Desert Rose

Wander narrow streets—or blaze a trail through golden dunes. Morocco is best experienced off the beaten path. By Katy Heerssen

Framed by the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, the Kingdom of Morocco is enigmatic. At once ancient and modern, traditional and contemporary, the North African country’s concoction of cultures—Spanish, French, Arabic, Berber—influence the intricate details that delight the senses on any given city street. It’s so much bigger than a breezy piano bar fit for Humphrey Bogart, or a bustling square packed with performers and steaming food stands. While city life is vibrant, historic, and exciting, there is another world beyond the walls of Marrakesh’s Medina.

No trip to Morocco is complete without a visit to the quieter side of the Atlas Mountains, where rock kisses sand and the Sahara begins its long stretch across the north of Africa. This range divides the country: to the north, the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts with famous cities like Fez, Casablanca and the capital city, Rabat; to the south, a vast desert speckled with tiny oases and Berber settlements.

Lush palmeraies dot the arid landscape, often surrounded by settlements and villages taking advantage of the rare waters. Located just outside Ouarzazate and sustained by the Skoura palmeraie is Dar Ahlam, a 19th century Kasbah built on what was once a sultan’s hunting ground that has now been transformed into one of Morocco’s most elite hotels. “House of Dreams,” as the hotel’s name translates, is an understatement. Between your first massage in the secluded garden, peaceful desert picnics and thrilling mountainous treks, you may have to pinch yourself more than once. 

This gracious abode is isolated, far from fast-paced civilization but close to the swirling dunes and endless sandy vistas. Head into the silent Sahara and partake in sundowners on the sands, or extend the experience with an overnight stay (at additional charge). Dar Ahlam creates a magical evening in the desert, with candles cascading down the dunes that surround the luxurious furnished tent, a roaring bonfire completing the scene. 

Further excursions offer a chance to discover the Dadès and Draa valleys on four wheels. The Dadès River valley, also known as the Valley of the Roses, produces coveted flowers and rosewater imported for use in perfumes and products around the world. The valley flourishes ahead of the rose harvest each May, alive with color and intoxicating fragrance. Visitors in this area will also see Todra Gorge, a massive canyon chiseled by years of river flow. Cliffs flecked with shrubs and grasses, fireworks of green against the neutral sand and stone, rise to 1,200 feet above the shallow trickle of the Todra River.

Morocco’s longest river, the Draa River, winds through the unforgiving rocky terrain, bringing life to the endemic flora and tiny towns that have sprung up next to the flow. Life here today is much like it was a millennium ago. Nomadic herders tend to sheep in the mountainous outcroppings, living their lives with few modern conveniences. For them, it may as well still be the Middle Ages. Meet these proud, generous souls and perhaps share a cup of tea in their homes within a cliffside cave. 

The Region of the Thousand Kasbahs boasts imposing stone fortresses rising out of the sand, beacons for ancient travelers and safe havens from desert marauders. See the legendary Kasbah Aït Benhaddou, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that has been the filming location for several motion pictures, including The Man Who Would Be King and Gladiator. A thriving monument, Kasbah Aït Benhaddou is still home to a handful of Berber families, continuing to live and work in the city as their ancestors have for centuries past. 

Visit the desert side of the Atlas in the middle of your Moroccan journey, bookended by stays in Fez and Marrakesh. The rugged drive back over the range takes travelers through many small Berber villages where fine handcrafted wares can be procured to continue the journey as souvenirs. Most notable is the village of Tallatast, where residents are sustained by traditionally-made pottery and goat breeding. The Berbers possess their own language, style of calligraphy, and unaffected way of life that is threatened by modernization and assimilation with each passing generation. 

Outreach programs, funded in part by tourism revenue, have helped to build a school that offers reading and writing lessons to residents of all ages, as well as a venue from which to help the younger generations learn traditional weaving and crafting methods. This project also improves the health and quality of life of the residents with hygienic and life skills education.

The sands of time in the Sahara long since paused are beginning to stir as Berbers start to assimilate into modern society, rushing to catch up with contemporary counterparts north of the Atlas. Though the two worlds of Morocco are divided by the Atlas Mountains, modern influences continue to creep into the Berber settlements, threatening to make intimate encounters with these tribes a scarce experience in years to come. 

Ker & Downey’s Moroccan escape, Land of the Berbers, will present the best of the old and new in this enticing region: the color and splendor of the larger cities and the subtle elegance of the desert. The cosmopolitan country is best discovered on both sides of the Atlas, where visitors can still effortlessly experience a simpler era. Contact Ker & Downey or your travel professional to plan a journey to Morocco.