Reviewed by Richard Evans.
It’s all about the whumpf, for us. When it comes to choosing where to scoot off to for a break, our first bit of wanderlust chat always revolves around the question of how quickly after arriving at the hotel are we likely to experience that deep inhalation telling us that we’ve just – as someone in the Eighties first put it – taken it down a thousand.
Better-travelled pals have been celebrating the Atlas Mountains for years, saying it’s the dreamiest, most dramatic place within a few hours of London. Our heads badly craving that faraway feeling, we landed in Marrakech, and then taxied straight out; we pitched up 90 minutes later at our Berber base, Kasbah du Toubkal. Whumpf. A mere seven hours after leaving Islington.
The Kasbah isn’t your usual Smith escape, and, when we arrived, the effortlessly genial staff were at pains to make clear that this is no luxury hotel. What Kasbah du Toubkal is, is an utterly charming, very comfortable but not remotely trendy, place for us to base ourselves for a couple of days trekking in the High Atlas; what it lacks in glamour and sparkle it makes up for in warmth and authenticity. And it got right under our skin.
Located at the base of North Africa’s highest peak – Jbel Toubkal – it feels right that our temporary home’s mountain surroundings courses through the hotel’s veins. Not only do the various terraces and rooms have genuinely awesome views – snow-capped mountains on one side, and the dusty valley and ancient villages on the other – but everything from the intricately carved doors to the vibrant rugs is handmade by local craftsmen, from local materials. Well, most things – the likes of John Lewis might have had a hand in the binoculars and iPod speakers.
We stayed there just before Christmas and the evenings were bitterly cold, but looking up at the crystal-clear, Pollock-conjuring starry sky, soundtracked by call to prayer, our cockles were warmed, if not our bodies. The traditional djellabas (long, hooded robes) we found hanging up in our room, did the job of sorting out our rattling bones. Wearing them did, Mrs Smith noted, made us look a bit like mask-less marauders from the Scream franchise, but there was something decidedly comforting about putting on PJs, camouflaged by the djellaba on top, and wandering up to the restaurant for dinner (where you can bring your own wine, if you’ve remembered to buy any in Marrakech, that is).
The simple, candlelit dinner of soup and tagine was hearty and nourishing, and that, plus a fun chat with our table neighbours, who’d just returned from a mammoth trek, meant Mrs Smith went to bed feeling well-prepped for a trek of our own the following day, while I was still reeling from the revelation that tonight marked her inaugural public PJ episode. She’s never even done a pajama’d Sunday morning milk and papers dash.
When we set off at 8am, North Faced-up to the nines, the mountains felt like ours – there wasn’t another soul about. After a few minutes of 40-a-day-style breathing difficulties as we adjusted to the altitude, the trek was a breeze, and we reached the summit way ahead of schedule. Abdool, our lovely guide, was so impressed, that, after a long walk along the plateau, and a picnic lunch, he proposed a challenging descent down a tricky section that only an animal as dumb as a goat would be arsed with. We were a bit dubious, but Abdool knew the buttons to push, and told us he only suggests this route to strong and healthy people. Hook, line and sinker…
It was comedy difficult, but fortunately the constantly changing views did something to ease the pain, and when we finally arrived back at sundown, we congratulated ourselves for our Bear Grylls-standard outdoor skills. Less than an hour later we were in bed, almost crying with exhaustion, and didn’t wake for 10 hours. Suck on that, Grylls.
Over a lovely breakfast of fruit, Moroccan bread, jams and juice in bed, I read a booklet about the Kasbah, and slowly our warm, fuzzy love for the place – the sort you don’t expect to feel after a day – came into focus. The place is built on very sound principles, and is proving to be a genuinely life-changing collaboration between some great-sounding Brits and the local community. The owners give a portion of profits to local causes, and in its short life, the Kasbah has helped fund schools to educate local girls, a refuse collection service, and a local ambulance service which has dramatically reduced the number of women dying in childbirth.
That the Kasbah is more than simply a business is obvious when you talk to anybody working there, without anyone having to say it. People appear to feel a great sense of ownership and pride, and their love of the place struck us. Actually, no, it did more than that, it completely whumpfed us.