Extreme desert: Venturing out from an oasis of charm in southern Morocco leads to a breathtaking landscape of endless horizons
Sunday 24 January 2010
"If you drink the tea you will die, but if you don't drink the tea you will also die", jokes Abdul, my guide, as he pours a frothy glass of freshly brewed mint tea. Better drink the tea then.
We are sitting atop a mountain outside the oasis town of Skoura, whose lights have begun to twinkle in the approaching dusk. Abdul has selected this scenic spot, scattered with the remains of a ruined 12th-century fortress, to teach me the serious business of tea, Bedouin-style, and to explain the simple way of life in this remote corner of southern Morocco.
As we sit and sip our tea, watching the fire dance in the gentle breeze, the desert silence is broken by the shrill tone of my BlackBerry ringing. Abdul laughs it off, explaining that most Bedouins have little need for mobiles. Yet, despite its remoteness, Skoura has probably seen more BlackBerries than you might think, being 30km from Ouarzazate, aka the Hollywood of Morocco. This majestic landscape of endless horizons has formed the backdrop of films from Gladiator to Cleopatra and given rise to a thriving movie industry.
This also goes some way to explaining the presence of one of Morocco's chicest, yet studiously low-key hotels, Dar Ahlam. Translating from the Arabic as "House of Dreams", there is indeed a fantastical quality to the hotel's environs. Surrounded by the hard, wind-bitten desert, its verdant palmerie is home to a cluster of ancient four-towered structures called kasbahs. Made from mud and straw, they look more like whimsical sandcastles, poking up through the palm and olive trees.
The whimsy continues inside Dar Ahlam, set in a kasbah built in the 1920s and restored using traditional building methods and liberal doses of insouciant Morroccan chic. A 14-room hotel with nine suites and three villas, it is a fantasy of stunning rooms, atmospheric nooks and crannies and beautiful gardens of swaying grasses, an olive grove, fountains and pomegranate hedges, a swimming pool and hammam.
No detail is too minor for attention, from the bowls of rose petals to hand-made almond milk toiletries. It might seem difficult to drag yourself away, but unlike luxury hotels that shudder at the notion of their cosseted clientele leaving the confines, guests here are encouraged to immerse themselves in the immense surrounds. You can hike around the palmerie to see the olive or date harvests in progress and marvel at the irrigation systems installed by the Romans; venture further to see the spectacular Dades Gorge, or into the Sahara to sleep under the stars at the hotel's cluster of luxurious Bedouin-style tents called Le Encampment.
But the truth is, you don't need to go that far to lose yourself in the landscape. Even after our unwanted technological intrusion, we are soon enveloped again by the stillness of the desert. We stay on the mountain until it is dark, surrounded by flickering Moroccan lanterns and listening to the distant drumming of a Berber wedding and, very quickly, the modern world seems far away again.
Suites at Dar Ahlam start at about £785 per night, based on two people sharing. The price includes all meals, drinks and activities (relaischateaux.com)
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