Dates, exotic hotels and beasts of burden - skiing in Morocco is not your typical snow show

Kasbah Toubkal, where we were to stay, is the life's work of Omar "Maurice" Ait Bahmed. He has successfully blended three things to make this an award-winning hotel. Everything is based around Berber hospitality; added to this are Western levels of comfort and a programme of tours and expeditions in the mountains around it. His achievement was recognised by the online travel agent responsibletravel.com, when they named Kasbah Toubkal the winner of the mountain category in their 2004 awards.

My companion Paddy and I knew this was going to be a holiday with a difference when the taxi from Marrakech (60km away) stopped in the middle of Imlil, the highest village (1,700m) we would reach, with no sign of the kasbah. The kasbah is not on the main road; or rather Maurice did not want the main road extended to the kasbah because it would deny the porters and mule owners their livelihood.

After a short walk up a rocky path we were shown to suites that would grace any five-star hotel. The kasbah is all about comfort. Lots of richly coloured carpets and lanterns, wood-burning stoves, cosy alcoves and the smell of fresh mint tea. Ski touring is essentially about hard work in return for tremendous rewards. Kasbah Toubkal was upsetting this balance for the better.

To date, all my skiing had been in the Alps and it was difficult to adjust to the fact that here we were, on a ski touring holiday in Africa. But there were constant reminders: figs, dates and freshly - I mean picked that day from local trees - squeezed orange juice for breakfast. The next very welcome contrast to Alpine ski touring is the provision of mules whenever possible. There are some who would say this was cheating, but I cast my mind back to those Victorian climbers who had porters, guides and cooks for climbing every last hillock and decided that this was true, traditional ski touring.

We set off carrying a camera and not much else. The mules even carried a table and chairs for our mid-mountain picnic. Lunch was served at the Chamharouch shrine at 2,400m. All the hospitality in the world cannot (and should not) take away from the fact that getting to the refuge at 3,200m would not be easy. After lunch we transferred to skis, using skins to slide up a gradual, unrelenting incline. All in, this would turn out to be a seven-hour day. For ski touring you need regular carving skis with special ski touring bindings that allow the heel to release when climbing and can be fixed for skiing down. Removable skins for the bottom of the skis enable you to go uphill.

In the same way that Berber hospitality cannot miracle you up the mountain; it cannot make a freezing refuge at 3,200m warm. The room where you could see your own breath, was a reminder of good old Alpine ski touring. Hassan, our guide, briefed us on the next day: a vertical kilometre to the summit; skins to 4,000m; and then a scramble to the peak. "Easier or more difficult than today?" we asked, more in hope than expectation. "More difficult."

The climb was steep and precarious, requiring three hours of zig-zagging, but finally we reached the summit. What a view, what a place and out of Hassan's rucksack, one more surprise: a mini bottle of champagne to accompany our picnic. Then, after a short break, the descent. At first we edged our way gingerly down from the peak. This led to my only moment of real angst. We really ought to have had crampons on and been roped together, and Hassan should have had an ice axe either to cut steps or arrest a slide should one of us fall.

This type of ski touring is about the pleasure of being in the mountains - not about finding great powder fields to float down. Having said that, you always live in hope and, on this occasion, we were blessed with four or five pitches of glorious, knee-deep powder. Bouncing down uncut pistes with not a soul in sight is one of the perks of ski touring. Inevitably, as you descend, the conditions change, and the dreaded "breakable crust" needs to be negotiated.

Ending our ski trip with some haggling in Marrakech's souks underlined just how different a ski destination this is. Morocco will never overtake the Alps, but as more and more people look for a change from their usual ski holiday, it is definitely a place to consider.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Royal Air Maroc (020-7439 4361; www.royalairmaroc.com) flies daily from London Heathrow to Marrakech (via Casablanca), as does British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), which also flies from Gatwick and Manchester. Atlas Blue (www.atlas-blue.com) has flights from Gatwick.

To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Climate Care (01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org). The environmental cost of a return flight in economy class from London to Marrakech is approximately £3.80. The money is used to offset your CO2 emissions by funding sustainable energy and reforestation projects.

STAYING THERE

Kasbah Toubkal (00 212 44 48 5611; www.kasbahdutoubkal.com), 60km from Marrakech and 1,800m high, offers "the best rooftop views in North Africa". Double rooms start at €140 (£100), including breakfast. Bookings can also be made via Discover Ltd (01883 744392; www.discover.ltd.uk).

SKIING THERE

If climbing to 4,167m is not to your taste then Kasbah Toubkal can organise other tours of varying lengths from 20-day trips to the Sahara to three-day tours of local villages. The ascent of Jbel Toubkal costs €225 (£161) per person and includes all food and accommodation. Ski touring equipment is available for use at the Kasbah but hiring or buying your own equipment is preferable.

FURTHER INFORMATION

www.responsibletravel.com has details about activities, accommodation and travel services, and a holiday planner. The Moroccan National Tourist Office (020-7437 0073; www.visitmorocco.com) has useful information for before you travel and offers recommendations for various types of traveller.

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