2022 Detomo Family Holiday in Atlantis, Paradise, Bahamas

June 2022

In 2020 the 10 member “Rocco Detomo Family” had been scheduled for a holiday aboard the Disney Cruise out of Port Canaveral (Rocky & Julie, Michael, Julie, Dominic & Luca, and Anthony, Stephanie, Nora & Elliot). Unfortunately, the Covid-19 Pandemic cancelled all cruises and we scheduled out first “All Family Vacation” for 2022 in Atlantis, Bahamas, instead.

Our trip started with flights for everyone out of varying airports in in Baltimore-Washington Metroplex. This was the first challenge of the holiday, as the airlines were cancelling 1000’s of flights every day!  However, we all made it to Nassau, Bahamas in early afternoon on Sunday, June 26th.  The area had just been inundated with thunderstorms, and so, after a taxi-ride through submerged streets, we finally arrive at the main entrance to Atlantis. Each of the adults had been to Atlantis before, although none of us had ever actually stayed there. The grounds are covered with a water-world paradise of pools, aquariums, beaches, restaurants, and, of course, the ever-present casino.

Atlantis Resort from Room Window

While checking in, the grandkids marveled at the large aquarium sharks and sting rays, before we briefly settled-in and headed poolside to “Shark Bites” for our first meal there. Our rooms are all on the 10th floor with excellent views of the pools and aquariums, and of the lagoon and ocean. Atlantis is “cashless”, and the prices include all taxes and gratuity, and are easily put onto your room via your key. We then changed clothes and met at the “Royal Baths Pool” where the kids and adults all enjoyed the water, before we moved to the Lagoon Beach to snorkel and look at the colorful fish. It was here that Luca and Elliot began to hang-out and entertain each other.  At 5:00pm, everyone headed up to their rooms to prepare for dinner “on-their-own”. Rocky & Julie took the opportunity to head to an “off-site” grocery & liquor, market, but found it had just closed at 6:00pm since it was Sunday. They then went to a dinner of pulled port & craft beers at the “Pirate Republic” before heading to “The Coral Hotel” part of the Atlantis Complex where we explored the “predator Lagoon and the aquarium tunnels that allowed viewing of sharks, sting rays, goliath groupers, gars, and 6ft-long tarpon, among a variety of other fish and sea life. After reaching the Royal Hotel Lobby, we headed outside to watch the Hawksbill Sea turtles located in the Rescue and Rehabilitation area. Then, it was time to retire to our room to unpack and settle in for our first night.

Anthony’s Family, The Grandkids, Michael’s Family
Hawksbill Turtle

Monday morning, we arose early to a rainstorm and headed to the hotel’s Starbuck’s for morning coffee and snack. While returning, we encountered part of the family at the local breakfast patisserie collecting goodies for the rest of their family. Unfortunately, the rain “cancelled” Tony & Steph’s family outing that was scheduled to swim with the turtles. But the rain soon stopped, and we all headed to the Lagoon for a walk and to the Royal Beach for some fun in the surf. After exploring the “Aquaventure” area more fully, we decided to take up seats around the large “Mayan Temple Pool” where a series of waterfalls, slides (Serpent), and splash zone at “Ripples” was enjoyed by everyone. Soon, however, Tony and Steph received a short-notice reschedule of the Turtle Adventure” and they were off for the rest of the afternoon. Meanwhile, the rest of us went to the “Splashers” pool where a huge water playground for kids exists and Dom & Luca played. Then, it was onto the “Rapid River”, an upscaled “Lazy River” with Class I rapids traversed by either single or double person tubes which took upwards of ½ hour to complete. Later that afternoon, we headed back to our rooms to prepare for dinner. All of us unknowingly ended up at the same restaurant, “Olives” where we shared stories from everyone’s encounters of the day before exiting and walking through the hotel’s underground aquarium viewing area. After viewing the family of “saw fish”, we returned to the hotel main floor where we all had ice creams at “Sun & Ice” before watching a bit of teen karaoke at the nearby dance floor.  The grandkids were all fascinated by the “less than perfect” performances and danced and laughed to a variety of songs. Then, on the way back to our rooms, we stopped to watch the hawksbill turtles and share more stories of everyone’s adventures of the day before  finally calling it a night.

Elliot, Luca and Nora on the Waterslides
The Splashers Water Playground
A Picture of Innocence

Tuesday, we met Tony for our morning walk to Starbucks before heading out to save family seats around the “Splashers” pool. That morning, the adults and kids rode a variety of slides and tubes, some of which rode through an underwater tube that crosses the shark pool. We swam and played at “Splashers” until 11am, when we decided to explore the hotel’s second of 3 beaches – “The Cove”.  Here, the kids built their first sandcastles, played in the surf, and walked the beach looking for “treasures”. The kids got to see their first sea anemone, although it was no longer alive. We had lunch at “Breakers” restaurant before dark clouds began to gather, and we headed back to our rooms. That afternoon, everyone explored on their own finding new displays, trails, and caves (“The Digs”). We met early for our first “All Family Dinner” at “Frankie’s Gone Bananas” which was located along side the Atlantis Marina – home to a few dozen 100-200ft-long super yachts. After dinner, we took the family shopping for Atlantis T-shirts and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, before everyone headed up to  their room for bedtime.

At the Cove Beach
Ice Cream while Watching the Fish

Wednesday morning, we again met Tony for our now-routine Starbucks run. After breakfast, Tony & Steph took Nora and Elliot to Dolphin Cay for a petting and feeding experience with the dolphins. The rest of us set-up at “Splashers” pool” where we swam and played all morning. Lunch was poolside with peanut butter & jelly, salad wraps and Cuban sandwiches. We then moved over to the Lagoon Beach where everyone built a sandcastle and the boys made a new friend, Christian. That afternoon, Tony & Steph took the family into Nassau for sightseeing and shopping, and, although the straw markets were still open, restaurants and stores in general close as soon as the cruise ships begin to leave the docks. That night, Mike & Julie left Dom and Luca with Grammy & Grandpa for pizza and a movie (Minions) while they went out for a romantic lobster dinner. After returning, everyone went back to their rooms for a good night’s sleep.

Lagoon Sand Castle
Caribbean Reef Shark
Ice Cream Time

Thursday began with our routine coffee run before everyone had breakfast and headed out to the aquariums to watch the 9”00am feeding of the sawfish and rays. Four of the sawfish are the only ones born in captivity and at 10-years old are already ~15ft. long. After the feedings, we took up seats around the Mayan Temple pool again so that everyone could ride the slides and play. Grammy, Grandpa, Mike, and Dom all rode the “Challenger” slide, which reaches high speeds down a 60ft-high steep incline. Then, the girls all met up for “girl-time” at the Coral Pool Swim-Up Bar where they had drinks and swam. At the “Tower of Power”, Grandpa discovered “The Abyss” – a 60ft. drop in darkness into an underground secluded pool. Mike & Dom and Grammy & Grandpa then tackled “The Surge” – a 2-peron tube slide that twists about before exiting into the Rapids River. The rest of the afternoon was filled with slides and River Rapids rides until we all returned to the rooms in the late afternoon to prepare for dinner. We all decided to eat at the “Burger Shack”, located at the end of the Marina Village, since reservations were not required. Ben & Jerry’s again provided post-dinner ice cream treats for the kids before we headed towards a family walk through “The Digs” before retiring for the night.

Caribbean Sawfish born at Atlantis
Luca and Mom on the Rapid River
Mike and Dominic Racing on the Challenger
Grammy and Grandpa with the Grandkids

On Friday morning, Mike joined our routine morning coffee trek. Today, we again set up at the Mayan Temple pool as the kids were becoming braver on experiencing the slides and river. Grammy, Steph, and Nora decided to explore the Baths Colonnade pool which is 5ft. deep and has pedestal seats located around each column and under each waterfall. Lunch that day was again from “Shark Bites” and the afternoon was filled with swimming, rides on the Jungle slide, and family time on the Rapids River. Friday night would be a final “All Family Dinner” which we had scheduled at “Carmines” – an Italian family-style restaurant located at the far-end of the Marina Village. We all sat at a large round table and ordered family-style servings which were huge and delicious. Although we could not eat it all, we gave it our best shot, and everyone agreed it was the best meal we had had together. After dinner, we wandered back towards the hotel through the “Junkaroo Market” which “pops-up” only on Friday evenings. The girls shopped the trinkets and the boys tried joining in with the local band before we returned to the hotel to take Family pictures, returned to our rooms to begin packing, and called it a night.

Italian Family Dinner at Carmines
Stephanie holds Storytime
The 2022 Atlantis Family Picture

Saturday morning was our last Starbucks walk before collecting our luggage and checking out of the Atlantis Resort. We all caught taxis to the airport where Tony & Steph’s flight took off on time, but rest of the family’s flight was delayed 3-hours. However, everyone made it back to the northeast at a reasonable time, ending our first All-Family vacation.

Biking the Pacific Northwest San Juan Islands – Part 2

June 2022

Our trip leaders were Paul & McKenna with Nina providing support, as our group of bike riders were 25 people strong. There was a surprisingly large contingent from Florida, 10 in all, including us, and well as 7 from California, and others sprinkled from around the Midwest and South. After checking the sizing of our assigned bicycles, we immediately set off on a 22-mile bike ride over relatively flat farming terrain, but in a rainstorm that soaked us to the skin. Upon returning to our suite, we took advantage of every source of heat to dry our shoes and clothes while we prepared for dinner at a local restaurant – Nell Thorn’s. Dinner that night was spectacular with the owner talking us through the night’s fare and the wine flowing freely. Our dinners of Halibut and Morel & Truffle Pasta exceeded even our highest expectations before returning to our hotel for a few games of cards and packing to check-out in the morning.

A Local Crabbing Boat in the fishing village of La Conner
Nina, McKenna, and Paul – The Backroads Team

Monday morning, we checked out, delivered our luggage to the Backroads Leaders, and walked to breakfast at the Thorn & Oyster Restaurant, before boarding our bicycles for the day’s ride. Today, we would bike 26-miles to Anacortes, past the refinery and over trestle bridges, to lunch in the park next to their Maritime Museum and marina. The Monday weather was fantastic with temperatures in the 50’s & 60’s with very little wind. After lunch, we strolled through the marina observing the lines of locals buying fresh-caught salmon, scallops, and halibut, before boarding our bicycles once again for the short 8-mile ride through the hills to the Anacortes Ferry Terminal. The ferry would take us from the mainland to Orcas Island – the second-largest island in the San Juan Archipelago. Backroads collected our bikes and provided an assortment of drinks and snacks as we enjoyed the 90-minute ferry ride that first stopped at Shaw Island before arriving at Orcas Village located at the southern end of the middle peninsula on Orcas Island. Orcas Island is shaped a bit like an upside-down “W”, and we would be exploring the island from a location near the north end of the Island. Upon arriving, we were shuttled to the Outlook Hotel in the village of Eastsound. Again, we had an excellent room with a fireplace overlooking the East Sound and its near shore “Indian Island”. We used the remaining afternoon to clean-up and explore the town’s small commercial center, although most stores closed at 5pm. That night we enjoyed appetizers and dinner at the hotel before taking a stroll through their lovely gardens and around town.

Travel Map among San Juan Islands. Yellow stars – Hotel stays; Blue star – Orcas; Green star – Kayaking in Roche Harbor

Tuesday was another wonderful day, and, after arising early, we took an exploratory stroll along the waterfront. It was low tide, and many small crabs were left hiding under estuary rocks and the beach was awash in local kelp and seaweed. After a generous breakfast at the hotel’s New Leaf Café, we rode our bikes a short 5-miles along the Eastern Peninsula to Moran State Park – the 4th largest state park in Washington and land that preserved the ~300-year-old-growth forest from the extensive logging the island saw in the 19th & 20th Century. It originally was the estate of Seattle mayor and shipbuilder Robert Moran who moved there for health reasons. It also includes Mt. Constitution, the highest point among the Sam Juan Islands at 2409ft elevation. Along the way, a large buck and 2 other deer crossed our paths, but the ~500ft climb required effort. Unfortunately, the road and hiking trails to the summit were all closed for repair from the winter, so we took the occasion to hike the ~4-mile trail around Mountain Lake through the forest of huge Douglas firs and Red Cedars. After the hike, we returned to Cascade Lake Campgrounds for a picnic lunch before hiking the shorter 2-miles around Cascade Lake. Along the way, we were lucky to come upon a Bald Eagle sitting right above us looking for a fish to capture. After our hike, we boarded our bicycles and headed 6-miles north to the coast at Matia Viewpoint where we could look back to the mainland for a clear view of Mt. Baker covered in snow. Mt. Baker is a glacier-covered volcano in the Cascade range that towers 10,781ft high. It was then just a short 2-mile ride back to the Outlook Inn, where we had time to shop while the stores were open before meeting for dinner at the Madrona Bar and Grill where we enjoyed steak and Cioppino, (Italian Seafood Stew).

One of many Bald Eagles spotted in the San Juan Islands

Wednesday we would explore the other two peninsulas of Orcas Island located to the west. Again, we explored the beach in the morning before taking breakfast at the hotel, checking out, and beginning our 12-mile ride to Deer Harbor, the southwestern most town on the island. Along the way, we stopped and shopped at Orcas Island Pottery, a unique, locally made collection of pottery items with a tremendous view of the water and islands west to Canada. Deer Harbor was a quaint, working fishing village with numerous commercial and recreational ships. From Deer Harbor, we retraced part of our route and rode the 6 additional miles to Orcas Village. At Orcas Village, we surrendered our bicycles, changed clothes, and enjoyed a lovely outdoor lunch at the Orcas Hotel of BBQ Chicken & Salmon with grilled veggies. After lunch, we boarded the “Squito” Whale Watching boat to go in search of Orcas! Latest intel put a Biggs Pod, (“Biggs Pods” are pods of Orcas that are transient to the area, as opposed to “Resident Pods” that stay in the area year-round), near the U.S. – Canadian Border by the island of Patos. We take the 90-minute ride north, spotting the occasional Harbor Seal and porpoise, until we reach the southern shores of Patos where 3-4 Whale Watching vessels are cruising west-to-east a few hundred yards off from the Orcas pod that is cruising the island’s shores. Out Naturalist aboard identifies the pod as the T123 family of five with the ~37-year-old mother, (“Sidney), a mature 22-year-old mature juvenile male, (“Stanley”), and 3 younger juveniles ranging from 4-16 years old. We follow along at distance for about an hour before we need to return to Friday Town Harbor on the southern end of San Juan Island, our next destination. Along the way back, we cruise by Flattop Island – a flattish rock outcrop covered with Harbor Seals remaining safe onshore during the day. We then travelled past a couple of resident eagle nests on San Juan Island before docking at Friday Town Harbor and walking a short distance to the Harbor House Hotel, our location for the next two nights. That night dinner was on our own, so we shopped at the local grocery deli and relaxed at the hotel playing cards, eating, and drinking wine.

The T123 Biggs Orcas Pod
Stanley & Sidney of the T123 Orca Family spotted at Patos Island near the Canadian Border
Harbor Seals at Flattop Island

Thursday morning brought back the light rain, but after breakfast at the hotel, we biked 20-miles to Lime Kiln Point State Park on the western side of the island, stopping along the way at a Lavender Farm where we get warm, and taste lavender tea, lavender chocolate, lavender chutney, and lavender honey. At Lime Kiln State Park, the 1860’s lime kilns used for making lime for mortar, are renovated, and the coastal park still houses the 1919 Lime Kiln Point Lighthouse and a coastal whale observation overlook. From the State Park, we load our cold selves and our wet bikes and shuttle back to the hotel for a shower and a “picnic” in the hotel and ready ourselves for an afternoon of kayaking in the rain. We shuttle over to Roche Harbor at the north end of the island where we climb into our 2-person sea kayaks and begin our 2-hour paddling journey to Pearl Island and Posey Island Marine State Park – a small island state park that boasts only 2 campsites that can be reserved for $12 per night each. However, motorized boats are not allowed to beach there! After sampling a bit of fresh Pacific Bull Kelp, we kayak over to McCracken Point where we saw two occupied eagle’s nests. Then we paddled along the other side of Pearl Island and back to Roche Harbor before we exited the kayaks and took our soggy selves back to the hotel for a good hot shower. That evening, it was time for a bit of “Happy Hour” and our final “Farewell Dinner”.

Julie & Rocky in their Sea Kayak
Our Backroads Kayaking Group

Friday morning, we had breakfast at the hotel, and climbed aboard our bicycles for the last time. The weather was spectacular, and the morning would be an enjoyable 11-mile ride past the airport and golf course, and along the Pear Point Loop and its lovely homes. Back at the hotel, we showered, packed our bags, checked out and walked to the ferry terminal where we shopped and drank coffee. Because of early morning fog, the ferry to Anacortes was running ~1-hour late, but we ate lunch onboard and arrived in plenty of time to say our goodbyes and shuttle back to La Conner to load up our car. From La Conner, we drove to the airport Hampton in Seattle as the rain began to fall yet again. After checking into the hotel, we turned in the car, walked to quick food stop, and prepared for our early morning flights.

The Outside Wall at the Killer Whale Museum in Friday Harbor

Saturday morning, it was up at 3:45am, hotel shuttle to the airport, flight check-in, and breakfast at the lounge before catching our 6:45am flight back through Chicago and onto Washington Reagan Airport. The end of a fantastic biking trip through the U.S. Northwest San Juan Islands.

Biking the Pacific Northwest San Juan Islands – Part 1

June 2022

Both my wife and I had visited Seattle for work numerous occasions in the past, but neither of us ever had the chance to really explore the San Juan Islands located northwest of Seattle in historically disputed territory. These islands are geologic mountain tops with deep ancient glacier canyons carved in between them, making a perfect home for humpback whales, pods of orcas, harbor seals, and nesting bald eagles. Our attention was directed this way when our facilitated bicycling trip planned for late Fall 2021 to Guatemala & Belize was disrupted by covid border crossing issues, and we chose instead to divert our invested resources within the United States. 

We found the San Juan Islands interesting because they have been historically explored, exploited, and claimed by many countries. In 1846, the Oregon Treaty established the 49th parallel as the boundary between Canada and the U.S. west to the middle of the Strait of Georgia, and then by the main channel south to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and from there westwards to the open ocean, preserving Vancouver as belonging to Britain. However, the US and Britain had differing opinions on identifying “the main channel”, which the U.S. claimed was the Haro Strait, and Britain claimed was the Rosario Strait. This led to both countries claiming the San Juan Islands, which led to an international dispute, (the Pig Wars), that was finally resolved through arbitration by Emperor Wilhelm I of Germany in 1871. The border was set through Haro Strait in 1872 and the San Juan Islands became part of  the U.S. Washington Territories. The San Juan Islands consist of over 100 islands and exposed rocks that serve as homes for people and wildlife, but only four islands are accessible to vehicular and foot traffic via the Washington State Ferries system.

Map of travels from Seattle to Bainbridge Island to Mt. Rainier and to La Conner

Our journey began in Washington Reagan airport with a layover in Chicago O’Hara until flying into Seattle airport. This was complicated by a ~2-hour delay in Chicago where the fueling crew spilled jet fuel on the tarmac requiring a thorough clean-up and aircraft safety inspection. Once in Seattle airport, we rented a car and traveled through typical rain to our hotel in downtown Seattle where we met up with my wife’s sister and brother-in-law who traveled from Ohio. Since it was now already evening, we took umbrellas, strolled through the shadow of the Space Needle, and settled into Zeke’s Pizzeria for dinner. We discussed our immediate plans as we decided to spend Friday and Saturday exploring the Seattle area before heading north to begin our adventure in the San Juan Islands.

The Seattle Needle from the 1962 World’s Fair
The Seattle Skyline from the Puget Sound Ferry

Friday morning, we checked out of the hotel and took the car ferry to nearby Bainbridge Island, a quaint and historic island set in Puget Sound. Apparently, the ferries are now escorted through the Sound with Coast Guard gunships that followed along beside us most of the way. The ferry arrived at the Eagle Harbor Terminal near the historic town of Winslow, where we parked our car and hiked the waterfront trails until the shops opened at 10am. After exploring the main street shops, we took lunch at the village grocery before heading by car north on the island to the famous Bloedel Reserve, a 150 acre beautifully manicured home, forest, and garden created by Virginia and Prentice Bloedel and preserved and operated today as a foundation. Despite the rain, we strolled the 2-miles of trails and enjoyed the spectacular colors of the flowers and botanicals. Then, we set out to another part of the island for the Grand Forest, to hike among the giant Lodgepole pines, Douglas firs, and Red Cedar trees. After the hike, we stopped at Eleven Winery for some tasting and a few snacks before heading to the northern coast at Fay Bainbridge Park for a view across Puget Sound of the city of Seattle. This beach is renowned for its driftwood, and it did not disappoint. Having explored Bainbridge Island all day, we now drove north off the island via Agate Pass Bridge before turning south and heading to the town of Puyallup, south of Seattle, where we would stay for the next two nights. After checking into the hotel, we enjoyed dinner at Applebee’s before calling it a night.

Julie welcomed to Bainbridge Island
Sisters hugging a large Douglas Fir Tree

Puyallup is a small farming town located on the Puyallup River that flows as runoff from Mt. Rainier. We chose to stay here because it allows for easy first access to Mt. Rainier through the Nisqually Gate – the only open access to Mt. Rainier Park this early in the season. In addition, the extensive snow and rains of the past winter has destroyed numerous bridges and roads, and this was our only access up to the Henry M. Jackson Visitor Center at Paradise. Along the winding road, following much of the Puyallup River, there are numerous viewpoints and trails to explore. We stopped along the way in the park at Longmire where we are informed that there is still 12ft of snow at Paradise and that many trails are still closed. However, we continue along the road until we reach Paradise just in time to explore the old lodge, check out the opening gift shop, and stretch our legs. We then begin the automobile descent back down to Longmire, stopping along the way to visit Narmada Falls, (whose lower-level trail was washed out), and taking a short hike to Christine Falls, (where we saw a couple of deer enjoying lunch at the Cougar Rock riverbank). At Longmire, we parked and hiked the 3.5-mile Wonderland Trail back to Cougar Rock campsites before returning to the car and finally exiting the park at Nisqually Gate. From here, we turned south and drove a local winding road through the beautiful, moss-covered Gifford Pinchot Forest. We stopped at Cruiser’s Pizza in the town of Packwood for fuel and a late lunch before returning to Puyallup for the evening.

The Puyallup River valley to Mt. Rainier
A view of Mt. Rainier from the town of Puyallup

Sunday morning, we checked out of the hotel and made the drive back to Seattle where we visited the Seattle Starbuck’s Reserve Roastery – the company’s flagship establishment. This downtown location was bustling with patrons and visitors and provided us with shopping, souvenirs, and fresh coffee. From here, we drove north up the coast to the small, historic town of La Conner to meet up with our Backroads’ Trip Leaders and group. We arrived a bit early, and so we explored the waterfront wharf that was populated with crabbing boats and fishing vessels, and toured the town’s Quilt Museum, before checking-in at the Channel Lodge hotel. Here, we had lunch and settled into our room – a suite with a fireplace, kitchen, living room and bedroom. 

The Channel Lodge Hotel in LaConner WA

Our Morocco Adventure – Part 6

Casablanca 

Friday morning, we said our “goodbyes” to Marrakesh, and continued our 3-4-hour journey back to the coast and the “White City” of Casablanca. On the outskirts of town, we pass one of the city’s soccer stadiums – part of where the country’s hopes rest for hosting the 2030 World Cup. We get into town a bit before lunch, and we stop at the Women’s Solidarity Association in Casablanca. Founded in 1985, by Aicha Ech Channa, this non-profit organization provides professional experience to single women, mothers, and victims of abuse by training them to develop the skills needed to work in restaurants, bakeries, and hammams. There we spoke to the Association’s leader, Whabea, who explains to us that the children who are born out of wedlock, and their mothers, are generally not accepted into Moroccan Society, and are often cast out by their families, leaving them no way to support themselves or their child. The Association provides skills and services for about 50-60 women that helps them support themselves and navigate the social and legal complexities of their situation. They also provide childcare, and sexual education to local girls and schools to help in reducing the problem.  After a lively question and answer session, the Association serves us a lunch of traditional cuisine before we depart and drive through downtown past the Mohamed V Square where the Theater, French Embassy and Military Court all are located. We note the modern Tram transportation system that crisscrosses the city, and take note of the Post Office, Central Bank, Royal Navy, and the famous “Rick’s Café” modeled after the famous location from the movie “Casablanca”. Finally, we reach our next destination – the towering Hassan II Mosque built partly into the Atlantic Ocean. This mosque was built in 1985 and is the largest in Morocco, 3rd largest in the world, and boasts the tallest minaret in the world. It can hold 25,000 people on its main floor with another 5000 women in the balcony, and 75,000 more in its courtyard. It took 10,000 craftsmen and 3000 laborers working for years to complete and is currently staffed by 200 daily workers who provide security and clean. The inside is supported by 300 Italian marble pillars and is lit via either its movable roof or its 57 Italian chandeliers.  The 25-ton door takes 3-minutes to electrically open and is only used by the King and President of the country. We took the 1 1/2-hour tour of the mosque to admire its marble columns, intricately designed dome, and mosaic tiles. After touring the main floor, we made our way through the washing stations downstairs before exiting to the courtyard and touring the museum.

The Hassan II Mosque built partly into the Atlantic Ocean.
The courtyard of Hassan II Mosque that holds an additional 75,000 worshipers.
Rocky & Julie inside the Hassan II Mosque.
The downstairs washroom at the Hassan II Mosque.

We departed the mosque for a brief drive to our hotel, the centrally located Radisson Blu, where we checked-in and received our room assignments for the next two nights. Next, we both had our Covid PCR tests taken which were necessary to enter back into the United States. Then, Julie and I checked out the local Tram and shopped at the local grocery store for a few snacks and a bottle of wine before having dinner and calling it night.

Saturday morning, the rest of our group left for home, but the two of us stayed on an extra day to explore more on Casablanca. After meeting our guide for breakfast, we received documentation of our negative Covid tests, bid him goodbye, and then bought tickets for the Tram. We rode it to United Nations Square where we transferred to the Tram line that would take us to the beach south of Hassan II Mosque. Once reaching the beach, we walked 1 1/2-miles further south along the boardwalk to the Moroccan Mall – the largest Mall in all of Africa. The 3-story tall mall houses all the famous shops and is anchored by a huge, towering aquarium that is home to Atlantic fish including several species of sharks and rays. Here we shopped and explored until taking a seat for an iced tea at Starbucks and beginning our journey back to the city center. When we reached our transfer point at United Nations Square, we decided to try the local McDonald’s for lunch before strolling the rest of the way back to the Radisson Blu. After straightening out a mix up in rooms and having to move up 5 floors, we enjoyed a light fruit dinner and packed for our trip home that would begin early the next morning.

Modern architecture in Casablanca.
Pasta options at a Casablanca market.
The beach at Casablanca.
Inside the Morocco Mall in Casablanca – the largest mall in Africa.
The 3-story aquarium in Morocco Mall.
Is there Rocco in Morocco?

Sunday morning, September 12th, we were up at 4am for our taxi to the airport and our Air France flights home, again with a connection in Paris de Gaulle. The flight was comfortable, but uneventful, as our paperwork was all in order, and our trip home after 17 days was welcomed.

Our Morocco Adventure – Part 5

Marrakesh

The next morning, we leave for our trip to Marrakesh via the Tizin’Tichka Pass – the highest pass in Morocco at an elevation of 7422 ft. – (“Tizin’Tichka” in Berber means “The Pass of the Lost”).  We travel through the High Atlas Mountains for about five hours, pausing to take in viewpoints high above the valleys. The route along the Tizin’Tichka road is winding, hugging the side of the mountains following old caravan trails, but it has recently been improved and is a very scenic drive. 

Travel to Marrakesh along the historic Tizin’ Tichka Road.
Tizin’Tichka Pass – the highest pass in Morocco at an elevation of 7422 ft.

Along the way, we take a side-trip to Ait Ourir, a growing city founded on the outskirts of Marrakesh to stem the explosive growth of urban Marrakesh.  This is where our guide, Mohamed, lives with his family in a 4-story house that he saved for years to have built. He resides here with his parents, sister, brother & sister-in-law, wife, and 2 children. He even built a small sundry store on the ground floor for his father to operate. Schools, stores, and mosque are all nearby and it appears to be an excellent place to raise a family. We were greeted by the entire family and hosted with tea and an assortment of baked breads, crepes, and cakes.

In Ait Ourir to visit our guide’s family.

After a brief stay, we departed for our riad in Marrakesh, (the “red” city), where we had lunch of chicken skewers, rice, and veggies. Our riad, the Bahia Salam, was located in the heart of the old city and within walking distance of the souks and the old Jewish quarter. It was tucked back off a busy street but enjoyed the quiet of its flowered enclosures and rooftop terrace and pool. After lunch, we took an orientation walk with our local guide, Aziz, to the nearby square Djemaa El Fna, located at the intersection of the souks and the Koutoubia Mosque, the tallest structure in Marrakesh which will remain so by law. The name, “Djemaa El Fna” translates to “assembly of the dead”, and was in commemoration of the large number of public executions that occurred there in 1050 AD.  Today, it has turned into an area that is filled with street vendors, musicians, snake charmers, and pet monkeys. Food stalls line the streets with an assortment of beggars, diners, and shoppers milling about the square.  Horse-drawn carriages, motorbikes, and cars are restricted to the outskirts of the square at night and huge pedestrian traffic takes over the area.

Spices in Marrakesh’s Souks.

After a short walk, we entered a small custom spice shop, Medina Herbal, where different herbs and spices are used for creams and teas. Here we bought natural, organic saffron, the stigma threads taken from the flower of the Crocus Sativus plant. It is the world’s most costly spice by weight but is often sought for its flavoring and coloring properties. Then, after returning to the riad, Julie and I decide to explore the Jewish area located just a short distance away. Here we shop for spices and clothes and look for gifts that we can return home with. That night dinner was on our own, and we found some local fare to sample while wandering the maze of alleyways.

Custom spices at Medina Herbal.
Shopping in the Square of Djemaa El Fna.

The second morning we had breakfast on the roof terrace before meeting again with Aziz for a foot tour of old city. Today was the country’s Election Day where Parliament members are selected from among 36 Political Parties. We did see a few voting lines, but no one we spoke to all day had actually voted. The King has final say on both the elected members, and on any “laws” or recommendations that Parliament might make. First, we walked to the nearby opulent Bahia Palace. This 19th-century palace houses 150 council rooms with large fireplaces and intricately painted cedar work lining the floor and walls. The open-air Court of Honor is lined with tiles and fountains. Then we walked 10-15 minutes through the souks to Le Jardin Secret, a beautifully manicured 400-year-old palatial estate featuring immaculately manicured gardens.

Ornate architecture of the Bahia Palace.
In the Gardens of Le Jardin Secret.

Then we traveled a complicated route to Palais Galerie Saadien, where custom Moroccan wool rugs are displayed, shopped for, and ordered. We liked the options offered and arranged to have someone meet us later at the riad to guide us back to the shop to explore an order. After that, we returned to Djemaa El Fna where we took seats in a local restaurant for a lunch of skewered grilled beef, chicken, and lamb. Then we returned to the riad for a short rest before our guide back to Palais Saadien arrived.  After negotiating another complicated maze of small alleys, we returned to the Galerie where we negotiated and ordered 4 handmade Moroccan wool rugs, (including a round one), to be made by a village craftswoman with the specific colors and design we selected. It would take 4-months to create these, and another month to ship them to us in the United States. After completing the transaction, we were guided back to Djemaa El Fna from which we could find our way back to the riad, where we enjoyed a leisurely swim in the roof-top pool.

Craftsman working a foot-lathe.
In Marrakesh’s souks to order rugs from Palais Saadien.

After cooling off, our travel group gathered downstairs for an adventurous tour of the city via an hour-long horse-drawn Carriage ride, in two “calleches”. The ride took us through the “old city”, past palaces and mosques and high-end shopping districts, before returning us to our riad. That night, we wandered through the medina by ourselves and eventually into the bustling Djemaa El Fna where we enjoyed a light dinner and ice cream for dessert. Thant night we sat beside the pool on the roof and enjoyed a glass of our local wine and the city bustled below.

Marrakesh’s horse drawn carriages.
Rocky & Julie on carriage ride in Marrakesh.

Thursday morning would begin our last day in Marrakesh, and we started it by arising at 4:30am and catching a hired limousine for the 45-minute drive out of town to the far edge of Marrakesh. Here, we exited in the dark to a large tent where we enjoyed tea while receiving a safety briefing and instructions for our upcoming sunrise hot-air balloon ride. After watching the balloons fill and arise, we boarded and began our ascent into the pre-dawn light sky. The balloon basket held 16 guests – quartered off into 8 compartments – plus the pilot. Our pilot was an Egyptian man who had flown tourists on balloons in Egypt, Turkey, Kenya, and South Africa, and who was so adept at the controls that we hardly noticed any ascents or descents, or even the landing. While floating along between 4000 and 6000 feet high, we watched the sun rise over Marrakesh and the Atlas Mountains, while watching 3 other balloons jockey for viewpoints beneath us. After landing, we returned to the tent where we were given certificates and enjoyed a breakfast of omelets, pancakes, cheese, and fruit, while sipping on tea and banana smoothies.

At hot air balloon embarkation tent predawn.
Our hot air balloon for Marrakesh flyover.
Fellow balloon travelers over Marrakesh.

We then returned to the riad and went shopping in the souks looking for souvenirs and a painting that would fit a particular frame in our Florida bedroom. Luckily, we found an artist who had the right shapes and colors of a desert scene that we loved and negotiated for its purchase. While out, we found some lunch before returning to the riad for another relaxing swim in the pool. Then, in the afternoon, we gathered for a short ride to meet with Chaimae Benyamna, a female medical student whose scientist parents supported her pursuit of such an untraditional western lifestyle. We discussed challenges she has faced and that she continues to face in her aspiration of becoming a woman gynecologist in a country where the profession is dominated by men. After our discussion, we traveled to “The Red House”, a former lavish French home that has been converted into a very classy boutique hotel and restaurant where we enjoyed our trip’s “Farewell Dinner”. Here we had cocktails and petit fours, followed by squab with raisins and spice orange cake for dessert. We ended the evening with toasts and “Thank You’s” before making the trip back to our riad for our last night in Marrakesh.

Squab with Raisins Tagine.

Our Morocco Adventure – Part 4

The Atlas Mountains & Ourrzazate

Sunday morning had us saying goodbye to our Sahara camp staff and taking our 4-wheel-drive vehicles back to the Macro Fossils Kasbah outside of Erfoud where we transferred back to our transport bus for the trip to Ourrzazate. Our first stop along the way was for a visit and explanation of the Khettaras. A Khettaras is an underground tunnel and well network that was constructed to bring water from its source to be distributed and used for families and irrigation in the Sahara. On each side of the High Atlas in Morocco, various societies have built thousands of these khettaras, each of them dug and maintained by hand.

Diagram of a Kettara’s design.
Photo of a Kettera with Water Bucket.

After descending and traveling along one of these underground tunnels, we continued our journey to the town of Tinejdad. Here we entered the Ksar of El Khorbat and visited a Berber Museum assembled within by a local Jewish activist. The Ksar, (a fortified village), is a walled and protected assemblage of homes and businesses typically built to keep desert raiders out. After visiting the museum, we had lunch at the Touroug Café, before continuing our journey. Our drive took us through the Todra Valley and past many proud Berber towns. The valley boasts green crops and “green doors” painted at the request of the government. The Berber Flag (green, blue, and yellow) flies prominently, and construction and development are apparent. The area is known not only for its silver mines, but also as the “Valley of Roses”. We pass through Kelaa M’gouna, a town brimming with rose gardens and the home to Morocco’s Annual “Rose Festival” in May of each year. We then make a short stop and travel through the town of Skoura which had long been a favorite place for second homes for French, Spanish and Canadian investors, but has been suffering for the past few years with an extensive drought. Next, we pass the Noor Power Plant – the world’s largest concentrated solar power plant project at 160MW and which cost ~$9 billion. China had designed and constructed it for Morocco, and still operates it, and it is only the first part of a planned 500MW facility. This area averages 300 days of sun per year totaling 2635 kWh/m2/year making it an ideal location for such a facility. Morocco aspires to reach 30% of its energy from solar and wind by 2030. Finally, we reach the city of Ourrzazate, and we check into the Berber Palace hotel. Ourrzazate is the “Moroccan Hollywood” and is home to several Movie Production Houses and Sets. The hotel was outfitted with all sorts of former movie paraphernalia and has hosted many movie stars during their filming. That night, we enjoy dinner and relax in our first air conditioning in over 3-days.

Inside of the Ksar of El Khorbat.
The Village of Ait Ben Haddou, a UNESCO World Heritage sit.e

Our next day in Ourrzazate was the “Day in the Life” where we visit a local family and learn a bit more about their typical daily lives. We started the day by passing the Atlas and Cal Movie Studios on our way to meet our local guide in the village of Ait Ben Haddou, a UNESCO World Heritage site. There, our local guide, Ibrahim, gave us a brief history about the village before we stopped to see a roadside artist demonstrating a local drawing technique. He used saffron, green tea, and indigo to “invisibly” draw on paper, and then heats it to make the colorful images appear. Ibrahim grew up in the area and had seen the old town supplanted by a new village. He often worked in support of the Movie Productions, and during the filming of Season 4 of “Game of Thrones”, he had actually had a role on film as an extra. We then traveled into the village of Asfalou to visit a typical family. Mohamed and Hashema welcomed us into their home where we met their 5 children ranging from 3- to 15-years old. They have a small farm of olive trees and alfalfa which they use to raise small livestock, and to make bricks. Julie helped ~35-year-old Hashema make bread in a charcoal oven before we walk back into the farm and were followed by the children and their neighborhood friends. There, we took seats around a small campfire and enjoyed tea and the fresh-made bread. The children ask to sing for us, and they sing their national anthem. Then, ~50-year-old Mohamed shows us how he makes ~120 bricks every day out of straw, dung, and mud, which he sells for ~10 cents each. Rocky makes his best attempt to make a single brick, but it is difficult work that enjoys a chuckle from the audience. Then, we adjourn to “reception room”, a large area with banquette seating around the walls and interact with the children while Hashema finalized a delicious lunch of couscous & beef tagine.

Julie making bread with Hashema.
Mohamed with children.
Mohamed making bricks for income.

After we said our “goodbyes”, we traveled a short distance to the Imik Smik Women’s Association for Rural Development – a women cooperative partly supported by the Grand Circle Foundation. They currently support ~43 women to become entrepreneurial in the areas of weaving, sewing, and cooking, and provide an outlet for the marketing of the products they create. We enjoyed a spirited conversation led by the Association’s Leader, Fatima, and played “dress-up” with some of their local attire, before marveling at their ability to freestyle henna on our hands.

The women of Imik Smik Women’s Association for Rural Development.
Julie in Berber wedding dress.

Then, we returned to our Berber Palace to freshen-up before heading downtown to Dimitri’s Restaurant for a spectacular duck dinner. After dinner, we strolled through the city’s center market where people bought and sold their wares while children played and ate ice cream.  Finally, we made it back to our hotel and settled in for the night.

Evening market in Ourrzazate.

Our Morocco Adventure – Part 3

Erfoud & The Sahara Desert

Thursday morning, after breakfast, we boarded our bus for the long trip south, across the Atlas Mountains, to the town of Erfoud. Along the way, we continued to learn about the country and how it negotiated its independence from France in 1944, but with a number of conditions, including giving France the first option for the country’s contracts and access to its minerals for the next century! As we leave Fes, we begin to see the climate becoming drier, and we spot our first camel herds and see signs for purchase of camel milk. As we climb the Middle Atlas Mountains and pass the town of Seffrou, there are orchards of apples and cherries, and an amazing number of fruits and vegetable being grown, along with the ever-present olive trees. We soon cross over into the National Forest, which is brimming with juniper, pine, oak, and cedar trees. The Park had historically been home to elephants, lions, and gazelles, but today only boasts boar, deer, fox and the seldom seen Barbary apes (monkeys).

The Barbary Apes of the Atlas Mountains
Two Barbary Apes of Morocco

This part of Morocco also serves as its snow-skiing capital with towns of A-frames and chalets. We stop at the center of this activity in the town of Ifrane, where we shop briefly and have a mid-morning coffee. From here, our trip south will take us over a 6000ft-high pass and deeper into the Berber communities. Along the way, we spot a family of traditional nomadic Berber herders and stop to ask them if we can visit briefly. The mother answered our translated questions and gave us a tour of her home – a wood/plastic and dirt hut with separate food preparation buildings. The father was away tending the herd, but mother, Amine, and her 3 children 11, 7, and 2 years of age, and mother-in-law, were very interested in us. We learned of their difficult lives as nomads, and of the importance they ascribed to getting their kids to school. The youngest boy was still dressed from his recent circumcision ceremony, and they were proud to show us their lifetime collection of china, rugs, and blankets.

The Nomadic Home of Berber Nomads

After that we continued to the town of Midelt, the apple capital of the country, to have lunch. Our lunch was farm-raised trout from the Middle Atlas Mountain streams in a restaurant called Kasbah Taddart.

Lunch at Kasbah Taddart

After lunch, we continued our journey over the Atlas Mountains, passing a series of military training bases and a growing number of wind farms. In 2019, Morocco responded to the growing Algerian threat by calling up men aged 17-25 for military service, and optionally taking women, as well.  However, when the women recruits exceeded the men, the 300,000-person goal was easily met. We drove along the Ziz River and through the Ziz valley, widely known for extensive date palm tree groves and saw the devastating effects of the recent fire that had swept the area. This area is particularly known for its Majhoul dates, considered to be the sweetest and best dates of all the varieties. However, the fire completely wiped a significant number of local growers.

The Ziz Valley on Morocco

We continued into the town of Erfoud to walk through the town and to stay the night after our long journey. Exploring the town, we went through the date markets and tasted different types of dates.  After that, we checked into our hotel, the Erg Chergui, which was a huge, 200-room complex with a beautiful, central, outdoor swimming pool, and of which we were the only guests there. The buildings were made conforming to the traditional type of building in the south of Morocco, and modeled after a Kasbah – e.g., a fortified house. As for the name “Erg”, it means the “sand dunes” in Berber, and is very appropriate since Erfoud is situated as the “entrance” to the Sahara Desert. That night we enjoyed salads with a kefta tagine and jawhara dessert before watching the qualifying match between Morocco & Sudan soccer teams on television.

Friday morning, we boarded our bus and traveled a very short distance to the Macro Fossils Kasbah, a local factory of fossils located on the outskirts of Erfoud, where we learned about the Moroccan Fossils and black marble that are mined from the surrounding area

Polloshed Fossils Mined near Erfoud Morocco

Here, we also switched transportation from our bus to two 4-wheel drive SUVs and continued our journey towards the dessert until we came to the small town of Rissani. Here we did a walk around the local market of the area before visiting with Ahmed who runs a shop that sells scarfs and garments for the Sahara. We took the opportunity to purchase traditional desert djellabas (gel-al-bahs – tunic-style outfits that reach the ground) and long Tuareg scarfs that can be hand tied onto our heads in the tradition of Berber Turbans.

Rock & Julie in djellabas & turbins

Then we went through the sand dunes to reach our tented camp where we settled in and had a lunch of barbecued ground beef. Our tents were permanent tent-structures with separate, internal bathroom and shower “pods”, electricity, and a single fan. Rocky took the occasion to wear his new desert attire and explore the dunes near the camp, where he came across a small, irrigated date farm, and a camel herder with his 4 grazing camels.

The Edge of the Sahara near Risanni
Our Tented Camp – Sahara home for 2 nights
The Inside of of Sahara Tent

After a short rest, we traveled to a nearby farm where we met with the owner’s son. He took us around the farm explaining to us how they hand-dug their water wells and showed us their irrigation system that connects a series of pipes and channels to deliver water to their date palm trees. He also explained to us how they pollinate the palm trees by hand to insure the most robust harvests.

Local Date Farm on edge of Sahara

Upon returning to the tented camp, we assembled at the Dining Tent for a demonstration in preparation and cooking of our traditional Friday couscous tagine dinner. We then traveled out onto the dunes and climbed up onto them to gain vantage points to watch the sun set in the West. After a golden sunset and our couscous tagine dinner, we enjoyed the peacefulness of the desert in camp and took pictures of the Milky Way Galaxy displayed clearly in a cloudless dark sky.

The Sahara Sand Dunes at Golden Hour

Saturday was a day to explore the Sahara sand dunes. We got up early to drink our coffee and watch the sun rise over the Eastern dune-line, and then we had breakfast. After breakfast, we climbed into our 4-wheel-drive vehicles and made the brief drive to the sand dunes of Erg Chebbi. Here we climbed upon our camels and began a thrilling journey over the endless dunes.  The camels were extremely well behaved, and their ability to balance and remain stable while descending an avalanching sand dune was truly remarkable. Their footpads actually expand out while being placed upon the sand’s surface, giving them a large, stable platform while carrying their load.

On Sahara Safari via Camels

After our 90-minute camel-ride, we got back into our vehicles and drove off into the desert to a remote Berber Nomad’s home. Along the way, we stopped to visit a local Berber cemetery and learn about the Moroccan way of burying people – quickly, unadorned, and with their heads towards Mecca. The nomad, Amar, and his family, lived in a small adobe home with a large tent-tarp propped up for daily life and to receive visitors. He had lived there for 8-years with his son, daughter-in-law, her sister, and his 2-grandchildren, (plus another on-the-way). They entertained us under the tent, (his son was away tending the goat herd), on carpets and rugs, with tea and cookies, while we asked questions about their daily lives.  The oldest grandson was 10 years old and was eligible for free schooling, but the school was so far removed from them, he would have to live at the school during the week to attend. This arrangement was briefly tried but was too disruptive to continue.  Therefore, the family was considering moving closer to town to give him a chance at a better life.  This value placed upon education was universal across the country, and it is driving a rapid urbanization of Morocco, as families flock to cities where education and opportunity are available.

Berber Nomad Amar Serving Tea under his Tent

After we thanked our nomadic hosts, we headed to the town of Khamlia where we visited with the Gnawa musicians who teach and perform Berber music on traditional instruments. Much of this music dates to the 6th-century from Berber nomads in the regions of Mali, Mauritania and Guinea.

The Gnawa Muscisians Perform Berber Music

After the performance, we returned to our tented camp for a lunch of turkey skewers.  After lunch, we relaxed and discussed more about the Islamic Religion, (“Islam” translates to “peace”), and its differences and impacts across the Northern Africa, Middle Eastern, and southern Asia regions. We learned that their teachings of the Koran begin at ~14-years-old, and we learned briefly of the 5-tenants of Islam – Bearing witness to one God, Prayer, Alms to the poor, Fasting at Ramadan, and Pilgrimage to Mecca. We also learned a bit about the differences between Sunni and Shiite sects. That afternoon, the temperature reached 108-degrees Fahrenheit, and we decided to return to a small resort in a nearby town to take advantage of their swimming pool and hospitality. The relaxing afternoon was just what we needed before heading back to our camp for dinner. That night, we dined on a specialty of the Sahara called El Madfouna or the “Berber Pizza”. El Madfouna is stuffed bread with spice and ground beef inside and it was delicious. After dinner, we gathered with the camp’s staff around a campfire playing the drums, dancing, and enjoying the pleasant evening air.

Drumming around the Campfire in Sahara Camp

Our Morocco Adventure -Part 2

Fez

Monday morning, after breakfast, we checked out of our hotel and boarded our bus for the 5-hour trip to the city of Fes (Fez in English). We leave the coast, pass the Palace of Dar es Salaam along with sweeping fields, rolling countryside, and tree-covered slopes, mostly covered with rows of olive trees. We use the time to discuss Morocco’s King Mohamed VI, a relatively young man at 58-years-old, who is not in the best of health. He was educated and holds a PhD in Law from Nice, France, and ascended to the throne upon his father’s, King Hassan II, death in 1999. He holds enormous wealth as the richest king in Africa and the 5th richest king in the world, but in 2004 he led very progressive reforms in the areas of universal health, education, and women’s rights. 

After an hour-and-a-half, we stopped for refreshments at a vegetable market in a city called El Khemisset. Here, we walked through the fresh vegetable market and learned about the Moroccans tradition of having couscous on Fridays. Fruits and vegetables exported to Europe, along with international tourism, provide the country’s main source of income. As we leave El Khemisset, the police have a checkpoint and stop us to ensure we are wearing or face masks, and to check the vehicle’s recorder to make sure that our driver is taking his required breaks, (15-minutes every 2-hours), and that we have not exceeded the speed limit. Every vehicle in Morocco is fitted with a paper-disc chart recorder that is recording the vehicle’s speed continuously. Driver’s must provide these upon request and can be ticketed, or worse, if found to be in violation of traffic laws.

The vehicle’s chart recorder for Authority Inspection.

After another hour’s travel, we enter Fes, a city of over 2-million people and the intellectual, spiritual, and handicraft capital of the country. 60% of Moroccan’s now live in a Moroccan city, and the rural farms and countryside are being rapidly gobbled-up by large, industrial companies. Fes dates to the 9th Century and was built around the Al-Qarawiyyin Mosque founded by an Arab woman, Fatima Al-Fihriyy. The Al-Qarawiyyin mosque subsequently developed a teaching institution, which became the University of al-Qarawiyyin in 1963.

After entering the town’s medina, we exit our bus to walk down a maze of small passageways to our accommodations for the next 3 nights – the Riad Palais Marjana. A “riad” is actually the “green-space” within the center of a corresponding residence, and this beautiful Riad, decorated with intricate mosaic tile and detailed plaster carving, has been in the same family for 11 generations and offers only 20 rooms. After checking-in to our modest 2nd-floor room, we met everyone in the riad for lunch – a series of cold salads of beans, carrots, cucumbers, beets, lettuce, and potatoes with rice, with a main course of Kefta Mkaouara – a meatball tagine dish that was delicious – followed by a ktifa – a traditional Moroccan dessert sometimes called “milk bastille”.

The Riad Palais Marjana at which we stayed three nights (note the swimming pool on the main floor) – stunning architecture.

After lunch, we met our local guide – another Mohamed – and went to the “Bori Suud” – the Southern Tower, whose design was inspired by that of Portuguese castles. The fortification dates back to the era of the Saadi state, where Sultan Ahmed Al-Mansur ordered its construction in 1582 for defensive military purposes. Later, during French rule, it was used as a prison, and in 1963 it was converted into a weapons museum. It is located south of Fez Al-Bali and was built on a rocky elevation that overlooks the city, called the “Tar Stone”. Facing it on the other side of the city is the corresponding defensive Northern Tower, both offering spectacular panoramic views of the city of Fes! Mohamed then took us to visit a local ceramic manufacturing co-op, and then for a walk along the city’s main street, Hassan II Boulevard. In the center of the boulevard is a popular linear park where stand the symbol and mascot of the country – the Atlas Lion.  Today, the Atlas Lion is extinct in the wild, but is kept protected in the country’s zoos. We then returned to our riad for a brief rest, before the two of us ventured out on our own to explore the local area, visit the famous “Blue Gate”, shop, and eat Italian gelato.

The next morning, after breakfast, we again met up with our local guide, Mohamed, and set off to visit the Royal Palace of Fez, (Dar al-Makhzen), and its seven copper doors.

The Royal Palace of Fes’, (Dar al-Makhzen), and its seven copper doors.

Then we walked through the Jewish quarter of the medina, which is called Mellah, meaning “salt” in Arabic, due to the saline water source and salt warehouse in the area. From there, we began our exploration of the medina’s souks (markets), beginning at the Bad Erracif entrance. We walked through the vegetable, butcher, and fish markets, we dodge donkey carts and motorbikes, making our way along the ~7000 narrow passages, before arriving at the dyers’ market, and then the copper-makers market, (called Esaffarine).

The Bad Erracif Entrance to Fes’ Souks.
The Vegetable & Olive Markets of Fes’ Souks.

At the copper-makers market, we found a small restaurant where we climbed to the second floor for tea and cookies. Then we continued our walk until we came to Nejjarine’s, our restaurant for lunch – a lemon chicken tagine. The restaurant was named for the carpentry activities that are done in that part of the medina. After lunch, we continued our tour by visiting a Koranic school, (Al Atterine Madrassa), that dates back to the 14th century. 

The Koranic school, Al Atterine Madrassa, built in the 14th century.

We also visited the famous Terrase de Tannerie tannery of Fes that day, where we climbed to an overlook of the tanning and dye pots that have been in use for centuries. After learning the differences between cow, sheep, and goat hides, we walked to the Mosque and oldest University in the world that was built by Fatima Al Fihria in 859AD. The University is called “Al Quaraouiyine” and the “hand of Fatima” symbol is revered and reproduced on many entrances all around the country. We then finished our tour by visiting the weavers in the Caravan Serai which in Arabic is called a Fondouk. Fondouk’s were built as rest stops for travelers on journeys and can be found along most well-known ancient trade routes. They provided travelers, traders and missionaries with shelter and supplies and served as platforms for communication and exchange between diverse passersby. They were traditionally built in a square or rectangular shape, around an inner courtyard, and often feature a fountain to shelter guests from the heat.

The Terrase de Tannerie tannery of Fes.
The Oued Bou Khrareb flowing through the middle of Fes.

After our tour, we returned to our riad to prepare to meet our home-hosting family for dinner. 

Our host at Riad Palais Marjana serving tea.

Our hosting began when the family’s 21-year-old daughter, Kawtar, came and walked us a short distance to their home – a spacious 2nd-floor flat where she, her parents and her 16-year-old sister lived. Their 26-year-old brother had already received his degree in France and was working there as an electrical engineer. Dad was a banker who spoke little English, but Kawtar translated easily to French for him. The family’s mother, Fatima, also held a degree, but had given up her career to raise her family.  Little sister, Hiba, is preparing for exams to progress her on a road to a future medical degree. Kawtar was preparing to leave home in a matter of days to follow her brother and travel to France to study for a master’s degree in Finance. Like any family who wants a better life for their children, the parent’s see education as the path to the next generation’s happiness and success. We talked about careers (ours and theirs), the pandemic, travel, and children.  We even talked a little about Moroccan politics since their elections were only a day away.  We all had dinner of harira soup with bread and figs, and a delicious lamb tagine with caramelized prunes. At the end of the night, after heartfelt thanks and goodbyes, we had to hurry back to our riad to beat the 9:00pm curfew.

Wednesday morning the travel group split, and while the other 3 traveled to visit nearby Roman ruins, we took the option to take a cooking class learning to make our own tagine. A young woman, Amine, met us at our riad and took us on an hour-long shopping walk to the local souk located near to the famous “Blue Gate”. Making our way through the bustling market, we purchased eggplants, onions, green peppers, tomatoes, carrots, olives, and everything we would need to cook lunch.

The Blue Gate of Fes.

From there, we returned to nearby Riad Salam where a cooking cart was set up for us next to the pool in the center of the riad. We met our Moroccan instructor, the Riad’s chef, and she took us through the prepping and cooking for making a Lemon Chicken tagine. We used the eggplant to make Zaalaouk, an eggplant & tomato salad, and the peppers to make Taktouka, another tasty salad, and then, while finishing the cooking, we enjoyed mint tea and anise cookies.  After the lunch was completed, we dined at an elegant setting, and finished with a dessert of Jawhara – fried filo pastry stacked with panna cotta.

Shopping in the Souks of Fes.
The Riad Salem where we cooked and prepared lunch.
Chefs Rocky & Julie preparing lunch.

We leisurely returned to our riad by 3:00pm where we met up with our returning tour-mates. From there, we assembled for a short walk to International Institute for Languages and Culture where we met with Women’s Rights Author, Professor Fatima Sadiqui. We engaged in a discussion on her views of the impact of conservative Moroccan culture on women’s rights and discussed changes which are driving the country forward. After our lively conversation, we headed back to our riad for a dinner of chicken pasilla – a sweet & savory chicken filling that is wrapped in layers of very thin dough.

Our Morocco Adventure

Part 1: Rabat & Sale’

August-September 2021

It was Friday when we left our home in Alexandria, Virginia to finally begin our adventure to the exotic land of Morocco. We had originally scheduled this trip in 2019 for travel in 2020, but the Covid-19 Pandemic had deferred the trip until now. We were skeptical up to the last minute that the trip would even “go” as the U.S. Department of State raised the Security Advisory for Morocco to Level 4 just a few days before our departure, and then one person of our travel group was a late cancel, leaving our group size at only 5 individuals. We had spoken to our Moroccan Trip Leader, Mohamed Ait Alla, and he had assured us that all was ready, and so we boarded the D.C. Metro train, transferred to the Silver Line Express, and arrived at Dulles Airport for check-in with Air France. The overnight flight to Paris was smooth and uneventful, and the transfer to an Air France flight to Casablanca at Charles de Gaulle was quick with a minimum or security and vaccination checks. We arrived in Casablanca and met the rest of our group – a couple from Kansas City, (Clark and Jacque), and Clark’s sister from Wisconsin, (Debi). The five of us were greeted by Samir, and we boarded a small bus for the 2-hour ride north up the coast from Casablanca to the city of Rabat, Morocco’s capital since 1913. Here, we checked into Hotel Le Dawliz located on the opposite bank of the Bouregreg River in Rabat’s sister-city, Sale’. There we were met by the Vice-President of the Travel Company from London, and the Moroccan Representatives, as well as Mohamed, to welcome us as one of the first tourists from America since the pandemic began. Our room overlooked the hotel pool and the river, with views of the Hassan Tower, the Royal Mausoleum, and the Grand Theatre located on the opposite bank. The Grand Theatre and Opera House was designed by Zaha Hadid to be in the shape of a cobra with its large flat head readily apparent from above. It is the largest theatre in all of Africa. After freshening-up, we all met for a fish dinner and learned a bit about each other, before retiring to get ready to the next day.

Map of our Moroccan trip.
The Hotel Le Dawliz in Sale’
The Grand Theatre and Opera House in Rabat.
View across the Bouregreg River of The Hassan Tower.

On Sunday, we met for breakfast at 7:30am and then received our trip briefing from Mohamed. After the briefing, we boarded our bus for a quick tour of Rabat. First, we visited Dar al-Makhzen – the Royal Palace in Rabat which is the King’s principal residence. The King, Mohammed VI, however, prefers the smaller and relatively secluded Palace of Dar es Salaam, further out of center of the city, and maintains the Dâr-al-Makhzen only as his official and administrative residence Since he was not there, we were able to walk across the parade grounds, view the extensive gardens, and see the collection of uniformed guards representing each branch of service. The King of Morocco has 12 palaces around the country, all maintained continuously ready for his potential visit.  After that we stopped by Hassan Tower & the Mausoleum for Mohamed V. Then, we drove to Kasbah El Oudayas, built in the 12th-century, which was the capital of the greatly feared Barbary Pirates.

Mohamed VI Tower – to be Tallest Building in Africa
Guard at entrance to Dar al-Makhzen – the Royal Palace in Rabat.
The Historic Hassan Tower in Rabat.
The Royal Mausoleum in Rabat.
The North Beach where the Bouregreg River meets the Atlantic.

A Kasbah is a citadel of a North African city, typically a walled section in the older or native quarter of the city. Kasbah El Oudayas is located at the Atlantic coast where the Bouregreg River meets the ocean. From there, the views of the beaches were fantastic. Inside the Kasbah, residents live in their historic family dwellings with shops and artisans throughout.  We stopped and sampled the local bread as it came out of the brick oven that was on its way to the local market. From there, we went to Pietri Square, to a shop run by refugees from Sub-Saharan Africa and met with Celia Omondiale, a Nigerian victim of human trafficking, left homeless, penniless, pregnant, and unable to speak the language in this foreign country with the broken promise of a better life in France. In Morocco, without proper documentation, she cannot receive any government assistance, and her child cannot attend public school.  They are excluded from Moroccan society and rely on the assistance and generosity of others to survive. Because of its close proximity to Europe, Morocco is a popular place for refugees and immigrants who try to make their way across the Straits of Gibraltar. The influx of sub-Saharan refugees into Morocco, and the stress it is placing on the nation’s already-strained social services is a huge national problem for Morocco. Morocco is a nation of about only 36 million people, but an estimated over 700,000 immigrants currently live in the country.  As the number of undocumented immigrants grows, so does the problem of how to accommodate them in a nation already struggling with poverty and unemployment. In 2020, Morocco’s jobless rate rose to 12.3%—the highest it’s been since 2003—leaving immigrants and citizens alike to compete for limited resources and ratcheting up the tension between the two segments of the population. 

Upon returning to the hotel, we decided to take a walk and explore the medina of Sale’ – a locale that featured traditional shops and families living their everyday lives. From there, we wandered past the local mass-vaccination center to the Bouregreg Marina, where locals were enjoying kayaking and a wide range of water sports. Through financing and by order of the King, Morocco’s Covid vaccination rate exceeded 92% at this time, (and reached over 99% by September 18th)!  Upon returning to our hotel, we enjoyed the pool and prepped for dinner. That night, our “Welcome” dinner was in a restaurant called Dinarjat, located in Rabat’s medina – the traditional, old, non-European part of any North African town. Dinner was a feast starting with seven different salads and meat-filled pastries, followed by rice-stuffed zucchini, green peppers, potatoes, and tomatoes, with a dessert of deep-fried filo-dough, layered with almonds and whipped cream.

Marina Bouregreg
Spices at the Souk.

2021 Western Ohio Bicycle Adventure

June 2021

The year 2020 would have been the 32nd annual riding of The Great Ohio Bicycle Adventure – (GOBA) – a week-long cycling and camping adventure across a varying part of Ohio that our brother-in-law had fully participated in over its entire history, and which we had joined him and his wife for the past decade.  However, the Covid-19 Pandemic of 2020-2021 cancelled the 2020 running, and in 2021, a smaller, more conservative running, relabeled WOBA, was offered as a temporary replacement.

This year’s rides would start in the western Ohio town of Sydney on Sunday (Father’s Day) with a 53-mile ride in 93-degree heat. The ride was organized as a looping figure-8 and the heat and hills were wearing on the 350 participants. At the end of the ride, back in Sydney, we showered at the Fairgrounds and drove to the town of Wapakoneta – home to The Neil Armstrong Museum, where we set up our tents for a well-deserved night’s rest.

Monday was a day of strong winds and another 55-miles laid out over a large loop, and Tuesday we cycled 51-miles along country roads surrounded by corn and soybeans. After our rides each day, we would explore local businesses, such as The Bicycle Museum of America in New Bremen and Five Vines Winery outside of Wapakoneta. After Tuesday’s ride, we drove to the town of Versailles – home to the annual “Chicken Festival” – where we set up our tents at Heritage Park.

Wednesday, we decided to cut our ride short and stopped for a proper sit-down breakfast at Sideliners after a short 22-miles.  We then used the day to again pack up and move to the town of Troy where we camped near the banks of the Great Miami River and had time to explore their historic downtown, including the local library, bakery, and the Moeller Brewery. Thursday, we rode 45-miles through Piqua and past historic old remnants of the Ohio Canal system. Friday was another 43-miles, partly along River Bike paths.  However, upon returning to camp, an earlier drizzle convinced us to pack up our tents and head to my brother-in-law’s house located only 30-miles away.

Downtown Troy

Saturday, we arose early and biked into the town of Tipp City where we joined the final leg of the adventure and stopped for breakfast at a favorite spot.  After we rode back home, we had put in another 19-miles along the beautiful riverside path along the Great Miami River.

With another weeklong bicycle adventure  “in the books” and nearly 300 miles behind us, we took the occasion to celebrate with a toast and a cold glass of beer.