23 MAY 2017: Dar Ahlam in Skoura, Morocco is unlike any luxury hotel I’ve ever experienced. There’s no reception desk or lobby, no restaurants, no room keys (or even numbers or names on the doors), no room service and no phones or televisions in the guest rooms. And yet it is a five-star hotel that delivers a truly magical experience.

Set by a fertile oasis with a thousand palms, you need a four-by-four to reach it and even then when the rivers flood, it’s inaccessible. We reached the hotel after a truly spectacular five-hour drive from Marrakech through the Tizi n'Tichka pass of the snow-capped High Atlas Mountains.

On the way we passed through Ouarzazate where Atlas Studios, one of the largest movie studios in land size in the world is located. Over 100 films have been shot here using the convincingly exotic desert landscape to stand-in for Tibet, ancient Rome, Somalia, Egypt and other countries.

To name just a few: Lawrence of Arabia (1962), The Living Daylights (1987), The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), The Mummy (1999), Gladiator (2000), Kingdom of Heaven (2005), Kundun (1997), Legionnaire (1998), Hanna (2011), The Hills Have Eyes (2006), Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011) and Babel (2006).

Skoura is 35km east of Ouarzazate in the Dades valley, otherwise known as ‘Valley of a thousand Kasbahs’ after the many magnificent big fortified mansions made of mud and straw bricks. Very near the hotel is Kasbah Amridil, originally built in the 17th century. It was depicted on Morocco’s former 50 dirham notes and appeared in scenes from Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves and Lawrence of Arabia.

With this setting, it’s perhaps no surprize that hotel Dar Ahlam, which means House of Dreams in Arabic, is theatrical through and through. Owner Thierry Teyssier comes from the theatre world and went on to create Lever de Rideau, considered one of France's greatest special events agencies. In 2002 he created Maisons des Rêves to wake up the world of luxury tourism starting with Dar Ahlam.

Every meal we had at the hotel was in a different setting – by the pool, in the vegetable garden, in a tiny tucked away room in the main building, under the flowering olive trees and so on. We never knew in advance where our table would be set up, nor what we would be served. Each meal was a complete surprise and delight.

The hotel grows seasonal local produce on site and difficult to source produce (herbs, different tomato varieties, beetroot and carrots, amongst others). They use local and regional produce from the souk (there’s a lively market every Monday in Skoura) and they create recipes that showcase local, traditional foods such as alfalfa bakoula (Moroccan salad of greens and spices), pomegranate vinegar, date caramel and amlou -an almond, honey and argon oil spread.

Over 450 recipes have been compiled over the years and are drawn upon to deliver a great food experience to each guest according to their taste. It’s a concept that’s likely fun for the chefs as well as for the guests. Local Moroccan wines were included with the meals though fancier bottle selections were extra.

After that stellar experience by the desert, we headed back over the mountains to the Atlantic Ocean for a completely different but no less enjoyable time in Oualidia at La Sultana. This hotel was on a private beach protected by a salt water lagoon from the ocean’s fury. Nearby were oyster beds and of course local fishermen happy to supply the hotel with the catches of the day.

The hotel also kept live catches of lobsters, mussels, clams, razor clams, spider crabs, enormous pink spiny lobsters (langouste) and langoustines in open salt water tanks. We selected our first night’s dinner from those tanks. The meal was so fresh and so delicious we henceforth ordered seafood at every occasion except breakfast.

Nearby was the Boulaouane Castle which is surrounded by grape vines used to make the famous Boulaouane Gris wine. In Morocco “gris” wines are a specialty, close in nature to rosés but the term traditionally refers to a wine made from red wine grapes, but with white winemaking practices. (Instead of fermenting the grapes with their skins, which would extract more color, the wine is made from just the juice, mostly clear but with a pink tinge.)

After gorging on the bounty from the ocean, we headed inland to Fes, the second largest city of Morocco and famous for its Fes El Bali walled medina, said to have 9,500 streets and be one of the world's largest urban car free zones. (Unlike in Marrakech, Fes does not allow even motorcycles to travel through the twisty narrow streets of the medina. Thankfully!)

The medina is full of shops of all types and after a day of hard bargaining, we stopped for a late lunch at Restaurant Asmae. We ordered chicken tagine with preserved lemon and olives, and lamb couscous both which were tasty but what came before was amazing.

I mentioned in my previous article that Moroccans start a meal with vegetables dishes. This restaurant served us a groaning board of no less than 18 vegetable appetizers: carrots, cauliflower, cabbage, green beans, fava beans, spinach, green olives, black olives, potatoes, eggplant, cucumber, zucchini etc. all cooked with their own spicing and plated separately.

I can say with certainty, one eats well in Morocco.

 

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Margaret Swaine

Margaret is a nationally published wine, spirits, food and travel writer, who has authored thousands of articles on these subjects for magazines and newspapers.

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