I’m sitting under a fig tree and the shadows of its leaves dapple a small, low table about to be festooned with food. It’s the middle of the day in the palm-lined Moroccan oasis of Skoura, south of the High Atlas mountain range, and the sun is high in the sky but I’m comfortably cool. While there’s just a colourful carpet between me and the red, sun-baked earth, my feet are dangling in the narrow, shallow channel that irrigates the gardens. As I savour the cool current flowing over them, I look to my left and see walking toward me my personal butler, a distractingly handsome Berber, a tray of traditional Moroccan and Berber delicacies balanced above one powerful shoulder.
This sojourn of surprises at every turn is unfolding at Dar Ahlam, a beautiful 19th-century kasbah built on a small corner of a medieval sultan’s hunting ground. It is also known, most appropriately, as Maison des Rêves, the House of Dreams. I arrived late at night and the next morning I have only the haziest memory of being led to my room along dark, narrow corridors, patterns of dim light cast by lanterns on the floor dancing on the walls as I passed. It is very much like a dream. I awake to see slim rays of sunlight sneaking past the shutters and curtains into my spacious suite, fitted out in the modern manner, which is one of 14. I jump out of bed, impatient to explore. I perform the rituals of the newly arrived guest with exclamations of delight: delight at the hand basin and orange blossom and amber soap; delight at the art and the textiles; delight at the textures. I longed to redecorate my flat at home in homage to this house of aesthetic dreams.
Once out in the corridor, I simply shut the heavy, antique wooden door. How refreshing that it has no lock. Then I realise I have no idea how to get to the main salon. I walk down the steps, back into last night’s mazy dream of flickering patterns. A few wrong turns take me into the most beautiful anterooms, but they are dead ends. I eventually emerge into a bright space: the main salon, bathed in sunlight, one side open and leading onto the deck, swimming pool and gardens.
A heartbeat after I enter, my personal butler appears, as if by magic. He asks courteously how I slept. “With surreal dreams,” I reply, thinking that here, “surreality” is reality. He asks: “Would you like breakfast in the garden?” Smiling broadly at my delight, he ushers me beyond the pool to a table already set in a corner of the wild gardens. I settle in this sublime spot, tempting a curious bird to share the table full of fruit, yoghurt, bread and honey, eggs and mint tea. The view of the ochre kasbah, bright against the blue sky, is framed by palm fronds swaying in the breeze and occasionally interrupted by butterflies flitting from bloom to bloom.
After breakfast I stroll through the grounds, which are part olive grove and fig grove, part formal garden, and part beautifully colourful floral wilderness. It’s nature’s lushness edged by the Sahara desert, only partly tamed but wholly uplifting. You need to stay more than a few nights here so you can give in to the temptation of spending a day at the kasbah, appreciating the synergy of man-made and natural beauty; the contrast between the hot, dry air and the cool pool; the light, the colours and the vibrant gardens; or the indulgence of reading in a secluded anteroom.
But beyond the bounds of Dar Ahlam lie wonderful adventures you may never again get the opportunity to experience. At various times of the year you can see the valley of almond trees when they are in glorious full bloom, or see the valley of roses, rocking along on the back of a mule, or find any number of romantic ruins.
Late one afternoon we set off in a four-wheel-drive to see the sunset from Ksar Ali.
As the tarmac roadway becomes a dirt track and then no track at all, I realise we are heading for the only high ground for miles around.
A carpet is thrown down on the dusty, rocky ground, and fringed with candles. I sit while my guide builds a fire and then balances a kettle on top to brew thirst-quenching mint tea desert-style. As the tea works its refreshing magic, I learn that what seemed to me to be just desert is full of history and culture. As the sun does its gentle disappearing act, champagne appears, along with nuts and dates. As the temperature falls, the dusk envelops us, the fire dances and I wish I could camp here overnight.
We bump back over the desert, the vehicle’s headlights picking out a path invisible to me, and return to the kasbah. There, a little room ablaze with candles awaits me, and in that room I dine on salads and dips, toast loaded with the sweetest broad beans I’ve ever tasted, fragrant lamb cooked in a clay pot, and a gratuitous but not-to-be-refused crumbly dessert. I go to bed deliciously tired.
Waking the next day, I’m impatient to see what new surprises are in store. My breakfast is in the olive grove. My morning is spent taking as many photos of as many details as possible.
I suspect it’s a wild goose chase. Any attempt to emulate at home this beauty, its energising colours and patterns, would look garish and forced. But the more I explore the place, the more I fall in love with it.
Lunch is…well, I don’t want to give all Dar Ahlam’s secrets away. But I will tell you that the spa experience I had in the afternoon was wonderful. In the hammam, candles are lit and I am left in my own company in the warm, soothing water. I dream. I perspire a little. It’s divine. When I’ve had just about as much soaking as I can take, I’m led out of the spa. Have they forgotten my massage? I’m too shy to ask. Of course they haven’t. In yet another surprise, a corner in the gardens substitutes for a spa therapy room. In the shade of a gently flapping white sheet, held up by four tall poles, is a spa bed. I slip between the sheets. The breeze plays across my skin and sets the leaves on the trees whispering. Soothed by a lullaby of birdsong, I drift into slumber.
More energetic activities offered at Dar Ahlam include expeditions to the Dadès and Drâa valleys, which you can undertake mounted on a horse, a mule or a camel, on a mountain bike or on foot. Time your visit to coincide with annual events such as the Festival of Roses, the date harvest or the olive harvest. Or take the 1,008-kilometre, six-night, seven-day road trip called The Memory Road.
Cast your gaze over a valley of argan trees at La Maison des Arganiers, feel the welcome cool of a palm grove at La Maison de l’Oasis, gasp at the mountain panorama at Maison Rouge. And you’ll love the curvy sand dunes and tangible peace of a nomadic camp on the shores of Lake Iriki. The camp is a five-hour drive from Dar Ahlam. It contrasts perfectly with the greenery of the oasis, offering the silence of the sand, the poetry of the dunes and absolute privacy.
A chauffeured four-wheel-drive vehicle will take you and your butler across arid plains and up craggy gullies into lush green valleys of orchards carpeted with grass, through Berber towns and along roads that suddenly open up wide vistas of deliciously blue, salty, windy coastline. Mirages play with your mind, offering the promise of water in the harsh, dry heat. The extreme contrasts of the country play before you like an exotic movie with a sound track of the wind, gurgling streams, haunting calls to prayer and the refreshing crash of waves on the seashore. Your butler will be ready with fascinating insights into the places you visit or pass, regale you with the funniest anecdotes and guide you to the best places to take photos. Dar Ahlam’s Relais & Chateâu standards keep up with you even when you are on the move. Dishes created by Chef Thierry Alix and pastry chef Pierre Hermé will follow you even to the charming, little-known lodges where you take lunch.
When the time comes, I search for the least painful way to leave this Moorish-chic sanctuary and its wonderful staff, who are like family. I find a way to leave by promising myself I’ll return. Many other hotels could learn how to enchant their guests by studying Dar Ahlam’s informal, seemingly effortless yet flawless service; its overwhelming beauty and style; and, above all, the imaginative surprises it springs. I have learned my way around the corridors, I have explored every inch of the gardens and I have curled up on most of the sofas, contemplating how wonderful life is, and yet the atmosphere of mystery remains. I was 100 per cent seduced by this Maison des Rêves.