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  • Writer's pictureKim York

12 Days in One Country? Why a National Geographic Expedition is the Best Way to Experience Morocco

I have never left a trip feeling like I truly experienced a destination quite like I did on the way home from my recent travels with National Geographic Expeditions on their Morocco Legendary Cities and the Sahara itinerary. From touchdown in the modern city of Casablanca to our last day in the bustling city of Fez, the 12 days I spent exploring, learning, observing, photographing, and eating my way through the unique country of Morocco was a masterclass in Moroccan art, culture, history, geography, and cuisine. Twelve days sounds like a long time to spend in one country, but believe me when I say that it was the perfect amount of time to experience all that the beautiful country of Morocco has to offer. I owe my amazing experience to the unique opportunity that National Geographic Expeditions provides for guests who travel with them.


National Geographic Expeditions was born of the legacy of the National Geographic Society, who has been sending explorers all over the globe for over 125 years with the goal of understanding the world and our relationship to it. Launched in 1999, National Geographic Expeditions now operates hundreds of trips each year, spanning all seven continents and more than 80 destinations and is a recent addition to the Walt Disney Company Travel Company portfolio since 2019.


Kim looking over the valley
Overlooking the Ounila valley at Ait-Ben-Haddou, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

I was invited by The Walt Disney Travel Company along with a small group of fellow travel professionals to experience a National Geographic Signature Land Journey to Morocco. Our goal was to understand, and share with others, the type of travel journey one can experience when traveling with National Geographic Expeditions and what makes them different from other guided tours.


“When you travel with National Geographic Expeditions, you gain access to fascinating people and places all over the globe. You’re enriched by the knowledge of our experts and guides, and by the local experts you meet along the way. And you give back. By traveling with us, you help further the work of our explorers. That is the national geographic difference.”

- National Geographic 2022-2023 Travel Catalog


KNOWLEDGE AND EXPERTISE


The main feature that makes each expedition with National Geographic unique compared to other guided travel experiences is that you will be traveling with an expert in their field of study which could be writing, geology, archeology, or history. We had the incredible opportunity to travel with and learn from Sisse Brimberg, a National Geographic contributing photographer. Sisse was a wealth of information in regards to telling our travel story through photographs. She was incredibly friendly and accessible in her role. She worked one on one with each traveler to provide feedback and helpful suggestions and tips to improve the type and quality of the pictures we were taking.


How cool to have a professional photographer tell you to turn this way or catch this light coming from this direction?! Our group was keen to keep an ear out for her suggestions when we were out and about, especially in regards to photography etiquette when it came to photographing the people or situations we encountered. Before the trip, I was apprehensive about not having “professional” camera equipment since I rely solely on my cell phone’s camera, but to my surprise and delight, Sisse specifically focused on photography using our camera phones since that is what the average person uses for taking photos. By the end of the trip, my fellow travelers and I definitely saw an improvement in our photography skills and the pictures we were capturing. This knowledge is something we will carry with us long past our time in Morocco and was truly an unexpected gift.


In addition to learning more about photography with an expert, we had the assistance of professionally trained, English speaking guides who are from Morocco. Our guides for this adventure were named Zouhair and Toufique and they were an invaluable addition to the entire experience. Their knowledge of the area and local connections truly made for a seamless experience from beginning to end. In Casablanca, we were greeted with an airport guide as we exited the plane and whisked through customs and baggage before meeting our private driver for our hotel, all coordinated by Zouhair and Toufique.


When we arrived at our first hotel, we were personally met by Zouhair and Toufique upon arrival, even though we arrived a little later than the rest of the group and they presented each of us with a necklace with the Hamsa Hand, symbolizing divine protection from evil. When a member of our group had a baggage delay, our guides coordinated a way for her to wait for her bags in Casablanca and then meet up with the group again in Marrakesh later that day when she was all set. All entrance fees and tips were taken care of by the guides. They even gave each traveler at about 2 lbs. of different types of nuts (walnuts, almonds, and cashews) for snacks during our travels. Upon arrival at each of the seven hotels we stayed at during the trip, all 25 guests were checked in, rooms ready and room keys were quickly passed out. It was a pleasure learning about Zouhair and Toufique's stories of how they became tour guides, what their families were like, and about their hometowns. The guides truly were personal assistants, providing VIP level service, that made this adventure a luxurious, stress free experience that allowed you to forget about logistics and just soak up as much of the experience as possible.



ACCESS

Kim York standing at the gate of the Dar al-Makhzen or Royal Palace of Fez
I was obsessed with the iconic architecture of doorways and windows in Morocco. Location: Dar al-Makhzen or Royal Palace of Fez is the royal palace of the King of Morocco in the city of Fez

Traveling through Morocco with National Geographic also gave us incredible access to unique experiences and a wide variety of immersive activities. On our first day in the imperial city of Marrakesh we walked through the Jewish Quarter and toured Bahia Palace, a riad or type of ancient housing in Morocco, where the structure has no windows to the outside but is centered around an open air garden or courtyard.


And no visit to Marrakech would be complete without walking through the medina, a densely packed, walled medieval city dating to the Berber Empire, with maze-like alleys where thriving souks (marketplaces) sell traditional textiles, pottery and jewelry. It was very close quarters, with many many vendors where one could easily get lost inside.


Our guides took us to a shop that was the best for locally made Argon (Moroccan Oil) and then escorted us to lunch at a rooftop terrace with a lovely view overlooking the Minaret of the local mosque. Sharing a meal together with our group (paid for by the guides), we could hear the afternoon Islamic call to prayer that echoes throughout the city each day.


Map of Morocco and cities visited
A snapshot map of the itinerary for National Geographic Expeditions Morocco: Legendary Cities and the Sahara

That was just one day of our trip! Over a 12 day itinerary, we covered A LOT of ground, as I mentioned previously, staying in seven different accommodations. From a 5 star hotel, Sofitel Marrakech, to a remote lodge tucked away in the High Atlas Mountains, to a luxury desert camp in the Sahara, all of the accommodations were outstanding, and varied in character and charm.


While the High Atlas mountains were a serene and breathtaking experience, and I loved exploring the area on foot with a three hour hike to a nearby village to have traditional tea service (Mint Green Tea) with a local family, my absolute favorite day/place we stayed was the luxury camp in the Sahara desert. From start to finish, that experience was full of delights and surprises that made the entire trip to Morocco worth it, in my opinion.



BEST DAY EVER


We started Day 7 with transportation to the our next destination in a caravan of SUVs that raced our group through the sands of the Sahara Desert, “Amazing Race” style. Every time our driver jumped the SUV over a sand dune, he yelled, “Africa!” and it was hilarious. We arrived at the camp to see nothing else but desert in sight for miles. We were given a traditional cover up and head scarf as a gift from National Geographic to wear on our sunset camel ride. I even tried my hand at sand boarding (balancing on a snowboard and sliding down the sand dune) and didn’t fall off. The ride down was surprisingly slower than I expected so balance was key. The camel ride was an adventure (as dealing with animals can be), but it was a super fun experience to share with my fellow travelers and pretty awesome to say the first time I rode a camel was in the Sahara Desert!



In the evening, we gathered in the dining tent for a meal of traditional Moroccan cuisine including tagine - a mixture of stewed meats and vegetables with spices such as ginger, cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, and saffron and is named after the earthenware pot in which it is cooked, with fresh fruit and lemon custard for dessert. It was one of my favorite meals of the whole trip. The evening ended with a presentation by a local Astronomy professor who brought a telescope for us to observe the vast night sky in the desert. We could even see the Milky Way and Jupiter with its four moons. As was custom in our group by this point in the trip, our group gathered to end the night with some wine and beer (since our guides let us stop to stock up before heading to the desert). We sat by the campfire and were entertained with music and dancing from the camp staff.

Men playing instruments by campfire in the desert
Evening entertainment at the Luxury Desert Camp in the Sahara Desert of Morocco

As the evening came to a close, a few of us even sat quietly around the fading campfire staring up at the stars just enjoying the quiet of the desert before heading to our tents (with air conditioning units and a nice bathroom, by the way, so we were by no means “roughing it”). The next morning we woke to watch the sunrise over the desert before having breakfast and heading to our last city of the tour. I estimate that it adds three days to the itinerary to include the desert experience because of the process to get there, but I promise you this part of the itinerary is worth every minute and why the trip should be 12 days long.


After my adventure through Morocco with National Geographic Expeditions, I am even more excited that all of their amazing travel experiences are now a part of the Walt Disney Travel Company portfolio. The itinerary I did is a Signature Land Journey, but other types of expeditions include river cruises (partnered with AmaWaterways - see my previous blog post of why I Iove AmaWaterways), expedition cruises, private expeditions and even private jet adventures all over the world. I believe these two brands complement each other extremely well. National Geographic has over 125 years of expertise, education, access, and knowledge of places all over the globe and Disney’s commitment to the highest level of guest service, quality experiences, immersive storytelling, and continually looking for opportunities to surprise and delight guests makes for the perfect combination.


ADVENTURE AND LEARNING


The best type of traveler for this itinerary is someone who has a sense of adventure (willing to ride camels and try new and different foods), enjoys learning about new cultures, and likes to stay busy with a lot of planned activities. While many of the activities would be considered family friendly, the focus and flow of this trip was definitely more in depth and intensely immersive and therefore, not as engaging to a less mature audience. While there are some National Geographic Expeditions that have a minimum age requirement, many do not. For families traveling with kids under age 8, I recommend looking into itineraries offered by Adventures by Disney that have an emphasis on storytelling of a destination from a “lighter” perspective. Adventures by Disney and National Geographic travel experiences are very similar in terms of offering a high level of guest service, the best accommodations, priority access to the most popular tourist experiences and attention to detail. The flow of an Adventures by Disney itinerary, in my opinion, better accommodates the pace of traveling with families and kids with a slower pace of activities and time for transition from one activity to the next. For example, this Morocco itinerary included a full day of bus travel to get from one city to another with planned stops for a nice sit down lunch and a few shopping breaks that wouldn’t have been as enjoyable for a group traveling with younger kids.


Group with Nat Geo Flag
Group photo after our hike in the The Dadès Gorges, a series of rugged wadi gorges carved out by the Dadès River in Morocco.

I joined this trip as a solo traveler since the longer itinerary was difficult for many in my circle of friends and family to take that much time to join me as a guest (lucky for me, this is my job!). I won’t say that there wasn’t a bit of anxiety going in as a solo traveler or moments of feeling homesick here and there (mostly at night by myself in my room but thank goodness for downloaded episodes of “The Crown” and good friends back home to text with to distract me until I went to sleep). As a solo traveler, especially a solo female traveler, I felt very safe and comfortable with our wonderful guides looking out for each of us. We also had a great group of like-minded, adventurous travelers (many of whom were also traveling solo) who were all very welcoming and we had a fun time getting to know each other, while discovering a new country together. If you want to go somewhere, I urge you not to let traveling by yourself prevent you from choosing an itinerary that YOU want to do!


If you’re looking for an immersive, luxury travel experience with safety-conscious, service-oriented local guides and a subject matter expert that will bring you into and through a destination by offering, unique, authentic encounters with local culture, art, history, geography and cuisine (The Ultimate Destination Masterclass) look no further than National Geographic Expeditions, especially for Morocco. If you are someone who prefers to enjoy your vacation instead of stressing over all the planning details, it would be my pleasure to assist you. As a Certified Travel Professional, you will receive personal attention to make sure all aspects of your travel journey from booking to returning home are taken care of so you don’t miss any details. The world is waiting for you. Where to next?


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