Kasbah du Toubkal

 

Atop a cliff in the Atlas Mountains, with a breathtaking view of Imlil Valley below, is palace-turned-tourist destination Kasbah du Toubkal. The small boutique hotel, founded in the 1990s by lifelong traveler Mike McHugo, is among the premier tourist destinations in Morocco. As stunning as it is sustainable, Kasbah du Toubkal is committed to providing employment for the local community of Berber people, utilizing solar energy, and creating programs to cut down on food and plastic bottle waste. And this hotel is not just great for the work it does to help people and the environment — its remote location, accessible only by a walk or a mule ride to the cliff-top, and the way in which the guest experience incorporates the values and lifestyle of the local culture, grants visitors to the kasbah a sense of serenity and peace that will linger with them long after their stay. 

Mood of Living Q&A

Mood of Living: What is your hometown? 

Mike McHugo: Tatsfield, England, originally.

MoL: Where did you go to school? 

MM: John Fisher School, Purley.

MoL: Where are you currently located? 

MM: Lozere, France.

MoL: What was your first job? 

MM: Washing up in a restaurant. 

MoL: Did you always know you wanted to go into the hospitality industry, or did that interest come later in life?    

MM: No, certainly not. After leaving university with a business studies degree in 1977, I decided I wanted to travel and avoid commuting and working in an office, so I worked for a bit to save funds and rebuilt a Series IIA Land Rover. In 1978, I started the travel company named Hobo Travel with my wife and ran adventure holidays to Morocco. In 1986, my friends and family joined the company and it was renamed Discover Ltd. By now we concentrated on field study and cultural awareness trips, and in 1986 we purchased a field study center called “Eagles Nest” in the Cevennes in France. In 1990, we began the process of acquiring the ruined Kasbah du Toubkal.

Mike McHugo and his residence in Morocco 

MoL: How, if at all, would you say that your upbringing impacted your career path? 

MM: My father commuted to London everyday and I probably wanted to try and avoid this as a lifestyle. Also, when I was growing up, sensible jobs with good pensions were talked about a lot, and I thought it rather strange and stupid to choose a job based on one’s retirement prospects. My father, in particular, always gave me support and encouragement to strive for what one wanted. Whilst one never achieves a perfect balance, I wanted to live a full life and did not really want work and play to be in separate boxes. I wanted work to be enjoyable and exciting. I strive and relate to these words: “A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to decide whether he is working or playing”— L.P. Jacks

MoL: What was your first visit to Morocco like?  

MM: Between school and university I worked for eight months on a building site, saved enough to buy a VW Beetle, and in summer of 1973 I set off on an overland adventure to Morocco with a school friend, Allen Hogan.    

The Kasbah du Toubkal Hotel

MoL: What about it motivated you to return over and over again?  

MM: Morocco has a huge number of physical and cultural assets that are certainly unique in a country near Europe. It has Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts, the great mountain range of the Atlas Mountains, and beyond that, the start of the great Sahara Desert. Add to that huge cultural assets and differences — the indigenous Berber, Arabs from the East, the Jewish heritage, and more recently, the French influence. You have an exceptionally diverse country inhabited by friendly and outgoing people who want to communicate with you, even if that be in poor schoolboy French. 

MoL: What draws visitors to this region of the world?  

MM: All of the above, and of course the sun and climate — Morocco has a huge variety of climates. Many people do not realize the Atlas Mountains are snow-capped for nine months of the year and that there is a ski resort about one hour from the arid plains of Marrakech. Morocco has been described as a “cold country with a hot sun,” and this describes the climate well, apart from perhaps the summer months, but even then the Atlas Mountains remain cool at high altitudes, rarely exceeding much more than 30C (86F).  

Ariel view of Kasbah du Toubkal 

MoL: Tell us about the Imlil Valley, above which Kasbah du Toubkal is situated. Who lives there? What is the culture, history, and natural environment like?  

MM: When I first visited Imlil in 1978, it had a subsistence agricultural economy. The villages grew subsistence crops, with a traditional cash crop of walnuts. There was some trekking tourism, as Imlil was the trailhead village to accessing Jbel Toubkal, the highest Mountain in North Africa. There is also a religious shrine called Sidi Chamharouch on the route to Jbel Toubkal, which draws people making the pilgrimage. The locals still farm, but the subsistence crops have been replaced by cash crops of soft fruit, mainly apples and cherry trees now, but the walnuts continue to be important. Tourism has grown, with a variety of accommodation opportunities now available from the Kasbah du Toubkal (we set out not to compete with local accommodation) down to basic gîtes. There are now many shops, including shops selling local produce in the village of Imlil.

MoL: What is the history of the kasbah which was transformed into Kasbah du Toubkal? When was it originally built, and for what purpose?    

MM: The Kasbah du Toubkal was originally built by Caid Souktani in the 1930s as a summer residence to avoid the heat of Marrakech. After Morocco’s independence in 1956, the Kasbah fell into disrepair, and when we purchased it in 1990 it was not much more than a ruin. We spent five years sorting out paperwork, and in 1995 we rebuilt on the original footings of the kasbah. Major developments took place between 1999 and 2003 to turn the ruins into what one sees now. 

MoL: How did you get the idea to buy it and make it into what it is today?    

MM: My brother Chris saw an advert in the Financial Times saying the King of Morocco Hassan II had made inward investment easier, and it was based on this advert that we started the process of trying to acquire the ruin. 

The living experience at Kasbah du Toubkal 

MoL: Who was the architect, and what about their vision for Kasbah du Toubkal appealed to you?  

MM: We met John Bothamley by a chance meeting in 1995 and he was happy to be involved. We worked with him often, drawing many sketches that we rejected, and in many ways the Kasbah was built incrementally when we knew what we wanted. 

MoL: What aspects of the original structure were maintained and what was added?  

MM: The original ruin of the Kasbah was relatively small, and in 1995 we rebuilt on the original footings, and this just gave us the three Berber salons and the dining room you now see. Everything else is completely new (all 14 bedrooms, the conference room, Hammam, etcetera).  

MoL: What attracts guests to Kasbah du Toubkal?  

MM: I would like to think exceptional views; friendly, attentive, but local staff (this is key to our operation); good wholesome local cuisine; and the opportunity of just relaxing. Or we can organize treks, from short strolls to the ascent of Jbel Toubkal to trekking into our trekking lodge in the Azzedem Valley — these have become very popular.  We believe the Kasbah du Toubkal gives visitors the opportunity of staying in comfort whilst accessing the spectacular Toubkal Massif and seeing the local Berber culture. 

MoL: How do guests reach it?  

MM: There is a 15 minute walk from the village of Imlil. Your luggage is taken up by mule, and it is possible, if you need, to ride a mule, but most people walk up.

The living experience at Kasbah du Toubkal 

MoL: What do they like to do there? What local activities are popular among guests of Kasbah du Toubkal? What do guests do during their stay? 

MM: Relax, slow down, take in the views, and go for anything from a stroll into the village or longer day treks coming back to a hammam. We can also arrange excursions to places like Tin Mal Mosque, but most people either relax and or go on walks or treks, either short or long.   

MoL: Tell us about the restaurant at Kasbah du Toubkal. What kinds of dishes are served? 

MM: We serve local Moroccan fair, but have also worked with our cooks to provide vegetarian food options, as this is increasingly requested and we often have Yoga groups staying who request vegetarian food options.  

MoL: Are the ingredients locally or sustainably sourced?  

MM: We try to provide ingredients from the local area when possible, and grow some of our own ingredients on site.  

MoL: What is your favorite dish served there?

MM: Tagine with prunes and walnuts. 

The food experience at Kasbah du Toubkal

MoL: Why do you call Kasbah du Toubkal a Berber Hospitality Centre instead of a hotel? What is the relationship like between Kasbah du Toubkal and the local community? 

MM: We use this term as we want to stress the local Berber hospitality over service. We are totally run by people from the local community, including management, and we believe the Kasbah is integrated with the community and run by the local inhabitants. The Kasbah has become an integral part of the local community— I was once asked, “what security do you have at Kasbah du Toubkal?” and my answer was “we are liked and welcomed by the local community, our relationship with them is our security.” 

MoL: How do guests’ experiences reflect Berber traditions and customs? 

MM: The environment is relaxed, and we encourage guests and staff to engage with each other— for example, the guest seating area is near our reception staff. We have tried to keep aspects of their culture alive that run the risk of dying out, like the traditional welcome of being offered dates and milk when you arrive at the Kasbah, and the ceremonial washing of hands before eating. 

MoL: How do you practice sustainable tourism? 

MM: We are 100% staffed by the local community, but our main contribution, apart from local staff and sourcing things as much as possible from the local area, has been our five percent levy which we charge our guests. This goes to the local village association, and also helps fund Education For All, which provides the opportunity of a college education for girls from the rural high Atlas. 

The bedrooms at Kasbah du Toubkal

MoL: How has the local community benefited from Kasbah du Toubkal?  

MM: Rubbish collection, village communal hammam, ambulances, JCB for clearing rock falls on the road and I founded www.efamorocco.org, which provides access to secondary education for girls from the rural high Atlas. EFA now has 5 boarding houses with 200 girls.   

MoL: What kind of guests do you find are drawn to Kasbah du Toubkal? What do you want guests to take away from a trip?    

MM: Our very wide range of room prices, from family and group rooms, to standard and deluxe rooms, to our suites means we get people from a huge range of backgrounds — we have had the very affluent and famous, but also people from every walk of life from students upwards. We have consciously tried to offer the possibility of an economic environment where many people can mix — we all eat the same good food, but you can choose a room according to your budget. We try to be inclusive and not exclusive. 

MoL: Do you think that boutique hotels generally do a good job of forming a respectful, symbiotic relationship with the communities in which they are situated, or do you think there is still a lot of room for improvement?  

MM: Small operations, often owner-managed, or at least set up with other aspects than profit maximization, tend (almost by definition) to do better than big operations. I would like to think that many like the Kasbah du Toubkal have community development as one of their goals, but the way the market has moved has meant that even if they were less interested in this when they started, many have had to move towards this. We won our first sustainable tourism award in 1998, long before it was popular, but the movement in the market has encouraged many people to move towards more community based operations, thankfully. There is always room for improvement and one’s work towards this never really stops. 

Kasbah du Toubkal trekking path

MoL: In general, is the industry becoming more conscious of this?  

MM: Yes, absolutely. Even if people are not going there willingly, they are being dragged there, and of course some “green washing” goes on, but I think this is dying out as more and more prestigious and reputable groups of lodges (e.g. National Geographic Unique Lodges of the World, of which we were founding members) help in this area.  

MoL: Have the technological advances that have occurred over the course of your career helped or hindered the work you do?  

MM: They have helped. When we started, the Kasbah had no electricity, no phones, etcetera. The Internet has allowed small operations like ourselves to have a worldwide presence that would have been impossible for the advertising/marketing budgets available to us as a small 17-bedroomed lodge/hotel without it.  

MoL: How do you imagine that future technological advances will impact Kasbah du Toubkal?

MM: It will help as solar generation becomes more efficient — it will allow us the possibility of using more locally-generated energy more cost effectively, and improvements in mobile infrastructure will allow Kasbah du Toubkal and its guests to better stay connected — which, increasingly, the younger generation will demand — unless, of course, even that changes.

Trekking Lodge of Kasbah du Toubkal 

MoL: What was it like when Martin Scorsese used Kasbah du Toubkal as a film location for his film Kundun 

MM: It was obviously a huge event. Imlil did not have electricity in 1996 and many of the local population had no idea what making a movie was like— I only had an idea. We insisted the local community had to want this to happen before agreeing to allow it to be used as a film set. The locals were employed during the six weeks of construction and the one day of filming at the Kasbah (but a week filming in the valley).  

MoL: Where do you see the future of Kasbah du Toubkal?  

MM: Hopefully, the Kasbah will remain a haven of peace in a beautiful but buoyant local economy. We will be happy to continue to have no road access and the seclusion that this offers our guests. We believe as long as it continues to be of benefit to visitors and the local community, it should continue along similar lines.  

MoL: Is there anything you would like to change or add to it in the future?  

MM: We consciously decided in 2007 not to build any more rooms, as that would change the overall atmosphere of the place. It was in 2006-7 that we built our trekking lodge with a further four bedrooms a four-hour walk away, what we jokingly say is a very long corridor! One change I would like to see, and that I hope Education For All will help bring about, is for women to play a greater part in the Kasbah and in Imlil village life. This will hopefully happen over time. 

Trekking Lodge

MoL: What other jobs did you hold in the past?   

MM: Apart from holiday jobs, mainly building sites and getting a coach/bus license. I started Hobo Travel one year after leaving university, so I consciously avoided working for anyone else, and when I did, I always had the plan of going on my own. 

MoL: How did past employment experiences prepare you for your work at Kasbah du Toubkal?  

MM: My building experience, and rebuilding the Eagles Nest in France, meant I had a reasonable understanding of building, particularly aspects of our own water supply. I had a practical, hands-on, pragmatic attitude to building with the local community, aided by capable colleagues. 

MoL: In what ways has this been a unique work experience? 

MM: I would say it’s absolutely been a unique adventure for me. I would never have expected to end up doing this when I was driving Land Rovers around Morocco. My intention is that Kasbah du Toubkal continues beyond our lifetimes, employing locals and supporting the local community— it is in many ways a social enterprise.  

MoL: Outside of this work, what other work do you do today?   

MM: My time is spent growing and running the charity Education For All with others. I am a keen cyclist, and even this aspect I have integrated into EFA work (www.marrakech-atlas-etape.com).

Mike McHugo, Cyclist

MoL: Why is it important to support organizations like EFA?    

MM: Because if you educate a girl, you educate the next generation. If girls are not educated, a country is wasting up to 50 percent of its human assets. 

MoL: How do you incorporate sustainability and conscious living into your everyday life?    

MM: I recycle as much as possible, and ride a bike or walk rather than drive if appropriate. I use the town bikes in Marrakech rather than cars.   

MoL: Do you have any advice for someone interested in opening a boutique hotel?    

MM: Do it as a labour of love, and with passion, not just for a business reason, and do it with locals.  

Social Media

Website: kasbahtoubkal.com
Instagram: @kasbahdutoubkal

Photos courtesy of Discover Ltd, Alan Keohane, Bonnie Riehl, Pat Denton, Martin & Kath Dady, Madalin Tiganus.