A sultry mix of North African tradition and Euro-chic, Morocco has long drawn both jet-setting holidaymakers and rock-star entourages. It was only a matter of time, then, before Sir Richard Branson's arrival. The brash head of Virgin opened Kasbah Tamadot, a stylish hotel 45 minutes from Marrakesh in the Berber countryside last spring.
To get to Branson's place, you'll pass through the dusty village of Asni. Along the narrow road you'll see old women carrying bundles of sticks, men in djellabas steering donkey-powered carts - and late-model SUVs negotiating the perilous hairpin turns. Once you reach Kasbah, mountains on one side fall away to a deep river valley, with small villages visible beyond. Mount Toubkal, the highest peak in North Africa at 4,165 metres looms in the distance, snow-capped for much of the year.
Laid-back luxury. Lots of nature with lots of nurture.
The sprawling Kasbah Tamadot, built as a Berber chieftain's palace, is an extensive complex of rooms, gardens, staircases, terraces and courtyards, combining elements of Oriental, Berber, Islamic and Moorish design. Look for ornate mosaic tiling, lacy wood and stucco carving, lots of jewel tones and traditional tadelakt-plastered walls.
While the Kasbah itself is not particularly beautiful, stepping inside is like exploring Ali Baba's cave: The resort is packed to its 18th-century wood ceilings with treasures from Africa, India and the Far East. Outdoors, you'll find lush cactus gardens and rose beds, fragrant fruit trees and magnificent vistas in all directions.
When night falls and all the lanterns are lit, Kasbah Tamadot becomes a glowing oasis under a sky thick with stars.
"Morocco has become the Florida of Europe," proclaims Mohamed Bouskri, a Marrakesh-based guide. "It's the closest far-away place you can get to from all the major European capitals."
As a result, the guests are a multicultural mix: English and French couples down for long weekends, Spaniards and Italians on month-long jaunts, trekkers dropping in for a few days of pampering, the occasional Australian and American.
The dress is casual desert chic: linens and cotton for the men, floaty skirts and gauzy tops for women, sarongs for both by the pool.
The 18 rooms and suites mix traditional Moroccan materials, soothing colours and all the modern conveniences. Most have a balcony or terrace; all are air-conditioned. Each room has satellite radio and a CD player; and in the library you'll find the top-100 discs from the Virgin Mega Store charts.
Bathrooms are large and quite luxe, with deep tubs sunk into alcoves, powerful showers, good lighting and locally made lotions served up in sleek glass tubes. Babouches (slippers) and Berber-style ponchos are provided; the slippers you take home with you, the poncho you leave behind or buy.
A separate master suite with a private plunge pool can be turned into a two- or three-bedroom villa.
Food and drink
Thanks to chef Jean Mundell-Murphy, a young South African trained in Britain by Michelin three-star chef Raymond Blanc, the food here is a major draw. Look for deeply flavoured Moroccan dishes (tagines simmered over glowing coals, silky lamb shanks, couscous and pastilla), and European classics spiced with ingredients the chef discovered while working for Branson in South Africa and the Caribbean.
The wine list includes an equal number of Moroccan and French labels, with a smattering of Italian, Spanish and Chilean. Guests are welcome in the kitchen and cooking classes can be arranged. In the morning, head for the roof to watch Jamila bake bread in her traditional wood-fired ovens.
Things to do
Despite the middle-of-nowhere setting, there's plenty to do. Take a mountain trek with an English-speaking guide, followed by lunch or tea in a dirt-walled Berber home. Scenic flights over the Sahara and hot-air ballooning can be arranged, as can golf and riding.
In the Virgin Touch Salon, get scrubbed with eucalyptus soap in the hammam, collapse on the massage table and follow up with a swim (there are indoor and outdoor pools), pedicure or facial. The gym is well equipped, and the two tennis courts are lit at night.
After dinner, kick back in the bar with a Cuban cigar, order the nargilla (water pipe) or snuggle up by the fire and pop in a DVD.
With the exception of a few small villages, there's nothing nearby; most locals work in agriculture or commute to Marrakesh. So when Branson started to hire staff, he was inundated with applications and he took the cream of the crop. With few exceptions, everyone hails from the surrounding Berber villages (which Branson and his mother support through job-creation and education programs), which creates a wonderful sense of place.
As a destination in itself, Kasbah Tamadot is too remote to be a good base, unless you're a serious trekker or simply want to unwind in the mountains. But before or after a visit to Marrakesh - or combined with visits to other regions - a stay here is an experience you won't forget.
Special to The Globe and Mail