Cristian

Cristian

With a passion for travel and particularly Morocco, I own and manage Sun Trails.

Wednesday, 03 August 2022 13:03

Work from home ? No, thank you. Part 2

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A 3 day hike in the High Atlas mountains, off the beaten treks.

Mount Toubkal, the highest summit in North Africa. Always the reference when it comes to hiking or trekking in Morocco. 60 km south of Marrakech, it's become a staple with tourists, a box to be ticked off along with the likes of 'spending a night in the Sahara' or a 'tour of the Jemaa El Fna Square'. 4160 meters high sounds an awful lot, but truth be told, if trekkers don't make it to the summit, it's rather more owing to the altitude sickness and occasional snow patches, than to a lack of stamina.

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But is this really what it is about ? Numbers ? Ticking boxes ? As much as I relish mountains and wild nature, it's remoteness and solace that make it special, along with the vistas and a few gulps of spring water along the trail. And on top of that, beware ! It's not necessarily weekend trekkers and their revelling. Morocco or anywhere else, there's a new race of traveller, tormenting themselves and others, wherever they are, hanging on to their phone for dear life, reel- ing their way up the slopes, influencing something. But, good news. Keep reading and hopefully, you'll tread where youtubers daren't.

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Well, in 16 years of living in Morocco I've done my share of trekking around Marrakech and Morocco. Ironically, it is still to this day thought of a desert country - and yes, there is desert, but what defines Morocco both geographically and culturally is the mountain. Ourika Valley, High Atlas, Imlil, Ouirgane, Oukaimeden are all good spots for starters. But 16 years is also more than enough time to figure out how to get 'off the beaten track'. And you know what ? It's easier than you might think. One of the issues with guided trekking in Morocco is that local guides, well - intended as they are, tend to stick to the area around their home village. But why not dare a little more ?

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Let's take the High Atlas and Imlil as an example: Imlil is the most obvious place to start your hikes in the High Atlas and/ or to Mount Toubkal. Yet, why hike your way under the scorching sun reflecting off piles and heaps of gravel and stones and not walk in the shade of the nut trees, by the gurgling streams ? Why cross villages advertising free wifi and rooms for rent, when just on the other side of the scarp, shepherd dens and rock hamlets await you, where the nomads camp in the hot summer months ? Mighty waterfalls sprinkle you with each wind gust. Lay down on the green moss , catch your breath and peek at the terraced wheat being ploughed or harvested, by hand. You'll hardly cross another soul and the majesty of the surrounding summits is only yours to behold. And later, arrive at the mountain hut, yes, that one, perched at 3000 meters high, just below the colossal plateau, where eternal snows lay dormant in its chinks.

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On a clear afternoon like this one, the brow ahead appears of bronze, inexorably moulting layer upon layer of rust. If it were my first time here and I weren't aware there is a way up there, on top, through it, or rather on its side, by the waterfalls, a slit where you have to scrabble and clamber by and by ( don't look back !), I would resign myself to just spend the night here, at this spartan, sturdy mountain hut, one of the few good things the French left behind ( Club Alpin Francais). It's not my first time here so yes, it's pretty special to me. Most don't venture that high up: they stop by the waterfalls 500 meters lower - I don't blame them, the hike is harsh and you need the night to make it back down.

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Shepherds are the masters of this hinterland, them and their droves of goats and sheep: you're certain to never be too far from one, at this altitude the only fodder to browse on, tufts of briars lining the streamlets and draws. The one that handed me a hot glass of mint tea by the waterfalls with an awkward glee seemed to wonder what could possibly exert someone to toil up the mountain hauling a back pack. Or did he ? He scooted shortly after, nonchalantly, club and bundle, careless in the world. Or rather, with other cares than us, the ones that assume their cares matter more.

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Dusk falls cautiously as I cast about the inaccessible plateau. It's been 5 years since that fateful expedition and just the thought of clambering up that cranny all by myself, on the morrow, to toil up to 4000 meters high, runs my mouth dry.

What I'll reminisce most about, on the morrow, is the lashing, unavailing, menacing wind, its gusts slapping me, occasionally nudging me off my feet, face turned leeward so I can breathe. Up there, past the gush of the stream, at 3500 meters high, it's Mars. The trails end. Any trace of green has been blotted out. The only landmark, the pass ahead at 3900 meters, a lip to this immense stone funnel. In the distance, the sheer colossus of stone see- sawed up on the brow, baleful. Closer to me, a sheer wall of slate, two natural cavities dug in, caved in, like two gigantic eye sockets. No shepherds here, who would take his herd over the pass with nothing to browse on, loping from boulder to boulder ? It isn't trekking anymore, it's an extreme sport that hasn't been named yet.

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Gravel. Rock. Scree. Boulders. And repeat. Ankle deep in scree or windthrown backwards, reeling. Reaching the pass, I feel sapped. The views are to die for, but I can't linger on - the whips of wind lash out again, forcing me to retrieve my steps. A couple of hours later, I make it back to the hut, few falls along the way, thankfully just scratches. The mule browsing outside on the hillock above the stream becomes the only instance of soothe and peace, among a nature that seems bent on evicting us, the moving, from its bosom. Hussein, the hut guard, had left earlier this morning with two trekkers, further away, above 4000 meters high. Later that afternoon, they return, exhausted yet gleeful. The memory of reaching the summit made it all worth it. We spend the afternoon playing cards. The wind subsides.

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And Sunday, the next day, was not going to be a holiday. I sip my coffee, take one last look and bow at the summits and away I march. Soon, I am scurrying past the waterfalls and stop to fill up on spring water, there by the hamlets, where the runnels meet. I can hear Berber music off a radio somewhere and a couple of workers are busy piling rocks, patching a water course. From here, head north and it's a short way to Imlil, but I'd rather try something new today. So I head full east, breasting yet another scarp, once again trying to divine the trail. Around lunch time I reach the pass at 3000. In the guise of lunch, I gnaw at some loaf of stale bread and scraps of hard cheese. Down in the valley, I can glimpse a populous village, 1200 meters below. It's going to be 2 hours of downward toil, treacherous, slippery gravel under the boots. Once down there, it's cars, people and the familiar trappings of civilization. A youngster takes pity on me and transports me to Imlil on the back of his motorbike. The village is alive with Moroccans on the Sunday afternoon and cases of local cherries are lining the alleys. Oh, espresso ! Oh, electrical plugs ! Oh, public transport !

Did I climb the highest in North Africa ? Not quite. Was it 3 days of great trekking and remote, untouched Morocco ? You be the judge of that.

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© Sun Trails 2022. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Friday, 08 April 2022 11:45

Travel to Morocco 2022- is it safe ?

What is the latest Morocco travel advisory amidst a waning global pandemic  and a war in Europe ?

Update 1.10.2022: Vaccine passes and PCR tests are NO LONGER MANDATORY to enter Morocco. Yes, you read that right. For the first time since 15 March 2020, Morocco is open to outside visitors with no need for vaccines or PCR tests. 

natural pools amtoudi gorges Gorges and palm grove in the Anti Atlas mountains 

Click here to see photos of our guests on tour in Morocco in 2022.

MOROCCO AND COVID VACCINES

After a gruelling wait, the much- anticipated vaccines are finally making a difference, not least in the way people are booking up travel again. In Morocco, the first country in Africa to start vaccination, the campaign started on 29 January 2021 and 65 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated. You can see here the evolution of the vaccination campaigns around the world. 

amtoudi small granary                           Fortress - granary in Morocco's south 

DO I NEED A COVID TEST FOR MOROCCO

No, since 30 September 2022, you no longer need a Covid test or Vaccine Certificate to enter Morocco. If your country of origin requires a PCR test for traveling back, PCR tests are available all over the country in major towns and a PCR test costs about 500 dirhams ( 50 euros), with an Express PCR test at 800 Dirhams ( 80 euros). 

[ Read: Morocco honeymoon itinerary: the ideal escape in 2022 ]

IS IT SAFE TO TRAVEL TO MOROCCO IN 2022 ?

Presently, Morocco is at an all time low in terms of deaths from Covid per million people ( see graph below). Having started end of January 2021 its vaccination campaign, Morocco is trailing somewhat behind European countries, but it is a clean leader when it comes to Africa  ( see graph below). With 63 percent of the total population vaccinated, it is just below United States at 67 percent.

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[ Read: Start planning a private Morocco tour in 2021 ]

MOROCCO TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS

Since reopening of the borders in February, wearing a mask is no longer compulsory nation- wide in public spaces. The curfews have been lifted months ago. Public monuments are now open to public and Majorelle Gardens, Dar El Bacha museum, Le Jardin Secret, Maison de La Photographie or Kasbah des Oudayas ( most privately- owned tourist attractions) have been  open since 2021.  Most of our partner guest houses, riads, desert camps and eco lodges are now open.

Jemaa El Fna square Marrakech                                                                                                   Jemaa El Fna square, Marrakech 

MOROCCO TRAVEL ADVICE:

# The Global Terrorism Index measures the impact of terrorism in 162 countries. To account for the lasting effects of terrorism, each country is given a score that represents a five year weighted average. On this index, Syria ranks #5, United States ranks # 28 and Morocco ranks #76 out of 163 countries: https://www.visionofhumanity.org/maps/global-terrorism-index/#/

# In 2019, just before the onset of the pandemic, Marrakech made the Trip Advisor's Top 10 Choice destinations in the world, after having already made the list in 2015;

# The US State Department lauded Morocco’s “comprehensive” counter-terrorism strategy, underlining the country’s adherence to human rights standards and the increased transparency of law enforcement procedures. Among other things, the report states that: “in the past decade, Morocco has focused on upgrading mosques, promoting the teaching of relatively moderate Islam"

# On the map below crafted by International SOS, you can appreciate that Morocco is faring quite well when it comes to the assessment of threats posed by political violence, social unrest, pandemic impact, violent and domestic petty crimes, sharing the same security risk as Spain or France and most of Europe;

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ANY FURTHER TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS IN MOROCCO ?

We can not foretell the future, but since the onset of the Covid pandemic, this October 2022 feels like the closest to normality we've been in the last 30 months, with a complete removal of entry requirements. With the opening of the land borders with Spain, the discarding of the nightly curfew and the restarting of the tourism services along with most flights from Europe and the US, we find it highly unlikely for Morocco to backtrack. If not for any other reason, the population of Marrakech, a city close to 2 million inhabitants that we've called home for the last 16 years, has been tremendously impacted by the disappearance of tourism overnight and is finally seeing some light at the end of the tunnel. Nevertheless, we encourage you to purchase travel insurance to cover any eventuality. 

Trekking High Atlas in December

MOROCCO BEST TIME TO VISIT

Update 1.10.2022: We're seeing a lot of bookings for Christmas and New Years Eve and some partner hotels are already fully booked during certain dates. It appears you'd wish to book outside winter holidays to avoid crowds. We'll keep this paragraph updated.

Perhaps it has never been a better time of year to book a Morocco holiday. Avoid the crowds: At the moment, it's October and Morocco is bursting with tourists. Figures are even above what a regular October would be, which is regulary high season. To relish seeing Morocco without rubbing shoulders with dozens other visitors, the best option is booking a Morocco private tour to include a lot of travel to remote, off- the- beaten- track areas, such as Draa Valley, the Sahara desert or the Gorges of Dades. No chance there of being jostled. 

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Discounted rates and flexible cancellation terms: It is no secret to anyone that everyone working in tourism in Morocco has toiled and strained from March 2020 until now, from the spontaneous food stalls on Jemaa El Fna square to the booking department of uber- luxury hotels such as La Mamounia or Royal Mansour. Therefore, you are likely to be offered last minute and/ or early- bird discounts, part of a nation wide effort to attract tourists back and ensure a more than necessary money flow to a depleted trade.

Help local populations: The pandemic has hit everyone, indeed, but unevenly. Before the pandemic, populations in remote areas of Morocco, where climate change and rural exodus are contributing to social inequalities were helped by the slight, yet constant passage of visitors. The few teas with the nomads, guided tours, bread- baking classes and the like helped making ends meet. These populations living on a day to day basis are currently the most affected. Each of us can make a small difference in our own way by inspiring people to travel again to those areas. 

Sunset over Marrakech palm grove                                                                                                             Sunset over palm grove

We've all been through a lot in the last couple of years. I can't think of a better place to put it all behind, than the top of a dune in the Sahara, soaking in the oceans of saffron- couloured sand, while the sun rises on the horizon. Here is to a 2023 full of hope and traveling to that once- in- a- lifetime destination.

 © Sun Trails 2022. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

Wednesday, 06 April 2022 12:40

The Sheltering Still

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" He deems the Wild the sweetest of friends, and travels on where travels above him the Mother of all the clustered stars"

It is early afternoon, under this tree, a fig tree pitched here on the bank of this wide sandy river bed, dry - how many centuries, (millennia ?) no water had surfaced ?, the valley commanded by dozens of thousand- foot high vertical Sphynxes of cragged polished limestone, burnished by winds and strewn with cavities, some of them convenient shelters for shepherds and their herds when weather turns mean, others most certainly filled with gauche scribblings their candid ancestors scrawled. The day is still young. A golden tinge blankets the bluffs.

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A few hundred yards upriver a stone hovel graces the traveler, neatly patched and wind proof against the intermittent gusts - I had withstood their wuthering myself one quaint night, last spring. Today is not that windy: the fig and its shade lured me in its bower and, save the morning canter up to the pass, the only spot for a dose of 4G connection, a day of unwinding is currently unfolding. Or so is the plan.

Since I left Smougen, the hamlet on the other side of the mountains, yesterday, the only beings crossed my paths were a gazelle and a camel, munching on the crown of an argan tree, no owner in site - no humans. Yesterday brought a lucky find - rain water having filled some flinty hollows, thus procuring me the strictly necessary for a camping a- la- belle- etoile. After a night sleep under millions of stars in a rocky river bed hardly 20 feet wide, luck was not going to last forever and thus, after breakfast, I made to the well. 

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                                     Rain water always comes handy

When the breeze is not blowing, the silence feels overwhelming, unbearable, unfamiliar. As the shades stretch and the breeze picks up, only a cheeky magpie keeps me company. If someone wished to hide a treasure, one could hardly think of a more appropriate place. And why not ? After all, the caravans laden with gold and slaves from beyond the ocean of sand, would make their way up to the courts of Marrakech or Fes, on routes not far from here. After all, Akka... I digress.

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                                       Puffing but still working

A mere 24 hours earlier, a 1982 deep blue- ish Mercedes Cobra Combi was screeching, puffing and twisting up the bends that banked the pass of Tizi Amanouz, leaving behind Tafraoute and its drizzle and cold. Some of the hair pin curbs requested the venerable Teutonic vehicle and its driver to engage first gear. On board, Mohamed, an octagerian, his second wife and the undersigned ( quietly pondering over the point of having a seat belt secured at all), engaged in a half witty and half lost-in-translation conversation with subjects ranging from the name of the sites passing by, a house to be sold ( very good location - next to the road ! ( sic) and the worryingly increasing price of gasoline. Well, if nothing else: the proof to universal and trans- cultural values... As I assisted Mohammed to figure out the deleted digits on his mobile phone, in between gear shifts, we finally managed to get through the bends, my phone number recorded and reached the fork where I ejected myself from the less than safe contraption.

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My second hitch hike for the morning was certainly more recent and I could have attested to the conveniences of such, should I have occupied a seat. All seats being occupied, I was relegated to the trunk. After all it's the destination that matters, not the way there, right ? Not so long later I was in the tranquil hamlet of Smougen, having tea with Hussein, the village sheikh, a former acquaintance of mine, in his lounge, in the middle of renovation works, among heaps of cement bags, both brands equally enticing: 'Choix Economique' and 'Ciment Gazelle'. One glass of tea turned two and three and I was getting the itch. You guessed it, it was FRIDAY AFTERNOON.

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                                 Wax lava

So when the trap was set, I was ready: I excused myself firmly yet politely from a couscous knoll that would have otherwise curtailed all likelihood of getting myself up the 1000 feet that separated me from the first brow of the range. Formalities concluded, I was finally able to take up the slope through the crannies and nooks of the old village and get my pulse up to speed, stopping for the panorama up there on the top of the mesa. The strain on my shoulders was somewhat compensated by the constant reassurance that I should be fine for a week, should I lose my way or break a leg - after all, I was looking forward to a little bit of remoteness.

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                       The fig, the well and the giant

Presently, the two rows of giants lining the deep gorge stand out like two opposing armies facing each other. A falcon sprouts from the between the bluff walls, in the distance, august, stately, appearing not bothered to flap once, floating effortlessly upon the air, vanishing just as stealthily. It's morning and I ventured up on one of the banks of the canyon, to catch a better view at the myriad of caves dug out ( man -assisted ? naturally ? ) within the sheer precipices further up. The higher half of the range is already crimsoned by the ascending sun with its glow, and the still air foretells heat - a hot day ahead.


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                                         The trail at its most visible and softest

Breakfast concluded, back pack ready, I set out towards west, right into the gorges, divining the trail as I advance, the ravine bending its way, the sun relentless. A shepherd boy and his father cross my route - I'm on the right track, they say. Natural pools of crystal clear water ? Where one can drink thereof ? How can that be the within walking distance from this barren kingdom of calcified, tawny rock, the only stain of green, the accidental argan tree ? And yet, that's my destination for the afternoon. But wait ! Ahead of me I glance specks moving in the distance.

image00068                             Setting up for mint tea

The gruelling ascent is colored by catching up with the yester shepherds and their 800 or so goat herd, right after coming out of the gorges onto a rubble plateau. For a while I walk behind the oldest of them, his rubber sandals occasionally flicking away a stone from the barely visible track. We come across a family of stray camels. They stop after noon and in a few minutes a fire is cropped up and tea is brewing. After two glasses of tea, I'm headed west as they head north, with the firm instruction that I should follow the oued and not stray once. For the next couple of hours, I'm plodding along this underground river, its only trace the sandy riverbed overgrown with shrubs, argan trees and reeds, crossing occasionally cairns and stone hovels.

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                                   Um, the trail... sometimes

All of a sudden, a change of scenery takes place - how familiar this feels... I can feel it in my gut that the natural pools, the gueltas, are just round the next bend. And then they happen. Not just see- through sweet water pure enough to drink, but tinged with shades of green moss and sky blue, the breeze pulling a minute swell on the surface, divine. The urge of diving right in, clothes- on. For the next hour or so, pool after pool succeed each other, each one more alluring than the previous, until I reach a wide opening where the sheer scarp on the bank of the canyon is broken in layers of rock formations, like rows of sarcophagi. Or just my imagination drifting... Like I said: it's hot. At the plinth, a natural stoop buttresses the wall, a stone table and seats laid out in front of caves dug in. After a hefty dinner and a camp fire that feels like a pageant, I linger on to watch the stars reflected in the pool below while throughout the night an orchestra of frogs weaves a constant cacophony.

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                             Good to drink. Seriously

What gave shape to these rocks ? Why did the source surface here of all places ? Inside the cave, snuggled in my sleeping bag, I fall into sleep's thrall, questions unanswered. Dawn sets among a hazy sky: the amphibians are silent now. The track this morning follows for a few hours over a monotonous plateau, the serrated crest on the horizon my main reference, to finally conclude with a descent into sublime gorges. The union of ash- shaded cliffs within the gully shrinking, palms, reeds and shrubs and natural pools where small fish swarmed was beguiling to eyes and feet sated with hours and days of stone deserts.

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                       Yes, you can dive in

Under the lofty argan tree shading a natural glade, Rachid, my local guide cobbles up a picnic salad crowned by endless rounds of mint and absinth tea. There are 4 of us now and it feels like a crowd. We slumber for a while beyond the rocks swayed by the stream's gurgling. Later, we descend upon the village, past walls where lava has frozen in time like candle wax, piles of scree and through the palms swaying insouciantly in the breeze, under the bluff bracing the century old granary commanding the rift. Then, a house. A room, a bed, a table, a shower: and I'm delivered back to the world. Or at least convenience.

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                            No cable TV tonight

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Wednesday, 21 April 2021 13:55

Dar Ahlam - the house of dreams

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Are you planning your honeymoon in Morocco ? Or wish to experience sensations you never experienced when staying in a hotel before ?

Then, this is the place. But let's start with the beginning. 19 years ago, a man had a dream. He had fallen in love with Morocco and aspired to create a place where his guests would stay, yet as remote an experience from a hotel as possible. Having previously worked with actors and film- sets, he dreamt of a place that would shun away from all the flaws afflicting a typical guest- ouse and instead create a world of emotions, magic, where there is no limits as to how much you can surprise your guests. Thus Dar Ahlam, the House of Dreams, was born. From the opening, it set new heights, established itself as one of the most exclusive addresses in Morocco and continues to inspire those of us that believe that traveling is much hmore than a brick- and- mortar, 9 to 5 affair. Meals, experiences and room settings are constantly reinvented, which renders irrelevant the question when is it best to visit Morocco. Over the years, a few of Sun Trails' guests stayed here while on a private tour - not only the exclusivity comes with a price tag, but one needs time and a certain mindset to enjoy the unique concept. We also wanted to ask more pertinent questions such as how different will traveling be in a world post- travel bans and Covid restrictions or how can tourism empower local communities. To answer these questions and demystify some of Dar Ahlam's charm ( only just... ), we had the pleasure to interview Thierry Teyssier, the man with the dream.

Jardin dhiver 7 

Sun Trails: You opened Dar Ahlam in 2002. Back then, there wasn't much happening outside Marrakech and Fes in terms of luxury and original properties. Why Skoura and would you do it differently now, that 20 years have gone by ?

Thierry Teyssier: Absolutely not. I would do it again the same way. Although 20 years ago Marrakech was paradise compared to today and you had 40- 50 guest- houses open ( as opposed to more than 2000 in 2021), with beautiful villas in the Palmgrove and riads in the medina, the Palmgrove nowadays is not a palm grove anymore, but just a large condominium.

{ Discover our tailor made private Morocco itineraries that include one or two nights at Dar Ahlam }

ST: Why not Tafraoute, Taroudant, Meknes or somewhere else rather than Skoura ?

TT: I wanted to be in the middle of nature. I wasn't particularly stuck on Skoura, but people around me told me about it. Fint ( Oasis of Fint) was more known, but since Skoura was on the way to Dades Gorges and Roses Valley, they said: 'You should go and have a look'. It turns out one day in mid- April, I was scouting for locations not far away and so we decided to go and look and when I arrived on site, it was very beautiful: all the plants were in bloom, the water was gurgling in the seguias, the sun was setting, birds singing in the trees - it was really paradise. So I told myself: It has to be here !

ST: I can relate to that in the way that I had passed by Skoura a few times on the way to the desert and wondered from my bus window what hides behind the palm trees. The day I found out, I realized how much I had missed.

TT: It's true. Nobody used to stop. I think with the opening of Dar Ahlam, many people started to enquire about Skoura, even when not staying with us. And that lead to many other guest houses sprouting around the palm grove. I'm very proud to have been part of it.

Dîner à lherboristerie

ST: What would you have done differently, now that 20 years have gone by ? Added more rooms, removed a few ? What exactly ?

TT: I would have created smaller houses and I would have created an itinerary throughout the nearby villages. Something to include the local communities so that they understand the impact of tourism. So instead of the Dar Ahlam we have today, spread on a few hectares inside the palmgrove of Skoura, have several smaller units spread over a wider area, for there are so many stunning little villages here in the south of Morocco that people should tour. Like we do with the Memory Road ( further south) but adapt it to the villages close to the High Atlas.

ST: So, sort of focus more on itinerant experiences rather than all in one site ?

TT: Absolutely.

{ Book a stay at Dar Ahlam as part of a private tailor made Morocco itinerary }

ST: Your house offers 14 rooms, 7 in the kasbah and 7 around the garden. You employ a staff of around 100, which speaks volumes about the attention to the detail. Did you have this in mind before starting the project or is it something that imposed itself once the property was open ?

TT: We didn't have any numbers in mind. You see, we start with the guest. I know I wanted to offer special experiences, different set- ups, sceneries so you, the guest, can live a special moment. With that in mind, we then had to decide how many staff have to be involved so we can deliver on that promise. There are also restrictions from outside, on which we have no control. Some flights arrive in Ouarzazate at 1H30 AM, so guests would arrive around 2 AM at the guest house. Other flights leave at 7 AM which means guests will have to leave here around 5 AM. All this implies that we have no choice but to offer a 24 hour a day, 7 days a week service. So several shifts, hence the large numbers of our staff.

Argan

ST: How does your previous experience in event planning relate to what you want to offer at Dar Ahlam ?

TT: Well, I have a background in working with actors, so the mises- en- scene are important to me. It wasn't like I thought: 'I'm going to change the world of hospitality' or be 20 years in advance on everyone else. You know, I have 4 kids and I used to travel with them when they were little. Four kids are a nightmare, for the staff and for the other guests. So, along my travels, I used to write down what I disliked in terms of service and how much I detest hospitality protocols . I then tried to find solutions for these issues. The problem is hoteliers stay focused on their own organizational problems instead of being at your service. Put the traveller first. Start with that. Look, I think check in at 4 PM is not acceptable. If you arrive at 5 AM in a location, and you want your bedroom, they'll tell you: 'Oh, you should have booked an extra night'. That's nonsense.

ST: So, you mean, perhaps reverting to the old meaning of word 'hospitality' and not come at it from an industry point of view.

TT: Yes.

 

ST: When you describe Dar Ahlam, it says somewhere: 'No one is around' What do you mean ? There is literally no one around or actually there is someone, but you'll only see them when you need them ?

TT: That is partly true. What I meant is that we do our utmost for you to share privacy and where you are, there are no other guests around. We don't have any 'public spaces' here, like bars, restaurants, etc. You come stay with us on a Morocco with children holiday. You can also be on a Morocco honeymoon or a romantic getaway. You'll always be guaranteed privacy. I want every guest to enjoy an exclusive moment here, with us.

ST: Is it easy to mitigate all these different guests and personalities, especially at busy periods ?

TT: Well, that's what we are good at. We have so many choices around here. Look, you can stay with us for 2 weeks and never have lunch or dinner in the same spot or the same recipes.

ST: 'Modern comforts and necessary technologies' Would you care to comment on that ?

TT: When you come to the south of Morocco, in the middle of nowhere, you need to have the minimum: hot showers, air conditioning, heating, heated pool, high speed internet. We have 4 different contracts with internet providers to make sure you get the best connection available in Morocco.

OndineSimon un dîner sous les étoiles

ST: What can you sample from the palm grove of Skoura and how 'organic' is that ?

TT: For the last 20 years we had our own orchard, without no chemicals to help plants grow. We also have two other orchards outside the guesthouse, to complement that. Moreover, we collaborate with local producers. Every single morning, you can go inside the kitchen and see the team, mostly local women taking to the orchard with the chef and deciding on the spot what lunch that day will consist of. Just one example, your green salad in your starter dish will be plucked just one hour before lunch. You can't imagine how fresh that tastes. One of our former chefs has retired recently. We paid him 6 months wage just to stay at home, his home and work on his garden so he can produce veggies for us that we then bought off him.

ST: Dar Ahlam was branded a hotel that will 'change your life'. Do you think that still holds true nowadays, post travel bans and restrictions ?

TT: Yes, more than ever. Because you need to reconnect with real roots. Travel, post- pandemic, will rebecome essential. It will also be different. It's not going to be sipping a cocktail by a pool, or any other such trifle you can have anywhere in the world. Here at Dar Ahlam, you are connected with local people and enjoy real experiences. A couple of Americans that left this morning, told us that during the pandemic they started to enjoy traveling to more hidden, off- the- beaten- places and that Dar Ahlam was just that.

ST: Yes, well, it's always tricky as to where you do you stop 'innovating' and where do you start minding about the local community and how your actions impact on the local ecosystem. It's a fine balance.

TT: It's true. At Dar Ahlam, we try and be mindful of that. When we hire our staff, we try and spread out evenly, thus we employ only one person per family, to make sure that as many families as possible can benefit. We invested in a water recycling system so we can save water and not use more than we need. We started to work with a glass recycling plant in Marrakech. We work with local women cooperatives. We have two main issues in Skoura: trash recycling and water management. Then it's also about changing mentalities: growing water melons in water- scarce regions is nothing short of a catastrophe. Add to that less rain in the last 10 years. We need to try and adapt and find solutions.

Pressoir 1

ST: Your guesthouse has inspired many other around Morocco, in the sense of offering more experiences, creating surprises and cherishing memories. Morocco also has the advantage of the year- round good weather and such a diverse landscape.

TT: It's true and that's where I think things are headed for in hospitality. And you don't have to give it the luxury coating. It can be simple, yet powerful.

ST: Well, I think you are right. On our private Morocco tours, I'm often worried about the details but sometimes guests are moved by small things. They could be in a great location in the middle of nowhere, having a snack with canned tuna and La Vache Qui Rit cheese and for them it would be the highlight of their trip.

TT: ( Laughs) Well, with us we change LVQR with fresh goat cheese and herbs complemented with freshly baked bread, but the experience is the same. And that's the DNA for the years to come.

ST: What can guests expect from the cuisine of Dar Ahlam ?

TT: I like the chefs to rotate because I want to train my team and second of all, sometimes simplicity is the hardest to achieve. Look, if you spend 10 days in Morocco, tagine every day couscous every day... stop it. I just want a green salad and fresh veggies, but not cooked into a tagine with heaps of oil. I've been here continuously for 6 months and the first person to suggest to me a vegetarian tagine, I'll probably kill him. We are constantly improving. For instance, you can have a tomato salad, but instead of a dressing you will have a Savora mustard ice cream on top. So the ice cream becomes the dressing. That's one of the examples of what we like to do here. We do certainly serve meat, we are not limiting ourselves to vegetarian. We also have a great fish supplier from Marrakech and so you can sample some choice fish dishes here. We innovate, but always using local produce. The only exception to that is chocolate. That one we need to import, there's no way around it. We also produce our own in- house spice mix, that you can sprinkle ready- made on your fresh vegetables.

Pressoir 2

ST: How do you justify the price which is north of 1000 euros per night, to stay at Dar Ahlam ?

TT: Well, we don't sell bedrooms here. And to stay just one night, it doesn't make sense. If you consider us merely a hotel, I'd say don't stay here. You will be disappointed. I prefer you go to a nearby guest house. Some people have this idea of staying at Dar Ahlam on their way to the desert, to break down the distance. If you arrive here at 5 PM and leave next morning after breakfast, you'll completely miss what this place is about. So, you know what ? Don't stay here ! We don't sell nights here. We sell an exclusive moment. Regarding the price, it is true that rates may seem high, but compare this to some top hotels in Marrakech and you will see that you may come out more expensive there, because they only sell you the room. Add the meals and drinks, add the guided tours, add the private transport, the airport transfers and it's going come out a lot more in the end. More than with Dar Ahlam.

ST: For me it's the surprise factor. Having my next meal in the middle of some sumptuous gorges, with no one else around, with perhaps a bottle of wine and private waiter is something you can't put a price on.

TT: 100 percent correct. And my goal is to keep things as secretive as possible. Of course, we've been around for 20 years and we had quite a few magazine covers, but ideally I'd like to keep it intimate. A tip you give your best friends. I would hate to have to refuse booking requests. To have a full house most of the time. Simple address, very sophisticated in details, but not for everyone. I prefer you as a travel agent to send us guests twice a year, but the right kind of guests. And we decided to stop offering bookings of just one night. Even 2 nights is short if you think about it, but it's really a minimum.

Dîner au Hammam

ST: You decided years ago to set up an ephemeral luxury desert camp close to Foum Zguid, not too far from the dunes of Erg Chigaga. Why not Erg Chebbi, where most of the Morocco luxury camps are located ?

TT: Because there is no one there, next to the dry Iriki Lake. We don't operate a permanent camp. There will be only you, by yourself. We don't want to be next to one hundred other camps. Some time ago, another camp arrived next to us and so we moved further away.

ST: Can you talk about the DAEM and 700.000 heures projects ?

TT: Well, instead of the usual green washing and saying 'we are going to help the community', in the south of Morocco we decided to go all in and do something together with the whole community. We're going to rent rooms in the village, it's an abandoned village, it's a partnership with the association Les Gardiens de la Mémoire of David and Salima and the village and we will sponsor refurbishing public houses, so that the ancient village can return to life. For every single dirham given to a family we will also give one to the association, so that even those villagers that don't own a house can benefit from this project. We will organize workshops and work with the local women. We will need palm trees. The local maalems will be in charge of the work. A team to rebuild the village, one to work the wood, one to clean the palm grove, we'll also try and create something sustainable in terms of small scale agriculture. The purpose is to get as much of the community as possible involved. We'll also have spaces for children inside the old village. There will be no electricity, no water pipes, we'll try out traditional ways, low- tech.

ST: If you are talking about Tiskmoudine, I will be there in a few days and can't wait to see the progress of the work.

TT: Yes, it is Tiskmoudine and of course, I encourage you to go and see for yourself, but keep in mind it's a work in progress and we hope to see it finished in September.

OndineSimon la forge

ST: How can we, as actors of tourism, make a difference in the local community, spurring cultural exchange, without commodifying the local ways and also making sure that local communities don't grow to rely only on tourism as a source of income ?

TT: Well, presently, given the pandemic and the travel restrictions, it's quite hard for them because they don't have much to live on. What we are doing is a trial and error, so even if we make mistakes, we'll amend them. The best part is that since the funds go to the association of the village, they get to decide what to do with them. Do we want to have an ambulance ? Do we want to pay the bills for the poorest families in the village ? Our interests are aligned. And if one party doesn't play fair, the effects will be felt immediately. And having Global Heritage Fund onboard will also help with the redistribution.

ST: What probably will make a big difference is transparency. If, as you say, the effect of not following through is immediately visible, it will act as a deterrent and will hopefully stoke local people to make the best of this collaboration.

TT: Indeed.

ST: How did your vision about your projects changed with the pandemic and the Morocco travel bans ?

Déjeuner dans une vieille casbah 1

TT: Well, we've got some delays with our 700.000 hours project but our travel club is working as scheduled and very demanded. We are focused more on Europe and Morocco, particularly the project in Tiskmoudine. We have our portfolio of faithful guests and they will follow us wherever we open new initiatives.

ST: What is the location you feel most fond of in Morocco and what is the most essential aspect of traveling ?

TT: In Morocco, it's got to be the south of Morocco. This impression of being in a different country every few hours. The local communities and cultures. From Guelmine, Tata, Akka. Tafraoute, perhaps too, but a little too touristy.  The most important part to travel is meeting people within their own culture. That's what tourism industry missed on and damaged many parts of the world. First, one needs to empower the local people to understand what they have as a heritage, as a culture. Second, you need to explain to the guest what they are going to witness and how they will interact with the area. Three, you need to connect them. Traveling is not about the destination, but opening your eyes on the world and its magic. When one travels, he should spend the least time inside his room. What is there to discover next to the swimming pool ?

ST: Thank you Thierry and thank you, Stephanie.

Une tente berbère dans le jardin

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