Most visitors to Morocco experience only the teeming souks and medinas of the cities and never get to savor the beauty and exquisite simplicity of the Berber countryside. But things are changing fast thanks to a number of casbah hotels opening in the desert beyond Marrakesh. At these towering fortresses originally built by Berber chieftains, you'll wake to the sound of the muezzins and roosters, sit on a private terrace watching sheep graze along the hillside, and take tea with local families. Once the closely guarded secret of savvy Europeans and the Moroccan upper class, these properties are being discovered by travelers with a sense of adventure from around the world—including Virgin Atlantic mogul Richard Branson, who was so taken with the concept that he opened one of his own.
A mere 15 minutes beyond the Marrakesh airport the landscape dissolves to a biblical scene of palm-covered brown hills and olive groves, the Atlas Mountains in the distance. In the middle of it all is Kasbah Agafay, a 19th-century fortress that London-based Moroccan designer Abel Damoussi stumbled upon in 1996. "I was overwhelmed by the view, and I had a vision of what the place could be like," he says. The problem was that the casbah was jointly owned by 36 members of the same family, so it took Damoussi a good three years of negotiating before he could buy the crumbling structure and go about restoring it.
Upon arrival, guests are led to a columned salon where Buddha Barstyle music plays softly in the background. They are served mint tea and tiny almond pastries and then guided to their rustic-chic rooms, where ceilings are made of exposed twigs and bathroom sinks are set in wooden enclosures. The exception to all this Moorish minimalism is the over-the-top décor of Agafay's quartet of desert tents. With four-poster beds draped in antique textiles, curtained-off baths, and giant clover-shaped mosaic tubs, these accommodations are popular with honeymooners (but you may wonder whether you're in the Atlas or the Poconos).
"The challenge I set for myself was to use only traditional building techniques and to import nothing," says Damoussi, who employed hundreds of area workers and craftsmen. "If I was coming to invest in Morocco, I didn't see why I should use furniture from Europe and Asia."
Although Agafay is designed for chilling out— by the pool, with an herbal soak in the
spa, or at the breezy yoga pavilion—the hotel also offers tennis, hiking, mountain biking,
horseback riding, camel treks, and golf. Guests who want to shop or sightsee can use Damoussi's
glamorous 15th-century private club in the center of Marrakesh as a base for day trips. Just
be sure to make it back in time for dinner in the restaurant, with its seven-foot-tall candelabra,
central fountain, and monumental 16th-century wooden doors. Afterward, don't miss drinks on
the terrace, watching the night sky, thick with stars.
Route de Guemassai, Marrakesh; 212-44/368-600; www.kasbahagafay.com; doubles from $580.
Set on the edge of the Palmeraie, the exclusive palm-forested neighborhood outside Marrakesh, Ksar Char-Bagh may look like a centuries-old casbah, but it's been around barely three years. "We thought about doing up a palace in the medina, but we fell in love with the Palmeraie," explains Nicole Grandsire-Levillair, who owns the property along with her husband, Patrick. The only problem was that there were no ancient palaces there, so the two decided to create one from scratch.
Inspired by Nicole's research into Middle Eastern and Moorish art at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, and with the help of Moroccan architect Hakim Ben Jaloun as well as some of the best craftsmen in Marrakesh, the Levillairs successfully combined Ottoman interiors with Andalusian courtyards, Moghul arches, and Persian gardens. There's even a little Berber mud hut that doubles as a teahouse and massage area. "Where water crosses, there is life," Nicole says, quoting a Persian poem, to explain the most important element of Char-Bagh's design. From the moat and crisscrossing irrigation canals to the casbah's numerous fountains, pools, and cascades, you're never far from the soothing sight and sound of running water. The star aquatic attraction is the swimming pool, a minimalist oblong of black tadelakt (polished concrete), set on a green lawn.
Char-Bagh's guest rooms, called Harem Suites, are enormous—so big, in fact, that they swallow up rather than show off their handsome furnishings, which include Syrian chairs inlaid with camel bones and sculpted Turkish fireplaces. Bare walls and low lighting further emphasize the emptiness. The sleeping areas (in alcoves behind Moorish arches) are cozier, but still too dim.
Char-Bagh has one of Marrakesh's best chefs in Damien Durand, who trained with Joël
Robuchon and Alain Ducasse. Aided by two top-notch Moroccan cooks, he specializes in southern
Mediterranean and North African dishes: tagine of lamb and apricots, steamed and grilled
fish spiced with herbs grown on Char-Bagh's on-site organic farm. Divine desserts include
peach soup with vervain, tartes au citron, and many soufflés. The dining room, where
a member of the Moroccan royal family might just be at the next table, provides an appropriate
setting, with its white marble floors and high ceilings.
Palmeraie de Marrakesh; 800/735-2478 or 212-44/329-244; www.ksarcharbagh.com; doubles from $680.
Seven years in the making, Richard Branson's Kasbah Tamadot has been one of the most eagerly awaited hotels in Morocco. A little less than an hour's drive south of Marrakesh, perched on a steep cliff near Mount Toubkal, Tamadot was originally a Berber chieftain's private palace built in the casbah style. The exotic property belonged to an Italian antiques dealer when Branson's mother discovered it in 1998 and persuaded her son to turn the place into a luxury retreat. Now, after much speculation, several decorators, and a number of false starts, Tamadot has finally opened.
For the most part, it proves to have been worth the wait. The grounds are covered in Zen-like cactus gardens, thick rose beds, and fragrant apple and cherry orchards. An infinity pool seems to drop off the side of the mountain. The hotel's 18 guest rooms and suites mix Moroccan furnishings (chests, carpets, tiles) with Asian antiques (carved Indian tables, Thai and Indonesian sculptures). In addition to the accommodations in the main casbah building, a separate "studio" houses a small suite with a private plunge pool and two additional bedrooms (the rooms can be rented individually or as a three-bedroom villa).
Tamadot's chef, Jean Mundell, who recently headed the kitchen at Branson's Ulusaba Private Game Reserve, draws on the richness of the Berber culinary tradition to create her own versions of Moroccan vegetable salads, tagines, couscous, and lamb dishes. Unfortunately, the dining room—with its mauve color scheme and heavy chairs—is one of the least appealing of the hotel's public spaces. But chances are, in warm weather, you'll choose to dine on the veranda overlooking the pool and gardens. You may also ask to have dinner in your suite or at a private table on one of the property's many terraces.
Despite its tranquil setting, Tamadot is not aimed at the kick-back-and-do-nothing crowd.
Indeed, it is populated by type-A travelers who take full advantage of the resort's two tennis
courts, well-equipped weight room, and large indoor lap pool. Tamadot also sets up golf, horseback
riding, skiing, and treks—from a six-hour outing into the Atlas Mountains to a challenging
three-day ascent of Mount Toubkal. Also available,that Branson specialty: hot air ballooning.
Asni; 800/225-4255; www.virgin.com/kasbah; doubles from $310.
One of the most amazing drives in Morocco is the four-hour route from Marrakesh to the desert city of Ouarzazate. From a green, river-run valley you take a slow climb on a twisting road up the High Atlas Mountains to the stark and cloud-packed Tizi-n-Tichka Pass. The wind howls—it could rain or even snow. Then you descend and find yourself in a magical world of red table-top mountains, Berber villages, and mini-mosques that seem to grow organically from the earth.
On the outskirts of Ouarzazate, two massive movie studios attest to the fact that the town has become Morocco's film capital, specializing in swords-and-sandals epics like Alexander and Kingdom of Heaven. Another 30 miles beyond is the palm-filled oasis town of Skoura; it's surrounded by mud-walled casbahs, most of them in various states of disrepair and abandonment. Dar Ahlam, which in Arabic means "house of dreams," is a notable exception. Built in 1920, this adobe palace was restored three years ago by Parisian event organizer Thierry Teyssier, whose concept was to do "something between a hotel and an event.
"I want our guests to be able to live out their dreams here," Teyssier says. "If they want to have tea in the desert or sleep out on the roof, we'll arrange it. Everything is possible here." While guests have the ability to personalize much of their stay (from the scent of their shampoo to the type of wood in their room's fireplace), Dar Ahlam works hard to surprise. Meals, for example, are almost never served in the same place twice. Instead, guests will find their table lit by masses of candles and lanterns and set up in the garden, by the pool, or in a secret salon. Despite memorable settings, the food (dry chicken brochette, tough fricassee of rabbit) can fall short. Though dessert (passion fruit crème brûlée) and breakfasts (dried and fresh fruits and sensational bitter-orange and tart-strawberry jams) are pleasing, it's still odd to be at the mercy of the plat du jour.
Ultimately, what you remember about Dar Ahlam is a certain dreamlike quality—whether
you're admiring the gardens from a hammock, steaming in the hammam, or wandering the silk-curtained
corridors. The most captivating experience of all is sunset drinks in the desert, where you'll
enjoy glasses of gris (dry Moroccan rosé) in the shadows of golden mountains.
Skoura; 800/735-2478; www.darahlam.com; doubles from $780, including meals and drinks.
In the village of Skoura, Kasbah Ait Ben Moro (212-44/852-116; doubles from $100, including breakfast and dinner) has 16 spartan but stylish rooms in a restored 18th-century fortress. · There are 11 well-appointed rooms with private baths at Imlil's Kasbah du Toubkal (212-44/485-611; www.kasbahdutoubkal.com; doubles from $155), which played the part of a Tibetan monastery in Martin Scorsese's 1997 film Kundun. If you don't mind roughing it, you can stay in one of the simpler dormitory-style accommodations for just $35 per person.