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Reviews of Holidays and Hotels in Morocco - Castles In The Sand

The Telegraph, 19 July 2001

Castles in the sand

Hidden in the High Atlas are some of Morocco's most tempting hotels, where guests seeking a retreat from the cities are entertained in style, says Barnaby Rogerson

THERE has never been a better time to visit Morocco. As well as an upbeat domestic political situation, the country has an ever-expanding number of exceptional hotels. Many of the new boutique hotels in the cities are already well documented, but we have selected a mixture of new or recently opened accommodation - plus some old favourites - south of the High Atlas mountains, from the Atlantic coast to the desert sand dunes.

Hotel des Cascades

On the western edge of the High Atlas, the Hotel des Cascades can only be reached on a 30-mile single-track mountain road, which climbs from sub-tropical banana groves, through palm trees, up to an altitude that supports olives, argan and thuja trees. The sunsets from the hotel's terrace are stunning. Range after range of foothills are backlit as the sun slowly sinks through a cleft in the mountains and into the sea.

At dusk, the scent from the garden terraces, especially when the lily bed is in bloom, is intoxicating. Everything, the roses, figs and cascades of hanging pink geranium, is fed by fresh mountain water.

The small village of Immouzer des Ida Outanane nearby - little more than a hamlet enlivened by a Thursday market - is celebrated throughout Morocco for its honey. This, supplemented by home-made jams, fresh-baked breads and traditional pancakes, makes breakfast a special treat.

Explore the well-farmed Berber valleys of the hotel's rustic hinterland, made all the more accessible by the energy of the proprietor, Jamal Atbir Eddine, who has converted his grandfather's kasbah and a mountain bothy into hospitable bases for a picnic or an overnight trekking stop. The pool is perfect for those who like swimming in Scotland. More fastidious types might find the mountain water too refreshingly cool.

Palais Salaam

Taroudannt has never needed any publicity. The younger, smaller sister of Marrakesh, it has none of the great architectural monuments or museums of its great sibling but is rewarded with about 95 per cent of her tourism figures. What it shares with Marrakesh is a fine market and a splendid circuit of medieval walls set against the backdrop of the High Atlas, which can all be explored in a horse-drawn carriage from the Palais Salaam.

he hotel occupies a 19th-century palace abutting the walls. It is an intriguing labyrinth of courtyards, pools and gardens, and has three categories of rooms. The oldest rooms, dark, cool spaces filled with painted furniture, are about a third of the price of the spacious modern suites with their international look and Hilton-like plumbing. In the evening arrange to have your meal in the garden, but beware of casting your comments about your neighbours in too loud a voice. A French guidebook warns its readers that the hotel guests are tres anglais.

Hotel Rosa Damaskina

Ouarzazate, pronounced warz azat, looks hopelessly romantic on the printed page but has been disappointing visitors for years. When passing through, lunch is best taken out of town on the rooftop of the Tifoultoutte kasbah amid the crumbling merlons and storks' nests. Supper is best consumed in the centre of town at the tables of Chez Dimitri, not so much for the quality of the cooking as for communing with the ghosts of all the travellers and Foreign Legionnaires who have drunk there since it first opened in 1928.

East of Ouarzazate stretches the Dades oasis valley, a strip bed of river-fed cultivation set between arid mountain slopes. The clarity of light and the startling contrast between the sun-baked mountain rocks and the iridescent green valley are sublime. It is inhabited by skilful and hard-working Berber tribes, celebrated for their textiles, earth-built architecture, music, agriculture and cooking.

These virtues can be tested and tasted at the Hotel Rosa Damaskina , a modest auberge-restaurant just a few miles west of El Kelaa des Mgouna, run by Jean Pierre, an expatriate French chef. It is tucked into the hillside with a seductive view over the oasis gardens from the rose-strewn terrace. Hotel Rosa has only a few bedrooms, all spotlessly clean and boasting some gorgeous tiled bathrooms. The sitting room boasts a notable cascade of bright embroideries and cushions scattered over the sofas. In autumn, this is lit by a roaring fire.

Dinner is served outside on the terrace to the background noise of the irrigation streams. On my last visit, we were offered a four-course dinner, with a choice of 10 different entrees, for about ???8. Breakfast (freshly baked bread, freshly squeezed orange juice, aromatic coffee and a fluffy omelette made from golden eggs) is equally undercharged. It makes a near perfect stop-over and those with the wit will use it to explore the kasbahs of Skoura and the High Atlas trails north of El Kelaa.

Le Timbuctoo

Heading just an hour or two east is the small market town of Tinerhir, beloved by Moroccans for the cool (cool by Saharan standards, that is) winds that blow down through the gorges from the mountains.

There is no shortage of small characterful hotels in this region but Le Timbuctoo has the edge. A converted kasbah overlooking the green banks of the oasis, it has just 14 bedrooms: the Catalan patron presides over a dinner, where the culinary influences range from southern Morocco to Barcelona.

Auberge Kasbah Derkaoua

Sunrise over the sand dunes of the Erg Chebbi, which occupies Morocco's south-east corner, is the reason most travellers visit this part of the country. The Japanese sit in neat rows on the crests of a distant dune and bow almost imperceptibly to the rising sun before delving into the sand with cotton gloves and filling plastic bags with golden grains. The Italians look the most elegant, in windblown desert veils, but often chatter and photograph each other so happily together that they miss the actual sunrise. Americans do the dawn in style, with camels, black tents and well-paid Moroccan guides who sing out a haunting call to dawn prayer.

The French feel most at home and like to ski or sandboard down the slopes or assault them with a rally. The English are badly dressed and tend to look glum and irritable, though two days later they will wax lyrical about the experience or be inspired to write verse or paint pictures.

The Auberge Kasbah Derkaoua resolutely turns its back on the dunes and is gently cultivated by a small wadi with gushing artesian water. It is beloved by diplomats and resident expatriates who stay here for the almost monastic level of calm. It is one of Morocco's most distinguished hotels, not opulent, but delicately restrained.

A small, low-level hotel (named after the crumbling ruins of an old Sufi guesthouse), it is built of traditional mud bricks with window frames and doors picked out in green. There is a small irrigation tank in which to cool off, and various tents, shady benches and pavilions in which to shelter from the sun in the heat of the day.

Lunch is a minimal affair with most of the guests asleep, exploring or having popped to the post office - just 16 miles of dirt track to Erfoud. Dinner, however, is a tremendous event, served under the stars with great panache. Michel, the proprietor, works his way round the tables with a grey parrot on his shoulder, chatting to the guests in any language that is required. He is a true French Saharan, the son and grandson of colonels of the camel corps, who has spent the bulk of his life teaching Tuareg children in central Algeria.

When I last stayed there, he was nursing an ancient bedraggled sheep called Noel and building a tower with a bathroom and a sitting room as an annex to one of the rooms. I asked why he was breaking with the otherwise rigorous simplicity of his rooms. It is for the King, he said. He has got so bored with ambassadors praising my hotel that he is determined to come here and look for himself.