Always of huge strategic importance at the entrance to the Mediterranean, Tangier is the enthralling gateway to Africa, a tantalising introduction to a culture vastly different from that across the Strait of Gibraltar. After WWII, Tangier became an International Zone that attracted eccentric foreigners, artists, spies and hippies.
Tetouan is a jewel of a town in a striking location at the foot of the Rif Mountains, and just a few kilometres from the sea. It’s unlike Tangier or the imperial cities in that it is little visited by foreign tourists. There is an air of authenticity here that adds great value to a visit.
Who would expect to find hundreds of Modernist buildings, the second-largest such collection outside Barcelona, in North Africa? Yet here they are, along with one perfectly preserved medieval fortress, several fascinating museums and nearly 50 tapas bars. The result is Melilla, a nirvana for architecture and history buffs, as well as a great place to spend the weekend.
Al-Hoceima is a great place to spend a few days. Quiet, safe, relaxing and hassle-free, this modern seaside resort is full of proud and genial Berbers with a surprisingly independent, Western outlook, far more than any other town in the north. In fact, if the northern Berbers had their own country, this would be its capital.
The Rocade (coastal road) from Al-Hoceima to Nador (130km) is a delight to travel. It passes through red cliffs, verdant gorges and, midway, an enormous sculpture of deeply eroded hills. Within 60km of Nador there are several ramshackle, clifftop cafes that are perfect for a mint tea as you gaze out over the sea.
While Tetouan itself sees few foreigners, in summer both local and Europe-based Moroccans flock to the golden beaches close to the town. The coast from Fnideq near Ceuta southwards to M’Diq, Cabo Negro and Martil sports two large golf resorts and swaths of holiday apartments along new corniches.
Berkane is a dusty modern town about 80km southeast of Nador on the road to Oujda. While the name means ‘black’ in the local Berber language, Berkane is famous for its oranges and everything in the town is, well, orange. The taxis, the buildings and the wonderful statue of an orange as you enter the town.
National Park of al-Hoceima
The undiscovered Al-Hoceima National Park is the hidden jewel of this region. The park extends to 485 sq km (including 190 sq km at sea). The area is dotted with Berber settlements and criss-crossed by dirt roads, making it ideal trekking and mountain-biking territory.
Don't let Oued Laou's dusty main street lined with slapdash construction fool you – it will all look like Martil within a few years. For now, waterfront budget rooms and cheap beer and food along the new corniche back a very long, empty beach to make it a backpacker paradise, especially in summer.