When my wife, Angela, and I booked a trip to Morocco, she was excited that our itinerary included an overnight stay in a Sahara tent camp, reachable only by camel ride. I had insisted only on something more challenging than palm trees and pina coladas.
When our small group of campers arrived at the end of a stony road in the hamada, the rocky pre-desert at the edge of the Sahara, we were greeted by a mini-sandstorm. Then we mounted our camels for a rough, 45-minute ride to our tent camp. As we bumped along, the dunes appeared like a huge, red mountain range on the horizon; soon the red dissolved into a magical mix of peach and brown.
Halfway through our 12-day journey, we'd come to expect the unexpected.
Under the firm but benign hand of a pro-Western monarchy, Morocco, whose population is 99 percent Muslim, pitches itself to tourists as exotic but safe, a model for the Islamic world. Morocco is best-known for its cities such as Fez, Marrakech and Casablanca. But this country in the northwest corner of Africa is a place of dramatic variety.
In Casablanca, the largest city, the giant Hassan II mosque looks like it's melting into the sea at sunset. Commissioned by King Hassan II and completed in 1993, it is built on a platform over the Atlantic Ocean.
A favorite spot for Americans is Rick's Café, owned by an American expatriate. It's a splendid evocation of the 1942 Humphrey Bogart movie (actually filmed in Hollywood); "Casablanca" screens nightly in a room above the restaurant.
Near Meknes, we visited the Roman ruins of Volubilis, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Volubilis was mostly destroyed in a 1755 earthquake, but archeologists have unearthed the remarkable remains of a medieval town, including a colonnaded shopping street, some fine mosaics, arches and what were once thought to be olive oil presses and granaries.
Driving toward Fez, we were struck by the rolling hills and farmland vistas that reminded us of Lancaster County, albeit without the barns and silos.
Fez, which is 1,200 years old, is the heart and soul of Morocco and is known for its medina, the ancient part of the city. Fez can be seen whole in its souks (markets) and in its network of cracked and narrow streets, clamoring with pedestrians, burros and bicycles.
Fez seems to have stopped marking time several centuries ago. You will see men hand-embroidering caftans in tiny, ill-lit rooms or squatting in doorways, operating little lathes with their feet.
As you walk through the medina, the exteriors of many buildings appear dilapidated or at least in need of a fresh coat of paint. Inside, however, they've been transformed into luxurious homes, or bed and breakfasts called riads, with fit-for-a-sultan furnishings and quaintly decorated rooms often built around a tiled courtyard that's gently lit by candlelight in the evening.
One such evening, the owner of a riad who had designed a bathroom for singer Mick Jagger treated us to a traditional Moroccan dinner featuring an array of tagines, the rich, spicy stews for which Morocco is famous. They are made with lamb, beef, chicken or fish and couscous and are cooked in dome-shaped, terra-cotta pots.
After a stop in Ouarzazate, where parts of the 2000 movie "Gladiator" were filmed, we eventually made the long trek through the snow-capped Atlas Mountains to Marrakech.
With its red-clay fortress walls enclosing kasbahs and labyrinths of unnamed alleys, Marrakech is a travel agent's dream.
Although Morocco was a French protectorate before gaining independence in 1956 and Marrakech's boulevards - lined with palm trees, orange groves and bougainvillea - were designed by a French architect, it was still surprising how many locals spoke French, even though the official language is an Arabic dialect.
The city does have a certain Parisian allure, notwithstanding the ubiquitous speeding mopeds, which pedestrians must dodge. There are a multitude of exquisite gardens and parks, sublime sidewalk cafes, and boutiques that close between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. weekdays for an afternoon break.
A favorite pastime of Marrakechis is to relax in the cafes and parks with a hot, sugary mint tea that is poured dramatically from a great height into glasses.
Visitors and locals flock to Marrakech's famous central square,Djemaa el Fna, which really begins to hum at sunset as white-clad cooks fire up grills for thousands to dine on sausages, kebabs and stews. Musicians, snake charmers, monkey handlers, merchants and purveyors of all sorts seem to appear out of nowhere, ready to ply their trades.
Although money from Dubai and Bahrain is fueling a wave of commercial and residential development in the big cities, poverty is chronic in many parts of Morocco.
Almost half of Morocco's 34 million people are under age 21 and nearly one in four are illiterate. Last year, Morocco ranked 127 out of 179 countries in the United Nations Human Development Index, which measures literacy, education and life expectancy.
During our visit, it was not uncommon to see children begging or playing in the streets. School seemed an afterthought. In many rural areas, the only signs of 21st-century life were the satellite dishes bolted outside the windows of many homes and apartments.
Some friends had asked before our trip why we wanted to go to Morocco. We had several reasons: We like destinations that are exotic but safe, and we'd never been to Africa or to a Muslim country.
We knew we had gotten it right as we sat outside our tent in the Sahara watching the sun set. The dunes were a stone's throw away, camels wandered around, and the scene was otherworldly but incredibly peaceful. *