Wed, Oct 25, 2006 - Page 13 News List

A journey through time in the High Atlas

The mountains of southern Morocco offer the luxury of top hotels and the simplicity of rustic cottages, both suffused with the spirit of Berber hospitality

By Rachel Donadio  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

A moonlit view from the Kasbah du Toubkal, which sits in a 1,600m-high valley 64km south of Marrakesh.

PHOTOS: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

The Kasbah du Toubkal, a mountain retreat in the High Atlas outside Marrakesh, is not for the faint of heart or weak of knee. To reach it, you drive up a winding mountain road to the village of Imlil, walk for 20 long minutes up a gravel path, enter a wooden gate and keep walking. But once inside the central garden, you begin to get the point.

Filled with wildflowers, it opens onto a splendid vista — reddish-brown mountains dotted with green walnut groves and boxy mud-brick villages, farmers tending sheep on distant hills, and Mount Toubkal rising snow-capped and gray-blue in the distance.

A spirit of late-onset adventurism had compelled me to make my first trip to Morocco, a country I knew only through the paintings of Matisse; a poster of his Porte de la Casbah, a keyhole arch rendered in blue, hung on my wall for a decade. I've always loved chaotic cities, hidden courtyards and any climate where bougainvillea thrives, but I hadn't thought about hiking until I learned about the Kasbah, which offers day trips and longer hikes from the lodge, complete with a guide, cook and muleteer.

When I arrived on a cloudless day in June, my sense of accomplishment was diminished only by a slight pang of guilt, commingled with relief: my luggage had been carried uphill from Imlil — by mule.

The Kasbah calls itself a “Berber hospitality center,” not a hotel. In the brochure, I found this rhetoric self-important; once there, I realized it was entirely accurate. Drinking syrupy sweet mint tea on the terrace, I was a guest; the Berber guides and waiters smoking cigarettes and talking on their cell phones at the low table in the corner were our hosts.

Once the fortified summer palace of a caid, or local governor, the property fell into disrepair after Morocco gained independence in 1956. A British tourism outfit, Discover Ltd., renovated it and opened it to guests in 1995, working in cooperation with local residents, who now run and staff it.

The Kasbah charges a 5 percent levy on rooms and services, which finances a village association that in recent years has bought an ambulance; built a hammam, or communal steam bath, in Imlil; and set up water systems in nearby villages. Martin Scorsese paid to film parts of Kundun, his 1997 movie about the Dalai Lama, at the Kasbah, which used the money to set up a local waste-management system. Discover has since worked with the association to protect the area from rapid development while improving the local economy.

I'm no sucker for eco-tourism boilerplate, but I was impressed by the Kasbah's approach.

I had easily convinced my friend Katja, a historian who lives in Los Angeles, to go along on the trip. The plan was to travel from Marrakesh and spend two nights at the Kasbah's main lodge, then two at its new remote lodge in a nearby Berber village -— which we would reach by trekking 18km over a mountain pass. Neither of us had hiked before, and we hoped our enthusiasm would trump our inexperience.

But first things first.

“Here is the terrace — for relax,” Mustafah, the lodge's doe-eyed steward, said with a shy, friendly smile after we had climbed a steep staircase. In a gesture at once welcoming and proprietary, he stretched his arm across the horizon, toward the cluster of houses in Imlil below, and Mount Toubkal, at 4,165m, the highest of the Atlas Mountains.

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