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Morocco Beyond Marrakesh

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Photo: Ambroise Tézenas

You’d have to have been living on another planet for the past half-decade not to have clocked the rise and rise of the Red City, Marrakesh. While five-star resorts have proliferated right up to the walls of the 1,000-year-old medina, inside them, along its chiaroscuro labyrinth of alleys and lanes, chic and unique riads have upturned and elevated paradigms of Moroccan design and service. Urbane and luxurious, Marrakesh now feels like a place where there’s nothing—or close to nothing—you can’t have.

Which is why the places to look for the real Morocco often lie far from the burnished suites and buzzing restaurants of this city on the plain. Striking out for the farther reaches of the country is rewarded with unique takes on traditional hospitality, both new and timeless. They can be found deep in the southernmost region, where ungenerous stone begins to surrender to the saffron-gold sands of the Sahara; or high among the towering Atlas, where Berber culture has its oldest and still strongest roots, and brilliant colors and tribal traditions flourish amid sometimes indescribably severe natural beauty; or along Morocco’s coast, whose whitewashed, fortified villages reflect both European colonial history and Islamic mystery.

Far below the historic Berber stronghold of Zagora, in the Drâa valley, where only the faintest tire-tread marks indicate your path, my guide and I speed in our Toyota 4Runner past a scene of cinematic emptiness, shaded in the non-tones of the desert. After an hour’s drive from the town of M’hamid, we reach, of all things, a schoolhouse, set on a small rise; here, a 4 x 4 awaits to shepherd me to Erg Chigaga Luxury Camp.

The brainchild of a transplanted English hotel executive, Nick Garsten, and a Berber desert guide named Moustafa Boufrifri, known to all as Bobo, the camp lies in the Erg Chigaga dunes, which climb to heights of 1,000 feet. The eight traditional caidal tents are connected by twin pavilions with ornate blackwork on their exteriors; inside, the walls are striped in bold red and cream, and thick pile rugs line the ground. Bathrooms have hand-worked metal vanities and hot- and cold-water buckets on teak platforms for hammam-style bathing (which uses only about one-tenth of the water required by a conventional shower—a crucial concession here, where it is the most precious commodity). Crimson wool runners crisscross the camp, from tent to tent and from dining to leisure pavilions; at night they’re banked with lines of glowing lanterns. Flanking one edge of the main area is a row of palm trunks, between which are suspended several hammocks—what Bobo charmingly refers to as Erg Chigaga’s “chill-out zone.”

Bobo himself—supremely competent and drily funny in five languages—lopes about in his cobalt-blue turban and djellaba, pouring shots of “Berber whiskey,” the ubiquitous and wickedly strong mint-tea blend. Two newer and more private tents, set about a 15-minute walk from the main camp, make excellent honeymoon destinations. The energy of Erg Chigaga seems prevailingly friendly and informal—a place to leaven the intrigue and high romance quotient of a desert bivouac with doses of extreme-ish activities (sand-boarding to the south; late-afternoon camel treks) and easy camaraderie around the fire after sunset.

About 20 miles from Erg Chigaga, in the taller dunes at the edge of the ancient Iriki lake bed, is an encampment conceived for those who seek desert romance of the writ-large, Lawrence of Arabia variety—and are willing to pay top dollar for it. The Camp of Dar Ahlam is a one-night experience as part of a longer stay at the elegant guesthouse of the same name in Skoura, some 200 miles to the northwest. First set up in 2007 as a single tent, it has expanded over the years, and can now accommodate as many as 30 people, but is still meant for only one group at a time. During my stay I am looked after by Ahmed, the camp manager, and a small staff. The camp reprises the narrative theme for which its namesake hotel (“house of dreams,” in Arabic) is known: my stay unspools in a series of mise-en-scènes straight from a Thesiger passage—or a Ridley Scott epic. My tent is of the simplest white canvas, lined in sisal and furnished with a low wooden bed and an embossed-brass table surrounded by kilim-covered cushions. At dusk, I sat ensconced in a Roorkhee chair in front of it, enjoying an aperitif (served on estate silver), surrounded by towering mounds of the Sahara, their summits shaped to paper’s-edge fineness by the wind. I had no inkling of the production happening one dune away, until Ahmed came to collect me for dinner; a trek over its crest revealed a tent surrounded by lanterns and, inside, lambent with the glow of multiple candelabras. A table was set opulently enough to please a cherifa. I was served a tangia, a meat stew prepared in a terra-cotta urn and slow-cooked overnight in a wood-fired oven. The next morning, just as daylight was tinting the sky, I emerged to find a small antique table, holding a caffettiere and a single porcelain cup, atop the dune directly in front of my tent. I sipped café crème and watched the sun rise, until Ahmed murmured at my shoulder; the dune behind me was set with another table, this one covered in sky-blue linens and surrounded by Berber rugs, laden with Moroccan breads, crêpes, and fresh preserves. Dar Ahlam’s camp is the desert sojourn as scripted by true experts of the genre, with the aesthetic acumen of set designers. The point of the place seems to be to immerse oneself in the scene.

Far to the north, in the rolling stone desert of Agafay—just under an hour’s drive from Marrakesh—there is an ambitious attempt to make such exoticism significantly more accessible. Scarabeo Stone Camp was opened by Belgians Vincent T’Sas and Florence Mottet—he a photographer, she a graphic designer—who had called Marrakesh home for nearly a decade before embarking on the Scarabeo project (the nine-tent Stone Camp is the first iteration; other sites will follow in 2014, near Agadir, on the Atlantic coast, and in the Saharan dunes).

Mottet has, by her own admission, taken a few pages from the Afro-style file of Catherine Raphaely, co-owner of the terminally chic Jack’s and San Camps, in Botswana’s Kalahari Desert. An antique globe sits atop a stack of vintage leather suitcases in my tent; in the reception pavilion a zebra skin graces the floor next to a folding campaign table piled high with well-thumbed expedition and photography books. Iron candle-lamps are suspended on posts; hammered-silver urns trickle fresh water into basins in the bathroom tents; Hardoy butterfly chairs have had their conventional canvas seats swapped out for striped burlap ticking. There is a deep visual satisfaction in the tonal purity of it all—white tents and bedding; bleached-wood settees; caramel-leather campaign chairs; light rush matting—that’s matched by the landscape: biscuit-colored hills that roll east to the foothills of the Atlas, stippled with silver-green eucalyptus; and beyond, the snowcapped peaks, dazzling ceaselessly in the hard light.

The guest experience, on the other hand, had a way to go when I visited. T’Sas and Mottet clearly possess taste in spades, but their attention seemed unduly focused on design over service. I spent much of my second day reading—not a bad thing, in this age of inescapable Wi-Fi and 4G—but Stone Camp offers numerous activities (paragliding; horse rides; hot-air ballooning), none of which I was asked about to gauge my interest. With its easy access, gorgeous position, and excellent value, Scarabeo Camp promises to be a genuine game-changer in the country, especially if they bring their service up a healthy few notches—and from a few accounts I’ve heard, that process is well under way.

Hotels in the High Atlas tend to emphasize the traditional: rammed-earth Berber constructions with thick walls, ample fireplaces, and small windows; robust layerings of Beni Ourain rugs and pom-pom-bedecked Berber blankets; lots of smoking braziers. So three-year-old Domaine Malika, set in a shallow, oval-shaped valley at the entrance to Toubkal National Park—home of Jebel Toubkal, at 13,767 feet the tallest peak in North Africa—came as something of a surprise. No leather poufs or ornate hammered-brass lanterns here: French owner Jean-Luc Lemée favors Bertoia chairs and chrome task lamps—not to mention high ceilings, terrazzo floors, and tall French doors that open onto concrete patios. The interiors nod to both Art Deco (a prevailing aesthetic of Morocco’s years as a French protectorate) and the groovy 1970’s (vintage stills from Lina Wertmüller films pepper the walls of my room, and my bed’s headboard is a marvelous repeat-circle design upholstered in chocolate-brown leather). In the lounge—complete with turntable and vinyl collection—the cheminées are Jetsons-like ovoid designs in brick, suspended from the ceiling. The monochrome-tiled pool, surrounded by willows and palms, is the place to repair to after a trek in the nearby N’Fiss valley or a visit to the weekly market in the village of Ouirgane. Manager Paul Goetz is the soul of the hotel, ebullient and deeply hospitable, with a sense of imminent celebration floating about him like a signature cologne. Under his watchful eye the kitchen turns out deft marriages of French and Moroccan cuisine, with abundant salads, produce, and jams from the Domaine’s own garden.

Domaine Malika isn’t for everyone. Most guests seemed to enjoy the quirky design and easygoing vibe (a stylish group of smiley Australians were patently delighted); but a few looked mildly confused, as if having mistakenly taken an unmarked turn off the road to Garden-Variety Kasbah Fantasy Fulfillment. The road they wanted was the one that leads directly to Kasbah Bab Ourika. Though built from the ground up in 2005, Bab Ourika toes the traditional Atlas line entirely. A local workforce erected the pisé (rammed-earth) complex, with palm-trunk ceilings and, here and there, the high, narrow meurtrière windows typical of Berber strongholds. By day, guests lunch in the shade of olive trees on a wide outdoor terrace; in the evening, the scene migrates to an interior courtyard, dressed in white linen and lit by candles and lanterns at night.

Bab Ourika’s 20 rooms are simple, with sturdy brick fireplaces; handwoven Berber textiles on chairs and pillows and hanging at the windows; and surprisingly modern bathrooms, their walls smoothly finished in the classic, slightly opalescent tadelakt plaster. The food, despite a strong advance street press, did not wow; the pool is perfectly fine, the garden suitably rambling and pleasant. Bab Ourika’s real ace in the hole is its setting, at the mouth of the Ourika valley, which affords staggering vistas of the Atlas Mountains: viridescent tilled plains graduate to blue-green, pine-covered foothills, which in turn are dwarfed by massive granite peaks—Toubkal, Oukaimeden, and an enfilade of others, all clearing the 10,000-foot mark—shearing up into the deep blue sky.

And then, for the truly dedicated sybarite, there is Morocco’s ne plus ultra of high-altitude luxury, courtesy of Richard Branson and his Virgin Limited stable of exclusive resorts. Kasbah Tamadot sits above the village of Asni, just a valley over from Domaine Malika. It was first renovated 25-odd years ago by Luciano Tempo, a Venetian interior designer who remade the decrepit Kasbah in his notable style, mixing antiquities and furnishings from Southeast Asia, India, and North Africa. Branson, who purchased Tamadot in 1998, saw no reason to ditch the carved Balinese doors and Rajasthani marble horses; pieces from Tempo’s private collection continue to be rotated into and out of the multiculti décor today.

Kasbah Tamadot is a study in ornamentation bordering on excess, but is eminently comfortable, and its interior opulence is tempered by an exterior architecture that has remained more or less true to the local, fairly austere vernacular. There is the option of staying in one of nine Berber tents, which march up the edge of the valley ridge where the Kasbah sits, and overlook a deep river canyon. Hard-core mountain camping this is not: while a few key encampment signifiers are present—draped canvas ceilings pitched to two points; rounded walls; raised wooden-platform floors—these have heat, air-conditioning, iPod docks, cozy sitting areas, and claw-foot tubs and rain-can showers in the very spacious bathrooms. Some have Jacuzzis built into their wide decks.

There is, in fact, not much hard-core mountain anything about Kasbah Tamadot, except the prodigiously scenographic surroundings. The gorgeous spa holds a full-size indoor pool (to complement the even larger outdoor one), and ornate hammams, in one of which I had the best black-soap scrub-downs in all my Moroccan travels. The new, Bordelais chef, Clement Baris, did stints in Paris and the U.K. before bringing his estimable talents here; the now-excellent cuisine hews to the Continental—probably a concession to Tamadot’s predominantly English clientele.

The picturesque fishing village of Oualidia, built around a wide lagoon midway up Morocco’s Atlantic coast, is a quiet, slightly out-of-time place. For much of the second half of the 20th century, the Casablancan and Marrakshi bourgeoisie decamped here in the summer, eschewing the urban fug for their modest white-and-blue vacation houses. Modest, that is, with the notable exception of the royal palace of King Mohammed V, a crumbling ruin at the lagoon’s edge—in its day the locus of much upper-class revelry, then fenced off for many years by the gendarmerie, and lately rumored to be in the crosshairs of at least one luxury-hotel developer.

Today, well-to-do Moroccans and some in-the-know Europeans come for the clean air, the sparkling, swimmable lagoon, and the pervasive sense of tranquillity; I walked the length of the beach just after dawn, and encountered only smiling young surfers and the cordial (if reserved) palace guards. They also come for the bird-watching and the oysters—the former, some of the best in North Africa, as are the latter, which are shucked tableside on the terrace at L’Hippocampe and a handful of other solid seafood restaurants in town.

London-based James and Czarina von Leyden fell for Oualidia’s charms over a decade ago. They purchased a family compound behind a sea-blue gate, composed of a three-bedroom villa, an additional outbuilding—which they converted into two compact one-bedroom apartments—and a large palm- and geranium-filled garden. Villa La Diouana, as it’s now known, is usually rented in its entirety, but the apartments, when available, are also offered on a two-night-minimum basis. Mine was simple but perfectly formed, with traditional Moroccan banquette sofas, vintage maps and photos adorning the walls, Bokhara rugs underfoot, and a skylit bathroom finished entirely in smooth ivory tadelakt. My terrace was dappled all day long in sun and shade cast by tall palms and eucalyptus bowing in the perennial Atlantic breeze. Abdillah, the von Leydens’ all-around top-notch house attendant, looks after the garden and the guests; his sister, Fatima, does the shopping and cooking (her kefta mkawra tagine will leave you hard-pressed to ever find one as delectable anywhere else on the planet). A small but elegant infinity pool juts nearly to the edge of the bluff, adjacent to the main villa’s living/dining room.

If you lean out from this pool terrace and look right, toward the northern end of the Oualidia lagoon, the low limestone tower and high arched windows of La Sultana Oualidia are just visible. A sister hotel to La Sultana, in Marrakesh—a warren of interconnected riads much loved by Americans, with some of the city’s warmest service—the 11-suite seaside resort is clean-lined and light-suffused, with a palette limited throughout many of its spaces to blue, white, and stone. The alfresco restaurant’s tables line the lagoon’s edge on a wide wooden deck; a jetty is reserved in the evenings for private dining, while beachside Berber pavilions erected in high season are the site of cocktail hour. The spa is a small revelation, a sleek and utterly modern interpretation of the traditional hammam.

Sleek and modern are not words readily associated with El Jadida, some 50 miles up the coast. A fortified city built by the invading Portuguese in the early 1500’s—christened Mazagaõ, after its original Berber name, Mazaghan—the place is now a unesco World Heritage site. Its ramparts still delineate the mazelike quarter of the city, which holds the 450-year-old cistern and Church of the Assumption—the only tourist attractions of note here.

Indeed, despite a few strident proclamations of Oualidia being “like Essaouira 20 years ago,” and evidence of a nascent cultural- and tourism-development push, spearheaded (so say the whisperings on the ground) by no less a personage than His Majesty King Mohammed VI, there currently isn’t much at all geared to the less intrepid traveler.

But El Jadida has atmosphere in abundance, and it was this, presumably, that lured the owners of Marrakesh’s hugely popular Beldi Country Club to open a second hotel. L’Iglesia has given El Jadida its sleek, and its modern, and then some. The 14 stylish rooms and suites are spread across two monumental buildings: the Capitainerie holds reception, the restaurant, a small garden, and a handful of high-ceilinged suites. The other, a sprawling deconsecrated church, houses the remaining rooms and, in the former nave and apse, a soaring lounge, replete with Midcentury and Art Deco furniture. Walking into the Capitainerie from the mist-filled light and ancient stones of the street, history and heritage layer tangibly with contemporary design and smiling hospitality. In El Jadida there are no restaurants, few shops, and very little in the way of English spoken. But the country’s beauty, its reserved warmth, its endless intrigue, are alive and well.

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