AN AMAZING KASBAH IN A MOROCCAN DESERT OASIS

DAR AHLAM | SKOURA, MOROCCO

[SKOURA, MOROCCO] — After a long, bumpy slog over the Atlas Mountains from Marrakesh, I got out of the dusty Mercedes van in an indiscriminate parking lot outside a great mud-walled compound. Walls up to the sky.

This is it? I wondered under my breath. This is the place I’ve heard so much about?

And then, with silent porters in linen tunics grabbing my bags, a great wooden door opened from the thick walls. A donkey groaned downed by the road we just passed.

“Hello, my name is Florent. You can call me Flo.” a slight, chicly-dressed young Frenchman with up-turned collar addressed me.

Peeking inside, everything became clear.

“Oh, this is it. This is definitely it.”

 

Dar Ahlam entrance

And then you get to Dar Ahlam. Past windy dirt alleys, no signs indicating it is there. A nondescript parking area and then a slew of people to meet you. Including Flo (Florent) the young master of the kasbah and coordinator of your happiness for the next several days.

 

I follow Flo through the thick passageway, then through an even smaller doorway on the main building and into a deep dark hallway, practically blinding me.  Like diving into a pool, I was instantly surrounded on all sides by moist, cool air.

“Welcome to Dar Ahlam. Our goal here is to redefine the hotel experience. There is no Reception. No restaurant. No keys. No hours. No menus. No itinerary. Just surprises. When you are hungry, just show up at any time and we will take you to a special place we’ve arranged for you. Whatever you are in the mood for, we will arrange for you.”

And that’s how it all started…

 

Staying at Dar Ahlam is one of the coolest hotel experiences I’ve ever had.

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Ask any travel writer or traveler who’s been here and you’ll hear “Ahhhhhh Dar Ahlaaaam….” in a big sigh. Dar Ahlam is not only considered one of the best boutique hotels in Morocco, but one of the coolest hotel experiences in the world. It’s small, only thirteen or so luxurious suites, but its reputation is huge.

Dar Ahlam is located in the ancient palm oasis town of Skoura, an ancient caravan town, a long six or seven hour drive from Marrakesh (with delightful stops); up and over the ragged Atlas Mountains and down into the barren plains that lie before the sands of the Sahara. Travelers have been coming here for thousands of years, this kasbah alone was built in the 19th Century.

What’s slick is that they have a tandem experience with their own private tent camp in the Sahara, another four hours or so further south. You come to Skoura first, stay in luxury, lounge by the pool and tour the stunning surrounding area, then pop off to their private tent camp in the desert for an overnight. (see my other incredible post about that here.)

After a glorious night in the star-studded night in the desert, you come back, refresh and do some more exploring.  Everything is included, including on-staff guides. They take care of every detail. And fantasy.

Everything is built around these incredible surprises. Lunch or dinners are spread throughout the expansive grounds, eating in a different place every day. By the pool one night. In a date palm grove the next. On the rooftop at sunset.  You never know where next, giddy with discovery.

For exploring, it can’t be beat. A driver takes you around to desert towns, the nearby shimmering mirage of a lake, an isolated canyon where they set up a full on lunch on a fine Berber rug as you watch the Moroccan world go by. It’s all up to you and what you want to do.  Everything is different and incomparable to anywhere else.

This is a perfect example of what you’re in for. Lunch in an isolated palm grove, next to a roaring river, local people walking their donkeys down for a drink.

 

It. Is. Magical. I still can’t stop thinking about it.  Let me show you some more…

Getting to Dar Ahlam is Half the Fun

Okay, this trip….ummmm, I really splashed out on…because it is the Morocco and the Sahara, so what better place to go all-in? And Abercrombie & Kent is the one to go with, or Scott Dunn. They arranged everything, from pickup at the airport to transfers, to guides, to hotels, to a wifi-equipped Mercedes van (not that I spent anytime looking inside the van…)

 

From Marrakesh, you travel up the scary/windy Tizi n’Tichka Pass and then down the other side to the big town of Ouarzazate then on another hour to Skoura. Surprisingly, Northern Morocco is quite lush, green and bountiful, all fed from snowmelt from the High Atlas mountains. But as you cross the Atlas Mountains, almost instantly the scenery changes. To desert. With verdant and thick oases, noted by the palmieres, thick and deep green against the one hundred shades of ocher that is Morocco.

It’s about a five or six hour drive to Skoura if you don’t stop. But you should stop. It’s like driving through a great maw in the earth, passing through just about every sort of climate…except rain forest.

 

Tizi n’Tichka Pass Morocco from YouShouldGoHere on Vimeo.

Tizi N'Tichka Pass geography

Route 9 goes up and over the zig zagging busy highway, up and over the Tizi N’Tichka pass and then follows a long decent down to Skoura and the edge of the flat Sahara.

 

As you descend into the desert side, you pass one picturesque town after the other. And if you take the dirt track Route 9, even more-so.

 

 

Here’s what the drive over the Atlas looks like:

 

 

 

 

 

After miles and miles of dusty roads and mud-brick towns, you soon understand the importance that an oasis plays in the daily life of Moroccans, as it has for thousands of years. Even a trickle of a spring gets harnessed for making food.

 

Once you arrive in Ouarzazate, take a quick tour of the movie studios, yes, movie studies. Movie production is the biggest business in town and has made Morocco famous. Google it. Tons of pictures have been made here and everyone can cite everyone one. (And a surprising number of Nicholas Cage movies.)  It has a massive backlot with movie sets and vistas galore, you can visit the old sets of Cleopatra, Ben Hur and Gladiator.

 

You’ve probably seen this ancient fortress town — Ait Ben Haddou — as backdrop for countless movies like Lawrence of Arabia and Game of Thrones. Standing proud, as it has for thousands of years.

 

When you roll in to Skoura, you can’t figure it out. This supposedly magical hotel, here?

You pass dusty streets, everywhere. Donkeys. Little shops and homes with metal doors. Anas zooms around tight corner after tight corner, cats, dogs, people. You dip down into a dry riverbed, someone watering their mule. The roads get tighter, the road, dustier. Finally you pull into a small carpark. HERE? Really?

 

Skoura, Morocco from YouShouldGoHere on Vimeo.

 

In Skoura, you are at the top of the Sahara, which is 60 days of camel to Timbuktu. And this was the caravans’ old stopping (and dropping) point to reload before crossing the craggy Atlas. And probably take a shower. You’ve read about caravans as a kid, but this really brings it all to life, especially when you see nomads who have been doing this for hundreds of years.

 

Inside Dar Ahlam

Skoura Kasbahs in palm grove

The desert oasis town of Skoura looks like a wide spot in the road, but once you get into the gigantic palm groves, you realize there hundreds, if not thousands of ancient kasbahs nestled under the palm fronds. Some restored, some in decay, but all beautiful.

 

Dar Ahlam is a sensuously restored old 19th Century kasbah — Skoura has over a thousand old kasbahs in its palm groves — owned by a visionary French company called Maison Les Rêves (House of Dreams).  As opposed to the opulent hotels in Marrakesh, this is understated, yet rustically elegant as only the French can do. There are no TVs in rooms, you’re here for the experience. But it has all the modern conveniences. Cool rooms with AC, comfortable furnishings. And nice sheets.

A walled compound amidst the dusty roads, lulled by the Call to Prayer from the mosques of Skoura. You have your own warren of rooms in the cool rammed-earth construction and only run into the few others around the pool or in passing to/from adventures.

 

“Welcome to Dar Ahlam. Our goal is to redefine the hotel experience. There is no Reception. No restaurant. No keys. No hours. No menus. No itinerary. Just surprises.”

 

The pool is everything at Dar Ahlam. There are only a handful of rooms and people are often out exploring, so there are so many times that you feel like you are the only one here.

 

I do not believe I’ve ever seen a more beautiful pool.

 

CLICK ON THE PICTURES BELOW FOR SLIDESHOW

 

 

The Rooms at Dar Ahlam

 

 

The bathrooms alone are like having your own personal hamman.

 

Dining at Dar Ahlam

When you are hungry, you just show up at your own time and Flo has already picked out a new, isolated little secret place for you to eat. A different place each day. One day in the garden, on pillows and flowing drapes and hammocks. Others in a candle-lit alcove. Once by the pool. A crescendo last night on the roof — which I didn’t even know was there.

I didn’t realize it until after, but I never once was shown a menu — they just start bringing you food — but they served exactly what I was in the mood for every single time. It was eerie. Everything single thing I love; different each day, but always seeming perfectly chosen, perfectly flavored. Moroccan food is now my favorite on the planet. I talked to other guests and they realized the same thing. THAT is remarkable.

 

“When you are hungry, just show up at any time and we will take you to a different place each time.”

 

And candles. Candles and lanterns and fire glowing everywhere. I want to work here, being the fire-lighting guy. What a magical place.

 

Table for One.

 

 

How perfect is this?

 

All this, just for me….

 

This is one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. And well worth every single burning cent. And Flo and Dar Ahlam was the hotel experience to redefine them all. With surprises at every turn. Save up all your money and give it to Flo and you’ll walk away with one of the most memorable experiences, ever.  Here’s what Conde Nast Traveler had to say about a similar trip, staying at Dr Ahlam. And Travel & Leisure’s article Morocco Beyond Marrakesh

 

Exploring Around Dar Ahlam

Adventures & Surprises. That’s what Dar Ahlam is all about. Each day you decide what you’re in the mood for, then they take you there. On a hike, to visit local Market Day in Skoura, lunch by a grand lake. Every day is different.

 

 

Sunset view from the rooftop of Dar Ahlam

 

Additional Information About Dar Ahlam

Here’s a great video of Dar Ahlam from The Hideaway Report.  Man, if you want to get a sense of this place, this is it.  And here is Dar Ahlam’s equally stunning website.   And of their new moveable hotel concept called 700,000 Hours, where they are opening similar hidden places in Puglia, Cambodia, Brazil and other far destinations. like these featured in Departures magazine, and the Financial Times.

A great review of Dar Ahlam in Forbes.  Here’s the listing in Scott Dunn. And a 5/5 rating on TripAdvisor. Mr & Mrs Smith’s listing.

Here’s a review of Dar Ahlam in Travel & Leisure. A great story in The Daily Mail, of all places. And in The Telegraph.

Here’s a brief listing in Conde Nast Traveler.com and a lengthier story in the UK Conde Nast Traveller.

Travel Tips for Dar Ahlam

It’s a long way from Marrakesh, only a couple hundred kilometers, but takes about 4-5 hours with pictures. And that’s just to Skoura, from there it’s another 4 hours or so to get into the edge of the Sahara, where camp is. There are no real autostradas in Morocco so most the roads are windy and often bumpy two-lane roads.

It is amazing what shade does in the desert, you go from frying like an egg to cool as a cucumber in seconds, just by standing under a few scant limbs of a stubborn tree.

Gas stations are few and far between. So gas-up when you can. Or look into drivers, which are fairly common. You do need a car/driver, though to get around.

 

— Last Visited May 2015 —

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