Cynthia Rowley for Wall Street Journal: Lapping Luxury or Riding Waves? We Took the Low Road to Morocco

January 21st, 2011

Wall Street Journal

JANUARY 22, 2011

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To celebrate the grand opening of the lavish Hotel La Mamounia, friends of ours invited my family to spend three magical nights and four bliss-filled days lounging around Morocco.

We arrived in Marrakech to an abundance of light. There was the light of the moon, casting the city in an idyllic glow, and there was the blinding limelight at the hotel—Gwyneth Paltrow, Adrien Brody and Jennifer Aniston had all come for its grand kickoff.

As we pulled up to the front entrance, two ebullient doormen outfitted in traditional white jellabas and fez hats opened the doors to reveal spotless floors of tessellated Islamic tile. Our duplex suite was fitted with an emperor-sized bed. Intricately carved woodwork formed the room’s moldings and an incomparable view awaited us at every veranda. The restaurants within the hotel were as fine as any you could imagine: Would I like some caviar on my mashed potato tower? Why yes, yes I would. I drank it all up—I have nothing against being coddled.

But after two nights at the hotel, I began to feel restless, as if I were trapped in a gated community abroad. I’m a surf fanatic, so I somehow convinced my husband, Bill—who was quite content to live the good life at La Mamounia—to join me in a crazy, senseless pilgrimage to Essaouira, a remote spot surfer pals had told me about, located on the west coast of Morocco, hours from Marrakech. I dragged my 5-year-old daughter into the adventure too. Forget the fact that we had no GPS, no maps, a somewhat dodgy Jeep that the hotel had procured for us and that none of us spoke the native tongue. But we forged ahead.

As we drove out of the hotel grounds and through the eclectic streets of the souk—busy with beckoning carters, locals carrying vegetables on their scooters and farm animals trotting behind them—we fell upon a different kind of road. This one was largely unmarked and felt empty, haunting. My daughter was thankfully oblivious to the change in scenery at this stage, occupied entirely by her new sketchbook. But my husband was not so easily distracted, and our mutual discomfort was becoming palpable.

When we passed the first roadside stranger covered in blood and toting a stained saw and a severed goat’s head, our vacation seemed less “Road to Morocco” and more “28 Days Later.” We saw outdoor barbecues roasting up sheep, and locals lugging more carcasses along the way. On one of the detours to procure directions, we happened upon a gas station where I attempted to talk to a very patient man, using my high school French. He informed us that our excursion coincided with the first day of Ramadan, the hallowed Islamic month of fasting from dawn until sunset. The wandering butchers were preparing a very different Moroccan buffet than La Mamounia’s Pavillon de la Piscine, the four-star brunch venue.

I continued to reassure my increasingly restless daughter that we were “just moments away,” but I privately wondered what could have compelled me to pluck my family out of paradise.

At last we pulled up to an underwhelming ocean. It wasn’t the surfing Mecca I’d expected, but I had to hit the water. As my family fussed in the sand, I let the sea throw me around. The waves were rough and the side current strong. Eventually, I tossed in the towel, deflated. I knew I was going to get a mouthful from my family, and that friends at the hotel would look at me with a combination of sympathy and incredulity. As the day turned to dusk on the road back, and we heard the distant sounds of the Ramadan feast begin, it occurred to me: Sometimes, the pursuit of bragging rights produces less boasts and more roasts.
—Ms. Rowley is a fashion designer based in New York.