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June 19, 2013

Kasbah Comfort

At the foot of North Africa's highest mountain, a remote kasbah treats guests like kings — and the all-local staff with the respect they deserve.

In a country that’s still working to bring running water and electricity to all of its 33 million people, Morocco’s Imlil Valley is breathtaking — and in more ways than one.

Just over an hour south of Marrakech, Imlil sits at the foot of Toubkal, the highest peak in the Atlas mountains and the highest in North Africa. The village of Imlil is literally at road’s end, and just over a decade and a half ago, the Berbers who live here lit their homes by candlelight.

Now, they count themselves among those Moroccans who enjoy the kind of infrastructure that first-world countries take for granted. The fact is many of the advances that Imlil now enjoys are due to the grass-roots efforts of the locals themselves — spurred on by the visionaries behind the Kasbah du Toubkal, a mountain retreat that defines itself as a “Berber hospitality center.” And that’s pretty spot-on.

The Kasbah du Toubkal is a special place. You know that immediately when a muleteer appears beside the vehicle that’s transported you from the exhaust-choked streets of Marrakech, and straps your bags to his animal’s back. You can make the short uphill journey to the kasbah astride a mule if you prefer, but that would rob you of the experience of racing the baggage-laden beast — his swiftness and agility putting your own clumsy efforts to shame.

Overlooking the sprawling valley and its myriad green terraces, Kasbah du Toubkal was once the summer seat of a caid (a local chief during the time of the French protectorate). It was rescued from its deteriorated state by an English adventurer, Mike McHugo (who also founded the Morocco-based charity Education for All to help educate girls in the Atlas mountains).

McHugo and his partners used local labor and materials to create a fortress-like, 17-room property that now serves as the beating heart of the valley. The entire staff — from muleteers and trekking guides and housekeepers to the baker who bakes bread over a fire in the garden — are all local.

From the dining terrace of the kasbah, you can take in the snow-capped profile of Toubkal and listen to the soothing sound of fresh mountain waterfalls. The food here is excellent — typical Berber cuisine: chicken tagine, harira soup, barbecued kabobs — and it draws a steady stream of day-trippers from Marrakech.

With accommodations varying from $50 to $600 per night, the kasbah aims to attract all kinds of travelers. The top tier rooms offer balconies and sitting areas, and the best, the Apartment Suite, has its own kitchen, fireplace and stunning terrace views.

Naturally this is a trekker’s paradise, and if you’re set on ascending Toubkal, the kasbah can make all the arrangements. But if you’re simply up for a day’s hike around the valley, you’re in for a treat — a young local guide will lead you to places you’ve never imagined. Like the soccer ground that appears out of nowhere (pictured), following a steady trudge up a rocky, arid mountainside. Suddenly there are young children there, who have walked 15 or 30 minutes from their villages to come here to laugh and play, and live out their Lionel Messi fantasies.

There’s no one else around to watch them but you — and a flock of unattended goats on the next cliff up.

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read more: 02. Sleep | historic | secluded | unusual | 05. Eat | 09. Active | walk

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