Best for high-level hiking: Morocco
From high-level trekking in Morocco's Atlas Mountains to rubbing shoulders with A-listers on Hollywood Boulevard, and from rural retreats off Tuscany's beaten track to jet-set hang outs for Moscow's super-rich, our writers have been to the ends of the earth to find a world of inspiration
Saturday 07 February 2009
The call to prayer that reverberated around the small village of Tamatert in the Atlas Mountains on my first morning in Morocco provided a far more atmospheric wake-up call than my usual grating alarm. So it was something of a disappointment to discover later that the "adhan" came courtesy of a recording blasted out by a crackly speaker; electricity arrived in the village only a few years ago.
We'd chosen to stay in the Kasbah Samra as a base for our hiking holiday, in search of the modern travellers' holy grail: the authentic experience. It is a charming, traditional, flat-roofed, thick-walled stone refuge built by the men of the village for Jacqueline Brandt, the guesthouse's vivacious Swiss owner, who came to Morocco a decade or so ago. The guesthouse uses electricity to power the fridge, but is otherwise heated by open fires and lit by candles. As such, the Samra feels detached from the modern, metropolitan world.
My first parting of the curtains on waking was rewarded with the bizarre scene of a man dressed from head to toe in fresh – and still bloody – goat skins dashing through the previous night's light snowfall. Here was authenticity in spades. It was Eid al-Adha, the Muslim festival of the sacrifice, marking Ibrahim's willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael as an act of faith. Just in time, God provided a ram instead and today the feast is celebrated by the slaughter of goats, sheep and cows. In the mountains around the Samra the tradition has an added dimension. After the feasting, the young men of the area stitch together the fresh goatskins into a highly alarming costume and chase each other.
We began our first full day's hike by following the valley down from Tamatert to the trekking centre of Imlil, down the valley from Mount Toubkal, North Africa's highest peak at 4,167m. The village is a prolific producer of walnuts and apples and there was a rich, cidery scent of fruit hanging over the main street. The walking here is hard work, especially in December, which is outside the main tourist seasons of March to April and September to November, but the views are worth it. The valleys are dotted with streams and poignantly bare cherry and walnut trees that will boast a rich pink and white blossom come the spring. We stopped for lunch under an apple tree in the garden of a family house in Tinerkourkine, sipping fresh, tooth-dissolvingly sweet mint tea. Then we continued, climbing back up to the snowline as the clouds closed in, returning to Tamatert in the mist.
After each day's hike we returned to the Samra for dinner, which we ate from low wooden tables in the candlelit living room, propped up on scattered cushions as close to the fire as possible. Dinner here – prepared by Mehamed and Rachida – was a simple affair: a delicious shared tagine of spiced chicken, sliced potatoes and peas served, of course, with a small gold-embossed glass of mint tea that was wryly referred to as "Berber Whisky". Later in Marrakesh, we found that the locals considered this joke a versatile one – babouche slippers were "Berber Adidas" and a hand-spun lathe "Berber Black & Decker".
Though romantic, the Samra is quite chilly in December, and the fires, hot water bottles and multiple blankets could only just keep the cold out. However, this chilly air couldn't deter the goat-men outside on the mountainside from beating their drums and chasing their "prey" late into the starlit night.
Seven nights in Morocco combining the Kasbah Samra in the Atlas Mountains, La Sultana in Oualidia and Dar les Cigognes in Marrakesh costs from £1,145 per person including accommodation, a half-day hike in the Atlas Mountains with picnic lunch, return flights and private transfers (including mule ride). For more information or to book, visit simpsontravel.com or call 020-8392 5861
* Lanjia is an eco-friendly, community-based lodge set in northern Thailand. Built in traditional style with Western comforts, it offers superb walking in the surrounding hillside and a traditional Hmong hill-tribe experience. Two nights from £220 pp with TransIndus (transindus.co.uk; 020-8566 2729)
* Learn how to be a game ranger at South Africa's Shamwari Game Reserve (shamwari.com) on a three-day walking safari where you are shown how to shoot, track and approach potentially dangerous animals – and experience a camp sleep-out From £697 not incl. flights
* Take the family on a Spanish walking holiday with your very own donkey as a companion. Explore the Segovian heartland on foot with an equine guide as back-up. Seven nights from £956 pp, £365 per child, B&B incl. picnics, transfers and donkey. Inntravel (01653 617906; inntravel.co.uk)
* Explore the remote Himalayan foothills and stay with local communities. Village Ways (01223 750049; villageways. com), a pioneer of village-to-village walks in the Himalayas, has introduced a new walking holiday in the picture perfect Saryu Valley. Ten nights from £769 pp
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