In the shade of the eucalyptus, I am just about to finish my lunch with a fresh mellon- infused home made ice- cream and a glass of what the owner of the house calls a ‘citronnade’: a freshly squeezed lemon juice mixed with mint, sugar and lots of water, served frozen. Nothing more refreshing given the outside temperatures as September is still lingering about. Yet nothing more uncommon within this palmgrove, a world unto its own- 300 km south of Marrakech, where the usual desert is dates and mint tea. I can’t decide whether to go for an afternoon nap or take a plunge in the inviting pool. Set in the middle of what some say to be the largest palmgrove on earth, Azalai Desert Lodge Zagora is a luxury guest house where only the architecture and decor is modern. The hospitality is altogether from a different age. Nothing forced or artificial in the attitude of Khouloud and Bouchaib, the young couple of owners who share their passion for the desert and travel with their guests. They have the gift of immediately making you feel like an old friend, on a repeat visit. Bouchaib is an architect and Khouloud holds a master degree in business management. Together they created something altogether different: the Moroccan hospitality and warmth complemented by a chic design, 5 star service and attention to detail. I can’t help but wonder: why hasn’t anyone done this before? Perhaps because Zagora is often thought of just as an overnight stop for the 4×4 tours of Morocco going to or coming from the Sahara. Azalai is there to prove them wrong. Khouloud was kind enough to unveil some of the secrets behind this success story for us.
Sun Trails: How did you come upon the idea ( of opening a guest house) and why Zagora ?
Khouloud Belkahia: It all started on a trip with friends, we literally fell in love with the palm grove. There were several options available to us: either take on an existing structure or create a guest house from scratch. We assumed that the latter option was the best, so that we make sure to offer guests the comfort that we wanted to. The location
is very important and the palm grove of Zagora was the perfect choice for that.
ST: Do you see Azalai Lodge as a hotel or rather a guest house? Why? KB: Azalai Lodge is above all a guest house. Having a small number of rooms allows us to offer a smooth service and to deal personally with each of our guests. That makes them feel like staying in a friends’ house and having a luxury hotel comfort.
ST: In the area of Zagora there are quite
a few guesthouses, but you’re the only ones who have chosen a rather colonial- chic design despite the typical choice where adobe is the main ingredient. What do your guests think?
KB: Our guests are always pleasantly surprised to find a place “beyond fashion and time” in the middle of the palm grove. They never imagine that when stepping through the main gate, they will be transported into another era.
ST: You have named your suites/ rooms: Paul Bowles, Saint- Exupery, HenriMatisse. Who are these characters and what is the relation with Azalai Lodge? KB: We wanted to pay tribute to those characters who all have the love of travelling in common and their visit to Morocco helped them enrich their travel diaries. By creating this spirit ” Gentleman Traveler ” found in the rooms and suites , we introduce our guests to the work of each of these : Théodore Monod and his herbarium of 1927, room Henri Matisse contains brushes and paint, in the suite Saint Exupéry an airplane wing is suspended from the ceiling…
ST: When I stayed with you last, I tried your cuisine and found that your dishes were quite tasty but different from the Moroccan dishes typically served in restaurants in Morocco. Are these secrets from the cuisine of yesteryear? Grandma’s recipes? Who inspires you in the kitchen?
KB: I guess I wanted to get a little out of the ordinary by providing a Moroccan cuisine somewhat forgotten, but with a personal touch that will set us apart and appeal to our
guests. I am permanently inspired by recipes from my mother and my grandmother. I realized while doing some research that Moroccan cuisine is really a heritage to preserve. For instance, in Safi ( on the Atlantic coast) who was under Portuguese rule for many years, there is a mini cake in the shape of Cupcake called “Massappane”. You will never find this in pastry stores- it is an old recipe handed down from mother to daughter. Interestingly enough, the word is Portuguese at its origin: “Massa Pao.” Our guests are equally surprised when served eggplant jam or a potato- based brioche.
ST: Tell us a little about your career. Have you ever had a previous experience in the hotel business? And what is that takes most of your
energy at Azalai ? What fulfills you the most?
KB: I have a degree in hospitality and a master’s degree in business management. The setting up of Azalai Lodge coincided with the end of my studies. I found myself immediately immersed in an exciting job, which requires a lot of being present, focus and leaving nothing to chance. We put all our energy into fulfilling the dreams and wishes of our guests. These people that come to stay with us and escape. Our greatest satisfaction
is to help them make their dreams come true. Because above all, the desert makes one dream.
ST: Knowing that you are born and have lived on the Atlantic coast, how do you get along in Zagora where climate and landscapes are so different? Was it easy to adapt?
KB: I admit that the change was radical, but I adapted without problems! The conditions for
work are ideal, especially since it’s always sunny and the dry climate of the region is excellent for one’s health.
ST: Where do your guests come from? Which nationalities do you get best along with ? KB: We receive guests from all over the world. Each guest is different and it is always a pleasure to exchange.
ST: What is there to do around Zagora? Guests stay for a few days or just spend one night on the way to the desert? KB: I recommend a bike ride or walk in the palm grove. One can also visit Ksar Tissergate , the Jewish Kasbah in Amezrou or the village of Tamegrout and its famous century- old Islamic library.
ST: You have also opened a luxury camp in the dunes of Erg Chigaga. What is the difference between a basic camp and a luxury camp in your opinion? KB: Both camps offer the same landscape. The difference is made by the service offered, the inside of the tents (i.e. furniture and appliances), the quality bedding and meals served.
ST: I heard that guests from Mamounia hotel ( in Marrakech) would come to have lunch in the desert by helicopter and return to Marrakech in the evening. It seems that soon you will be able to offer this service, by small plane. Can you give us more details?
KB: There is certainly a demand for this kind of VIP service, people who do not necessarily have the time to cross the Draa Valley by car but can’t afford to miss the magic of the desert. We do offer a picnic lunch that we call “Gentleman traveler” where a table with white tablecloth and silverware is set up in the dunes, to then offer a refined meal served under the shade of palm trees.
ST: What other future plans do you have for
Azalai Lodge? Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
KB: We have just launched Le Lodge and Villa Azalai in Marrakech and we are working on Azalai Lodge Oualidia (on the Atlantic coast). In 5 years I see myself at Azalai Zagora in the winter and in the summer at Azalai Oualidia .
ST: All the toiletries that you put at the disposal of guests are made using natural products. Tell us a bit more about this. What other steps do you take to preserve the
KB: Our skin care products are based on natural products not only for the benefit of our guests but also to preserve the environment. To this purpose, we treat wastewater to water the garden , the hot water is sun- heated, our constructions are built in local stone , we do selective sorting and no palm tree was ever cut or transplanted .
ST: What is the best time of year to visit you? Why? KB: The best time to visit us is from September to May. The weather is nice and it rarely rains. You should avoid visiting Zagora in the summer as it can get extremely hot.
ST: You told us about the other 2 Azalai guest houses in Marrakech and Oualidia. Are they similar to Azalai Lodge?
KB: The three houses have the same spirit “Desert Lodge” but not the same story. The Lodge Azalai Marrakech is a real exclusive lodge for 2 persons in the village of Oumnes, at 30 km from Marrakech.
Villa Azalai is 20km from Marrakech on the road to Lalla Takerkoust dam and is rented as a whole, for a group of friends or a large family. Azalai Oualidia Lodge is currently under
construction and is located on a wild Atlantic beach.
ST: Tell us something amazing that happened to you at Azalai Lodge with your guests.
KB: We recently witnessed a very special moment with a young English couple. The gentleman had asked us to organize a surprise birthday party in the desert for the young lady, so the ambiance was already intense: a dozen candles around a dining table on the top of a dune. The lady was so glad when she found the surprise birthday party. But not as surprised as she was when the gentleman proposed to her right there and then in the middle of the dunes. We were just as surprised as she was…
She did say yes.
Azalai Desert Lodge and Azalai Luxury Camp are currently offered on our ‘Caravans Dust’ and ‘Oases and Palm Groves’ tours as well as other tailor- made tours in the Privilege option of accommodation.
Looking for some last minute winter sun or just wish to explore the Sahara dunes without the tourists ? Book now and enjoy up to 20 % discount on our normal rates booking your tour to visit Morocco in December or January ( outside NYE holidays). Book here.
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