3BIS. He spared no expense. The total budget of the project has never been revealed.
He wanted Royal Mansour to be a tribute to traditional Moroccan craftsmanship — so he hired over a thousand of the country’s best artisans. Each tile was handcut and placed, and every screen was painstakingly carved.
Imagine the effort that went into the zellige alone (the starburst-shaped mosaic wall) in the photo above…
Around the courtyard, there were intimate curtained rooms filled with cushions and paintings. I ducked into this hidden space and closed my eyes, taking in the scent of jasmine and orange blossom.
I listened to birds singing from the room next door, water trickling through the courtyard, and the light strains of Berber music.
Every corner of the hotel delighted our senses, particularly the open-air courtyards. We walked up the stairwell and found libraries, cigar and cocktail lounges.
Royal Mansour is opulence in its subtlest form. The hotel never feels over-the-top, and yet each detail is pure luxury.
The King brought together the highest achievements of Moroccan culture in a single place: interior design, paintings, sculpture, gardens, food.
The cigar room was a perfect example of the hotel’s understated luxury. At first glance, it seems like an old-fashioned gentleman’s lounge.
But then you notice the film-quality lighting from handmade lamps, and the shelves of rare cognacs and cigars. (All photos by Borderless Media.)
We had the dinner of dreams at one of Royal Mansour’s restaurants, La Grande Table Marocaine. It’s overseen by Yannick Alléno, a chef with three Michelin stars.
Seamless service, by servers in white gloves. They poured water over our hands as a washing ritual, and served us fine Moroccan wines — above was one of the best glasses I’ve ever had.
We started with our new favorite appetizer, a spread of Moroccan salads with honey and spices.
In the center, we had a selection of pastillas, or savory pies wrapped in crisp pastry. I’m still dreaming of the spinach and cheese one.
It was hard to choose our main courses, which were based on Moroccan tradition. Tagines, couscous, Moroccan gnocchi, fish served in clay pots. As expected, everything was 5-stars. If only we could have ordered the whole menu…
We loved the desserts with a molecular twist, including an orange blossom concoction with citrus caviar that burst in your mouth.
It was around my birthday… and the staff surprised me with these Grand Budapest-worthy cakes.
The hotel has a clever underground tunnel system that lets staff enter and exit the riad without disturbing your peace. One of them delivered these delights at the exact right moment, and then scurried back into the tunnel like a genie. Amazing.
I hope the doors to your imagination are open, after this peek inside Royal Mansour Marrakesh — which deserves its title as one of the leading hotels of the world. The riad just re-opened after a summer renovation, and the gardens have become more enchanting than ever. Learn more and book this hotel here.
I leave you with a few shots by Joey Wong of Bahia Palace in Marrakesh, built in the late 19th century by a former slave who rose to become the Sultan’s Grand Vizier.
Bahia has a 2 acre garden and harem, decorated with these intricate Islamic reliefs.
The detailing live up to the palace’s name, which means “brilliance.” Isn’t Moroccan architecture magnificent? I’d jump at the chance to come back and see more of the country.
If you’re planning a trip to Fez, Marrakesh and surrounding cities, check out all my travel tips and articles here. And watch me explore more of Royal Mansour in our Morocco travel video. To book a stay at my riad and see prices, click here.
PS: You’re welcome to Share and Pin these photos, if you felt inspired!
I still have a few tales to tell from mysterious Marrakesh. (Doesn’t it look like I am searching for Aladdin’s magic lamp?)
In this photo diary, I’ll share our photos from the Square of the Dead (Jemaa el-Fnaa), which has a dark history to match its name.
We’ll also take a stroll in Jardin Majorelle, the garden of French couture designer Yve Saint Laurent.
Anyone who comes to Marrakesh must see the ancient marketplace, the Square of the Dead (Gemaa el Fna). The name likely refers to the public executions that took place in this plaza, around the 11th century.
During the daytime, the Square of the Dead is not as crowded. Vendors begin to set up their food stalls in the afternoon.
Even during this less busy time, the Square of the Dead can feel overwhelming to the senses. You’ll encounter monkeys performing tricks, snake charmers sticking out their tongues at cobras, and water bearers in traditional Moroccan costumes.
(Be aware that if you take photos of them, they’ll ask for about a dollar, and won’t let you go until you pay up.)
You’ll come across rows of friendly orange juice vendors. The citrus fruits are extremely tasty in Morocco, and refreshing on a hot day. The price for a large, freshly squeezed cup is also a fraction of what you’d pay at an American juice shop.
Many readers asked me: is it safe in Marrakesh, especially for solo female travelers?
Yes. The medina is clean and well policed. Just exercise your usual caution (such as giving a firm no to touts, and keeping your belongings secure). Even if you cover up your limbs, you may encounter some cat-calls — simply move on, and don’t let it take away from your experience here.
The marketplace is a bit touristy, but still conveys the feeling of time standing still. Incredible that the medina has been the center of activity in Marrakesh, ever since the 11th century!
We couldn’t resist filming the snake charmers in action. They coaxed the reptiles with music, and put their faces close to cobras who reared their heads and hissed. (Photography by Borderless Media.)
This slithering snake is non-poisonous. This man draped the animal around our heads and shoulders, and encouraged us to stick out our tongues.
There’s a lot to see and shop in the medina. I loved these little tagines, or triangular clay pots that can hold spices or other belongings. Each is only $1 US , so I got some for my cat to use as food bowls!
One of these magic lanterns has a genie inside, I’m sure of it…
Night falls, and the Square of the Dead lives up to its spooky name. From a restaurant high up, we took in this fascinating view of the medina. The food stations are open, and smoke wafts over the hoards of people. (Here’s my Vine video of the action.)
The glowing tower is Koutoubia Mosque, which dates back to the 12th century. From the minaret, we heard the muezzin singing the call to prayer — and felt like we had time-traveled back into time.
The souk was filled with strange and mesmerizing sights. We saw locals gathered in a circle to play a game, which involves using tall fishing poles to grab a soda bottle. Like in amusement parks, very few participants succeeded.
As I explored, I felt like I was in a tale from 1001 Arabian nights. We passed Chleuh dancing-boys (who crossdress as women), storytellers, musicians, peddlers and magicians.
The energy levels are especially high in the food and drink areas. Vendors set up stations in closely-packed rows, and offer everything from mint tea…
… to snails and sheep brains. For the less adventurous eaters, there are grilled meats, dried fruit and nuts, and the ever-present orange juice carts.
The atmosphere can be a bit intense, especially for women traveling alone. Be prepared for stares, and for the vendors to approach you and yell out names (I got called Lady Gaga and Barbie).
Just ignore the words, keep on walking, and don’t let them grab you (as the more aggressive sellers might do).
It’s all part of the Marrakesh experience, and I never felt unsafe. (Watch our travel video to see these scenes in action.)
One of the best decisions we made was to travel with Plan-It Fez Tours. I spoke with friends who did Morocco on their own, and they told me they felt stressed by logistics such as public transportation. They told me about taxi drivers who tried to scam them, and touts who constantly approached them.
Thanks to our friendly driver and guides, we encountered none of these complications.
With a car, we got to visit off the beaten path places — such as Berber villages several miles from Marrakesh. Our Plan-It Fez guides introduced us to locals and translated Arabic, making immersive activities such as a henna workshop possible.
We visited Jardin Majorelle, which was designed by artist Jacques Majorelle in the 1920s and 30s. Our guide Mohammed told us about the fascinating history of Marrakesh, from its earliest days through the French protectorate and independence.
The red paths are surrounded by cacti plants and calm pools dotted with water lilies. Birds call out from under the palm canopies.
The winding garden pathways lead to the French artist’s house, built in Moorish and Art Deco styles. The bold cobalt blue color, which brightens up the entire property, is called Majorelle Blue.
Since 1980, Majorelle Garden was owned by fashion legend Yves Saint-Laurent and Pierre Bergé. I visited the gravestone of YSL, who died in 2008.
To be honest, I wasn’t blown away by Jardin Majorelle. There were a lot of tourists around, and I was more impressed with the lush landscapes at our Royal Mansour hotel. Nevertheless, I enjoyed spending time here with the jovial Mohammed, and seeing St Laurent’s illustrations in a special art display.
Sometimes, the best travel moments are not from visiting famous attractions — but merely sitting back and enjoying the ride. Nowhere but in Morocco can you see views like these: the High Atlas mountains and argan trees.
We originally came to North Africa by taking the ferry from Algeciras (southern tip of Spain) to Tangier (northernmost point of Morocco). Plan-It Fez picked us up, and we began a road trip along the coast.
From these first moments, we were fascinated by the contrast of ancient and modern. We saw glitzy nightclubs pumping with music and women in sequined headscarves on the boardwalk… and then turned into the Tangier medina, which looked like scene from Medieval times.
The sun set over the waters, turning the sky blood red.
As the hours on the road passed, we drifted into semi-sleep. The car zipped by this alien-esque Arabic poster, and I wondered if I was in a dream.
I leave you with this image of the lively Square of the Dead, at dusk.
Is Marrakesh what you expected it to be? I hope you enjoy our Morocco travel video – please take a minute to watch, and let us know what you think!
Morocco travel video: Essaouira, Argan oil & cooking classes! Berber Cultural Center family homestay.
Morocco road trip and travel video — let’s do it!
My friends and I continued our journey from Marrakesh to Essaouira, where we relaxed in the beach town and saw the famous tree-climbing goats. We then met women running an argan oil collective, and stayed with a Berber family that gave us cooking lessons.
All these eye-opening adventures are featured in our new travel video about Morocco. (Produced by the amazing Borderless Media.)
We wanted to put the focus on women in this country, running businesses and carving out their own paths. Please take a minute to watch the episode above and here — we appreciate your support!
None of our Morocco travels would have been possible (especially in a single day!) without our expert guides, Plan-It Fez.
Our driver highly recommended Essaouira, a seaside town about 2.5 hours away. He was spot on: Essaouira turned out to be one of the highlights of our Morocco journey.
We drove down a long stretch of beach, and immediately sensed the laid-back hippie vibe. No wonder Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley loved Essaouira (we saw his face on a few buildings here!)
This port city has a history that goes back to prehistoric times. It was taken by the Portuguese in the 16th century, and surrounded by fortress walls.
Today, Essaouira still feels like a Medieval city. We wandered the streets sandwiched by tall stone walls, and browsed for colorful handicrafts in the kasbah.
We saw quite a few cats along the way! They stayed true to the Essaouira vibe, relaxing among the camel-skin purses.
Moroccans love to come here for honeymoons and getaways. I spotted this woman sitting on the medina wall, looking out at the sea.
We stopped for mint tea at a restaurant by the beach. The view from above: timeless.
Game of Thrones is partially filmed in Morocco (for the scenes with Daenerys the Dragon queen — remember my photoshoot inspired by her in Iceland?) Essaouira’s medina and fortress towers look like the sets from the HBO series.
Flying carpets and cobblestone tunnels. Morocco gets my imagination going.
Where else in the world can you come across a scene like this? One of the many joys of travel is being able to see, hear and breathe it all for yourself.
We enjoyed leisurely walking around Essaouira and seeing the arts and crafts for sale in the streets.
Fez and Marrakesh’s vendors can be a bit aggressive, getting in your face and hounding you to buy something.
Essaouira, in contrast, is a laid-back experience. You can browse items as peacefully as this sleeping cat, without feeling pressured.
So many fez hats to choose from! I can’t get over the amount of colors and textures in a single frame.
I found giant double-doors to pose with, next to street art that read “Mogadooor!”
Good thing we had our Plan-It Fez guide/driver with us to explain the meaning behind the pun. The Portuguese couldn’t pronounce the town’s name, so they called it Mogador. (What an ominous , Tolkien-worthy title!)
We piled back into the van and continued the road trip. Do my eyes betray me… or are those goats standing on top of tree branches?
There’s no Photoshop here. Moroccan goats can scramble up argan trees, and feed on the leaves while balancing on the branches!
Morocco is rich with plantations of these short argan trees.
We stopped by an argan oil collective, run by Berber women. They showed us how they turn the nut of the fruit into oil, using a manual process. Fantastic to see these ladies working together and running a business, like the bakery that we saw with Plan-It Fez.
Recently, argan oil has become a favorite ingredient for beauty products. It’s rich in natural oils and vitamins, which keeps your hair and skin silky.
The nut is also rich in vitamin E. After grinding and filtering, Moroccans love to dip bread in the oil, or drizzle it over couscous and salads.
The road trip was a pleasure thanks to our driver Lotfi, who entranced us with stories of Moroccan culture, and even gave us a CD of Berber folk music. He stopped by a viewpoint, and a camel came to say hello.
We drove further through the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. Finally, we arrived for a very special stay at the Berber Cultural Center in the village of Imintanoute (about 3 hours from Marrakesh).
This cozy, home-style stay is run by Mohamed and his family. The facilities are safe and secure, and the family goes all out to offer warm Moroccan hospitality.
We sat on the carpets and drank mint tea, made in the Berber way by Khalid (rinsed and poured from up high).
We enjoyed getting to know the sweet family — all the adults spoke fluent English, and the children were curious and playful. This little girl was fascinated with Melissa’s iPhone camera, and then ran around the picturesque courtyard with her dad.
The Berbers are the indigenous people of North Africa — many of them have light colored eyes!
One of my favorite ways to learn about culture is by taking cooking lessons. The family showed me how to prepare goat stew with turmeric and other spices, heated in a tagine.
I followed along with the cutting and layering of ingredients such as onions. The tagine is heated with coals — we let the food simmer, stirring it from time to time.
Meanwhile, Melissa learned how to roll and pat bread in the Berber way.
We took the dough outdoors, and it was baked in a stone oven. Such a joy to experience the Berber lifestyle for a day!
The best part was sitting with the family to share the feast. Melissa was the “Bread Queen,” meaning it was her duty to break and pass bread to everyone at the table.
Then we went to look at the clear night sky dotted with constellations — and saw a shooting star.
If you are in Marrakesh, I hope you’ll consider spending at least a night at the Berber Cultural Center in Imintanoute. It’s a rewarding and immersive experience, and we were glad to support this kind family-run hotel. Make a funny face at the boy Anir for us!
I leave you with this peaceful scene from breakfast, where we shared fresh-made bread dipped in argan oil and the freshest jams and butter, washed down with mint tea.
Thanks to Plan-It Fez Tours, we met so many lovely people and got immersed in Berber culture. It was well worth having them as our guides, as there was no way we could have seen / done all this in a day, on our own. I encourage you to look them up when you visit Morocco, as they can customize a trip for you too.
PS — please take a minute to watch our Morocco travel video — I hope you enjoy our work!
Happy New Year! Before we jump into 2016, let’s wrap up the second half of my “Year in Review” — which included journeys to Morocco, Cambodia, Vietnam and Portugal.
This year, I was fortunate to work with a number of travel partners that made these trips possible. I’ll give you a deeper look at how these blogging projects come together (case studies, if you will). Hopefully this sheds some light into the way we team up on projects around the world.
The downside of being a road warrior is that you can’t spend as much time with your pets…
But my Scottish Fold cat had his own adventure this summer. He went on a stuffed toy tour of Poland, with Panda Tours. (Here’s the full story.)
Meanwhile, my film team and I went on a long and slightly grueling trip throughout Spain, Morocco and Portugal.
Since we aren’t on the road full time, we try to combine as many destinations, partners and projects into a two or three-week leg. This way, we can keep flights to a minimum and capture a lot of content, in a limited amount of time. Then, we can go home and work on this material for you, in various formats (videos, travel stories, photos).
For our Southern Europe journey, we partnered with Spain Tourism Board, Portugal Tourism, and Eurail (riding between the cities on their rail passes). We also stayed with hotels like the art nouveau El Palauet Barcelona (here are all the photos).
We’ll only ever team up with partners that are a natural fit with our niche (artistic, creative, offbeat travels). It’s a delicate balance, and we turn down a lot of offers. At the end of the day, our primary mission is to capture worldwide stories that otherwise wouldn’t get a voice — such as punk rock artists in Iceland, and women running collective businesses in Morocco.
A perfect example: We worked with Plan-It Fez Tours for our Morocco journey (driving from Tangier to Fez, Marrakesh, Essaouira). Thanks to their translation and expertise, we were able to stay in Berber villages and interview locals.
We were happy to get the word out Plan-It Fez, since their approach was exactly in line with ours (and we wholeheartedly recommend their tours for travelers to Morocco). With their support, we were able to dive right into the culture — such as by taking a henna workshop with ladies of all generations.
- If you’re interested in more, enjoy all my Morocco posts here.
As I mentioned, we try to visit multiple destinations in one go. From Marrakesh, we flew to Lisbon and took the train to Porto.
When tourism boards assist us (with a driver, accommodations, meals etc), we can cover more ground in a short period, without stressing about the logistics of getting around. Keep in mind that we aren’t traveling as tourists for leisure, but have work responsibilities — so we can’t just show up somewhere and “wing it.”
I haven’t gotten around to sharing all my stories from Portugal yet, but they’re coming up… and this country is now one of my favorites in all of Europe!
I also frequently travel for television hosting jobs, especially in Asia. In spring, I was in Tokyo for a Travel Channel shoot. Later that summer, I was flown to Hong Kong for a major US network TV project. As usual, I must keep mum until it comes out… and it can take a while.
For example, I filmed with German TV in Hong Kong last year, and didn’t get to post the clip until recently (watch me on Inside TV with Palina Rojinski).
While in Hong Kong, I also did a dark fashion photoshoot with my friends. I also collaborated with a new pet supplies company called Pet Sensei, which has Basil as its mascot! (All the details and modeling images here).
When I have time off in Hong Kong, I take the opportunity to find cute shops and cafes to share with you. One of my most popular articles last year was about the Hello Kitty Chinese dim sum restaurant, and it’s no surprise why.
Hanoi is only a two-hour flight from Hong Kong… say yes to an adventure, always! This time, I collaborated with Vietnam Food Tour. Similar to Morocco, I was able to have an immersive, foodie experience thanks to the help of these local experts.
From making spring rolls with a village grandma, to interviewing tattoo artists in Hanoi, Vietnam surpassed all my expectations. (Read all my Vietnam travel posts here.)
We made a casual video about these Vietnamese adventures — watch it above, for pirate shenanigans!
You’ve probably noticed that I travel with different people (who help me with the photography and videos). Who accompanies me?
It depends on the job, location and availability, but I’m always around friends — which makes these trips all the more fun.
I wrapped up 2015 with a journey to Cambodia, thanks to my long-time flight colleagues HK Express.
I felt at peace in Siem Reap as soon as I arrived. One of my favorite outfit shoots of the year was this one, at Le Meridien hotel (another partner that shares our artistic leanings). Soon, I’ll share a video from our Cambodian travels.
It was unthinkable — even a few years ago — that I’d be able to see such incredible places around the world, with my own eyes. The sunrise at Angkor Wat temple was one of the magic moments of 2015, and I’m excited for what 2016 holds.
If my 2015 was all about travel, then what will be the word for 2016? Technology. I have to keep my current project secret for now, but it’s happening — and I’ll share the news with you as it unfolds.
Sending you all the best for 2016. Be bold, take a leap, live life according your terms… and let this be the most extraordinary year yet!