Dar Ahlam in Morocco opened in 2002 within the palm grove of Skoura, a 4 hour drive from Marrakech on the way to the Sahara, without any of the fuss usually surrounding other luxury hotels in Morocco. It slowly but steadily became one of the flagships of luxury travel in Morocco, keeping itself under the radar despite being a Virtuoso and Relais & Chateaux member. It may have to see with the property starting off as a retreat for team building events and its owner having a background in event organizing rather than being a hotelier. Someone with a vision that hoped to reinvent the hotel experience. At the root of it all, is the idea of always surprising the guests during their stay at Dar Ahlam. Hicham Hraid- Rochette, the general manager, was kind enough to invite us for lunch and so one sunny day in January we sat down and found out some of the secrets behind this unique property.
Mauresque Travel: Tell us a little about your background and former career before taking over Dar Ahlam.
Hicham Hraid- Rochette: I originally started in the restaurant industry. After graduating from a catering school in France, I’ve worked with the Pourcel brothers for few years at their former 3 stars Michelin restaurant “Le jardin des sens” in Montpellier. After few experiences in California and south of France, I’ve opened for the Pourcel the first Relais & Châteaux in China “Sens & Bund” and managed it for 3 years. My first hotel experience started in 2007 at the Relais & Châteaux “Ksar Char Bagh” in Marrakech. I met Thierry Teyssier (owner of Dar Ahlam) in 2008 and was seduced by his theatrical and “avant- garde” view of the hotel experience. I joined Maison des Rêves in 2009.
After overlooking the operation for Quinta Da Romaneira in Portugal & Dar Ahlam in Morocco, part of his company, I concentrated myself on the Moroccan operations and the development of the company’s project within the country.
MT: When did Dar Ahlam open ? What was the concept behind it ? If I remember right, you told me that this was not meant to be a guest house originally. Is that true ?
HHR: That is true. Thierry use to create events through his Parisian events company “Lever de Rideau”.
He felt however that he had never found the ideal place for he wanted to do. He has then decided to create his own structure where all the events he dreamed for his clients would be possible.
Dar Ahlam was born. After a few months organizing corporate type of stays, he’s been asked by those clients if they could have the same experience while on a private stay at Dar Ahlam. That was in 2002.
MT: How many rooms and suites are there? Tell us a little about who designed the place and the gardens.
HHR: Dar Ahlam offers 14 suites. Thierry himself designed most of the interiors being helped by a colorist. He chose all the furniture, created all the ambiances and imagined the “mises en scenes” you can still enjoy today such as a lunch “feet in the water” a “bucolic lunch” or “a 1001 nights dinner”.
The gardens have been designed by Louis Benech who was involved in the renewal of the Versailles gardens, the creation of the Jardin des Tuileries as well as the presidential house l’Elysée in Paris among several others great projects.
MT: You don’t employ a French chef yet your restaurant menus were designed by one. Can you explain ? Over lunch today all was very fresh and coming from your own gardens. Is that always the case with the meals served at DA ?
HHR: Dar Ahlam’s chef is Moroccan and has been originally trained for Dar Ahlam by Pierre Hermé for the pastry side and Frederick Grasset Hermé for the cuisine side. He’s also in contact with aFrench chef every year to stay in contact with the evolution of the cuisine and open his mind to help his creativity.
We’ve also developed a vegetable and herb garden within Dar Ahlam together with Roger Maelstaff a “figure” very well known and respected by some “Grands Chefs” such as Michel Bras, Bernard Pacaud or Pierre Gagnaire for his expertise on the culture of exceptional vegetables.
We also work with the local community of the Palmeraie of Skoura to grow the vegetables we need in a sustainable way.
MT: How is Dar Ahlam contributing to the local community?
HHR: We employ 100 staff from the local community. They are for most of them working with Dar Ahlam since the opening. We are collaborating with the local artisans, cooperatives (cheese, honey…)
Dar Ahlam has also been the first place to introduce Skoura to tourists and still the place from where influent people discover the region.
MT: What is the best way to reach Dar Ahlam ? What international connections are there from other countries to the airport in Ouarzazate ?
HHR: Ouarzazate airport offers two connections per week from Paris Orly and a daily flight from and to Casablanca.
Our clients are also traveling by car, helicopter or private plane from Marrakech to Dar Ahlam.
MT: I do know that there are a few celebrities that came and stayed at Dar Ahlam in the past years. But some of our clients that were on a private tour of Morocco also stayed with you and they weren’t showbiz celebs or music stars. What is your kind of guest? Is there a stereotype or rather a mix?
HHR: There is rather a mix of type of persons staying at Dar Ahlam. Most of them travel to experience something different, to understand the differences of culture.
MT: What is that you feel makes you different from other guest houses ?
HHR: The approach of the hotel experience, the grandiose settings of the experiences, the wish to bring back our guest to dream- like moments of life.
MT: You also have a luxury desert camp in the Sahara dunes which is set up on demand and rented exclusively to only one group of guests at a time. You also recently launched a tour of the south of Morocco. Can you give us more details on this ?
HHR: The tour of the south of Morocco will be an incredible way to discover those forgotten areas of the country. We’ve imagined several houses each one being unique, each linked to its natural and cultural environment and privatized for a one- night exclusive- use experience.
The “route du sud” consists of six nights of unique hotel experiences including unbelievable lunch experiences on breathtaking panoramas.
MT: In general, you recommend your guests to spend at least 2 nights at Dar Ahlam. What is the reason behind that ? What is there to do in the surrounding area ?
HHR: Dar Ahlam is not a regular hotel, not a place you check in and check out the next day. There are so many different experiences to be lived, so many places to discover a different way in the region that it would be a pity to not stay at least a full day with us.
Dar Ahlam is surrounded by several natural wonders such as the Dades and the Todra gorges, the Rose Valley, the palmeraie of Skoura where we propose picnics, hikes, horse or camel rides….
MT: The rates at Dar Ahlam are considerably higher than any other guest house in the area, yet Dar Ahlam doesn’t offer Italian marble tennis- court- size bathrooms or the likes. Is booking a stay at Dar Ahlam more about the experience in itself , more about the ‘how’ than the ‘what’ ?
HHR: We believe that luxury is not based on the preciousness of the materials but on the moment you live as a human being. Therefore exclusive moments are imagined for each of our guests.
MT: What is, in your opinion, the future of sustainable tourism?
HHR: I don’t think it only concern tourism but it will have to concern everyone’s life basis.
It will have to become a mindset if we want to transmit a livable planet to our children. It is maybe time to see our world differently. Tourism could be the first step, a way to open the minds and to remind people the preciousness and the fragility of nature & cultures. In that sense it has a great future but also a huge responsibility.
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