When Sir Richard Branson's mother discovered a remarkable casbah (palace or fortress), 45 minutes from Marrakech in the foothills of Morocco's Atlas Mountains, the recording/airline mogul decided it was time to apply his more-is-more philosophy to his luxury hotel group, which he'd previously kept to only two venues. After purchasing the property in 1998, he put this former home of an antiquaire through extensive renovations, and in the spring of 2005 Kasbah Tamadot joined Ulusaba Game Reserve in South Africa and Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands in his exclusive Virgin Limited Edition collection.
Morocco's ability to cling to ancient traditions while growing more modern by the moment makes it one of the world's hippest spots. Balmy weather, exotic culture, maze-like souks and smart hotels, beautiful beaches, vast deserts and striking snow-capped peaks collide in a country with a good exchange rate and many English-speaking locals. Inevitably you'll visit crowded Marrakech, but after a few days you'll crave the calm of Kasbah Tamadot.
With its world-class, but laid-back lodging, Kasbah Tamadot has a breathtakingly remote setting, where the mantra is makain moushkil (no problem) no matter what the request. Most of the unfailingly warm staff hails from surrounding Berber villages, which Branson and his mother support through education and job-creation programs.
Every inch of this magical 18-room resort is packed with treasures from Africa, India and the Far East. Despite its middle-of-nowhere setting, there's plenty to do. Guided mountain treks include lunch in a traditional Berber home. Scenic flights over the Sahara and hot-air ballooning can be arranged, as can skiing, golf and horseback riding. There are two tennis courts and a well-equipped gym.
If you do nothing else in the Virgin Touch Salon, experience a hammam. After you've been drenched with warm water and scrubbed with paste-like eucalyptus soap, collapse on the massage table and follow up with an indoor or outdoor swim.
Chef Jean Mundell-Murphy, a South African trained by Michelin three-star chef Raymond Blanc, prepares deeply flavored Moroccan dishes such as tajines simmered over glowing coals, and silky lamb shanks with dates and almonds, and European classics spiced up with ingredients he discovered in South Africa and the Caribbean. Guests are welcome in the kitchen and cooking classes can be arranged.
The bar has a cigar list, including Cohiba, Hoyo de Monterrey, Romeo y Julieta, Churchill and H. Upmann, as well as the option to smoke like a native: through a nargilla (water pipe). Rest on the couch by the fire in the library with its collection of books and DVDs, or plug into the laptop for a free Internet connection. Or just float mysteriously around the lantern-lit gardens in the Berber-style poncho and babouches (slippers), provided in your room.
Rates, which include breakfast, range from about $370 for a standard room to $1,650 for the three-bedroom suite (including a private plunge pool) in high season.
Visit www.virginlimitededition.co.uk or call 800-225-4255.