Seeking Great Food and Wine while Traveling

There are a lot of experiences you can have while traveling. Food, which when prepared correctly, paired with the right wine, and served in a distant land is one of the great  human experiences. The culinary arts have that power to move you. While traveling over the years, I have come to appreciate great meals and have broadened my palate. My wife Karen and I recently cruised on the Crown Princess. Like a lot of these ships, there are the standard restaurants and the specialty (meaning extra cost) restaurants. We have come to expect that the food is ok but rather uninteresting in the standard restaurants, but exceptional in the specialty restaurants Princess was an exception. The main restaurants served outstanding meals. The whole culinary experience added greatly to our trip.

The picture above is from a special meal we had high atop the Burj Al Arab, in Dubai, a six star hotel. After our meal, we were served deserts with real gold. You read that right, real gold. On this, my first trip to the Middle East, I experienced many new foods that were delightful. It sometimes helps to not know what the food is, but just let your taste/smell/touch senses tell you about the experience.

We have some excellent suggestions on vacations that will thrill your taste sense as much as your other senses. Here are some examples:

  • AMA Waterways River Cruises with Wine Experts, Europe
  • Wine Appreciation Avalon River Cruises, 12-19 days, Europe.
  • “Top Chef” at Sea Celebrity Cruises, 7-15 days, Europe.
  • Sail with Chef Nobu Matsuhisa Crystal Cruises, Mediterranean,
  • Guest Chef Cruises on Holland America, 7-14 days,
  • Culinary and Wine Delights of Spain and France on Winstar

Several local restaurant owners host trips that are focused on food and wine. Some are land tours, some are combinations of land and sea tours. We post details of these on our website when they are open to the public. In addition, we offer cruises on Oceania, Regent, Seabourne, Silversea, and Princess, all known for exceptional food and wine. We also can arrange independent travel where you can experience private or group tours of wineries, vineyards, farms, breweries, specialty restaurants and other locations of interest. We can arrange cooking classes or wine tastings depending upon your needs. The world really is your oyster. Break it open and experience life on a grand and tasteful scale.

Call us at 612-332-1100 or email us at inquiry@schillingtravel.com. We will help you match the destination to your palate.

 

The Villa Vacation — Is it Right for You?

Jamaican Villa

Many times people come into our offices in downtown Minneapolis and say, “What do you have for a one week stay in Hawaii?” or perhaps it is the Caribbean, Mexico, or some other place. As providers of travel, we know one size does not fit all, and sometimes the client “knows” exactly what they want. If they let us, we dig deeper. Why do you want to go to Hawaii? What kind of vacation are you looking for? Do you just want to relax on the beach or are you interested in hiking around a volcano? Do you want to de stress or do you want to pack as much adventure into your vacation? With these questions we might say that Hawaii is a great destination but there is even a better destination.

It is the same with accommodations. You can stay at a mega resort with more than a dozen restaurants, or you can stay at a small bed and breakfast. Or a small boutique hotel with impeccable service, or a private villa, with a staff.

This blog is all about the private villa. What is it? How to rent one, and how they compare to other accommodations.

First, a bit of a self disclosure. My parents built a villa in Jamaica in the 1970’s for their retirement home. They lived in it for 22 years. As they aged, they made their trips shorter and the villa was unoccupied longer.. They then began to rent it out. They contracted with a local property management company to handle the staff and rentals. Many of the other owners we’ve met over the years rented out their villas as well. And Schilling can obtain a villa for you to rent. I used to take groups to the villa and sometimes the groups were large enough to rent two villas. So I know the business from both sides.

Villas come in all shapes and sizes with different costs and amenities. Some villas come with a staff, others do not. Most in the Caribbean come with pools and staff and range from one to 10 bedrooms. If you have a big family reunion, you might find one of these villas to suit you better than a large resort, as you can all be together in your own private space. If there is a staff, they will handle the cleaning and the cooking. Villas may be part of a resort complex, or standing on their own. When traveling with a large group, the price of a villa vacation can be less than the price at a resort.

When renting a villa, one person should be designated the liaison with the agency. That person should gather the specific type of activities that each of the travelers want. Do they want to just relax on the beach or by the pool, or are they interested in activities such as golf, SCUBA diving, etc. Then one needs to know how many people and what the sleeping room makeup needs to be. Yes, people can have their own bedroom, but as in resorts, single occupancy of bedrooms will cost you more. You should also know what the budget is for the travelers. And of course, what dates your group will travel.

After you know the number of people, dates, sleeping accommodations, activities and budget, it’s time to contact an agent (hopefully us) who will help you find the right property for you. It helps to be flexible on the dates. Unlike resorts, there is only ONE booking (usually) per villa for a set of dates. If you have your heart set on a particular villa, and it is already rented for the week you want, you are out of luck. Fortunately, there are plenty of villas located throughout the vacation world, so you will find something suitable. However, in peak times, its best to reserve 9 months to a year ahead of time. Most villas rent Saturday to Saturday. If you are looking for less than a week, most villas will not rent months in advance on that schedule, but if they have an open week close to arrival, they may relent and rent for less than a week. Bu that is risky to do because if the villa rents the week you were planning, you have very little time to locate another property on the same dates.

Select a few options and go back to your travelers with pictures of the villas, their amenities and nearby activities. Be sure you check specifically on the “musts” on your list, as not all villas have the same amenities. If you want to be steps from the beach, or require high speed internet access, ask about these ahead of time. After you have made your selection, and placed a deposit, you have your reservation set and make your air travel and ground travel plans with the agent.

If you have a villa with a cook, you will want to communicate in advance with the villa rental management on specific food allergies, and preferred food and beverages. The villa will open up an account for your food and other items, which you will be responsible for paying. They will purchase the items in advance for you, so that you will have initial supplies. In most cases, you will be able to return those items you do not want for credit.  If you have other activities that you wish to do such as golf or tours, your agent or the villa staff can arrange for you. At peak times, we would recommend booking tours in advance of the trip so that you can get the tour you want on the day you want.

You will also want to consider transportation, depending upon where the villa is located. You can arrange for a rental car in most places or your can arrange a taxi or other transportation.

If you want to have a great relaxing vacation, away from the beach parties, and dance classes, you might just want to consider a villa as a travel destination.

Destination information:

This will depend upon where the villa is located, and we can assist you in getting from your home to the villa. We have access to some wonderful villas. We suggest that you keep your dates flexible as there is limited inventory. And most villas will not rent for less than one week.

Enchanting Costa Rica — Part Two

Volcano with cloud of steam at top
Arenal Volcano, Costa Rica

This is the second of two blogs on the beautiful country of Costa Rica. Look at the previous blog for our experience in the rainforest.

In the center of Costa Rica, volcanoes rise up as part of the “ring of fire” on the earth. Our next stop was the Arenal Volcano, one of seven historically active volcanoes in this country. It is located in the center of the Arenal National Park alongside the Arenal Lake Reservoir and a large hydroelectric power station. We stayed at the Magic Mountain Inn, from which we had a great view of the volcano. Our guides told us that the best time for a photo was at 5:45 am when the sun bathed it but before clouds obscured it. Sure enough, we took an excellent picture at that time, and that picture is heading this blog. We did two activities here. Zip line and hot springs. The zip line runs in sections for miles through the forest at canopy height. The view is outstanding and well worth the trip. The hot springs were a welcome respite after several days of sightseeing and activities. We visited Baldi hot springs, one of several establishments in Arenal. Water is heated by the volcano and they have 25 pools of varying temperatures from cool to “ouch.” They even had swim up bars in two of the pools. There is a hotel and spa located here as well. After a relaxing time, we got dressed and had a great supper at Baldi. You can get a day pass, with or without lunch or dinner. There are several other hotel/hot springs/spa complexes in the area. The most famous, Tabacon, is a five star property with 12 pools of varying temperatures, a Grand spa and restaurant.

We left the Arenal area a day earlier than recommended so we missed out on hiking on the slope of the volcano. We had a date with the Pacific Ocean and the Costa Rican beaches. Our ride to the Guanacaste area took about 4 hours through lush countryside up to 240 feet above land. We stayed at the Casa Conde Resort. This is a smaller resort with just 26 units. Our accommodations included a porch, and a view of the swimming pool and the Pacific. Visitors to Costa Rica might be surprised at the beaches They are not raked every day as some are in the US and Caribbean. Rather they are left au natural. This means you will find sandy beaches with driftwood and leaves, etc on the beach. While it may look messier than you usually see at the beach, it is all nature’s debris. You will not see litter, just natural items, as you might find on any isolated beach around the world.
Then to Guanacanaste for two days at casa Conde resort. 26 units. Here you can have a relaxing massage overlooking the pool and beach. We took a catamaran cruise in the pacific and saw an amazing school of dolphins, as well as other species of fish. The end of the day, sunset over the Pacific while on the Catamaran, was just magical.

The best option for an international flight out of Costa Rica when on this itinerary is to fly out of the smaller international airport of Liberia. This is close to the Guanacaste region. Our plane flights required us to drive back to San Jose, which meant almost an all day travel back. The main roads are single lane each way, and if there is an accident, as we encountered on our way back, we had a forty minute delay while that was sorted out. While on the subject of roads, I want to caution you about renting a car in Costa Rica. There are the usual car rental companies (Hertz, Avis, National), but according to Costa Rican law, if you are in an accident, regardless of fault, you cannot leave the country until the accident is legally resolved. Imagine a situation where someone is in the hospital because of an accident where you were driving, and you could not leave until they recovered! This has happened and some unfortunate souls have spent unplanned months in Costa Rica! So arrange all your ground transport to others!

Getting there: The main international airport is San Jose, and the secondary airport is Liberia. Your itinerary will dictate the best airport for you to use. Delta has non stops MSP to Costa Rica at high season. Connecting flights from MSP are offered by Delta, United, Aeromexico, Sun Country, and American.

If you want a unique experience in Costa Rica, call us at 612-332-1100. We’ll put together a vacation you will remember for a lifetime.

Enchanting Costa Rica — Part One

Small boat with guides and tourists on river
River boat at Tortuguero Costa Rica

For 22 years, my parents wintered in Jamaica. And for those 22 years, this became nearly all of my vacations. I saw Jamaica at its best, and also times when it struggled with political demonstrations. We got to know quite a few expats living in Jamaica, and when times got bad, some of them left and went to live in Costa Rica. Over the years Costa Rica has been an attractive place for people to migrate to when there are problems at home. So naturally, I wanted to go visit and see why this place was so attractive to some that they wanted to live out their life there.

Costa Rica had been on my bucket list for years. But it took my purchase of a travel agency to finally get busy and get to Costa Rica. We did this in November of 2013. The visit was two fold. Knock one off my bucket list, and to get to know the people we trust with our clients who visit Costa Rica and Panama. What you might not know is that while we as travel agents put together these fantastic private tours of foreign lands, we rely on the expertise from locals who arrange all of the activities in country. They are the ones we have used for decades and we know they will deliver on all levels. They know the hotels, the roads, the activities. More importantly, they know what the typical traveler is looking for. For those who visit Costa Rica for the first time, they have a 7-9 day excursion that focuses on three main areas of Costa Rica. Since it was our first time, we did the recommended introductory trip.

So our trip started with traveling on Delta to Atlanta and then to San Jose Costa Rica. We overnighted in a typical Costa Rican Inn, called the Casa Confi. It had a layout like a typical Costa Rican Village. Our trip was not without problems. Our MSP-ATL flight was late, causing us to miss our connection and so we got into San Jose at night instead of the afternoon. And the van that picked us up in the morning was involved in a traffic accident with a motor cycle. (Cyclists fault, no one was hurt, very minor damage.) I point this out, because this is one of the reasons why a travel agent is worth it. We know and trust the people who deliver the tours. So this little accident required a new van, and our local guides arranged it rapidly. We had to wait about 40 minutes for a new van and we were on our way again. Oh, and we would not have recommended the tight connection we took via Atlanta or at least advised our clients about the possibility of a missed connection.

After picking some other travelers up, we were off to breakfast and then to the rendezvous point for the boats that took us to the tropical rainforest in Tortuguero. We stayed at the Laguna Lodge in the tropical rainforest. There are no roads here, and there is not even that much electrical power; this was one of the greenest places to be compatible with nature. No air conditioning, but the rooms have fans, spartan rooms, and the food was more like cafeteria food. You will need to bring your own shampoo. This is the sacrifice one must make to commune with nature, but not destroy it. I certainly came back with the impression that CR was doing more about being green than the US is.

My wife and I had been to the El Yanque rainforest in Puerto Rico, but this was  one hundred times better. At the lodge, we heard all sorts of creatures making sounds, including howler monkeys which sound more like gorillas. Once we saw their size, it was funny to hear such a loud sound out of a small body. The lodge had a waterfall and three pools, and we saw a lot of wildlife right at the lodge. Iguanas, Ibis, kingfisher, herons and other species. While we were there, the monkeys stayed away, but we were told that they come every once in awhile to grab some food. The staff knows the drill and they shoo the monkeys away, but they are clever and usually loot some food. The lodge even had WIFI so I was able to keep in contact with the outside world. In this lodge, there were rooms for people with physical disabilities.

From the lodge, our guide would take us out at the right times to visit the nature activity planned. We visited the small town of Tortuguero by boat. There we could do a bit of shopping. All the tours except one were by boat. We went out early to see the monkeys. We saw three species. The Howler monkey, Spider monkey and the Capuchin monkey. There is a fourth, the squirrel monkey, but we did not see one on this trip. Our guide, Alex is an expert and he knew just when to stop the boat, and where to point to see the wildlife. We would have missed a lot of it without him. One of the amazing creatures is the large mostly white King Vulture. Our guide says they are rare in this rainforest, and we saw one on our second day there.

The green turtles nest in this rainforest and they lay about 100 eggs per nest from which the turtles hatch. Tortuguero is the most important green sea turtle hatching site in the Atlantic region. Since it was hatching season, we walked the beach with our guide for about an hour right at dusk and we found two nests with turtles hatching. They dont all make it to the sea, which is only about 20-30 feet away because the vultures swoop down and eat them. But we humans kept the birds at bay, and all made it to the sea that evening under are guidance. I dont know how, but they all know the way to the sea and make a mad dash for it and start swimming right away. This was such an inspiring sight and just this alone was well worth our trip to the rainforest. Isn’t nature grand?

On the third day, we packed, and reported to the dock to be taken by boat back to our bus for the next Costa Rican adventure.

Look for more information about Costa Rica’s volcanoes and beaches in my next blog, part two.

Is it Safe to Travel to … ?

With the ongoing terrorist events each year, some of our clients are always asking, “Is it safe for me to travel to (insert destination here)? The broad answer is no place on earth is completely safe, including your own home. Terrorism and has been with us for centuries and will not be going away. My feeling is that if we stop doing the things we planned to do in our ordinary lives, then the terrorists win. This blog was written on December 8, 2015 and revised in late 2017. There will be other terrorist events in the future. That is a given. But let me give you a little perspective. Did you know that there are between 8000 and 13000 airplanes in the air on this day right now? They are all landing safely, or you would hear about the one that did not. Perhaps a few times in the year a plane crashes somewhere in the world, rarely but sometimes due to terrorism, so your chances of a safe flight are nearly 100% every time you fly. And your odds of being involved in any terrorism event are less than those who travel by air today.

In Paris, if you had been at the Bataclan when the shooting happened, there were more people who survived than were killed or wounded. And if you were in Paris at the time of all the attacks, there were 10.5 million people in Paris and the surrounding suburbs who were not attacked. If you asked me today, would I go to Las Vegas, Orlando, London, Paris or San Bernardino, I would say yes without hesitation and I would bring my family. I’d do it even if I were going there a day after the terrible event.

You might think those words coming from the owner of a travel agency are self serving. So let me give you one more piece of evidence that my views are not just because I am in travel. Before I owned a travel agency, and after the 9/11 event, I had to make a decision. Our family had purchased air and hotel in the summer for a trip to NYC for 2001 Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade. We had purchased tickets to the Rockettes Christmas show and Lion King. So we had to make a decision. Do we go to NYC on that trip? You might not recall this now, but there was talk of the terrorists doing something in NYC over Thanksgiving. We decided to go and I took the whole family with me, just 7 weeks after 9/11. Yes it was somber to see the damage and the memorials. But we still had a marvelous time and we were there supporting the businesses that were hurting due to the lack of travelers. As a traveler to NYC for decades, I saw a kinder, gentler NY. I am really glad we went. I took the family back to NYC in 2016 and the 9/11 memorial visit was more meaningful, due to our trip in 2001.

I have been traveling for more than 50 years. I had nearly 2 million miles on Northwest, and I have more than a million on Delta. My wife and I were in Greece and Turkey in 2015 during the financial and refugee crisis. Although we had taken extra money as a precaution, I never saw a line at an ATM the entire time I was there. I never saw a crowd of refugees, though I know they were there on islands we did not plan to visit. I will continue to travel but I will always be prepared with advance knowledge from the US State department. And I use common sense because besides the terrorists, you might encounter a scam artist or petty thief, and they are more likely to be your encounter than with a terrorist.

We recommend that anyone who wants to travel internationally, should review the travel comments on the US Department of State website for safety and security information. Being informed is the best defense. Go to this link for safety information by destination.

http://travel.state.gov/content/passports/en/country.html

We also recommend you enroll in the STEP program. See the details on the web link above.

As travel agency staff, we cannot fully answer the question of “Is it safe for you to travel?” All we can do is provide the most accurate, up to date information, and it is up to you to make an informed decision. And I hope you continue to travel.

Yes You Can Sail the Greek Isles

 My wife loves to water ski. I love to sail. We always joked that we would buy a boat when I found a sailboat she could water ski behind. Of course, its not that likely to ever happen. So instead we settled on a cruise to the Greek Islands. We selected STAR CLIPPERS for our travel partner and its namesake, The Star Clipper as our ship. We sailed from Athens to the islands of Amorgos, Patmos, Mykonos and we also visited Kusadasi/Ephesus Turkey, and Monemvasia on the mainland. This was our first trip to Greece. We have since made our second trip to Greece.

We are ocean cruisers for decades. On these smaller ships, there are some differences that we were initially concerned about. We had to give up a balcony. And we had limited places on the ship for restaurants, bars, and public spaces. Large ocean going ships are a destination within themselves. The smaller ships, the ports are the true destination. On the larger ships, the amount of time in port is limited and the smaller ships expand the hours in port, often staying overnight.

The cruise we took was called the Northern Cyclades tour. We started and returned to Athens (Piraeus). We visited Patmos, Amorgos, Monemvasia, and Mykonos in Greece. We also visited Kusadasi (Ephesus) in Turkey. The destinations were awe inspiring. At Ephesus, you visit an unearthed town of about 250,000 inhabitants. It was built in about 1000 BC and taken over by the Romans in 129BC. Walking through miles of ruins, you get a real sense of what it might have been like to live, work and play in a town of this size. This is where Paul, John and Mary lived after the death of Jesus. Nearby, you can visit the last home of Mary, where the Pope visited in 2006.

On this trip, we visited the island of Patmos. This is where John wrote the book of Revelation in the cave of the Apocalypse. Guides show you the stone desk where exiled John wrote the book, and the area in the cave where he slept.There is also a triple fissure in the ceiling of the cave where it is said that John heard the voice of God.  On to Amorgos. Here we visited the Hozoviotissa Monestary. Its built on the wall of a sheer cliff to keep it safe from invaders. To visit, you will need to climb 335 steps. Once there, the view is breathtaking.

Another port of call for us was Mykonos. This is the second most visited tourist Island of Greece. Santorini is first. This is a land of beautiful beaches, wonderful Greek architechture and fantastic shopping and restaurants. We spent a wonderful day there. Upon getting back to the Star Clipper, I had the opportunity to helm the ship as we sailed to our next port. You can’t get near the bridge of most modern cruise ships, but on the Star Clipper, you can do as little or as much of the sailing as you want. Of course, to be safe, there is always crew around to make sure that you do not make any mistakes. Climb the rigging? Yes, you can do that. Talk to the Captain for hours? Yes you bet!

Our last stop was the mainland port of Monemvasia. This is one of the most romantic ports in all of Greece. You will find a medieval castle here and a village that dates from that era with very little change. It is a wonderful stop on the cruise. After that, it was back to Athens for our flight back to the US. We stayed in Athens a day before the cruise. I recommend this to help with jet lag and in case your plane flight is delayed. Athens is a very busy city with the Acropolis and a very modern museum dedicated to that monument and the history of the Greeks, who founded democracy.

There are many ways to see the Greek islands. You can fly or take ferries to most of them, though they may not run every day depending upon the connection. So traveling by ship is a great way to see a lot of Greece without packing and unpacking. There are lectures daily on the region and the history. Its great for the first timer who wants to find out where they would stay for days on their next trip. And you will not find a more authentic sail cruise than the Star Clippers. Once you go with them, you will fall in love with their style of cruising. We usually have special pricing for trips on the Star Clippers and often there cruises where solo travelers pay no single supplement. Call us for more information.

TSA Precheck and Global Entry Programs

Travelers going through metal detection screening
Airport Security Screening

This is an update to the registration for TSA Precheck and Global Entry I originally published in 2014. Lines at the TSA security checkpoints can be long, especially at peak times. Although security protocols change from time to time, such as the ban on hover-boards and the Galaxy Note7, and more screening of laptops and tablets, as of this writing, you must still keep gels and  liquids in a 1 quart bag and no more than 3 oz (100ml) in each container in that bag. You must remove all jewelry, coats, belts and shoes and anything in your pockets before you go through the screening. This is a delay and hassle that frequent trusted travelers now have a way to avoid most of the time. “Most” means you still may get picked at random to be fully screened. If you are an international traveler, the Global Entry program allows you to scan your passport at a kiosk and bypass the manual immigration line.

There are two trusted traveler programs for air travel in the US. One is TSA Precheck and the other is Global Entry. Both are ways to reduce the hassle of traveling and both are described here. (There are surface travel programs for Canada and Mexico only, not described here.)

TSA Precheck operates at all major US airports and screening does not require you to take out your quart bag of liquids, or your laptop. You do not need to  remove belts, shoes, and light jackets. In the past, frequent fliers have been nominated by their airline for TSA Precheck, but as more enroll in the official program, some elite flyers are now being sent through normal screening and even more will be sent to normal screening if they do not register soon. For TSA Precheck registration, travelers need to apply online using this link: www.tsa.gov/tsa-precheck and then pre-enroll. Then setup an appointment to visit one of the centers for an in person interview. As of this writing, there are five centers in Minnesota: MSP Airport, Bloomington, Mankato, Brooklyn Center, and St. Cloud. For an up to date listing and the hours, visit the link above. You must bring an original copy of a government issued identity and proof of US citizenship. An unexpired passport will fulfill this requirement as will an unexpired US drivers license and a certified copy of your birth certificate. There are other options listed at the TSA web site. Cost to enroll, at present time is $85 for a 5 year period.

Global Entry will allow international travelers to speed through the customs and immigration process. For Global Entry, travelers need to apply online starting with this link: www.cbp.gov/global-entry/how-to-apply and read the process and then enroll. After enrollment, you would make an appointment to visit one of the centers for an in person interview. The interview center in Minnesota is at the MSP Airport. The link above will give you all of the locations and specific addresses. Cost to enroll in the Global Entry program is $100 for five years. One advantage of Global Entry is that if you apply and are accepted for this program, you are automatically part of the TSA Precheck program. So if you plan to travel internationally, this is the program for you. You will receive a Global Entry card that can be used instead of a drivers license to board a domestic US plane. (You will still need your US passport to board a plane traveling internationally.)

Once you have been accepted and get your known traveler number, be sure that you give it to your travel agent when making reservations so that your boarding pass will indicate you are a trusted traveler. Like your frequent flier numbers, this can be put in your profile at your travel agency so you don’t have to give it out each time. One final note: Random checks are still performed on the trusted travelers. This means you might still be randomly selected to undergo the normal screening process even if enrolled in one of these programs.This has happened to me several times, so it is not rare.

These programs serve two benefits. One is less hassle for you when traveling. The second is it costs the government less to screen you. Unfortunately, this does not translate into a savings on your ticket, but it should help to keep costs down in general. As of December, 2017 we learned that the government may merge TSA Precheck and Global Entry. We will update this blog if that happens.

If you do get your Global Entry, you may apply for the U.K. Registered Traveler program which will give you similar screening benefits when traveling to the U.K. The details of this program can be found at www.gov.uk/registered-traveller .
The cost of this program is GBP 70, but it is only good for one year.

There are other programs, such as the CLEAR program which is currently limited to many of the larger US Airports, and not all of the terminals at an airport. For example, at MSP airport, only in Terminal 1. Cost is $179 per year although some elite flyers receive discounts. I might blog about this in the future.

Bottom line is I highly recommend that anyone doing multiple trips by air each year should consider getting TSA Precheck or Global Entry. This will save you time and hassle. If traveling domestically on a Minnesota drivers license for ID, please see my blog about Real ID.

Exciting and Surprising Morocco

Two Guards on Horseback
King Mohammed V Mausoleum Guards

I had a chance to visit Morocco in North Africa recently. Morocco sits on the south western part of the Mediterranean and is a country of diversity. It is also a very surprising country and one that I would highly recommend visiting. Africa is a glorious continent but many of the countries are impoverished and or embroiled in war or civil unrest. Police, health standards, and accommodations are likely to be poor in many of the countries. This makes many of those countries unsuitable for all except the most adventurous traveler. This is not true of Morocco, and you will feel very welcome as an American in a country that is 98 percent Muslim. There are many available tours that you can choose from in Morocco, depending upon the time you have and location.

My entrance and exit into and out of the country occurred in Maraketch via Delta Airlines. From there, I took a bus for 60 minutes to the town of Rabat, the present capital and official residence of King Mohammed VI. Our tour included the kings residence/palace and then a walk to the Medina (walled section of the city with many shops and restaurants) and then a visit to the 12th century Kashba of the Oudayas on the Bou Regreg River, the Great Mosque and the Hassan tower. We also visited the Mohammed V Mausoleum which is spectacularly guarded 24/7 by the king’s security force. The gold casket is on display for Mohammed V and his two sons King Hassan II and Prince Abdallah are also entombed there. You drive past the ramparts and walls of Mehuoar that encompace the royal palace.

One of the surprising things about Morocco, is its close relationship with Jews. A bit of history explains why. During WWII, when France fell to the Germans, Morocco, a French protectorate of that time also came under the Germans. But the harsh anti Jewish laws enacted by the Vichy government were not applied in Morocco because King Mohammed V stayed in power. The king refused to send the jews to Germany. After the war, when Israel was established, many of the Jews emigrated from Morrocco and established residence in the new state of Israel. The Jews continue to come back to Morocco to visit where they or their ancestors had lived.

The archeological Roman ruins at Voubilis are partially excavated ruins from the Roman and Berber days. Our guide showed us the parts of the city that were steps from each other. You could go see the Roman bath and then walk to a private home nearby in short order. What impresses the visitor is how far the Roman empire had extended before it collapsed. I did not realize that it extended to North Africa. These ruins are open for those to walk about them and get a sense of life in the third century BC, and the Berber culture in the 3rd century AD before the Arabs arrived in the 8th century. These buildings stood for centuries through many groups of people only to be ransacked in the 17th century and further destroyed in the 18th century earthquake. Today it stands as a UNESCO world heritage site.

We traveled to Fez, the imperial city built in 790AD by Moulay Idriss II. In Fez, we visited the Kings Palace and both Arab and Jewish neighborhoods. We visited Al Quaraouiyin University. It is claimed by UNESCO as the oldest continuously running university in the world and the first to offer a degree for studies. It started in the year 859. It is open to both men and women of Muslim faith. One of the requirements is that everyone must memorize the Qu’ran.

From Fez, we traveled to the Middle Atlas region of Imouzar. This is a day trip out of Fez or other Moroccan cities, and worthwhile to see the changes in landscape of this amazing country. We visited the delightful ski resort of Ifrane and then continued on to a Berber village known for its handicrafts and carpet weaving.

From there, we traveled to Casablanca on the bus. We visited the UN Square, Royal Palace, Central Market, the Anfa residential area and the Hassan II Mosque, second largest in Morocco. For purchases, we visited a tannery where you could see them dyeing the leathers after conditioning them. We were given mint leaves to hold in front of our noses to abate the smell of the operation. Many leather goods from belts to purses to coats were available for sale at factory prices. We also visited a tile factory where we saw the entire production which was all by manual labor. There were heavy tile tables for sale, as well as small to large fountains and many Jewish items such as Menorah candle holders. You can also watch the workers handling all phases of production.

While in Casablanca, I met an amazing woman, Kathy Kriger. She was a former travel agent from Portland Oregon. She had come to Morocco as a US embassy diplomat. She fell in love with Morocco and decided to open up Ricks Cafe to pay homage to the Warner Brothers classic movie starring Lauren Bacall and Humphrey Bogart. We had a wonderful dinner at her restaurant. You will instantly be transformed into the atmosphere of the 1940’s during the war and yet you will have a sumptuous French-Mediterranean meal with items like lamb shank and saffron rice to filet mignon and spice roasted tomatoes.

Traveling to Morocco from Minneapolis on Delta can be done by connecting flight in Amsterdam. United, Lufthansa, and Air Canada also have connecting flights but will require three segments. If you already are in Spain for a visit, there are ferries that can take you to Morocco. The most popular one  is from Tarifa in southern Spain to Tangier in northern Morocco on the fast ferry. The ride takes one hour.