Oasis in the Desert: Christine Cunanan explores the old caravan route to the Sahara desert before checking into the ultra-luxurious Dar Ahlam

By the time we finally reached Ouarzazate, Morocco’s last frontier of civilization before the great Sahara desert and its vast plains of nothingness, I’d become positively car sick, mainly because of the countless hairpin turns we’d had to endure to cross the High Atlas Mountains from Marrakech.

This desolate area of Morocco is not for the fainthearted, but if you are willing to attempt the journey, you will be rewarded at the end by the spectacular vision of Ait Ben Haddou, Morocco’s most beautiful kasbah and the backdrop for many iconic period films on the deserts of Arabia. There is no other fortress as dramatic as this in the world, so this alone is worth the long drive.

Desert

THE ULTIMATE DESTINATION

For the discerning traveler, there is also the added carrot stick of staying at Dar Ahlam, a true destination hotel for those who think they’ve already been there and done that.

Approximately 40 kilometers from Ouarzazate, it’s a modern and luxurious version of a kasbah, rising surrealistically out of the middle of a windswept land of sand with a hundred – if not a thousand and one – crumbling kasbahs. However, this is where the similarities end, as Dar Ahlam may be a 19th century mud brick kasbah in the middle of absolutely nowhere, but it’s been renovated by local craftsmen in the most authentic way to offer guests a traditional experience coupled with unimaginable five-star comfort.

Dar Ahlam 2

GLIMPSES OF PARIS

At least this was how I felt as, dusty from the drive, I walked through its stark entrance and navigated the initially dark entrance corridors to eventually emerge into a light-filled living room straight out of a Parisian interior design magazine.

Here, we sat down to enjoy champagne and sweets from Pierre Herme, listening to lounge music and marveling at the sudden easy elegance of everything. Where were we? The 16th arrondissement of Paris? We could have been well forgiven for thinking so.

Meanwhile, our suites in Dar Ahlam’s gardens, right next to the organic vegetable plot, were lovely combinations of Western aesthetics and Islamic décor and details.

In a stylish recreation of what seemed to me the embodiment of a contemporary Arabian fantasy, we had swaths of gauzy fabric adorning the walls or hanging from the ceilings, intricate inlaid furniture in

the lounge area, and a beautiful hand-hammered giant brass tray perched on a stand, laden with sweets, bottles of liqueur and anything else we might have wanted for a comfortable stay.

Dar Ahlam 3

EXPERIENCING 1001 ARABIAN NIGHTS

Unfortunately, we had little time to enjoy these delights, as we had to leave again as quickly as we had arrived and walked through the property. Having flown to North Africa and from Marrakech come this very long way, we wanted to explore the countryside of sand dunes and 1000 kasbahs along a road that begins in the north of Morocco and that eventually – we were told – finds its way to the Silk Route in Asia. Late afternoon was the perfect time to do it.

What an unforgettable experience this was. We got into a 4WD that bobbed up and down with fervor through a large oasis until we reached the remains of a road that once saw the passing of hundreds of caravans involved in trade between the East and West. We drove past one kasbah after another, some obviously abandoned for years, several reinvented as coffee shops and simple restaurants, and others rebuilt as lodgings for adventure tourism.

“We can stop wherever you wish,” our guide said, “or I can bring you to some of my favorites.”

One kasbah we visited offered a glimpse of life a century ago via well-preserved receiving rooms lined wall-to-wall with fraying Berber carpets and an ancient kitchen that looked like it was still in use. Another advertised clean beds and decent meals for hardy travelers, while still another stood in a grove of palm trees, looking like it was about to crumble and disappear.

Dar Ahlam 4

COCKTAILS IN THE DESERT After an afternoon of explorations, we drove out to a hill in the dessert that afforded a panoramic 360-degree view of the environs of Skoura. This was as close to the Sahara desert as we were getting on this trip, but it was good enough. What I had seen so far in the equivalent of a Moroccan outback was even better than what I had imagined, standing on top of that world with the sun closing in, living a Travelife.

A lovely surprise awaited us as well. The staff of Dar Ahlam had gone ahead and prepared cocktails and afternoon tea for us, so that when we reached this point, there were two waiters all smiles and yet standing ever so formally at the end of a path lined with brass lanterns; and champagne flutes, tea cups and a vintage pot spread out on a Berber carpet, with tea leaves and fresh sprigs of mint on a tray nearby.

I could have sat there for hours, drinking cup after cup of tea, soaking in the most unreal atmosphere of Morocco at its beautiful wildest. This was, after all, what I had traveled to the ends of the earth for – and now, I knew that the efforts had been worth it.

This is not the end of the story, however. For when we returned to Dar Ahlam, the staff had arranged a lovely al fresco dinner on the rooftop, where we dined seated on Berber carpets amidst the glow of dozens of lanterns. The ubiquitious Moroccan lamb tagine made its appearance on the low wooden table, of course, and it was delicious. But at that point, the food was almost immaterial because we were under the stars on a beautiful evening, in a place that was simply out of this world.

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