If you could hover like a drone over the Moroccan city of Fes, you’d only see a jumble of sand-colored buildings connected by twisty, turny pedestrian lanes that surely challenge the most recent Google mapping app. Swoop closer, though, and the colors and sounds begin to leap out at you. In the medina, great outdoor vats of dye in the leather tannery glow crimson and azure. There’s the tink-thunk, tink-thunk of a coppersmith, cross-legged in his niche-sized workroom repairing a hundred-year-old kettle. That bray at the small of your back is a donkey demanding a right of way as it heaves a teetering load of spice sacks through narrow lanes. Later, you’ll be forgiven if you imagine you’ve found a wrinkle in the space-time continuum that lands you at the Hotel Sahrai where 21st-century design and a hilltop infinity pool are a sensuous departure.
When you leave Fes and head deeper into Morocco, the soaring Middle Atlas Mountains deliver another happy shock to your senses. There’s snow on the highest peaks. The steep slopes are blanketed in cedar forests that scent the air. (Green isn’t the color you were expecting at all in Morocco, right?) And that chuffing, chattering sound you hear is a curious troop of Barbary apes, come to inspect the humans out for a walk.
In all likelihood, the Saharan Desert is close to what you expected from northern Africa. The wavy dunes stretch beyond the horizon. But wait: the sand is copper and it only gets richer and rustier as the sun drops in the west. Even from your camelback perch, it’s hard to see a landmark, anything that would guide you to the Berber encampment camouflaged behind a shape-shifting sand dune. And then there it is: glowing with a campfire, a cluster of luxury tents carpeted with kilim rugs and fitted with proper beds—even in the depth of the desert, the height of comfort. In the air, there’s a whiff of grilling lamb kebab and native music. It’s the kind of evening that doesn’t want to end. So you sip another glass of wine and look up to the nighttime sky with a bedazzlement of stars.
After the stark beauty of the desert, an oasis can send your senses into a happy tailspin, too, not least because your eyes can hardly believe how big a typical oasis is. Lush green ribbons of fields follow the banks of a river. Palm trees droop under the weight of ripening Medjool dates. In some oases, the small plots are hemmed in by dikes. Where tractors are impractical, families take to their fields and the children race around the narrow walkways in free-range play.
Marrakesh keeps the sensory roller coaster going at full enjoyable tilt. The souk is an endless mosaic of silk, saffron, slippers, and sandalwood. Over in Djemaa el-Fna Square, snake charmers flute and sway, dancers prance, and artists dab on henna tattoos. But even here, there’s soothing contrast when you least expect it. Into a private home, you stroll, passing a pool rimmed by candles and rippled by the bubble of a fountain. Deep in the quiet heart of the residence with your back to the city outside, you sit down to dinner as serene as any you’ll ever enjoy. Drink a final toast to Morocco, a country that stimulates and sharpens your appreciation of the world.