Kasbah du Toubkal hotel, a perfect Atlas Mountains sanctuary in Imlil
In the hills above Morocco’s tiny High Atlas Mountain village of Imlil, there were once crumbling walls and ruins, hinting at a former grand kasbah. With chickens pecking around inside, the deteriorating building sat perched above Imlil, the gateway to the highest peak in North Africa, Mount Toubkal.
Curious hikers heading out on area treks would wander through and around Kasbah du Toubkal’s ruins, wondering what mysteries the walls held. British adventure travel operator Mike McHugo was no exception. On his trips to indulge in his fascination for Morocco and lead treks there, he began to wonder about these ruins and their secrets of former grandeur.
Today, however, there are no longer ruins perched on the hill above Imlil. Instead, you find a grand mountain hotel retreat called Kasbah du Toubkal, carefully curated to maintain its historic flavor and local connection with an emphasis on sustainable operations. Purchased by McHugo and his brother, Chris, in 1989, as Discover Ltd., Kasbah du Toubkal today is much more than a glorious historic hotel with a magnificent view. Since it opened in 1995 (at that time just with budget salons), it has run in partnership with the Berber villagers in the Imlil Valley, is staffed by villagers, promotes village artwork and crafts, serves food made by employees from the area, and even funnels a 5 percent fee levied on all bookings back to an NGO village association.
Award-winning “common sense” at Kasbah du Toubkal hotel
Celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2020, Kasbah du Toubkal Morocco has won awards from lodging organizations, outdoor magazines and sustainable tourism associations, not to mention continued raves from its guests. But McHugo just shrugs.
“What we’re doing is not particularly special. We are winning awards for common sense. In a few years’ time, any half decent brand will be doing this,” Mike McHugo told us during a conversation over breakfast about his involvement with the community and an emphasis on sustainability.
Promoting tourism in the area, he also perhaps slyly works on educating travelers. There is no pool because it’s not a responsible choice. Kasbah du Toubkal does not supply water in plastic bottles but relies on pure local sources and has a filter in the courtyard for guests to fill their own bottles. Only local materials and area employees were used in the painstaking construction. In fact, power tools were unusable since there was no electricity to the region until two years after the kasbah opened. In a nod to not having power for two years, McHugo still serves dinner in the warm, wood-paneled, Berber-style dining area by candlelight.
And although called by most “Kasbah du Toubkal hotel,” the staff and McHugo consider it a Berber Hospitality Center, teaching and taking pride in Berber customs, while not neglecting comforts many Westerners desire. It was and still is managed onsite by Hajj Maurice and his wife, Arkia. On a stay there, Maurice was always moving quietly around the building and courtyard, offering a silent nod and smile to guests, many of whom had no idea who this gracious man was who always seemed to be present.
The experience at Kasbah du Toubkal “comes from the staff. Well,…” he added, “from the location really, too. But everything comes down to staff. Personal contact is what life is all about.”
Our inauspicious arrival at Kasbah du Toubkal
We knew this Kasbah was special, but it was hard to initially imagine that on our arrival, at least until we walked through the gates. Our driver was following directions that took us in his car above the village of Imlil – juggling a phone as he maneuvered dirt tracks to ensure we were on target. The “road” slowly narrowed, looking more and more like a village trail, and then came to a dead-end. There was nothing in sight. We scrambled out of the car and saw a man on a narrow trail that wound up to our desolate parking spot. Without further ado, we all grabbed a bag, and slipped and slid down this trail, and then along a narrow water sluice. I was trying to take photos and not lose track of our greeter who was wasting no time with the pace of his hike.
Suddenly we entered a large wooden gate and were immediately drawn in by the rustic, historic beauty and charm. Tired and hot, we were ushered into the hotel where our hands were washed with rose water. We then received the gracious Moroccan greeting of tea, crackers and dates. And with that, our all-too-short, two-night stay at Kasbah du Toubkal began. (turns out the alternate arrival path is coming UP from the village, thus requiring a bit of an uphill grunt, although with that traditional approach, donkeys are used to carry your luggage).
A highlight of our Morocco adventure at Kasbah du Toubkal in Imlil
When the Kasbah du Toubkal hotel opened in late 1995, it offered just the budget group salons. By 1999, it added a couple of additional standard rooms, and then the addition of rooms and apartments was on a roll.
Our (two-level) junior suite was glorious with views spreading far and wide down the valley – and more room that two people need, really. But, actually all 17 lodging spaces (rooms, suites, group salons, and an apartment and garden house), even the simple ones, are fantastic. Many offer grand views, with decks or terraces that take advantage of the historic Kasbah’s perch on the hill.
But Kasbah du Toubkal still works to accommodates trekkers, students, guides and families with three large Berber salons that can serve as a group housing or as a shared dormitory. Prices (as of 2020) run as low as 40 euro per person per night in a shared dormitory to 450 euro per night for an 110-square-meter apartment with full living and dining facilities, up to 800 euro per night for a stand-alone garden house of more than 200 square meters.
Of the deluxe rooms, we found the Immouzzer “underground” room delightful with its serene balcony facing the valley and waterfall, plus it connects to Amadin for those traveling together. Also beautiful and serene are the three newest rooms called Ouka, which are more like tiny stand-alone cottages. Standard rooms in the tower are quaint and cozy with nice views out small windows but be sure you can maneuver stairs. The Berber salons are spacious and superb for low-budget travelers or groups and even families, but also require maneuvering a ladder to the sleeping loft plus the bathroom is down the hall.
The newer apartment is frankly spectacular if you are going to stay awhile, with multi-level housing with panoramic views, private balconies, laundry and kitchen facilities and a large living room area. Plus, it can connect to the junior suite for a larger group.
Other facilities from a small Hammam to a roof terrace to conference rooms
Despite sprawling across the hilltop, every space and room retains a feeling of privacy – perhaps because they are nested here and there, taking you downstairs between buildings, up onto terraces behind rooms, or into a nook on the rooftop deck for tea at sunset with expansive views.
Every guest can book a 30-minute, independent experience in the Hammam, which is quite spacious. You get everything you need, from scrubber gloves to soap, and the hammam is equipped with buckets, hot water, and cold water with resting areas. Be forewarned, unless you have had a prior Hammam experience, it can feel a bit daunting. Even if you just splash about and simply enjoy the warmth and steam, like we did, it’s a beautiful retreat.
Other facilities include a cozy library in the main lodge filled with books to borrow, an enclosed room on the roof of the conference room with an open fire and views for when the weather is chilly, plus a rooftop terrace to die for. It quiets down after sunset (but do not miss the sunset … or the sunrise if you are an early riser), making it a superb place for quiet appreciation of the valley and hills and for listening to the mesmerizing call to prayer from the various mosques. Or try a little night photography of the lights.
Most Moroccan breakfasts are pretty satisfying, but Kasbah du Toubkal takes it a step further by adding a few Western touches, such as self-serve cereals and fruit/nut toppings, and self-serve coffee or tea. OF course, you still get all the extras from eggs to fruit and breads. All stays include the expansive breakfast. Guests can pre-book dinners, which are we must say outstanding. They are purely Moroccan but with a finesse you don’t always find elsewhere.
Anything else you need, from trekking services to tours, can also be arranged. For example, Kasbah du Toubkal runs a trekking lodge for multi-day outings. Ask about other accommodations.
A much larger mission at Kasbah du Toubkal
Admittedly, a stay at 4-star Kasbah du Toubkal in Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains is not inexpensive. And although often described as luxury – and our junior suite was indeed amazing – it still maintains a rustic edge with true Moroccan charm. You won’t get room service or a cab from the front door. And you won’t go home calling it glamorous. But you will recall the historic character and setting with a longing to return.
In one of many nods to Muslim culture, there is no alcohol and no pork served on the premises. Proudly showcased in the rooms and on walls is also a list of objectives, including to “contribute to the enhancement, viability and vitality of the life of the local community,” “continue to generate a change of attitude/thinking in our guests through exposure to something different,” and “modify our corporate behavior by receiving feedback from the local community.”
Has building and nurturing Kasbah du Toubkal been satisfying for McHugo? “We said would be worthwhile if it were also for the community, and we didn’t lose money,” he added. “We don’t manage it, we influence it.”
The NGO village association, with the funds received from the Kasbah’s fee, now provides an ambulance in the community, has sponsored garbage pickup, and has built a community hammam, among other local projects.
Will people learn from the kasbah and change if they come here? “We hope so, but we don’t force it. We try to be desperately honest on our website, but some people just don’t read.”
McHugo’s tips for visiting the area
Many come on day trips from Marrakech (about two hours by car), which Kasbah du Toubkal also arranges. Still, McHugo said he wishes more people would stay a bit longer. Two nights are the minimum he would advise. “Wind down and appreciate it, go for a walk, have contact with locals, go down the road and have some experiences in the village….”
We heartily agree. We had two nights there, taking an all-day walk through area villages and into the hills on our one full day. But that was simply not enough. We wanted to explore in the village, sit over tea and watch the world go by, and wander through the hills. We’d suggest a minimum of three nights, and four or a couple more for real downtime would be superb.
McHugo also tries to keep a handle on “hassles” from area shopkeepers and beggars. If he hears of such an experience, his staff will go have a talk with the person. He also says quite strongly that travelers should never give money to kids.
Now McHugo, edging through his sixth decade, is looking to continue the Kasbah du Toubkal project in line with its vision and mission, but some of the original investors “would like to exit as they near retirement,” states a flyer in all the rooms. But McHugo isn’t going anywhere, he told us, and he has developed a plan to ensure the kasbah and its mission carries on after him. If you want to learn more about Kasbah du Toubkal’s future or get involved, he would like to talk to you. Email him at [email protected].
These days, he moves mostly back and forth between Morocco and France, where he lives with his family. But the Imlil Valley and Kasbah du Toubkal has been in his blood since the 1970s when he started leading tours and treks there out of Great Britain.
“You feel happy when you meet clients who enjoy themselves,” he said. “Am I proud of it? That’s for other people to say.”
We think he should be mighty proud of Imlil’s Kasbah du Toubkal hotel retreat in Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains. We can’t wait to go back.
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About Open Doors Morocco: Nancy Lauer, managing partner of tour operator Open Doors Morocco, lives in the United States but spends a good part of the year herself in Morocco and works there with two men who lead many of the tours for and with her. She works directly with tour organizations and knows many of her suppliers (such as hotels and restaurants) personally. Her passion for Morocco and ethics in tourism is contagious, which is why we traveled to Morocco with Open Doors and highly recommend the company.