Ifrane, Morocco's winter idyll
The drive from Fès to Ifrane begins with olive groves, and with roadside stalls selling honey and pomegranates. Then, as you progress upwards into the Atlas Mountains, the food stalls give way to other roadside vendors touting fossils and fragments of quartz. The road passes fields in which sheep and goats graze, in a land once farmed by the Romans - they grew vines here - then after a thousand twists and turns, you reach the snowline.
The little town of Ifrane is a little farther beyond. Surrounded by nature trails and hiking routes, and packed with cafes, it surprises nearly all first-time visitors regardless of whether they are Moroccans or from farther afield. Covered by a thick blanket of snow through much of the winter, the town has a distinctly European feel. There's none of the detail so readily associated with Morocco - no arched doorways, no mosaics, nor any geometric friezes carved into plasterwork. Instead, Ifrane is a haven of sloped Alpine roofs and timber frames, set against a backdrop of woodlands. It's straight out of Chamonix.
In the central square there's the scent of chocolate-covered crêpes and the aroma of log-fires burning. The only tell-tale sign that you're in Morocco is the flowing jelaba robes, worn by many to keep out the winter chill.
At Café Le Paix, a throwback to the days of the French era, I meet a retired American couple, George and Gene. They both have perma-tans, perfect teeth, and tell me simultaneously that Morocco is their greatest love. "We come twice a year," says Gene. "After spending a few days in Fès, we come up here to Ifrane." George adds: "It's a kind of therapy to balance the frenzy of the Fès medina."
Much favoured by Hassan II, the king of Morocco from 1961 until his death in 1999, Ifrane has long hosted royalty and is fêted for its celebrity associations. A champion of the outdoor life, King Hassan II would spend months at a time there, moving his royal court into the mountains when he tired of the capital, Rabat.
The royal palace is in pride of place on the road towards Azrou. In the days of the former king's rule, a constant stream of dignitaries would make their way up to Ifrane to be received at court. A great many of his VIP guests were accommodated at an imposing Alpinesque chalet set on a promontory just above the town. This mixture of royal guesthouse and luxury hotel grew a little tired in recent years. But, after six years of work, not to mention a fortune spent on it, Hotel Michlifen Ifrane - owned by King Mohammed VI - has risen like a phoenix above Morocco's own Alpine backdrop. With the finishing touches complete, the hotel reopened recently to visitors once again. The Michlifen is one of the cosiest and most luxurious travel hideaways in the kingdom.
Inspired by the simple architecture of the Alps, it's a sanctuary of natural pine panelling, dressed stone walls, painted Scandinavian wood, sculptures and antique furniture.
The hotel's main lobby is vast but informal, filled with dazzling mountain sunshine by day and understated mood lighting by night. The exposed stone pillars, the bare wooden floor and the deep leather couches give a sense of the American Rockies rather than the Moroccan Atlas.
While the decor may be occidental, the service and warmth is definitely Moroccan. On weekends, the hotel is filled with families who arrive mostly from Casablanca and Rabat. As elsewhere, the national obsession with doting over children certainly reaches Ifrane's snow-covered peaks.
Visiting with my family, I track my little son down to the kitchen, where he is being indulged by the chef with a pot of chocolate and a spoon. And my daughter spends an entire afternoon playing checkers with the barman who, I notice, always lets her win.
The Michlifen's bedrooms are furnished in a range of mountain themes: there's Nordic, American lodge and two kinds of alpine - Tyrolean and Savoyarde - styles represented. Sumptuous textiles, antique furniture and great bouquets of fresh flowers add to each room's luxury.
With views out across the tree-covered mountainsides, there's a real sense that the simple allure of the interior is in harmony with the beauty of nature outside. Michlifen is all about the après-ski lifestyle so favoured in Europe and beyond. There are three main restaurants serving both continental and Moroccan cuisine. Le Grande Carte has an art deco alpine feel, and serves a rich blend of epicurean fare. My meal there includes lobster bisque, rare filet mignon, followed by the shockingly indulgent "chocolate in all its states". Next door, Le Restaurant Marocain is the exception to the rule that says the national cuisine is best sampled in the home. I am surprised to see dishes on the menu such as rafisa (a blend of chicken, lentils and crêpes), which are rarely, if ever, served in a restaurant.
A stone's throw from the hotel and laden with snow, the main square of Ifrane is alive with locals and with visitors during the short winter days. Students from the nearby Saudi-funded Al Akhawayn University pack the cafes. Established through an entente cordiale between the Saudi and Moroccan royal families, the university is one of the most prestigious in Morocco.
All around, storks build messy twig nests high on the rooftops and children dart between the poplar trees down near the lake. In dazzling sunshine, we set off on a hike through the forest. The small town of Ifrane is soon well behind us, the snow crunching beneath our boots.
We walk for a long time, weaving a haphazard path between the trees, pausing every so often to hurl snowballs at each other. There is silence, except for birdsong and the muffled cries of children down in the valley below. After two hours of hiking, we come to a clearing where a family is gathering sticks. Their faces are chapped from the wind, their hands are bleeding from thorns and they seem startled to see us. The husband drops the branch he is holding and races over to greet us. Welcoming us all to that part of the forest, he asks after our health in the prolonged salutations of Moroccan mountain life. His wife and daughters inch forward gingerly and kiss my wife and children.
Minutes later, we find ourselves invited to share their midday meal. No amount of excuses can curb their overwhelming hospitality. As we tuck into a feast of lamb tagine and freshly baked bread, a fire is lit to warm us on which the family throw all the twigs they had gathered that morning.
"The children must eat!" the husband exclaims again and again, picking out the best pieces of meat and passing them to my little son and daughter, "because children are a gift from God."
I ask how the winter had been. "The snow's been deep this year," says the man, "and that's good because more people come and ski." He pauses, wipes a hand over his mouth. "I have lived here my entire life," he says, "I was born in a little house just over there, as my own children were. And I must tell you there is something that I don't understand."
"Why do people want to go up and down all day on skis? It just makes no sense at all."
In the afternoon, we drive to the ski resort of Michlifen, after which the hotel in Ifrane is named. We reach it through a seemingly unending forest, lost in the mountain crags of the Atlas.
Although far less organised than European resorts, it has an old world charm that's been lost through commerciality from much of Europe. Skiers are hauled up the mountainside by a simple lift system then slalom their way downhill with differing degrees of style and skill. What I like is the complete absence of pretension. It's as if no one is looking at them. And, for challenged skiers like me, there's nothing so precious as the feeling that no one's bothered how many times you fall.
Huddled along the road are local people with sledges, clusters of used ski equipment for hire, and even horse-drawn sleighs. While standing at the side of the road bartering for a pair of 10th-hand skis, I get talking to an aged Frenchman. He says he remembers the old days when Ifrane was packed with the chic European crowd through the winter season.
"You should have seen it," he says a glint in his eye. "We used to drink pastis on the square, and eat fondue until late in the night, washed down with a nice Muscadet."
I asked if Ifrane has lost its magic. The Frenchman waves a finger at me. "Non, non, monsieur,' he replies. "It's better than ever."
"Are you sure?"
"Of course it is. Take a look around you. The French never would have permitted such joie de vivre as this."
If you go
Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) flies direct from Abu Dhabi to Casablanca from Dh1,960 return, including taxes.
A double room at Hotel Michlifen (www.michlifenifrane.com; 00 212 5 35 86 40 00) costs from Dh1,215 per night, including taxes.