The wind whipped around the tent with a silent, blustery fury. The flaps were tied down to prevent the shelter from collapsing in the night, but atmospheric motion was catching just enough canvas to cause its crevices to flutter.
After dinner and dancing by the fire with our drumming nomadic hosts, we started to notice flecks of sand—not just on our feet and person, as it had been throughout the day, but also accumulating in our glasses of wine. At that point, we decided to retire to the safety of our tent, and within moments of reaching shelter, the wind began to spin and whip—with nothing but sand dunes in every direction to fuel the barrage.
This, friends, is Morocco. Like any true adventurer, I always pictured myself in the dunes of the desert one day: a mere mortal speck in the vast sands of the expansive Sahara. And now, here I was.
I turned out the one light (the tent was equipped with both a bathroom with hot running water and a power source, a real luxury in this particular part of the world), padded across the plushily Moroccan-carpeted tent and quickly covered myself with the layers of sheets, duvets, and Berber blankets that covered the bed (yes, a true four-poster!). With no light source lingering, all that was left were the sounds of the ever-increasing winds whipping the sands in circular motions across the undulating desert floor. Around and around my tent the sand swirled. For a city girl who can barely sleep in the suburbs because the silence is unsettling, I was nervous that I was not going to be able to fall asleep. Instead, it was the best night’s sleep I had ever gotten.
When I first arrived in Marrakech from Lisbon, Portugal, at the beginning of my Moroccan adventure, I was overwhelmed with the dichotomous scents of orange blossoms and roasting lamb wafting through the medina. Within mere moments, I fell in love with Marrakech. I understood immediately why Morocco had been the topic of fascination and the destination of some of the world’s most interesting people. But, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous to leave the relative comforts of tourist and traveler-filled Marrakech for a small desert town no one I had spoken to had ever heard of.
It wasn’t until I left Marrakech, however, that I truly became enveloped in a world so unlike anywhere I had ever been. The sensory experience that delighted me in Marrakech gave way to a landscape and people that were at first so unfamiliar I was a bit uneasy. Unease soon gave way to uncertainty, which eventually led to curiosity, and by the time we reached the desert, I was wholeheartedly enamored by the Morocco beyond.
It was a 12-hour drive from Marrakech, through the winding roads of the Atlas Mountains that are only dotted with Berber villages, across the desert plains of Ouarzazate, the edge of the Sahara Desert marked with nothing more than a small, local restaurant outpost. There we were hoisted up onto a 4×4 for another drive. The dusty desert road we’d been on for hours would soon disappear and turn into sand dunes. After a few more hours, we transferred our things to the best means of transportation for navigating 60-foot sand dunes that stood between us and camp: camels.
There was no cellphone service, no Wi-Fi, and very little electricity. Moroccan rugs and candles led the way around the compound. We were in the middle of nowhere, with no structures as far as the eye could see aside from the few tents in our small encampment in the valley of four surrounding dunes. The stars in the Sahara were the brightest I have ever seen, twinkling over the dunes in a magical array of natural electricity. In the time we spent in the desert somewhere near the border of Algeria, that unquenchable thirst for adventure I have been working to satisfy for most of my life was totally and completely contented.
On the way back to Marrakech, we were stopping in Skoura for a stay at Dar Ahlam, a small, luxury hotel in a traditional Kasbah (Moroccan castle) in the desert-oasis town outside Ouarzazate in what was hailed by some in the know as “the best of the best” in Morocco.
What we found during our three-day stay there is hard to adequately express on paper, which remains the proprietor’s very point. When your car pulls into the dusty and nondescript parking area, you continue to question whether this place, so many hours from Marrakech, is really worth the price tag. But from the very moment you step out of the car, a true experience awaits you.
An imposing and somewhat rustic wooden gate is opened by a discrete gentleman in a white linen shirt before you even reach it. Hicham, the manager, has this way of knowing your every thought and desire before you do. And his large, but even more discrete staff, is trained to do the same. From the moment you enter the walls of the courtyard, which leads into the dark hallways of the Kasbah, a sense of calm envelopes you.
Dar Ahlam, meaning “house of dreams” in Arabic, is the kind of place you wouldn’t even know you needed in your life until you get there. Every meal is individually customized to each guest. There is no restaurant or communal dining room. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are all served in different places every day—a surprise multicourse culinary and aesthetic feat, ready whenever you so desire to move from your lazy position on a chaise by the pool to wherever your meal might be.
Hicham led us to our room. As there is no reception or even markings on the guest rooms, it could have been quite easy to get lost in the maze of the dark Kasbah, but Hicham gently suggested we use certain parts of the Kasbah as reminder. The red staircase, for example, led to our room, while the whitewashed one led to the library and the roof garden—which were available any time we wanted to use them. “Think of this as your house for the next three days,” he explained in his soothingly hushed voice. “Whatever you desire is yours. Please move freely and at your own rhythm. There is nowhere you have to be at any certain time, except in whatever you want to be doing in that very moment.”
Our first night, we had a candlelit dinner down a secluded path in the garden. Knowing we had just come from the southern edge of the country and had likely had our fill of couscous and tagine, the chef arranged for us to have French food—filets of sea bass with beurre blanc and spring vegetables fresh from the garden. We lingered at our candlelit dinner far too long; the wine never seemed to stop flowing. We could hear the evening call to prayer in the distance of central Skoura, a sound that wafted through the walled gardens of the Kasbah at twilight with almost a ghostly beauty.
The concept at Dar Ahlam is simple: Just be. There are no scheduled meals or organized activities. We enjoyed reading, backgammon, drinking too much wine, and playing old records from their collection until past midnight. We indulged in a three-hour lunch in the garden on lounge cushions in the grass that finished with frozen pineapple and mint carpaccio topped with house-made lemon sorbet made from the lemons on the trees that shaded our table.
Dar Ahlam was a dream; glamping the Sahara Desert was surreal. And, upon returning to Marrakech for a few final days at La Mamounia, I felt like I understood the country better than I ever could have if I hadn’t left the city. But more importantly, I felt like I had re-centered myself.
The best trips are ones that allow you to explore and help you find the things you never knew you needed. Like a private candlelit dinner while being serenaded by a violist in the garden of a Kasbah, or watching the sunrise on the back of a camel in the Sahara, or the perfect piece of pottery from the Souk. And while I had always imagined myself sitting poolside in distant lands sipping on a cocktail and trekking up sand dunes, I never knew how badly I needed a trip to a world that existed only at the furthest reaches of my imagination. Sometimes, I learned, to find true tranquility, you have to seek the unknown beyond.
Desert Luxury Camp
Erg Chebbi, Merzouga, Morocco
Avenue Bab Jdid Marrakech, Morocco