Soul-shifting is how I’d describe my two night stay at the Kasbah du Toubkal in the high Atlas mountains. From the gut-wrenching heat of Marrakesh, within an hour and a half we were transported to the mystical landscape of the Moroccan Berbers, and experienced what travel magazines call one of the best mountain lodges in the world.
With a resident chauffeur waiting for us below the lodge in the Berber village of Imlil, the chauffeur being a mule named Douce-adut, I ascended with the baby in her carrier on foot as the donkey carried our lightly packed bags along a 15 minute trail which led to the lodge.
Wrapped in an aura of mystery, I was keen to see just how ecological this lodge would be. The Kasbah du Toubkal met and surpassed my expectations.
Built by a British-Berber partnership and hugged by one of the most stunning vistas you can imagine, the Kasbah du Toubkal is an absolute must, a once-in-a-lifetime experience for anyone traveling to Morocco.
You’ll be impressed by its plastic-bottle saving water station, its Berber-run hospitality, the stunning view and hikes available at your command, along with solar-heated hot water and electricity panels, local slow food traditions such as tangine and couscous, and the small details like the locally carved wood and architecture designs throughout the lodge.
In the environs you’ll see lush fruit trees that bear cherries, apricots and the famous fair-trade argan oil, while lodge owners give a portion of their profits to charity for educating girls who would otherwise not be able to afford school. The lodge makes you feel that you have arrived home and that it’s a place where eco-dreamers, and travelers alike, make dreams come true.
The story of our journey to the Kasbah
We arrived to the Kasbah late afternoon on a Sunday. After the mule taxi up the trail (we walked and donkey-horse carried our things), we swung open a large wooden door and entered paradise.
And it wasn’t only the change in temperatures. We’d come expecting a climax. The winding road from the 45 degrees C stifling heat of Marrakesh was a much-needed change. With every mile up the mountains, the temperatures became more and more human. The taxi ride which can be secured for about 200 dirham (about $25 USD) is not air conditioned, and the unfinished roads might make you wish you’d bought life insurance.
Along the route, the hot sand of the Marrakesh desert will turn to green slopes and valleys spitting out small waterfalls every which way you look. You could be in Switzerland, Peru or Nepal. But the Muslim prayers on the radio remind you that you are on another planet altogether. This is Morocco you remind yourself, but this is something you’ve never known before. It is clean and pastoral.
Once you walk through the doors at the Kasbah, the gardens are framed by the mountain landscape. When you arrive, turn around to see North Africa’s highest peak, Toubkal Mountain, still snow-covered at its peak in summer. The adrenaline, for nature lovers, reaches a high at this point. Tafline would later climb Mount Toubkal (as she chased her Berber guide to the summit). With baby, I wasn’t up to it. This time. But I would go on a short 2 hour hike.
If you are tired by the short hike up to the retreat, any muscles will be calmed by tiny Moroccan biscuits spiced with fennel seed, washed down by a sweet green-mint tea –– a Berber specialty –– given to guests when they arrive.
We meet one of our hosts, and are quickly brought down to our rooms. Dinner is not far off at 7:30, he says, and he’ll explain more about the lodge tomorrow, when we are rested.
It was as though our rooms were carved into the rock of the mountain itself. Dark, but with windows of green light, it was exciting to see soap nuts in the bathroom, an ecological alternative to polluting detergents. And of course, the cool wind, and view.
Bags were unpacked, tea was made and after baby was asleep we headed up to the 360 degree panoramic balcony where a small cast of characters from the United States, England and France were dining and chatting intermittently.
The intimate setting led to some small talk with the other guests quietly taking in the day coming to an end, and a fantastic lamb tangine, slow-roasted Berber style in the kitchen below. I didn’t want the evening to end, but the cool air brought on some yawns and we went back downstairs to our suite, the Garden Room, a 3-bedroom house often rented by families and groups for birthdays, anniversaries, family celebrations and workshops. We had one room in the complex, along with a salon, kitchen and two small dens. Our view looked out to Toubkal Mountain, which name means “big”.
A peak into the guest book reveals the same conclusions I was thinking: “magic”, “feels like home”.
The next morning my traveling companion had to check out for lack of Internet connectivity at the lodge. She had deadlines and the Internet was too slow to load pages. Note to travelers: do not visit the Kasbah to work. You wouldn’t really want to anyway. It would be a shame. A great collection of books in the guest rooms, and in the common den near the main lobby, will keep you occupied for years. Two days wasn’t going to be enough, but I decided to make the best of it.
Off to sleep with cool wind, and many dreams.
Breakfast started with fresh bread, homemade yoghurt, coffee, argan oil and jam, along with some olives and fruit. Yum.
At 10 am, our guide Abdu was waiting to take us on a hike around some of the small bordering villages in the region of Imlil. One of them was his. We filled the water bottle supplied by the Kasbah at the drinking water station and headed out. The hike revealed argan trees, the tree which produces the argan nut, traditionally digested first by a goat before being split open for oil. Cherries, apricots, and other lush fruit trees lined our journey which wound through a few villages before taking us back in a circle to the lodge. It was tiring, but worth it, especially when I heard villagers piping us a little tune as we walked by them.
Back at the lodge our lunch was prepared – a light salad and couscous. Later that afternoon I walked down to Imlil, following the North African music I heard from one of my balconies. It was a local soccer match. One village against the other, blue versus red. The music was to encourage the spirit among the crowd. Being the only female in the crowd, I decided to walk back up, and make it a day. My hearty lunch had me tucking in early for the night, with more sweet dreams. After an early morning rise, a tour around the place with manager Hajj Maurice, who is from the region, I enjoy a light salad, and am told at noon that my mule driver has been waiting since 8 am to take me back down.
We embark with heavy hearts.
Some light haggling with drivers and it’s back to Marrakesh and the heat.
Some key highlights of the Kasbah which makes it eco-hip in our books:
- Hot water is heated using thermal hot water heaters on the roof
- The lodge hires all local people from the region who greet and treat guests with traditional Berber hospitality. Tips are split.
- There are no phones in the lodges, and you don’t feel at all that you are in a hotel. There are no TVs
- Soap nuts and ecological products are placed at the disposal of guests
- Fresh fruit, dried nuts and homemade cookies are waiting for you to enjoy
- All the food served at the Kasbah is home-cooked, traditional, and from the region
- Solar power is generated on the roofs of some of the buildings for lighting
- Wood fixtures inside the Kasbah are hand-carved by local Berbers
- You’ll find out eco-products throughout, like trash bins made from the rubber of tires
- Packaging and water bottles are discouraged for use among guests
- Dorm rooms are at affordable prices for locals and budget travelers
- Berber bread and meat ovens, for traditional cooking in the garden
- Participate in mountain waste collection and other clean up activities through Kasbah’s Facebook page
- Guided eco-trips run through the lodge
- Supports local education for girls through Education for All foundation
- Teaches locals about environmental stewardship
While there is no mention of a certified green building standard, like LEEDs used in the building process, the lodge was constructed on the site of an existing ruin, using local materials, and stone where possible.
The Kasbah was a highlight of my trip to Morocco. I went to the country for a conference sponsored by the United Religions Initiative on how the Middle East can face new migration issues. The pit stop at the Kasbah after the conference was a highlight of my life. I enjoyed it so much that I would like to take my family and friends to enjoy its vista, people and atmosphere one day, hopefully soon.
Click on images in gallery below for larger version.
Read more about our adventures in Morocco:
Riad Dar One in Marrakesh
Staying at Dar des Cigognes
Chasing Berbers in the Atlas Mountains
10 Tips for Traveling Like a Millionaire Without Stuff
Morocco and Egypt Eye Eco-Tourism Markets
Dare Eat Nuts Broken by a Goat’s Butt?