Some get their kicks hurling themselves down snow-covered mountains with planks of wood attached to their feet; others order highly poisonous (and hideously expensive) fugu fish in Japanese restaurants and hope the prep chef threw the right bits away. After a visit to Marrakech, however, I can confirm that comparable thrills can be had by anyone willing to hop into a city-centre taxi.
As a general rule, it seems, you slow down for donkeys and speed up for dogs. Donkeys will get out of the way eventually, as will pedestrians. Dogs are virtually impossible to hit, so cabbies just drive straight at them. Stop completely for either species, and you get stuck in a crowd for whom trying to flog you cartons of cigarettes and strings of sweets is just their way of saying hello.
We also quickly pick up on the etiquette of when you use the horn. That is: (a) when the car is moving; (b) when the car is stationary; (c) at all other times. And yet, despite the apparent chaos of Marrakech’s teeming streets, there is method in the mayhem. Not once do we see a car crash, or even an example of donkey-driver rage. The trick as a newly arrived tourist is to just relax into it, although this can be tricky if you have a friendly driver who wants to practice his English phrases.
‘You are from England? I have a cousin in London,’ says our chap, turning around to give us a winning smile.
‘That’s great, but you’d better look out for that donkey gridlock up ahead.’
‘Is that near Stanmore? His shop is there.’
What blessed relief then, to be met for the transfer to our luxury north African retreat by the charming and loquacious Abdul III (two other Abduls were already employed at Kasbah Tamadot when he started). The 45-minute drive in the back of an air-conditioned VW 4x4 is an absolute delight in comparison with the sweaty bustle of Marrakech’s dusty streets.
It’s a inspirational journey, and gives you a different take on Morocco. The road winds up through the Atlas Mountains, passing 1,000-year-old Berber villages which, if you removed the electricity poles and kids in logo’d T-shirts, would look much the same as when they were built by nomadic tribes. A big part of Tamadot’s charm is the way it fits with these surroundings.
It is perched dramatically on the edge of a valley, with snow-capped mountains as a backdrop; it is clear why Richard Branson was so taken by the location. Apparently, when the tousle-haired tycoon used the Kasbah as a base prior to his 1998 attempt at a round-the-world balloon record, his mother was so taken with it that Sir Richard decided to add it to his stable of holiday outposts. Seven years later, Kasbah Tamadot was born: a boutique hotel in the Atlas Mountains. With its landscaped gardens, five-star spa and infinity pool looking across the valley to an ancient village, it combines atmosphere with luxury in a most relaxing way.
Given the lateness of the hour, Mrs Smith and I expect nothing more than a cup of mint tea when we arrive. The staff, bless them, clap their hands with delight when they see our surprise at being offered a full meal in the restaurant. We are whisked past carved doors, Indonesian statues, elaborate mosaics and silver chairs on the way up to our table. We’re lucky enough to have arrived on the night of the traditional Berber feast and, if the contented smiles of our fellow diners are anything to go by, it’s going to be a waistband-loosening treat.
It starts innocently enough: a few buttery pastries and a tangy Moroccan salad, with some fresh-baked flatbread. The latter is so good I wolf it down like a man who’s not sure when he’ll eat again. Big mistake. The main course of tagine arrives and the ‘feast’ bit begins to make sense. For the uninitiated, a tagine is a domed clay pot designed for slow cooking. In days of old, such a method was necessary to render tough cuts of meat edible. Here and now at Tamadot, married with the finest ingredients, it brings out the richness of every flavour, from sweet dates to savoury stock. It’s a complex and delicious dish. Or dishes – four of them, to be exact: beef, chicken, fish and vegetable tagines, all spread on our table. We briefly wonder whether someone might be joining us – a herd of tribesmen, perhaps – but no, this is for two reasonably hungry Londoners. We’re determined to show the chef that he kept his kitchen open for good reason.
We waddle off afterwards, giggling and giddy with the sheer loveliness of it all, following a candlelit pathway until we come to our room. With its elaborately carved ceiling, highly covetable dark-wood wardrobe and enormous rainfall shower, it’s the sort of place that makes you hum with quiet contentment. And when I wake up briefly in the middle of the night, there’s none of that ‘where the hell am I?’ oddness. We left the curtains open because, frankly, we were too full of food to move much, so when I open my eyes at 4am I see a great silver moon shining over the mountains. Taking stock of my surroundings before drifting off again, I have that most delightful of hotel moments: the thought of ‘Oh yes, everything’s all right here’. Content, remote and in a blissful bed with your nearest and dearest – if there’s a better thought on waking up, I’ve yet to find it.
There are only 27 rooms here, so service is excellent. Besides the spa treatments, you can go ballooning, trekking or riding, or play tennis. Our days consist of lying by that stunning pool, gazing over the valley and being embarrassingly romantic. Sorry, but it really is that kind of place. There’s also a library with surprisingly good contemporary novels to choose from. Although the Kasbah’s chill-out ethos means no TVs, the staff are happy to fetch one for you if you ask, and there’s a DVD menu featuring Virgin’s current top 50 choices. When we’re feeling particularly slothful one night, we take this option: the tiny Moroccan chap who brings a TV set to our room is so bent under the huge telly that we feel we have to tip him handsomely.
Afterwards, we figure that we probably parted with a small fortune for the favour, but Tamadot inspires this sort of behaviour. There’s such a sense of bonhomie and general good feeling that throwing a few dirhams around seems a trifling matter. Opulent, tranquil and about as far removed from the madness of Marrakech as you can get, Kasbah Tamadot is a flawless operation, and perfect for a long weekend of lounging and loving.