On the drive up through the Imlil Valley into the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, you have a sense that you’re going somewhere special. The road passes rose-coloured adobe villages and fields terraced with ancient irrigation channels that nourish apple, cherry and walnut orchards. Mules trot along the road carrying children, women return from the fields with sacks of wheat, and men congregate in small groups by the roadside. As you swing around steep-sided bends, you get glimpses of the looming massif at the head of the valley, and by the time you reach the mountain village of Imlil – just 65km from Marrakesh – you know you’re in another world. The light is brighter, the air thinner, the streets empty and the jagged peaks resplendent against the sky.
No wonder Martin Scorsese chose this setting for Kundun, his film about the life of the Dalai Lama. The grandeur and remoteness of the Atlas Mountains is every bit as magnificent as the Himalayas. Here, the Kasbah du Toubkal, the former summer home of local ruler Caid Souktani, is perched at 1800m in the shadow of Morocco’s highest peak, Mount Toubkal.
Run and staffed by Berbers, the Kasbah calls itself a “hospitality centre”, so expect pots of mint tea on your arrival, and jellabahs (long-sleeved robes) and leather babouches (traditional leather slippers) to slip into. The rooms have been furnished by Berber craftsmen using local materials and range from basic communal salons (often used by school groups) to comfortable private double rooms and one lavish, three-bedroom apartment.
Guests come on day-trips from the capital to dine on tagines on the large rooftop terrace, from where there are sweeping views of the valley. But you’ll need to stay here for a few days to make the most of the spectacular setting. You can hire a guide and climb Mount Toubkal in a day, then return to the hammam (steam bath) and dine in the Kasbah’s restaurant. Or try a four-hour trek to Toubkal Lodge in the Berber village of Idissa. Its three double rooms are similar in style to the plush apartment at the Kasbah, and are designed for just a handful of guests to use as a base for day-hikes in the mountains or as part of an overnight circular walking route from the Kasbah du Toubkal. And if you don’t fancy the four-hour trek over the mountain pass from the Kasbah to the village, you can ride in on horseback or go by mountain bike.