|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 4x4 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?
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, Henri Matisse. Who are these characters and what is the relation with Azalai Lodge?
|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 ?
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?
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?
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).
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?
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.
construction and is located on a wild Atlantic beach ( Update 2022: Azalai Beach Cottage has been up and running for the last 5 years now) .
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.
© Sun Trails 2022. All rights reserved. No part of this interview 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. Translated from French by C. Martinus.
Azalai Desert Lodge, ZagoraWritten by Cristian
Published in boutique hotel of the month