Moroccan Desert Duo

Blending Town & Country at La Mamounia and Kasbah Tamadot

By Donna Heiderstadt

THE HOT MOROCCAN SUN HOVERS-its final moments above the gathering crowd in Djemaa el Fna square as I take in the dusty, diaphanous panorama. Rose-hued walls surrounding Marrakech’s medina give off a cinematic glow. Through the airwaves, the haunting call of a muezzin from the 12th-century Koutoubia mosque wafts through the dappled light that photographers call the “magic hour.” More than just a call to prayer for the faithful, it is a stirring reminder that staying deep in the heart of one of Morocco’s most fabled cities is a luxury enhanced by authenticity.

Less than an hour’s drive away, tucked in a verdant valley amid the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains, the sun rises, illuminating a brilliant turquoise pool lined with white chaises and framed by ethereal regiments of cypress trees. A rooster’s crow overpowers the echo of the muezzin’s morning call from the nearby village of Asni as the day’s first rays coax the aromas of apple blossoms and rose petals to hitch a ride on the tamadot (“soft breeze” in the Berber language).

As I discovered, no visit to Morocco is complete without a firsthand sampling of both the vibrant cacophony of Marrakech’s old city and the wind-kissed symphony of the Atlas Mountains. And the perfect way to experience both is to stay in two of the country’s most inviting luxury resorts.

TALK OF THE TOWN: LA MAMOUNIA

My eyes soothed by a twilight-like incandescence that’s a welcome respite from the sharp desert sun, I savor the offered refreshment- aromatic almond milk and sweet dates-deciding that its pure simplicity is equally as captivating as the ornate lobby in which I sit. Checking into La Mamounia, which has been the place to stay in Marrakech since 1923, I feel as timeless as Audrey Hepburn. Re-imagined by French designer Jacques Garcia, with an attention to detail that took 1,500 local artisans three years to complete, the hotel is now a color-saturated Moroccan-meets-Deco kaleidoscope that is as vintage as it is avant-garde. As I allow my gaze to wander from the lobby’s retro velvet and crystal décor to the riveting regiment of the columned courtyard, I realize that Garcia has given me something new to fall in love with around every corner.

Best of all, this excess comes with access. I am sleeping regally just inside Marrakech’s medina, within an easy stroll of Djemaa el Fna and the labyrinthine souk (covered market). My exceptional Executive Suite, with its scalloped archway separating the living and sleeping areas, is one of 210 rooms and suites exquisitely detailed with carved stone and mosaic tile in rich tones of red, green, gold and ivory. Outside, my terrace offers up views of 18th-century gardens overflowing with roses and irises. A splurge would have landed me in one of seven Signature Suites-such as the romantic Baldaquin Suite with its canopied bed, and the Al Mamoun Suite with its fitfor-a-king decor-or a trio of three-bedroom Riads with an enclosed terrace and pool.

I slip on my swimsuit and head for the palm-lined main pool to refresh with a lingering dip and a glass of Moroccan rosé before my appointed hour at Le Spa. Once there, I get lost in the dreamy maze of its ebony-and-ivory inner sanctum before shrugging off my inhibitions (and every last stitch of clothing) to be exfoliated and buffed during a Maroc Hammam Ritual that leaves me with the softest skin of my adult life.

The hammam triggers a tidal wave of hunger for even more authenticity, so I head to Le Morocain, the hotel’s opulent three-story riad serving Moroccan pastillas, couscous and tagines. Sighing with delight, I consider options I will inevitably sample in successive nights; Le Francais and L’Italien, helmed respectively by Michelin-star chefs Jean-Pierre Vigato and Don Alfonso. But, dare I say, the lavish lunch buffet at the poolside Le Pavillon de la Piscine, fragrant with every Moroccan flavor imaginable, is the taste treat I most wish I could pack up and take home with me.

On my final night, deciding where to enjoy a post-dinner cocktail, I find it impossible to choose between Le Bar Italien, located off the Gallerie Majorelle, and the intimate Le Bar Churchill with its sexy red walls and leopard-print carpet. Either is ideal for sipping a glass of surprisingly sophisticated Moroccan wine-such as a refreshing S de Siroua chardonnay or a spicy Tandem syrah-and toasting the French-inspired ambience that makes Marrakech a must-visit-again and again. Rates from $472-$7,679; www.mamounia.com

COUNTRY ESTATE OF MIND: KASBAH TAMADOT

Beige, taupe, sand, tan-the journey from Marrakech is captivatingly monochromatic as my driver snakes our car up barren switchback roads past mud-colored Berber villages built into the sides of mountains. Then, Sir Richard Branson’s Moroccan Retreat suddenly appears in the distance. Poised seductively on a limestone precipice above a cool, green valley like a shimmering mirage, its unexpected beauty makes my jaw drop. Surrounded by lush gardens, the 24-suite villa, purchased by the British mogul/adventurer in 1998, is one of Morocco’s most Eden-like resorts.

Eden-like but not over-the-top. In fact, I feel as I if I’m entering Branson’s home, the lair of an eccentric and iconic Brit blessed with a taste for the finer things in life and pockets deep enough to acquire them. Its traditional Moroccan architecture, with signature details such as rooftop terraces and painted courtyards with reflecting pools, is offset with a mix of contemporary touches (luxe bedding and iPod docks) and eclectic antiques from India, Africa and the Far East. The latter came courtesy of the villa’s original owner who bequeathed Branson a cache of quirky treasures. And yet when it came to staffing the estate, the man who is about to launch commercial space travel remained very much down to earth, hiring people from nearby Berber villages for 90 percent of the positions.

This sincerity allows me to make myself immediately and completely at home-and that’s easy to do in a dramatic Berber Tented Suite (one of six) with its king-sized bed, enormous tub, private plunge pool and mountain vistas. I could have booked one of Kasbah Tamadot’s 15 individually decorated suites in the main villa (the best views are from the three Deluxe Suites), or the lavish and secluded three-bedroom Tadoirit Master Suite with its own pool. But my Moroccan country dream of an exotic desert-meets-mountains sojourn is best fulfilled in a fabric-draped tent that’s a sensual mash-up of Out of Africa and 1,001 Nights.

After the head-rush of Marrakech, Kasbah Tamadot offers mind-calming serenity: poolside sunning followed by a leisurely massage and hamman steam in the Asounfou (Berber for “relaxation”) Spa. Nights are especially magical, enjoyed beneath abundant stars while dining on traditional Moroccan and Berber specialties at Kanoun restaurant. As Branson, and now I, realize, savory tagines and melt-in-your-mouth lamb taste even better when served with a moonlit mountain view. Rates from $510 to $2,265 per night; www. kasbahtamadot.virgin.com

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