It doesn´t take long to get from the heat and hustle of Marrakech into the clean, heady air of the Atlas Mountains. I’ve gone from souks to serenity in the space of an hour, stepping out after a winding journeyto feel a welcome breeze whisk away the last lingering traces of city life into the peaks. The setting for Kasbah Tamadot, Richard Branson’s Moroccan retreat is pretty spectacular. Perched high on the edge of the Ourika Valley, near the small mountain town of Asni, the Kasbah forms a little kingdom of its own. It’s a kingdom of visual riches and total relaxation. Formerly the home of celebrated antiques dealer Luciano Tempo, this is a place filled with Arabic treasures and paintings and artefacts from India and the Far East. Branson inherited a warehouse filled with Tempo’s extensive hoard when he bought Tamadot, and it shows. From the lions at the front door to the astrolabe in a courtyard and individual pieces in the rooms –including exquisite inlaid Indian tables and Oriental sculptures – there is something to delight in at every turn. There are just eighteen rooms and suites here, each different from the next, each with a Berber name to reflect its main feature. Lemri, meaning mirror, has a ceiling full of them; Tafkout, or ‘sun’ boasts an engraving of the sun on an exterior wall and a splendid suntrap of a terrace with a blue tiled dome. I’m lucky enough to be in Atri, meaning star, because the raised terrace topped with an antique Indonesian casibo is a superb place to sit and watch the stars, which burn bright over these mountain peaks. From this terrace I can also see the vast infinity pool, seemingly dropping off into the valley below, where the river glints like a silvernecklace. The Berber village of Tansaghart appears as an abstract mosaic against the slopes. From a lower terrace, I look out over a reflecting pool, tiled in deep blue and full of rose petals, set into a tiled courtyard. The third pool at Tamadot is indoors, but the floor-to-ceiling windows that run alongsideensures that mountains remain in sight. Just off the pool is a hammam room in traditional style, with stars cut out into the domed ceiling and a series of tranquil treatment rooms. After a pretty blissful facial here, I could have slept until it was time to fly back. But that would have been a waste of the glorious surroundings, and an evening swim in the vast pool invigorated the senses intowakefulness. There was a softness to the air, the pool was lit up, a turquoise expanse under a sky turning purple behind the mountains as the moon floated between the peaks. The magic here certainly comes from the setting. While all the creature comforts are present and correct – well-appointed rooms, charming outdoor spaces, internet access, an extensive menu, tennis courts – the setting is the special ingredient.
That setting and the remarkable warmth of the local Berber staff make Tamadot a truly enchanting place. Richard Branson and his mother Eve – who persuaded Branson to buy the property because she’d fallen in love with the location and its people – have consistently made sure that the surrounding area benefits as much as possible. Every single member of staff I spoke to during my stay told me how their lives had improved. “Life was hard here,” said one. “I have four children. But now, it’s better, they can study, and I can still see them.” He was a man of the mountains and said he’d hated the idea of moving to a city to make a living. Sitting out on my terrace the next morning,I could see his point. It was early, and I watched the mountains unfold in the growing light, their outlines appearing one by one. It was like a drawing from a child’s fairytale book, and as powerful as one, beckoning to be explored. There are ways of doing this – treks and horse riding are available, but withthe stables a drive away, saddling up a Tamadot mule was the speedier option. Riding into the scenery did nothing to dispel the magic. We climbed in silence, bar the sound of hooves and the rustling of eucalyptus leaves. Butterflies fluttered past, and in the distance strings of horses and donkeys made their way to Asni for market day. With more time, we could have joined them, or riddenhigher into forests of juniper and oak. As it was, we turned back, Pepper the mule picking up pace at the thought of being re-united with Pumpkin, Pickle, Pudding and Plum, the dromedaries and donkeys that live content by the orchards at Tamadot.