A photo diary and illustrator’s journal from Marrakech to the Atlas Mountains
The destination for SLH’s most recent brand photoshoot is one that has inspired countless creatives over the centuries, for its otherworldly landscapes, mystical light, vibrant colour palette, and abounding culture. Earlier this year, Abi Tottenham-Smith, SLH’s Head of Social & Brand Content, and Jemima O’Lone, Creative Lead, assembled a team of talented content creators – which included videographer Carles Mass, and photographers Clé Hunnigan and Caoilfhionn Rose – to unearth the essence of our Moroccan hotels through a short film and a special series of images. Here, Jemima shares the story behind the visuals alongside some of her drawings inspired by the desert.
A REGAL RIAD RETREAT…KSAR CHAR-BAGH
Our first stop was the beautiful Ksar Char-Bagh, a Moorish palace just outside of Marrakech. Away from the hustle and bustle, this hotel is a tranquil haven – with a palm grove, vegetable gardens and the most picturesque pool and spa. The gardeners roam the grounds, picking fresh dates from the trees for you to try. The team will set up a bountiful breakfast spread or a lantern lit dinner on your personal rooftop, your wish is their command. There is a calming feel in the suite interiors, which are authentically Moroccan with views over the idyllic grounds and courtyard. It’s the perfect antidote if you have spent a few days in hectic Marrakech, or a retreat if you are exploring the city by day as it is just 15 minutes to the Medina. With just 14 suites, you will truly feel a world away from everything and everyone else.
AN OASIS WITHIN THE MEDINA…LA SULTANA MARRAKECH
There is something truly magical about La Sultana Marrakech. Tucked inside the royal quarter of the Kasbah, it’s the perfect hotel for exploring Marrakech by foot. You turn up on an unsuspecting street – scooters racing past, overflowing fruit and vegetable stands, and all the chaotic beauty of everyday life in the city. The concierge at reception welcomed us with open arms and described Sultana as our ‘Moroccan home’, and it certainly felt that way throughout our stay. You walk through into an oasis – leaving the hum of the street behind. The hotel is made up of five riads, each one with a unique style. Although we had a jam packed itinerary for our trip – I have stayed at the hotel before, and you can easily while away many hours on the hotels rooftop and the ring of the call to prayer adds to the experience.
There’s a plunge pool and sun beds for hotter days, a cocktail bar (I recommend the Botanical Mocktail) and the eye-catching emerald-tiled restaurant. We were lucky enough to experience one of the hotel’s cooking classes, where we learnt how to make a traditional Moroccan tagine with one of the female chefs on the rooftop kitchen. The hotel is deservedly well-known for its spa and traditional hammam which is a must-try during your stay. The orange blossom scent, pink stone interiors and traditional Moroccan lanterns set the mood for a sensory experience. The hotel honours its heritage in everything it creates, and each week Moroccan culture is showcased with an evening of musicians, a henna artist and a traditional tea ceremony. It is clear that the hotel really values its community and the rapport of the team makes you feel immediately at home.
DISCOVERING THE ‘HOUSE OF DREAMS’…DAR AHLAM
Our last stop was a five hour drive from Marrakech to Skoura, the ‘green jewel’ on the old spice road which stands at the gateway to the Sahara. The drive itself is a cinematic experience, travelling through the snow-capped Atlas Mountains to the desert and passing through the extraordinary Ouarzazate, which is true to the meaning of ‘straight out a film’, known to locals as the ‘Hollywood of Morocco’ (James Bond and Gladiator were filmed here, to name but a few).
There’s something quite elusive about Dar Ahlam, hidden away in the village without signage. We arrived after dark and in torrential rain, the first the area had had in nearly four years, so the locals where delighted. This added to the magic of the place, as we pulled up to an old and inconspicuous doorway, the staff came out to usher us in with umbrellas. We followed them through a labyrinth of candlelit corridors and were welcomed with a cocktail by the fire.
”I almost don’t want to tell you too much – the soul of Dar Ahlam reveals itself in the unexpected and the unknown.
To give you an idea, the founder of this maison des rêves, Thierry Tessier, said, “There are no keys, no bar and no restaurant”, so each meal is a one-off experience and you are never seated in the same place twice. The staff seem to know what you want, before you’ve even pinpointed it yourself. Anyone who reads this and decides to visit, should be given the chance to be delighted by the hotel’s ‘no two days are the same’ mentality. So, I suggest you visit the hotel without reading too much about it. But I will tell you – it will be magical.
That being said, I can’t finish without mentioning their sustainability credentials. As a member of SLH’s Considerate Collection, every eco-effort will be clear to see during your stay in each little detail – the kitchen garden is a wonder to be seen and the staff will be delighted to tell you about how everything works, and the local skill and craftsmanship that has gone into creating a truly regenerative hospitality experience. I can’t say that I am normally interested in irrigation, but the clever water systems running throughout the hotel like streams are fed back into the community waterways to supply local farms.
THE SPIRIT OF MOROCCAN HOSPITALITY…
On the journey back to the airport, I was chatting with Rada, our wonderful driver who took us to the desert and back, about Moroccan hospitality. He said, “It is not what we do as a profession, it is who we are, our culture”. He explained that in Moroccan culture, if you are travelling across the country and you need a place to stay, you knock on any door to tell them you need a place to rest for the night and they will invite you in to stay with very few questions asked – you could stay for up to three days, and be fed and looked after.
Our last night was a true example of this generosity and unquestioning hospitality, and what can happen when you take a moment to speak to locals. We were invited to a local wedding in the village near the hotel. We sat with the local ladies and young girls, communicating in broken French and a little bit of English. They invited us in to meet the elder women, the bride and her family. They embraced us like long lost friends and took us in to the house where they served a large plate of lamb, vegetables and couscous which we shared with the girls – a memory that we will never forget. I felt this incredible sense of kindness and generous spirit, in every encounter during our week in enchanting Morocco, and it is why I will return time and time again.
Words and illustrations by Jemima O’Lone