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January 18, 2013 6:40 pm
Abdeslam Bennani Smires nudges his grey Arab-Barb forwards into a canter, and then a gallop. I follow suit and soon both horses are striding forward, a cloud of red dust billowing at their hooves. We ride up a steep track flanked by a hedge of prickly pear, the plump, orange fruit looking inviting in the dry heat. To the south, the Atlas mountains rise as far as the eye can see, crowned by the snowy summit of Toubkal, north Africa’s highest peak.
Our first stop is in a dusty Berber outpost where our arrival draws a 30-strong crowd of wide-eyed children and villagers. We’re greeted with warmth and enthusiasm – our visit, it appears, is the most exciting to happen locally since the king came to a neighbouring village a few years ago. We dismount and are led through a wooden door to a tiny courtyard, past a cow and into the lounge of a traditional Berber house. The room is bare, save for a few blankets, a portrait of Mohammed VI and an electricity socket sprouting a spidery mess of wires.
We sit cross-legged and chat to our host, a beaming matriarch with 11 children, who serves us syrupy mint tea and flat bread straight from the smoking oven, with butter churned that morning.
It’s a far cry from where I woke up, the Selman Hotel on the outskirts of Marrakech, one of five luxury hotels to open in the city in the past 12 months (with six more due to open soon). Given that competition, it can only help to have a theme, or unique selling point, and – besides its opulent spa and water garden – the Selman’s is its horses. Guests entering the hotel are greeted by a statue of a rearing bronze stallion and the equine motif continues throughout.
Horses are depicted in numerous oil paintings, while more star in the 4ft-high black and white photographs lining the long, dark corridor to my room (one of 56). Outside is a stable block and four paddocks created by the French designer Jacques Garcia (whose work includes numerous five-star hotels, such as the Victor in Miami and the Ritz in Paris). It is home to eight prize Arabian stallions, with flared nostrils, wide eyes and distinctive high tails. These are prized creatures – the most expensive among them, a grey called Sandhiran, is worth around €1m.
Horses are an obsession of the Selman’s owner, Abdeslam Bennani Smires, a 29-year-old graduate of the prestigious Lausanne Hotel School, a collector of thoroughbreds and a former member of the Moroccan show jumping team. Unfortunately, so precious and skittish are the Arabians that they can never be ridden: these beasts are just for show. Instead, guests are invited to head into the hills astride one of the hotel’s Arab-Barb horses for what must rank as one of the most extravagant riding trips available anywhere.
We had begun around 9.30am in the hills near the Ourika Valley, a 45-minute drive from Marrakech, with Bennani Smires acting as my guide. After our stop for tea, we ride on to a rocky outcrop, then along a path lined with argan bushes, whose oil-rich seeds are coveted by local farmers and goats alike.
About four hours after setting off, we round a corner to find a shepherd boy frozen to the spot staring down the hill, to where a huge white tent is flapping in the breeze. In front of it, the Selman’s head butler stands, one hand behind his back, with a tray of champagne at the ready.
Closer inspection reveals more extravagance – with a thick red carpet, leather lounging chairs, Berber wooden chests and a selection of coffee table books (solicitously left open at pictures of horses), the tent has clearly been conceived as a canvas outpost of the hotel, miraculously transported to this remote hillside. It even has its own flushable porcelain toilet.
To the rear is a mess tent where the hotel’s French head chef, Ludovic Gomiero, has prepared a salad of candied pumpkin, a tagine of chicken and olives, and a raspberry parfait with an intense poppy seed tuile.
Lunch ends with more sweet mint tea and handmade macaroons, before a long canter across recently harvested fields brings us back to our starting point. Post-ride cocktails are waiting – this is an almost comically indulgent way to ride, but we are not the only ones to be pampered. As we finish our drinks, the horses are loaded into boxes, to be taken back to the hotel, where they’ll take a shower before relaxing in an equine solarium.
Susannah Osborne was a guest of Lawrence of Morocco ( www.lawrenceofmorocco.com), which offers a three-night stay at the Selman from £665 per person, including flights from London and transfers. The one-day Selman Signature Riding Journey costs from £700 per person
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