What to see in Morocco? Instead of wasting space on what not to see, I'll focus on what you should definitely catch. But first, some background. Morocco occupies a California-sized swath of desert and mountains on the northwestern corner of the African continent—opposite Spain on the Strait of Gibraltar, and bordering the Atlantic Ocean to the west and Algeria to the south and east. Its culture is a mashup of European, Arab, and sub-Saharan African influences, which is exhibited so well in its diverse and amazing cuisine. (Don't skip the couscous, Chris.) I'll divide your trips into four destinations.
Ah, the inland city of Marakkech, near the Atlas Mountains. The mazelike alleys, the open air markets (called "souks"), the mosques, the amazing clubs and restaurants. It almost makes me want to sing a cheesy Crosby, Stills, and Nash song. Almost. A tour of this city should always begin in Djemaa el Fna, the central square in the old walled city. It's filled with musicians and storytellers, snake charmers, henna tattoo artists, water sellers, food stands, and lots of backpack-toting, camera-clutching tourists just like you. From there you fan into the souks, where you'll haggle for crafts and goods of all kinds to generously bring back to your friends. "Must-sees" also on the itinerary: the 19th-century extravagance of the ornate El Bahia Palace and gardens and the magnificently lit minaret of the 21-story-tall Koutubia Mosque. Stay at the palatial terrace-filled home-turned boutique hotel, Riad W, starts at $89.
The High Atlas Mountains
This is home to the indigenous Berbers and where many of North Africa's highest peaks lie. Ride one of the two chairlifts as high as 10,000 feet to ski at the Oukaimeden Resort, about 50 miles outside of Marakkech--just to say you did (on the off-chance that there's actually good snow). The village of Imlil is considered trekker and mountaineer central in Morocco, and the jumping-off point for climbing 13,670-foot Jebel Toubkal, the country's tallest peak, which lies within the Toubkal National Park.
It's one of the country's largest cities (and a former capital, and home to the world's first university).Its carless, walled old city looks much as it did in medeival times. Fes lies in the verdant, cedar forest-covered Middle Atlas Mountains. Stay at Riad Laaroussa, a four-suite and four-room restored 17th-century palace that makes for an amazing place to linger, especially consider its central location in the riad, its amazing Moroccan food, and its massage are. Rates start at $99.
The wind and waves that pound the sandy shore on the fringes of this Atlantic coast harbor town don't make swimming very fun, but the conditions are ideal for kitesurfing. Essaouaria still boasts the old 18th-century fortifications built to fend off the Europeans--yet you'll see plenty of them invading town these days, hitting the shore. Eucalyptus-shaded Riad Baoussala is a roomy, pink-colored six-bedroom Berber house (with pool and courtyards) turned into a hotel that's accessible to the beach and city (starting at $99 per night).