A magical walled complex near Asni, in the High Atlas, lofty luxury stay Kasbah Tamadot has peaceful courtyards, intriguing staircases, landscaped gardens and breathtaking views. A herd of cheeky goats reside in an on-site farm too. The master suite is a miniature replica of the Kasbah, with 360-degree views of the scenery, and Berber-style tented hideaways come with mountain-view sunken Jacuzzis. From the meandering approach, to the backdrop to the pool, the Atlas are the stay's star turns (even moreso than its celeb owner); almost every which way you turn, Mount Toubkal and the surrounding peaks soar majestically into the clouds. It's a brilliant breather after experiencing Marrakech's melee.
Double rooms from £486.11 (MAD6,000), including tax at 20 per cent.
Rates include a breakfast full of Moroccan specialities. Full-board is available for an extra MAD900 each a day (MAD450 for children). Half-board is MAD500 (MAD250 for children).
The retreat's core values involve supporting the local communities; initiatives include free English lessons, the hiring of local staff, a focus on sustainable development and energy-saving efforts. When Branson left his mother Eve in charge of the hotel, his one stipulation was that she take care of the community – a responsibility she takes very seriously. The Eve Branson Foundation supports several local craft workshops, who sell their wares in the on-site gift shop; 30 per cent of the profits goes back to the community, too. The hotel holds frequent open-air cinema nights too, where guests sit under the stars under tents pitched on a hillside – there's not much of a selection though: Casablanca is the only film screened.
At the hotel
Spa, gym, farm, landscaped gardens, heated mountain-view infinity pool, heated indoor pool, sauna, hammam, floodlit tennis courts, book-filled salon with internet access, log fire, gift shop, many excursions, including trekking and horse riding. In rooms: Hairdryer, Moroccan slippers, TV/DVD, Bathroom amenities, tea- and coffee-making facilities, minibar, plug adapters, electric blankets and Berber Capes (in winter), Bose sound system, free bottled water.
Our favourite rooms
The Aman room (deluxe suite with pool) is a wonderful place to have breakfast outside. The Tazart Room has a carved wood ceiling and stunning green bathroom. The Jacaranda room also has a ceiling worth ogling and beautiful terrace. The Master Suite is the ‘mini Kasbah’, occupying two floors. All rooms have a smattering of antiques Branson inherited from the former owner Luciano Tempo, a well-renowned antiques dealer.
After you're guided through the Kasbah's meandering entranceway, the pool reveals itself in spectacular fashion. A brilliant blue rectangle sunk into a small valley, it's set so swimmers can gaze up at the Atlas beyond. Sunloungers line the sides and staff are on the ball with drinks and snacks, if desired. If there's a slight nip in the air, enjoy lazy laps in the heated indoor pool.
The four-room Asonfou Spa offers treatments from wraps and facials to massages to couples and hammam treatments. There are also Watsu pools, mud rooms and hot springs to soothe aching muscles. We like the damask rose-infused facial and the headily scented Le Sens de Marrakech products. There's also a gym with a running machine, bike, multifunctional weight station and free weights.
Layers in autumn and winter; walking boots.
No pets allowed.
For certain periods every year, Kasbah Tamadot becomes family-friendly (exact dates vary annually). During these times, under six's stay free and extra beds for 6-18 year olds cost MAD1,150 a night. Babysitting is free but advance booking is required.
During school holidays, this sophisticated retreat invites children to join in games and cultural activities. Children under 11 stay for free too.
Juniors and tweens.
Little Smiths will be well taken care of at Kasbah Kids. While it's not a set programme, the club organises a range of age-appropriate activities to keep kids entertained, from treasure hunts, games, books and movies.
Packed activity programmes are held at various dates throughout the year – mostly during school holidays. From 16–23 February, 5–27 April, 5 July to 31 August, 18 October to 2 November, and 13 December to 10 January kids can ride mules as long as they're accompanied by their parents, or pet the hotel's resident mules (Peppermint, Peanut and Paprika), camels (Pickle and Pumpkin) and donkeys (Pudding, Plum and Peaches); cook traditional Moroccan dishes; go on treasure hunts; get mini manicures; go for a four-wheel drive ride in the mountains; take part in table-tennis tournaments; experience a Moroccan tea party and learn about the local flora and fauna on a nature walk. There are also DVDs to watch and board games in the lounge.
The hotel has a young diners menu, which has a few familiar favourites and some more exotic Moroccan fare (from MAD50–70 a dish). Children get free soft drinks and ice-cream throughout their stay too. Special food and light meals such as sandwiches, can be also prepared.
Available for $25.00 per hour for the first child, plus $5.00 per hour for each additional child. Maximum three children per nanny for those between four and 13 years and two for those aged three and below. A minimum booking of three hours applies.
Have lunch by the infinity pool, and ask the hotel to book you one of the hotel’s secluded spots for a romantic dinner.
Kanoun restaurant has two terraces to choose from, one by the pool and one on the rooftop. Food – whipped up by chef Benoit Pépin and his team – is a mix of sophisticated Moroccan, African and international offerings, and there’s an impressive wine list.
There is a pool bar and a fireside bar in the Kanoun restaurant. The Asmoun lounge is a souped-up Berber tent on the inside, with colourful textiles and rugs, and souk-sourced lanterns, and the less-traditional addition of a bar and a few stools. Its terrace, naturally, comes with views of the Atlas' most eyecatching high-rises. Alternatively, hit the roof: the terrace offers the best bird's eye aspect of your surroundings. Champagne, local and international wines and a tempting range of cocktails can be served to wherever you're at.
Breakfast is from 7.30am until 10.30am; lunch is between noon and 2.30pm; dinner is from 7.30pm until 10.30pm. The bar shuts at midnight.
Order breakfast, lunch or dinner from a special room service menu, or have snacks delivered poolside.
The nearest airport is Marrakech’s Menara Airport – you can fly there from the UK and elsewhere in Europe with British Airways (www.ba.com), Royal Air Maroc (www.royalairmaroc.com), EasyJet (www.easyjet.com) and Ryanair (www.ryanair.com). The hotel can arrange private transfers on request – it's MAD 1,350 one way for up to three people and MAD 1,800 one way for four to six people.
Driving in Morocco can be daunting, but it gets easier outside of the congested cities. Should you want to drive, hire a car at the airport from Avis (www.avis.com). From Marrakech follow the signs to Tahannaoute and Asni for about 42km until you reach Asni. As you leave Asni, take the turning on the left and follow this road for 4.5km until you see Kasbah Tamadot on the left.
Worth getting out of bed for
The hotel will happily keep you busy, offering guests the chance to try mule trekking, hiking, mountain biking, guided tours of Marrakech, market trips, visits to local workshops and other activities. In between all that, get acquianted with the hotel's fluffier residents: four mules, three donkeys, several rambunctious goats and the two camels who live on the estate's bijou farm.
There's not much choice in the mountains, unless you befriend a nearby Berber family, who may well be happy to feed you. For ease, and because the food is extremely tasty, we recommend going half- or full-board at the Kasbah.
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.