The remains of historic kasbahs are dotted all over the south of Morocco. Most were fortified manor houses, the domain of a sultan, governor or tribal chieftain, the lord of all he surveyed. Built high up on hillsides with all-around vision, many have been renovated as five-star boutique hotels and eco-lodges, offering luxury rooms and fine cuisine along with stunning views and direct contact with Berber mountain communities.
Here are six memorable kasbahs that you can stay in or tour. In some cases, doing so affords employment opportunities to locals and promotes development initiatives, particularly in the field of education for young girls.
Kasbah du Toubkal
Kasbah du Toubkal lies at the foot of the 4617m-high Jebel Toubkal, the tallest peak in the country. Located just above the village of Imlil, the kasbah sits at 1800m amongst the mountains, looking down over the little adobe hamlets and river below. The stillness and peace is breathtaking.
Guests walk up the hillside or ride up on a donkey to the kasbah, entering another world, a mountain Shangri-la. The stout wooden beams and furniture, simple decor and colorful traditional carpets welcome you into the Berber realm and you are provided with traditional djellabahs and barbouches to wear during your stay. It has fourteen rooms with ensuite bathrooms, including a three-bedroom family house and separate Berber salons, which are used by climbers and trekkers. The property is defined as a Berber hospitality center, and offers an authentic local welcome.
The cuisine is hearty Berber fare, and includes couscous and large tagines of lamb, chicken and vegetables. Remember to bring your own wine because the kasbah, respecting local customs, doesn’t stock it.
When you walk through the garden and climb the stairs to the terrace, the grandeur of the snow-capped mountain scene really hits you. This is probably why Steven Spielberg chose to film his Tibetan epic Kundun near here, and this is why it is a magnet for climbers. In 1995 the property was converted to a guest house for climbers by Chris and Mike McHugo, in partnership with Haj Maurice and the local Berber people. It has a lively mixture of guests who come to trek up and around Jebel Toubkal with guides provided by the kasbah. At the end of the day, a traditional hammam sooths away the aches from a long hike.
The Kasbah Toubkal Foundation has contributed to building a local school and has an ongoing social program benefiting the local people. Mike McHugo also organizes a bike race for the Moroccan charity Education for All. By staying at Kasbah Toubkal you have a chance to support the local community as well as having the holiday of a lifetime in the Atlas Mountains.
Sir Richard Branson’s Kasbah Tamadot is situated in a valley surrounded by hills with green forests, rivers and the towering snow peaks of the Atlas Mountains. A former fortress, it is now the most luxurious kasbah in Morocco. In addition to 28 bedrooms decorated with Moroccan and oriental antiques (inherited from previous owner Luciano Tempo, an interior designer and collector) it has a three-room master suite with its own pool.
The extensive garden is shaded by poplar trees and imposing Moroccan tents. Here you can sit, enjoy the stunning vistas, and relax. For something more active there is an indoor swimming pool and a large infinity pool in the garden, plus a tennis court and a gym. You can also adopt the Branson spirit and take a balloon ride over the Atlas foothills.
Tamadot has a special kasbah kids program with treasure hunts, cookery classes and mule rides that explore the surrounding countryside and mountains (children are only accepted during school holidays).
The menu at the Kanoun Restaurant is a gourmet mix of traditional Moroccan dishes and international cuisine with starters such as escabeche of vegetable salad, goats cheese mousse, herb salad and orange and coriander dressing, traditional beef pastilla with figs and cinnamon chutney. Main courses include roast chicken, vegetable couscous, and seafood tagine. All the vegetables are from the Kasbah’s vegetable garden and fish is brought in from the coastal region. You can finish with homemade desserts like sorbet and fresh fruit, lemon meringue, or a cheese platter. If you don’t want to dine in the restaurant, you can take your meals in the garden or on the balcony of your room.
Kasbah Tamadot is Branson’s base when he comes to Morocco, and sometimes he holds meetings with the select Elders group on world affairs here. Which means you can see some very famous people at times, including Jimmy Carter, Mary Robinson and Gro Harlem Bruntland.
Responsible tourism is a priority at at Kasbah Tamadot, and supporting Berber women and particularly girls’ education is a key part of their mission. Branson’s mother Eve, through the Eve Branson Foundation, has created women’s craft industries in the local villages and their colorful crafts, including rugs and knitted garments, are sold at a shop attached to the kasbah. Eve also helps support a local school and community in the nearby village of Asni. The property is almost entirely staffed by people from the local community.
Kasbah Bab Ourika
Kasbah Bab Ourika’s owner, Stephen Skinner, has created a modern boutique hotel that is integrated into the local mountain community and surroundings as if it had always been there.
Built on top of a hillside near the ski resort of Oumkaimeden, Bab Ourika overlooks the green trees of the Isk-N-Tanoumiri National Park. The kasbah is surrounded by the grand snow-capped peaks of the Atlas, and the Ourika valley with its river and terraced fields below.
The 15 luxurious rooms, individually designed by Romain Michel-Ménière, each have en-suite bathrooms, their own terrace, Berber textiles, Beni Ourain carpets, and Art Deco ornaments and lamps from the souks in Marrakech. Everything reflects the local Berber traditions and colors. The soaps and cosmetics are Nectarome natural products from the Ourika valley below.
In the restaurant, with its arched windows and red walls, you can enjoy the finest in international and Moroccan Berber cuisine. Starters include Mediterranean fish soup and crispy goat’s cheese brie, while main courses include slow-cooked lamb with potato cakes, fishcakes, or charcoal-cooked beef tagine with vegetables. Mouthwatering desserts include Bab Ourika’s flourless chocolate cake, frozen amaretto parfait, or strawberries with peach sorbet and rose geranium syrup.
Built according to eco-friendly principles using traditional rammed earth, the walls are naturally insulated and stay cool in summer and warm in winter (with additional under- floor heating). A bio-digester system produces electricity, and solar panels provide hot water. All water is recycled into the gardens, and all salt used in the kitchen comes from a nearby salt mine.
The Kasbah has local trekking, with resident guide Mohammed using mules for longer-distance treks. Visit the surrounding villages to meet the locals and the Tnine market, or enjoy rafting and canyoning, biking, horse riding and skiing in season at the Oumkaimeden resort.
The Kasbah also has two swimming pools and gardens with terraces hung with roses and vines. All this within 45 minutes of Marrakech: in summer it is a delightfully cool escape from the heat of the city.
In complete contrast to the kasbah experience in the Atlas are the kasbahs in the Palmeraie of Skoura, south of Ouzarzate. Walking the palm groves of the Skoura oasis is a delightful experience, as there are many kasbahs to be seen, most in ruins. The valley of a thousand kasbahs is so called because in ancient times, all these fortifications were needed to repel hostile trade caravans and rival tribes. Among them are three kasbahs that have been renovated so that guests can savor a true Southern Moroccan Oasis experience.
Kasbah Ait Ben Moro
The 18th-century Kasbah Ait Ben Moro is a Berber fort which has been renovated. The red pise walls and ramparts are decorated with traditional Saharan Berber symbols, and rooms are decorated in traditional Berber style. Look out from the towers over the Oasis thick with palm trees toward the Atlas mountains beyond, and dream that you are in a desert fort in the time of the camel caravan trains bearing gold and slaves.
Enjoy hearty tagines and traditional hospitality. Guides will take you out into the palm groves where the local community has lived for centuries.
Close to Ait Ben Moro is Kasbah Amridil, with imposing battlements and towers decorated with traditional Saharan motifs. The kasbah has a museum a of historical artifacts used in the kasbah’s history. You can climb the towers and enjoy the oasis view. It was used in the shooting of the film Lawrence of Arabia and other epic films. The left part of the kasbah is a modernized guest house where you can enjoy traditional Moroccan cuisine in the courtyard. The rooms are cool and fully modernized, and the staff can arrange tours of the oasis and the many ruined kasbahs nearby.
Kasbah Dar Ahlam
For a luxurious experience in Skoura you can do no better than Kasbah Dar Ahlam in the Palmeraie, part of the Relais & Chateaux chain. The large early 20th-century kasbah was converted into a luxury hotel with eight suites, three villas, a fine garden and a swimming pool. Each villa has a plunge pool and two sitting rooms. The rooms are fully air- conditioned and are decorated in an attractive minimalist style with en suite bathrooms.
Relax in the luxurious hammam, jacuzzi or massage rooms. The kasbah has a warren of decorative arches and passages decorated with zellij tiles, cedar wood and mosaics. Gourmet cuisine is provided by celebrated chefs Pierre Hermé and Frédérick E. Grasser.