Today I’m blinded by the beauty of our planet and the people that reside on it. Today I am at Kasbah du Toubkal in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco, about 60 winding, and steep kilometers outside of Marrakech followed by a 15 minute walk up a rocky trail.
I’ve been looking forward to this stay for months and as we make our way through the village of Imlil I feel butterflies in my stomach knowing that I am getting to visit one of the most unique lodges in the world.
Maddy and I chose to carry our bags and give the mule a break, but many visitors get a ride to the top.
Fehta, the carpet shop owner near the entrance of the Kasbah welcomes us to the village and though we decline his invitation to check out his shop right now, we promise to visit before we leave.
We’re welcomed into the Berber Hospitality Center with fresh dates and orange blossom water. In the main dining hall we relax over mint teas and settle into the pace of the mountains. I visit the bathroom and splash cold water on my face; even here the views are stunning.
We’re shown to our room, and I immediately feel at home. Maddy breaks out the tripod and is gone in a flash — his photographer radar is going insane in this location. I don’t see him for several hours and when he comes back in the door he’s half frozen and boasting hundreds of snaps.
Me? I’m staring out the window of my room and looking at the face of the highest peak in North Africa, Mount Toubkal. The winter snow is slowly melting and careening down the mountain causing a green landing strip on either side of the crevice it cascades.
To be at Kasbah du Toubkal means to feel minuscule in the face of these mountains, and to feel grand at being human. To feel overwhelmingly inspired by the life of it’s Co-Founder Mike McHugo and the gentle and wise Maurice.
Since I began the journey of seeking out responsible tourism outfits and operators I’ve had the privilege to look inside the life and projects of many brilliant minds and hearts, but few have touched me the way Mike’s story does.
I’m on page 54 of “Reasonable Plans” penned by Derek Workman and have gentle tears streaming down my face at the selflessness and beauty of Mike’s journey.
It all started when he left home as a young teen in a $200 VW Beetle to explore the land of Morocco…
And now, it continues, 43 years later in this Berber Hospitality Center which is the beating heart of the Discover LTD company. The Kasbah du Toubkal has received recognition from National Geographic as being one of the most unique lodges in the world and there’s no denying that.
To even try to explain it to you is fruitless, this is a place you can only feel.
You’re in the home of the Berbers, the Imlil village — certainly one of the most fortunate villages in Morocco — and here, you’re at home.
Right now I am wrapped in a shawl that the room offers and have donned the slippers provided. My pants are stained with clay from yesterday’s pottery excursion and my face is covered in dust from the trek up to the Kasbah. The truth is, there’s no place for pretentiousness here on the mountain.
Mike was here in the valley decades ago and laid his eyes upon a pile of rubble that someone used to call their summer home. The surrounding village was struggling because resources simply weren’t enough to sustain a healthy lifestyle.
Mike had a vision and knew there was a way to combine his love for adventure travel in Morocco with the social good he wanted to do in the world.
If you are a person with determination, drive, and commitment to serving others with your life – grab a copy of the eBook Reasonable Plans right here and dive in. You will devour the 120 page read and be left with more fuel for the fire.
I sit here again trying to read the book but feel something well up from deep inside of me, it pushes tears out of my eyes and the shawl around me is beginning to feel damp.
Why am I so touched at this story, this place, this moment? My thoughts feel like they are echoing off the mountains and booming back at me. Perhaps this is why so many people reach personal breakthroughs when they’re in nature….
I have this enormous desire inside of me to create positive change in the world, to help draw out the best in everything I touch, and yet – something so grand always feels a world away. A mountain impossible to summit.
Aren’t there times when you also feel that nothing you do for the good of mankind will ever be enough?
And yet, we keep trying. I’m so thankful to learn that it was years before something came from Mike’s first journey — it gives me hope that my great changes for the world are yet to come and that all these small feats are the stones I will use to create a bridge to a better world for others.
Everything in me is grateful for being here.
It’s a good thing Mike isn’t here — I’d probably be too star struck to speak properly. For me, this is my Oprah, my Beyonce, my Richard Branson (who, by the way, has a Kasbah just a few kilometers down the road).
This is a man with a wild sense of adventure and determination who shouldered his responsibility and privilege of helping others and has turned it into something beautiful for everyone who comes in contact with it. Isn’t that everyone’s dream come true?
Each guest pays a 5% room supplement of which 100% goes directly to supporting and creating infrastructure in the town and surrounding valley. They have been able to provide the surrounding area with an ambulance, hammam, schooling, water supply, WiFi, and far too much to tell you about here. Again, I urge you to download the book Reasonable Plans and devour it.
Saying Bye-Bye to Bigger Profits Out of Respect
Not many hotels will go out of their way to let you know the rules that you bear as a guest — in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Most hoteliers will break their customs, morals, traditions or at least look the other way to make a wide margin of profit. That’s especially true of alcohol.
Out of respect to the locals and their beliefs the Kasbah du Toubkal has not applied for a liquor license (though if you discretely bring and consume your own, no one is going to stop you) since they felt it was not culturally appropriate.
The same goes for the swimming pool — there isn’t one. Since swimming pools require suits and encourage sunbathing (which would be a distraction and discomfort for the villagers) they have also made the conscious and responsible decision not to build one.
They do have a private hammam on site which all guests are free to use for 30 minutes at a time and there is a cool plunge pool inside for those who want a dip. The hammam is an enclosed and intimate building where you need not wear clothing, so don’t imagine that you must be monk-like at all times!
Relishing in the Room
Personal touches abound and nowhere has more easily and quickly felt like home than this. Your djelabba and poncho are already hanging on the coat rack waiting for you, there is a tray in the bathtub that will hold your book while you bathe, a supply of cold refreshments in the fridge, fresh spring water just outside your door (you’ve got your own pitcher and cups in room), and a hot water kettle so you can enjoy tea or coffee all day and night. Naturally there is also heaps of sugar, as is the Moroccan way.
The rooms are not opulent nor do they attempt to be – they are simple, humble, and immediately comfortable. Though I have to take a moment to note that Mike certainly knows how to do luxury and nail an immaculate interior design — we’ve just come from spending two nights at his gorgeous Riad Les Yeux Bleus in Marrakech — and let’s just say he’s not hurting for style or taste.
The Food, the Food, The Food!
Ahh yes, we have been spoiled rotten by the hospitality in Morocco and just last night we enjoyed a proper vegan feast at Riad Les Yeux Bleus. Somehow I didn’t imagine the food in the village could live up to the same standard since everything has to be carried into this Kasbah on the back of a mule or a man.
Well I couldn’t have been more wrong. Over the course of two days we enjoyed everything under the sun and all of it delicious: moroccan salad, rice pilaf, fresh french fries, roasted herbed garbanzo beans, harira soup, pea tajine, and every bite of it was 100% vegan. This is absolute haven for nature loving, animal loving, travelers in Morocco — but it’s also perfect for literally anyone else.
My Next Move
As you can tell, marinating in this magical place was a very special thing to me. This is a post I’ve truly put my heart and soul into and thinking back to my time at the Kasbah du Toubkal still brings a flutter to my heart – and you know I’m not an emotional person.
Right now I am holed up in a beautiful and tiny oceanfront town in Mirleft, Morocco (report coming soon, I promise) working on several important projects that percolated while I was at the Kasbah.
Though the room and bed was very comfortable — did I mention that they slip hot water bottles into the bed each night while you’re at dinner? — neither Maddy or I slept much during our stay, we were too inspired.
We stayed up late at night developing ideas and shooting the stars then rose early in the morning to make sure the sun came up to shine on our dreams.
For me, the good I want to do in the world feels as large as Mount Toubkal but by repeatedly staring it in the face I learned that I was never going to do anything but feel small against something too big to tackle alone.
It’s only by taking small steps (and looking behind at how far I’ve come) that I believe there is a way to change the world with my own actions.
That means I have to follow the things I love and that I want to improve: travel and the impact the industry has on destinations, our food habits as they impact the environment, people, and animals, and making sure that good businesses make more money than the other guys.
By visiting and writing about ethical hotels, restaurants, and tour operators who make a difference in the world through their businesses I can do all these things. To have figured out my place in the world, to realize the thing that I’m meant to do… and to take action on them makes me ecstatically happy. As happy as four Kasbah kitties sunning themselves.
In a few days we leave Mirleft to collaborate on a week long responsible tourism project following the progress of Rebali Riads and the Fleewinter Collection. We’ll be live-blogging our journey from schools in Sidi Kaouki to the mountain tops of Ait Bougmez and covering their responsible tourism projects and progress.
Then in April we will be launching Vegan Morocco, a guide for those who want to make more compassionate eating and tourism choices while visiting the country.
I’ve also just launched VeganCopywriter and have two other yet-to-be-announced projects in the works, and these were all plans born from some soul searching and venn-diagram making hours spent at the Kasbah du Toubkal.
As all great stories must, our stay came to an end and we repacked our bags and made our way back to our driver, Ahmed who was waiting for us in the village.
Before we left we had a promise to keep, Fehta was waiting outside as we came out the gate:
“My friends! Did you have a great stay? Are you ready to check out my shop?”
“Of course, but just know we can’t buy anything to take with us. We are nomads, too!” I say as we enter his carpet shop with our backpacks.
“Nomads!? Like me! I was born in a tent. Now look at this book from people all over the world who have come to me — to my shop! One day I wish you will both have a great big house to put my carpets in.”
“Well, maybe one day, Fehta, but now we are going to see the world and I don’t think we need a big house.”
“Me? I tell you — I was born in a tent, a small tent. Now look at my shop! I have a very good shop and I never thought this would be possible in all my life. Yes, you will have great things too.”
Inshallah, Fehta, Inshallah.
We were hosted for two nights by the Kasbah du Toubkal but — as always — this was under the agreement that we give an honest account of our experiences, and nothing more. I was not compensated for the glowing and heartfelt review.