You are planning on taking on a private luxury tour of Morocco and you are wondering what is that you can not miss. It is no less than a daunting task, considering the explosion of luxury hotels, restaurants and brands in Morocco in the last few years.
Perhaps not as over the top as Dubai or Shangai, Marrakech has become synonym with opulence and hedonism and one of the favorite getaways of the rich and famous. If you haven’t yet heard of the riads and palaces of Marrakech, the odds are you have lived under a rock for the last 10 years. But it turns out that the boom of the red city spurred these last few years a country- wide breed of places and activities that cater for the well- heeled that wanted their options not limited to only the red city. We have compiled a list of what we think are the best ones. This is also about diversity for there is hardly a country more spectacular and spectacularly diverse. Naturally, we could have included a stay at La Mamounia, but La Grande Dame was also there 40 years ago. These are our 2014 favorite things to do on a bespoke tour of Morocco:
1. BE A GUEST AT DAR AHLAM
Ranked a few years back by Harper’s Bazaar as the first among the 15 most fabulous villas in the world, Dar Ahlam is above all a home which embodies its atmosphere and follows your rhythm. More than a guest house, the accent here is put on the experience, not the size of your suite. On the what but even more so on the how. Naturally, the standard is there: noble materials have been employed throughout the house, the perfumes and bathroom products have been created by none other than Olivia Giacobetti and the two resident French chefs work wonders in reinventing the Moroccan cuisine. But if you are looking for huge suites with a tennis field- size bathrooms and express check outs, you’ve come to the wrong place. Here, you will find no TV’s, no telephone and no card keys either…
Each day, unique experiences are tailored to each guest with the unique purpose of surprising and enchanting. How would you like to find your room differently arranged at night then when you left it in the morning ? To never know where the next lunch or dinner will be served? Or consist of ? To loose track of time ?... The location of your next meal is always a surprise: it may be inside a private lounge in the Kasbah, one of the secret gardens of the guest house, in a nearby gorge for a magic dinner or a picnic set within the Valley of Roses…
Included in your room rate, an English speaking driver- guide and a private modern 4x4 are at your disposal to take you on an excursion around the area, depending on your mood and wish, at the time of your choice. Luxury means also not having to make any plans. Here, you are forgiven for doing things on a whim… If you want to step outside this garden of Eden, you may choose to visit the salt mines and witness the almonds blossom in spring. Or catch the sunset on Ksar Ali, the ruined Kasbah majestically overlooking the palm grove. Trek in Dades gorge and find out the meaning of ‘monkey fingers’. Visit a 14th century Kasbah, meet the local potters and ironmongers or act like a local and bargain the price in a Berber souk.
Each experience is organized around a theme where each detail is thought accordingly. The menus change. And so do the linen, the cutlery, the candles, the colors, the site… ‘ You know, everything can become reality here’ are the first words one hears when checking in (one day one of the guests took this so seriously that for her immersion into the ancient Egypt, she asked that her bathroom should be regularly filled with camel milk… No, that wasn’t accommodated for.)
Days go by here as anywhere else, but they never look alike. And for the first time in many many years, you give up fighting time and rather surrender to its passage. More often than not, the guests feel like having a ‘vacation from a vacation’ after staying at Dar Ahlam. For the spell to really settle in, you need to spend at least 2 nights here, in a place where the charm cannot really be put into words… Dar Ahlam is currently being offered on our Divine option of accommodation with all of our private tailor made Morocco tours .
2. SEE (AND HEAR) FES WORLD SACRED MUSIC FESTIVAL
Throughout the years, Fes World Sacred Music festival has progressively yet discreetly built a reputation that sets it apart from other similar festivals. If the word ‘sacred’ is making you think of liturgy music or a church choir, think again. This is a festival where flamenco shares stage with gospel, tango and fado succeed themselves to traditional sitar music or the griot music of Mauritania. The organizers have somehow always succeeded in finding diamonds in the dirt, low- key yet extremely talented bands and artists and have them share the stage with some of the most prolific world music actors of recent decades. Past artists include: Bjork, Patti Smith, Paco de Lucia, Ravi Shankar, Joan Baez or Youssouf N’Dour ( who will be performing again this year).
But what makes the festival really exceptional and somehow brings out the best in the music is the décor itself. There can’t possibly be any other better scene for this type of music than the century- old palaces and gardens of one of Arab world’s jewel cities – Fez. I remember one particular late summer night last year walking down a derb sidelined by candles throughout the maze of Medina’s streets and entering Dar Adyel, a three century old palace, all zellij, marble and cedar columns. Berber carpets were spread out in the patio and chairs were sidelining the walls. By the time the band settled into their traditional music from northern India, a hand’s reach from the audience, only a few dim lights around and the starred sky above , it’s fair to say everyone present went into a silent trance. Or the Sufi nights in the parks of the city way past midnight where the locals could enjoy one of the very rare occasions of listening to traditional Moroccan music in public. Or Aicha Redouane bringing back to life some of the golden age Arab poets with her incredible singing in the gardens of Batha palace in front of a mesmerized audience.
This year, the festival’s theme is ‘Conference of the Birds’ in allusion to a the 4500 lines epic written by a Persian poet in which the birds of the world gather to decide who is to be their king, as they have none. The hoopoe, the wisest of them all, suggests that they should find the legendary Simorgh, a mythical Persian bird roughly equivalent to the western phoenix. The hoopoe leads the birds, each of whom represent a human fault which prevents man from attaining enlightenment. When the group of thirty birds finally reach the dwelling place of the Simorgh, all they find is a lake in which they see their own reflection. It is the Sufi doctrine that God is not external or separate from the universe, but rather is the totality of existence.
As the poem, this edition is a spiritual and artistic journey through the cultures and traditions of the world , which are gradually revealed in their depth, through a concert , an exhibition, a film or a conference. All continents are represented by the greatest artists , proven masters in the practice of their art or their song : Roberto Alagna, one of the greatest tenors of modern times that will present a worldwide premiere for the festival, Tomatito , a living legend of flamenco guitar ( Paco de Lucia, that performed last year, sadly passed away last February), Yossou n’Dour and Johnny Clegg presenting a joint project paying homage to Nelson Mandela, and Rokia Traoré representing the deep Africa; Kadem Saher , the prestigious Arabic singer from the Middle East or Zakir Hussain , the most famous Indian musician in the art of tabla. From Latin America we will have Luzmilla Carpio (Bolivia) and from North America Buddy Guy, the great Chicago blues legend who visits Morocco for the first time, surrounded by the greatest representatives of this legendary African- American music.
Artists from China, Palestine, Ireland, Hungary, Mauritania and many other countries and cultures will also perform in the afternoon at Batha Museum , the evenings at Bab Al Makina or within Dar Nights Medina , not to mention the much sought- after Sufi nights at Dar Tazi, out in the gardens under the moon and the stars. Fez, the conservatory and rather frozen- in- time city, truly comes to life during the festival, hosting a variety of exhibitions and educational activities, which take place simultaneously in the city and its gardens. Also, recently, a new project was born, the ‘living itineraries’ that allow the discovery of a millennia old Medina to the rhythm of Sufi music and lost-in-time tales.
3. EXPERIENCE ‘LE SPA’ AT SELMAN MARRAKECH
Recent years have seen quite a few openings of opulent hotels in and around Marrakech, each trying to out- shadow the other by its décor, restaurant menu, concept and almost always, a spa. We think of Palais Namaskar and its Feng- Shui- inspired spa, Jardins de La Koutoubia and its Clarins Spa, the spa at La Mamounia- always a reference, or Dior spa at Es Saadi gardens hotel. But perhaps the one that really stands out is Le Spa at Palais Selman, a 61 room lavish hotel, 10 minutes drive outside Marrakech. Selected by Conde Nast Traveler as one of ‘THE BEST NEW SPAS IN THE WORLD IN 2013’, Le Spa is a standalone space from Henri Chenot, more famously known for his medical spa in the Italian Alps which focuses on rejuvenation rather than relaxation.
Based on the Henri Chenot method, founded at the Palace Merano over 40 years ago whose focus is the combination of principles of Chinese medicine with the latest scientific advances, Le Spa @ Selman has now created its own bespoke offering. The mission: to rebalance the body by helping it. Each day, the body lives a new cycle of 24 hours; this cycle is divided into three specific phases while observing the natural biorhythms: The Elimination, The Assimilation and finally the Regeneration. By recognizing this natural division, one will be able to make the right choices for his/ her body in terms of nutrition, physical activities, relaxation, etc.
In the case where the three cycles are somehow identical within minutes of each other, further Chenot methods are to be considered. Another pillar of the Chenot Method is based on traditional Chinese medicine, determining the energy field that each individual possesses. Henri Chenot has defined five elements among which we find the profiles that allow a relevant diagnosis and customized prescriptions. Finally, the energy circulation is the third pillar of the Chenot method. The identification of individuals problems enables working on specific energy points and potential restrictions- meridians. The method enables developing treatments that will allow sustainable actions regarding specific problems the body will encounter (fatigue, health problems, stress, skin problems, etc…)
Built away from the grand pool, sheltered by the main building, the spa is a tribute to oriental well-being. Arranged around a central square pool, its seven treatment rooms are hidden behind latticework screens. The vaulted ceiling seems to sparkle like a starry sky, perforated to let light gently filter down from above while the main room and arcade are plunged in semi-darkness, promoting utter relaxation. Light and dark, shadow play, shimmering mosaic tiles, traditional plasterwork... unquestionably inspired by the Orient, equipped with two heated outdoor pools and completely secluded from the rest of the hotel, evoking the ancient hammam of Istanbul. Steam room, sauna, water jets, hydrotherapy... all contribute to a matchless state of being.
In order to put these principles into practise, Le Spa is equipped with 7 treatment rooms, 4 hydrotherapy rooms, a jet-massage pool and an expansive Hammam area. There are an additional 2 outdoor heated pools, a Jacuzzi and an indoor relaxation pool and fitness suite. In addition, there is a private spa suite complete with its own Hammam, Massage and Hydrotherapy areas. For guests to be able to have a complete experience of Selman, Dominique Chenot has integrated their signature ‘Bio-light’ cuisine within all three restaurants: ‘The Biolight proposition serves to demonstrate that our 'diet' is well-harmonized with good food that is beautifully presented. The Chef at Selman Marrakech, Ludovic Gomiero, learned the philosophy of our cuisine with me. It is a diet which above all considers the selection of produce and methods of cooking. It teaches us that to follow a healthy diet is also a pleasure. The cuisine presented is part of our true identity and our research.’ Independent from the rest of the hotel lie the stables with 16 boxes housing a collection of pure bred Arabian award- winning horses, 6 outdoor paddocks and a spring garden of 4000 sqm where signature horse shows are organized .
The spa together with the hotel and the stables were all designed by Jacques Garcia, the French architect responsible for the restoration of La Mamounia in Marrakech or Le Fouquet in Paris. To quote Conde Nast Traveler: ‘Every square inch is set for seduction, from the smoky-gray corridors lined with red silk- shaded lamps, to the formal dining room, with its violet-velvet banquettes and fireplace nooks’. To give you an idea of the work that has gone into place here, every brick of the façade and every piece of mosaic was laid in by hand. And there are a few. Mr Garcia said in an interview when asked about what inspired him when building the spa: ‘’The spa is of course inspired by the Orient. It reminds me of the hammams of ancient Istanbul. For me personally, the ultimate one is at the harem of Topkapi. The optical illusions of light and shade cast by the mashrabiya screens…. It’s quite fleeting and mysterious. It is a place of pure comfort and refinement. With its two private pools, the spa is an oasis within an oasis.’’
4. SPEND A NIGHT IN AN EN- SUITE TENT IN THE SAHARA
Most people booking a private Morocco tour want to spend a night in the dunes of the Sahara. And for good reason. Even those coming from countries like Australia, US or South America where the desert is also present. Why ? There is something about the Sahara that startles the imagination of even the most conformist person. Is it the tales of 1001 nights ? The Hollywood blockbusters and their portraying of the desert knights, a mix of ruthless and mysterious, cherishing their freedom as their greatest good ? The tales of die- hard romantics like Lawrence of Arabia or Isabelle Eberhardt ? The stories of the caravans slowly crossing the dunes carrying gold, slaves, ivory or the most unheard- of spices or precious stones? Hard to answer. One thing is certain: a night in the desert always exceeds the expectations and is something remembered for the years to follow.
For those that don’t want to rough it, living the desert experience doesn’t necessarily mean spending the night under a wool tent hardly larger than your mattress or sharing toilets with the rest of the camp tenants. The last few years have seen quite a few openings of ‘luxury’ camps. Bouchaib and Khouloud, the young couple owners of Azalai Desert Camp in Erg Chigaga have taken things a step further. Instead of the typical Berber wool tent and bulky Syrian armchairs, they have designed something different, using linen instead of wool ( so the tent doesn’t keep the heat) and white and beige as the main colors throughout, a style that has been termed ‘ Gentleman Voyageur’. This is not a coincidence since the owners’ favorite movie is ‘Out of Africa’ whose poster hangs on the walls of the lounge of their Azalai Desert Lodge hotel in Zagora. Back at the camp, pouffes are laid out at night with cushions to admire the Milky Way and watch stars up close with the on- location Sky Watcher telescope.
There are only 4 luxurious canopy roof tents that accommodate exclusively the lovers of the great sand dunes and travelers wishing to experience the overwhelming otherness of the Sahara. Each 20 square meters, they have everything you can dream of : mosquito nets, a Simmons- mattress 180 cm wide bed and a real bathroom not only functional but full of charm. Placed on a walkway behind a veil of linen insulation of the room, as out of the novels of last century, the bathroom unveils the oddity of a beautiful sink from Fez, embedded in a marble top
capping a stylish wooden furniture. White canvas tents are all lined with linen, soft and bright. The exquisite Moroccan dinners are prepared back at the hotel in Zagora and served hot in an open air ‘dining room’ set in front of every tent.
A fifth VIP tent ( 35 square meters), with its own dedicated private butler is there for those looking to linger for a few nights in the dunes in complete privacy and has plenty of extras to make sure you have things to do when dune watching is over: an area to sample refined cuisine and a lounge- library to surrender to the pleasure of a board game or a travel novel. In a style suitable to the peculiar spirit of the destination , picnic chic , camel rides and even hypothetical rounds of golf on a green mini set a few sand dunes away, punctuate the passage of time .
If you are planning to spend a few days, you should know that the area is filled with interesting sites to see. After all, we are on the banks of the mythical Draa valley, a valley so often followed by the caravans coming from or heading over the dunes into Sudan, the word used to designate the black kingdom south of the Sahara. The lodge invites you to discover the palm grove of Zagora either on foot or on a mountain bike, to roam around adobe villages in the shade of the palms in the middle of the palm or hide and seek around Ksar Tissergat and its wells of light, a village built almost entirely underground. The nearby Kasbah of Amezrou reminds the rich Jewish presence in the area, controlling the silver manufacturing and trading. Only 12 families were left when they decided to flee Amezrou for Israel back in 1956. The small synagogue can still be visited, illuminated by a skylight during the day. At the bottom of it was placed the Torah in a niche, and small holes are drilled into the walls where the kippas were once deposited. Tamegrout , the potters village, is where the locals make and export throughout the country their famous and unmistakably green pottery. It is also the siege of one of the most prestigious zaouïas ( Islamic school ) in North Africa, containing nine century old manuscripts, valuable scientific treatises , religious books dating from the Andalusian golden age and flourished Korans .
But perhaps the most interesting is to travel back in time, hop on a camel and have an intimate tête- a – tête picnic on the banks of Sacred Oasis, with white tablecloth and silverware. Now just lay back on the sand, close your eyes for a second and imagine the caravan traders reaching the source of water after weeks of navigating the relentless sea of dunes. For those short on time that can’t do without the bliss of spending a night in the Sahara, good news is on the way. Soon, a small plane flight (only the pilot, 2 passengers and their luggage) will carry the few lucky ones from Marrakech over the snowcapped peaks of the Atlas Mountains into the desert for a stay at Azalai Luxury Camp. To be continued…
5. FLY IN A HOT AIR BALLOON OVER MARRAKECH
Waking up on your holidays at 5 AM has to be for a good reason. Especially when you have to convince your other half to follow your example. Or the children if it is a family holiday. Seeing the ‘red city’ , the Berber dwars and the millennia old palm grove. From above. 400 meters high. Is that a good reason ? We think it is. If you are worried about catching up on your sleep, know that the whole affair will be wrapped up by 11 AM and you can have a snooze by the pool back at your Riad in Marrakech , after an early lunch. If this is not a romantic way to surprise your loved one(s), well, we don’t know what is. Especially considering the choice to take a normal flight or have the more high- end option of having the balloon all for yourselves with nothing more than the pilot and the butler filling your glasses with champagne while you take in the panorama.
Making it to the meeting point just after dusk, you get picked up by a spotless 4x4 and driven to the palm grove where the team starts filling the balloon. Once the gas bottles and burners are set up inside the basket, they check to see if there is no gas escape, place the basket on the side and attach the actual parachute. Then the inflation begins. The powerful fan draws cold air inside the envelope. The pilot turns on the burners which heat up the air inside. Meanwhile the assistants help keeping the hot air balloon down. The last tests are being performed: the panel opening parachute, on board panels, radio tests , then passengers can come on board : the preparations are finished. The pilot continues to heat up the balloon – it must reach a temperature close to 100 ° C at the top of the envelope.
Finally, the order is given by the pilot: " RELEASE ALL ! " All aids release the cords at the same time. Everyone is holding their breath. The moment is magical as the journey begins. For those who remained on the ground, the show is fabulous. For those on board, it is both fascinating beauty and adrenaline. This delightful sensation of floating in the Moroccan sky, suspended inside a balloon quickly replaces the initial surprise of the vertical takeoff.
During the trip, many questions are asked while everyone raves about the beauty of Morocco below and the pleasant feeling of having left all their problems on the ground. Seen from here, everything becomes more beautiful and the everyday worries seem all but important. The red adobe villages below contrast with the lush green of the palm groves and other olive farms, while in the distance the Atlas Mountains show off their majestic peaks covered in snow. Soon enough it is time to think about the landing. The pilot chooses a flat area and starts the approach after having explained to the passengers what to do upon making contact with the ground. With a bit of luck, there is no wind and we have what we call a ‘kiss landing’. If the wind picks up, we may get dragged along a few meters. What better after the flight, then to enjoy a mint tea and talk about the sensations we just experienced? The 4x4 tour takes us to one of the small Berber villages we just flew over and discover the enticing Moroccan hospitality by having a mint tea with Moroccan pastries or freshly- baked bread dipped in olive oil.