Anonymous review of Dar Ahlam
I have been told that the unique Moroccan retreat we’re going to is extraordinary, and that the drive to our desert boutique hotel in itself is spectacular. As we wend our way around the bendy mountain roads high up into the Atlas, through a terracotta-toned landscape where cube-shaped mud-brick houses are built into the peaks, the sight of mountain goats and roadside stalls selling crystals and pottery suggest that things are far, so far removed from my usual in-car outlook. (You may notice that I’ve been a little vague about where I am, exactly; that’s because it’s a little tricky to pronounce. Even on my keyboard. ‘Ooh woz iz zat?’ is roughly our target.)
The distinguished French-speaking gent at the wheel of this fine 4x4 has made the four-hour journey from southern Morocco to ferry us from Marrakech to luxury hideaway Dar Ahlam in Ouarzazate. Halfway there, our driver points at the cassette player and asks if we’d like music. Cool – with our appetite for the exotic well and truly whetted, Mrs Smith and I agree that some Arabic tunes might be just the thing. What we’re not expecting is George Michael’s ‘Careless Whisper’. Rather than plumping for the lyrics ‘You should have known better’ as the motto for our journey, we agree that Oscar Wilde’s wise saying, ‘Expect the unexpected’ is looking to be the tagline for this trip of a lifetime.
Rugged hills give way to desert, and eventually the town of Ouarzazate looms; palm-fringed avenues, buildings that look like sandcastles, and camels among the principal transport options suggest it’s not your average city. At last we come to an abrupt halt outside an extra-special kasbah. They are clearly expecting us, at precisely this moment. It’s showtime! Let the perfectly choreographed games commence. After all, we’ve been advised that this prestigious hotel is where your wildest fantasies come true. Sure, that sounds schmaltzy, but from what I’ve heard, this place ain’t called House of Dreams for nothing.
‘Déjeuner?’ enquires an elegant Parisian gentlemen, who appears in frame just as we pass through the main entrance. We’re seamlessly escorted through the sophisticated lounge into lush grounds and through a vegetable garden to two ready-set tables, side by side, overlooking a bed of baby aubergines and tomatoes. ‘Those chillies flourish a darn sight better than the ones on my balcony in Kentish Town,’ mumbles an awestruck Mrs Smith. Thanks to the impeccable stage management, we’ve barely digested our marvellous new surroundings before our glasses are being filled with a chilled rosé as the first of many mouthwatering meals commences.
We’re just swallowing the final bite of our first course (an inspired savoury orange carpaccio garnished with olive and pomegranate) when the two chaps who have been tending to our every need appear at the end of the garden path, poised to bring us the next delicious array of temptations. Dar Ahlam is pure theatre, and a flirtation for all the senses.
Fast-forward a couple of hours: on opening my eyes after a post-prandial snooze by the pool, I spy someone heading towards us with courgette and yoghurt smoothies, while an orange confection is winging its way to the pair relaxing on loungers on the other side of the azure water. Here at this country hotel with a difference, the mission must be to ensure every guest enjoys their very own personalised escape.
We doze off again, only to be roused from our slumber by a momentary interruption of the sunshine… Dominique, clad in a freshly pressed white shirt and smart linen trousers, has come to enquire, gently, if we’d like our massage now, as a daily rub-down is all part of the all-inclusive package. As Mrs Smith stares up at this kind soul framed by dazzling sunlight, she is convinced he’s an angel, and she obligingly floats off to the hammam. Meanwhile, pruned pomegranate hedges all around inspire me to ask if I might have a grenadine. Sure enough, at the drop of a fez, a fresh, fruity rosewater-enhanced elixir is in my clutches. If anyone ever asks you how to get to heaven, trust me, we can give you directions.
As the afternoon draws to a close, we realise that we’ve still not even checked out our suite properly, nor had a nose around the kasbah itself. We wander around the dark, sweet-smelling, mysterious interior and discover one cushion-filled cubbyhole after another, observing the masterful use of light inside and out. Just as we turn another quiet corner, that all-seeing stage manager navigates us to the roof for the show-stopping sunset.
Wow. What a finale. The ochre-hued straw-and-mud render of this three-storey towered castle is breathtaking in the golden twilight, and the pale blues of the cushioned seating match the sky. It’s as though every detail has been planned to perfection. I’m starting to wonder if this isn’t some extraordinary Truman Show set-up and someone, somewhere is hunched over this very scene looking at us on a lightboard through a lupe, ensuring our setting maintains its fit-for-a-magazine-cover composition. A moment later, a black-clad member of staff appears with a tray of nuts and olives, holding up two bottles of wine and asking, ‘Red or white?’ Mrs Smith turns to me and enquires, ‘Is this place for real, or are we going to wake up?’ After giving each other a pinch, we head to our room to prepare for the next act: dinner.
Our ‘petite suite’ reveals itself to be a whole new set worthy of applause. We freshen up in a vast bathroom featuring appealing flourishes, such as shavings of handmade soap scented with amber, orange and verbena. Then it's down to the grand salon for another aperitif, before we’re steered to tonight’s designated den for dinner à deux. The signs of Dar Ahlam’s Parisian party-planner creator are visible in the clever lighting design, which changes according to whether it is day or night, to reveal different aspects of the building.
Over a G&T, Mrs Smith tells me that what has really impressed her is how the surroundings are high-impact visually, but still entirely relaxing. Sitting in the elegant lounge with its billowing gold-edged muslin curtains and sexy fireplace, we’re sufficiently at ease to lark about over a super-competitive game of backgammon. (She wins. Beginner’s luck.) The only reality-check element is that we probably wouldn’t choose to share such a perfect evening with Dido or Coldplay on the stereo.
Mealtimes are always a surprise here, and for our supper we find ourselves in a cosy corner among jewel-coloured lamps and conical candles to await delicious tagines. We’ve ended up in a nook we'd previously spied, saying ‘this would be a lovely spot to have dinner in’ – the controllers in the gallery up above have definitely been listening in. (‘Who cares if the staff are reading our minds; they’re delivering the goods without us having to go to the effort of asking,’ remarks Mrs Smith.)
The attention to detail is, once again, exemplary. Different silverware, glasses, table settings, flowers – each meal feels custom-made, a universe away from the bland uniformity of the ‘luxury hotel’ experience. ‘There’s no mistaking we’re in Morocco,’ I gush to my missus with pride. She gazes back, a little dewy-eyed from the day’s overwhelming sequence of events. ‘Are you kidding? This is another world.’