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Blackamoor vs. Blackface

Black-a-moor or blackamoor jewelry is having a resurgence. And I’d like to think that I am among those leading the charge. I wrote about my first blackamoor piece I received from my mother over 4 years ago on this blog and since then I’ve begun to slowly build a collection, eyeing choice pieces and voraciously researching the topic. In my last post, I explained the history of blackamoor jewelry and art, primarily as it relates to the Italian city of Venice, however, 2015 was a very different time socially than now, the end of 2019, and I’ve gotten more comments and questions than ever about my growing blackamoor collection. 

my first moretti Veneziano ring from my mother by Giovanni Corletto

In 2017 we had a woman of color join the Royal Family and an aunt wore a blackamoor pin to a Christmas with her which allegedly caused offense to both Meghan and Prince Harry. Over the past few years we’ve had too many brands, from high street, H&M, to luxury houses like Prada and Gucci called out for cultural appropriation and their use of blackface and imagery that bordered too closely on the minstrelsy. In 2019 we had Canada’s Prime Minister, a poster child for the modern white man ally, come under fire for dressing in black and brown face at costume parties. So in these times, wearing my blackamoor jewelry can seem like a bold choice.

wearing Carlo Zini earrings and necklace on the streets of Milan

How is blackamoor jewelry different from blackface memorabilia?

blackamoor from La Pietra Florentine Villa

A lot of the blackamoor pieces that you might see in Italy (though the US is the number 1 importer) are figurines and statues are not depicting noblemen. Like lawn jockeys you cam find in the old American south, these figures are working. Holding up a tray, a light etc. Permanent fixtures, stuck in history, contorted in servitude. But that’s not who I see in my blackamoor jewelry or moretto Veniziano. Oddly enough, the jewelry was different.

There’s an exotification yes, but I see kings and queens who held their own in Southern Spain, Sicily, conquerors, traders and merchants. The artistic response to the European encounters with the Moors of the Middle Ages. It’s a reflection of a time when in a wealthy international city like Venice, black people, and former slaves did have a place and were integrated into society (arguably better than in Italy today). Today the right party (5-star) argues for a homogenous Italy like “it’s always been.” These blackamoors remind you that black people in Italy didn’t stop after the Roman empire and start up now. Moors, and depiction of moors is so intrenched in many facets of Italian cultures and in different regions, from Venice to Sardinia to Sicily. Othello anyone?

One of my new favorite jewelry brands, Carlo Zini (coming soon in a brands we love piece!) are my current go-tos for blackamoor pieces. They’re bold and modern and every time I go to the showroom it’s hard not to walk away with a different one. Funny story: when going there to pick out some pieces for my birthday, Michele insisted I not get blackamoor jewelry so as not to compete with his recent gift to me. Overwhelmed by choice I picked two pieces, under water themed, that I liked during the summer, earrings and necklace, but I didn’t love, they just weren’t me. Well, my angels broke the earrings giving me a legitimate excuse to exchange them and I chose these beauties that I had in my mind since my first visit to Carlo Zini. I wanted to flip a preppy staple on its head. Like if I was wearing pearls, I wanted a black king attached to it. I just received these a few days ago and haven’t shot them yet but based on the reaction in my insta-stories, I think they are going to be a crowd favorite.

When I styled this All the Pretty Birds pre-Fall story, the mood board Tamu McPherson and I came up with had a variety of strong portraits of historical people of color from Princess Charlotte to Marie Guillermine, Portrait of a Black Woman at the Louvre and ever present in the back of my mind are regal images of Toussaint Louverture. This was an amalgamation of all of those images and more iconography and for a moment, the model Glendys embodied that liberator. With these powerful people of color, it was very important for me to include blackamoor jewelry. Jewelry portraying black kings and queens as a not-so-subtle nod to the subject and inspiration. I used a pair of Carlo Zini earrings Michele got me for my birthday and made them work!

My friend Carolyn’s aunt has a brownstone full of memorabilia and artifacts of racist depictions of black people.

You have to confront a negativity and own it. That’s the only way I know how to do it.

Harriet Michel for the New York Times

I much rather this intelligent, beautiful, black woman that’s a force having these things than a true believer, or even a white historian. It’s different when we own these images and can educate around them. 

Princess Michael of Kent had a history of racist incidents, is the daughter of an SS officer, standard-type colonizer fare. So her, wearing that? It’s easy to take that as racist, a bold conversation piece for her to start regaling (in her mind) Duchess Meghan with tales from her times in Africa and how much she loves the continent and people. Any black person that occupies primarily white spaces knows exactly the conversation I’m talking about. It’s the difference from when the Pucci family opens their home and loans their blackamoor figurines for an NYU exhibition vs NYU rejecting Dolce and Gabbana’s offer to participate. Intent. So let’s flip that, what if Duchess Meghan was wearing that brooch (it looks like a NARDI piece to me) to the Queen’s Christmas luncheon? What would that say?  I love every piece of jewelry I own. Whether I got it at a flea market, it was my grandmother’s, my first gift from Michele, this piece of jewelry was welcomed into my home. There is a much power in the wearer as there is in the piece. When the team at Carlo Zini places the teste di mori on me and “ooo” and “ahh” I feel regal as if I’m telling the pieces, “welcome home, my loves.” Many of those comments on instagram I get from people wanting to get their own are black women. Anita Pointer of the Pointer Sisters is also a collector of blackamoor jewelry and memorabilia. To me, blackamoors are us adorning and a celebration of our regal history, and maybe we need that now more than ever. 

PHOTOS OF ME BY MICHELE SCAGLIONE

New Video! Famous in Thailand: Becoming a Black Celebrity on a Trip to Chiang Rai

We arrived in Chiang Rai, Thailand exhausted from a long travel day, but at ease. After a less then stellar experience in India, it was a relief to walk down the streets of Chiang Rai and not elicit any reaction. I wouldn’t say I “blended in,” I’m not Thai, but I was like any other tourist or expat there.

In India, I experienced racism and contempt like I have never experienced elsewhere during travel. There’s a fine line between genuine ignorance and racism, curiosity and exotification, appreciation and appropriation. No, this was racism stemmed in ignorance judging by the looks of contempt. In Thailand, I was able to breathe easily in peace and anonymity though.

But, as you’ll see from this video, my anonymity was short lived!

** This is a post that I’ve been wanting to do for a while about an experience I had in Thailand but I knew my amateur video skills couldn’t do the story I was trying to tell justice. So, after sitting on all the footage for months and months I brought in a talented young editor who worked wonders. You have to know and be humble enough to accept and realize, you can’t do it all, and to tell a story that doesn’t shirk your audience, bring in some help! So please let me know what you think! I’m super happy with the video.

STORYTIME: New Video – Dealing with Airport Police in Bangkok

Have you ever seen the movie Broke Down Palace, or the series Locked Up Abroad? I remember seeing Broke Down Palace in my adolescence, news stories of Michael P Fay, the US citizen who got caned in Singapore, and it pretty much scared me straight. I knew I wouldn’t even THINK of breathing illegally while in a foreign country.

Being a black American my relationship with the American justice system is tricky. They’re supposed to serve and protect. I do feel my instinct would be to call 911 when I’m in danger, that’s been drilled into my since I was a kid, but simultaneously, as a black kid occupying white spaces, it was a responsibility for my parents to tell me the dangers that law enforcement can pose to black and brown bodies and how to act accordingly. Every black 90s sitcom had a “teaching moment” with this. Remember when Will got pulled over driving Uncle Phil’s car in Bel-Air? Now, there are no need for sitcom teaching moments with the 24 hr news cycles and social media. The formation of Black Lives Matter, the precarious position of black and brown bodies with the institution of the justice system is now palpable. And we can take it all the way to the initial formation of the units to catch runaway slaves… but I digress.

I’ve also been going through a LOT of my Thailand videos for you and remembered the time in the Bangkok when I had the airport police called on me. You’ll see it in the story, but it was a strange dynamic, a dynamic you often face traveling while black where you have to do almost a quick assessment: “yes, this woman is calling airport police, or is she weaponizing. Is it being weaponized against me as a foreigner, or as a black American?” It was interesting because being black in the US and the fraught relationship with law enforcement, I had more confidence looking at a Thai military officer and stating what happened confidently and within my rights BECAUSE I was an American citizen. Sometimes it’s just nice to be American… not hyphenated, black-American, West Indian American, etc. But just good ole American and make that privilege work for you. There were also some politics of the waitress taking my order and the scrooge looking auntie pressing the issue. She looked miserly and mean and at a certain point I could tell the pain of the waitresses face as she looked at me apologizing. Broke Down Palace NO THANK YOU!

Have you ever had the police called on you? Where were you? Did you think, “this could go left pretty quickly?”

Let me know and check out my YouTube video where I briefly go over the situation, while strolling hours later in sunny Chiang Rai!

Perfect Stay – the Biltmore Hotel (& New Video!)

I’ve been to some of the most luxurious hotels around the world, and the Biltmore in Miami, Florida has been on my bucket list for quite some time. The Biltmore, a national historic landmark, is one of those iconic hotels, renowned for almost one hundred years, serving royalty, presidents, megastars and mobsters alike. When built in the 1920s, the Biltmore solidified Coral Gables as a center for sports and fashion. The hotel’s gorgeously imposing presence represents such a glamorous time in American history but at the same time, this iteration of the Biltmore, with a recent renovation being completed in 2018, is refreshingly modern.

Only when looking up how many rooms (273) and considering all of the amenities on property (spa, largest pool on the east coast, golf course, tennis courts) did I stop to think, “huh, I guess the Biltmore is a resort!” But this property has such a boutique vibe. Maybe it’s the Mediterranean architecture reminiscent of Italian palazzo and Spanish-Moorish castles — the Moorish Giralda tower is a replica of that found in Sevilla! — but I felt like I was, well, in a gorgeous palazzo in the Mediterranean. It’s minutes from downtown Coral Gables and Miracle Mile, the Biltmore is a totally different vibe from your standard Miami vacation BUT with easy access to Miami Beach and downtown Miami if you need to go. It even felt cooler… like less humid, like you’re breathing rarified air. It was the perfect start for our trip to Miami, an ease into the city. You can actually see the Miami skyline from the hotel!

The Biltmore has had several lives — so much Miami, Coral Gables and American history is in this building — and I have a feeling we’re there for the most recent rebirth with the renovations. Upon entering, you are immediately gobsmacked by the lobby with its gorgeous archways, columns, barrel vaulted ceilings, gargoyles and luxe fabrics. The lobby was recently renovated staying true to the iconic, hand-painted frescos. Very old world luxe but still breathable and modern — even the chirping birds in a mahogany cage at the entrance was a testament to the airiness of the property.

We stayed in a junior suite, a gorgeous little jewel box of a room. Like the lobby, it’s simultaneously luxe and airy with dark woods complementing jewel tones. There was even an amethyst chandelier above the bed — a crystal known for its sleep aiding properties. Or maybe it was the bedding…. The 340-thread count Egyptian cotton sheets and supportive feather bed and pillows made me feel as though I was sleeping on a cloud. Check out a detailed visit of our room on my IGTV.

Food is an art at the Biltmore with 3 delicious restaurants and even a culinary academy. Checking in after 1am on Saturday night due to flight delays, our first meal ended up being room service — Michele’s first time. It was delicious but having breakfasts during our stay at both Fontana (garden courtyard) and Cascade (poolside) restaurants was an absolute treat.

Days can be spent at the grand Biltmore pool, one of the biggest hotel pools on the east coast at 23,000 square feet invoking a Venetian lagoon. Whether dining at Cascade, the poolside restaurant, or working out at the gym, facing the pool, or the spa, the Biltmore’s pool is teeming with the life of the property: people of all ages, guests and Coral Gables residents. The golf course, fine dining, a culinary academy, incredible architecture, the Biltmore truly makes it difficult to leave.

Check out my 60 seconds at the Biltmore Hotel video!

PHOTOS BY NNEYA RICHARDS & MICHELE SCAGLIONE

The Biltmore Hotel. Book now!

Fall Fashion – My Transition Piece

cardigan, SCAGLIONE | dress, ZAC POSEN | shoes, TOPSHOP

I’m a summer baby — I love sun-kissed skin, ocean dips and the rich scent of jasmine on summer nights. But I must admit, I look forward to the layering of fall. September is one of my favorite times of year (besides being a great time to travel) because I can mix the best of both worlds, layering some of my fall favorites with my lighter summer fabrics. I love the mix of wools, leathers, cashmeres with lace, chiffon and bare skin. Right now, that cozy comfort piece is one that Michele’s factory was in the midst of designing while I snagged it. An unfinished cardigan that I’ve draped and pinned exactly how I like it, using a broach from my grandmother. It’s a work in progress, malleable and cozy, maybe just like me!

A chiffon dress with a cardigan in a similar colorway is a style staple for me, opting for gnarled or chunky sweaters to skew the look more french cool girl and less school marm… but I also embrace the school marm! It’s also an easy and fun combo to travel with. Here are two of my favorite sweater and chiffon dress looks and a little guide of my selects for YOU and how to wear them from Bordeaux to Bergamo to Brooklyn!

Here I am in Bordeaux in this green chiffon Kate Moss for Topshop dress and cardigan (same collection) that I’ve had for at least 7 years!
in Bergamo wearing my fall favorite Scaglione raspberry alpaca knit. It’s so fluffy, it’s like a comfort shield!
bag, COACH

Have a new floral dress that you’re looking to breath new life into? Let me know!

PHOTOS BY MICHELE SCAGLIONE

West Indian American Day Parade PhotoDiary 2019

As I’m in New York for Labor Day weekend and sitting in my living room I’m reminded of a few summers ago when every afternoon at 7pm on the dot, without fail, I’d hear the jingle jangle of steel drums, playing all the hits. My favorite? Enrique Inglesias “Bailamos.” And without fail, they’d promptly stopped at 9pm. I loved Brooklyn, I love my neighborhood, gentrified, but still solidly in it’s old flavor. Those steel drums across the street were apart of a band for the West Indian American Day parade in Crown Heights, Brooklyn on Labor Day. They even let me hop in there and play the drums for a shoot for ‘N A Perfect World. That camp is now a very ugly and very skinny new luxury building.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BizMSdIAjrf

Years ago, when I was hoping to be a Vice correspondent, I shot a “test video” that I got really great feedback on, but unfortunately never saw. It’s not vanity that irks me as to why I never saw the video but rather that July / August of 2015 represents almost a changing of the guard in Crown Heights for me. I’m not going to debate the positives and negatives of gentrification on this post but for one day a year, on Labor Day weekend, everyone in Crown Heights… even the NYPD is unabashedly Caribbean (the joie de vivre of the NYPD today engaging freely and happily with the black community should honestly be a propaganda video for their community relations department). As things rapidly change and bougie Union Fare replaces churches and abandoned store fronts, it’s easy to smile about the conveniences, safety and forget there are beautiful facets of West Indian culture being pushed further out. That video with Malcolm Williams on July 31st, 2015 is one of my favorite interviews I’ve ever done, even if I have no footage to show for it. I remember Malcolm’s words almost verbatim. He’s almost a living relic — strange considering his young age — but when remembering that interview, the dramatic soundtrack in my head plays “the times, they are, a-changing.”
When offering suggestions for themes for me to cover for Vice I immediately thought of this nod to my West Indian roots being it was July and the Mas Camps were comping out in Crown Heights for Labor Day. When I suggested it after wandering into a mas camp design studio tipsy one evening lured by the music, the casting director loved it.

I love the MASS CAMP thing. What does that mean btw? I know the West Indian Day parade of course- but what is the mass camp? I think the idea is that we want to see how you interact with people on the fly- in the street and who are not pre-arranged interviews. SO i love mass camp and if yu can get dressed up even better- and then maybe do some Man on the Street interviews with strangers? let me know- ideally we’d like to do this at 3pm on Friday? Let me know
For my ‘N A Perfect World readers, MAS Camp is short for masquerade camp. So for the parade all of those groups of people with coordinating costumes / floats are a part of different camps. The costumes are expensive; for example kids ones start at $200! Closer to the parade, the camps and their activities get bigger and bigger leading up. With my family being from the West Indies, masquerade is something I’ve always been familiar with growing up, whether it’s Crop Over in Barbados, Carnival in Trinidad or the West Indian Day parade on Labor Day weekend in Brooklyn. But we didn’t participate and I didn’t know too much about the history of it. While now, mas is a seemingly obvious connection to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, or Carnivale in Venice, Brazil’s Carnival, at the time, I didn’t think about how international and overarching these traditions were and how they connected. Interestingly enough, part of this could be because of my family’s Jamaican roots, which I found out though this interview with Malcom Williams at Phoenix Mas International.*

When I was a kid I really did want to play mas. I was a dancer and those costumes seemed like a natural fit, but while we would barbecue if we were in town, it just wasn’t my family’s thing. 

Chatting with Malcolm and learning the history of Mas and it’s connection to Lent, suddenly it made sense why this wasn’t a big thing in Jamaica. Jamaica isn’t Catholic, it’s under the church of England so we had very different traditions surrounding spring time Lent and Ash Wednesday. There’s no Fat Tuesday as developed around Mardi Gras in French Catholic New Orleans, or some of the other islands (Barbados’ Crop Over is a tradition from slavery celebrating the end of the back breaking sugar cane harvest season). 
Sometimes Jamaicans was to get a big truck for a band and make a whole heap of noise; they get Shabba, but they’re unorganized. – Malcolm
I laughed when Malcolm said that. Very Jamaican. Not apart of the tradition technically but wouldn’t be outdone.

Malcolm grew up in Panama and the tradition of Carnival / playing mas runs deep in his family. He remembers making his first masquerade face mask out of mud. Flash forward decades later (35 years) and Malcolm’s fingers and knuckles are gnarled from years of costume creation. 2015 was to be his last year before he retired. He was in and out of the hospital over the last 4 years before I met him in 2015 and had a terrible case of carpel tunnel syndrome. But to Malcolm, it was always, “one more year, one more carnival.” Malcolm does the whole carnival circuit going to Crop Over, Trinidad and a few other islands. That year they had a guest costumer from the renowned Shaka Zulu band joining them for NY’s Labor Day. Costume prep work took months and people reserved their looks with him months in advance. Malcolm weaved together fur, lace, gem stones, acrylic, papier mâché, wire and so many other materials into wearable art. A tradition he has passed down to his kids like his father did before him. Like any artist, Malcolm was protective of his art, lamenting to me about the semi-naked girls that strut down Eastern Parkway in pretty mas. I didn’t know that there was indeed a strict dresscode that had to be approved by the West Indian American Day Carnival Association. Malcolm told me that WIAD has strict control over the designs but no matter how modest his designs, there are inevitably some girls that cut holes in his work to show just a smidge more skin. 

But Carnival costumes weren’t always this way as I found out later. After the on-camera interview I wrapped up with the Vice team and headed to a little cookout and costume making party Malcolm invited me to. While there, I met a University of Chicago graduate student from Trinidad who was in Brooklyn studying Carribbean immigragrion. Her family is a big mas family in Trinidad and she was able to give me so much more historial context. We delved more into Trinidad’s strong mas history, French vs. British colonies and the difference between old school mas and pretty mas. Old school mas you’ll often find on Jouvert here and there are set characters that you were playing to tell a story — sort of like Italian theatre. This is a nod and closer to the celebrations that began in Trinidad in the mid-1800s when slaves were emancipated. What we now see, “pretty mas” originated with upper-class girls in Trinidad not wanting to do something so associated with slaves and the darker and lower classes and wanted to “glam it up.” I asked her questions for hours. Pretty fascinating stuff!

Flash forward 3 years to Martinique and I found myself participating an an old mas camp complete with molasses “oil” and all!

It’s raining but we don’t care! We’re here and we’re proud to be West Indian make some noise!

Blared over the loud speakers with deafening bass. The skies opened up and the rain poured. I huddled under the umbrella of a Dominican woman next to me as we danced and smiled and commented on costumes together. Sure, the times might be changing, the neighborhood changing, but when I go on the Parkway today, I’m so proud to be of “West Indian stock.” We really are a beautiful people that can dance and smile through the worst. Can put aside differences with the NYPD and wine up on them and hug them with some real brotherly love. Through rain and shine I saw beautiful people (and the SMILES) on the Parkway living it up. And I’m sitting here in my apartment writing this and getting distracted with hit after hit blasting in the street, Bob to Buju to Biggie… I love Brooklyn.

*now defunct at this location, Phoenix Mas International was on 832 St. John’s Place, Brooklyn, NY 11216

What a great West Indian Day parade

Beach Read: I’m featured in August’s Upscale magazine!

I am so honored to be featured in this month’s Upscale magazine in a two page spread nonetheless on my travels. I love reading the publication and it’s an honor to be featured with so many faces that to me are the epitome of black excellence. I’ve redacted it a bit to entice you to pick up a copy!

Enjoy this great interview by Nina Hemphill Reeder and check out more of her work @reederandwriter!

#BlackGirlBoss – The Lash Loft

So I have a problem in Italy. At first I thought it was me, and being in Bergamo. I couldn’t find a proper place to do my nails, with gel manicures starting at 40 euros. Then when I thought of the idea of getting my hair done there, I recalled studying abroad and getting hair chemical burns. And well… I never walked down the street and saw an Italian woman with truly fly hair! It must be something I’m missing, this country is world renowned for style, surely that translates into beauty as well. A dinner with friend and beauty YouTuber based in Italy, Tia Taylor confirmed it for me. Nope, it’s not me. Italians are super behind in trends and techniques when it comes to beauty, especially hair and nails. So services I took for granted in NYC and London seem like Godsends to me now. One of these services is getting my lashes done. I got them done for the first time in London, but once I found the Lash Loft, in my old neighborhood of Gramercy in NYC, I truly upped my lash game and became a lash aficionado. I’m still open to finding a place in Milan but SandyLee at the Lash Loft set the bar supremely high. For better or worse (lash health and my pocket) I can’t get my lashes done month, more often being every 2-3 months because I don’t really trust anyone to touch my lashes anymore.

You know when a beauty practice, or fashion trend becomes so common place that you start to see bad knock offs. Like bad butt lifts? Well we definitely are beyond that point with eye lashes. Call me bougie but I DONT want my nail salon doing my lashes on the eye brow waxing chair in the back room!

And when I found out a woman of color, an island girl no less, was owner of this premium lash spa, Shellyann Bainlardi, my fondness for it grew further! I enjoy my the Lash Loft appointments because SandyLee and I talk about everything from celebrity eye shapes and the lash styles they use to how she caters to clients that wear glasses and of course, making my lash extensions tailored to me and how I sleep, travel and the wear and tear.

Here’s a little video I made originally for my IGTV highlighting a typical the Lash Loft appointment for me and why the Lash Loft sets the bar high for a lash consultation and services — it’s no wonder their clientele includes Sports Illustrated swimsuit models, bloggers, actresses, people whose livelihoods depend on their face. And then there’s ragamuffin me, who just wants to look camera ready whether getting off of a 16 hour flight or grabbing a pizza in Brooklyn or the Amalfi Coast.

Book your lash services today!

34 E 20th St. Suite 2
New York, NY 10003
Tel: (212) 353-2517

https://www.instagram.com/tv/B02OJKzDouf/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link

New Video: Kasbah du Toubkal & Imlil Valley

Let’s call it the Kingdom of Morocco. It is a Kingdom and that title really conveys the majesty of Morocco and it’s varied landscapes. For this portion of our trip, we opted for the Atlas Mountains and the Imlil Valley — centuries old Berber Kasbahs, mudbrick nomad villages, mountain goats whimsically walking perpendicular to the land, cascading rivers, gorges, canyons and waterfalls. That’s the side of this magical kingdom Michele and I were privy to with Kasbah du Toubkal. The landscape was as welcoming as the people, open up it’s awe-inspiring faces, centuries in the making to us.

Here’s our video of our stay at Kasbah du Toubkal and light day trek around the Imlil Valley.
Comment, subscribe, let me know what you think!

*I also shot another video exclusive for my IGTV channel, same same but different — that one has more meals, a room tour but less good chat with me and Michi. Let me know which you prefer!

Perfect Stay: Kasbah du Toubkal & The Imlil Valley Photo Diary

us overlooking the valley at Kasbah du Toubkal

Heatwaves are sweeping through Europe. They say the hot winds are coming from Northern Africa and the Sahara. When a lot of people go to Morocco, they think Marrakech, beautiful opulent cities or glamping in the Sahara, but Morocco has two large mountain ranges. During Michele’s and my trip for my birthday last year, we saw both of them and were able to experience sultry hot desert climates, historical city exploration and hiking, waterfalls and properly cold mountain temperatures in one trip lasting 10 days! It might not be what you expect, but it’s in these mountains that you can discover the heart, the origins of Moroccan culture.

views of the valley during our day trek


Morocco is famed worldwide for Moroccan hospitality, taking in guests like they are honored members of the family. Predating the Arabic influence is Berber culture and with almost half of the population of Morocco speaking a Berber dialect and more claiming Berber descent. Those famed Moroccan rugs, are often times Berber made and Berber designs (I bought one while in the mountains as well as tableware) — stunning silversmithing too. Berber history goes back 4000 years, maybe more and has resiliently weathered the Romans, Arabs and French. Calling themselves Amazigh or Tuareg, Berber is a name given by the Arabs. Berbers were actually mostly Jewish, Christian or Animists before the Arab invasion of the 7th century.

For a vacation exploring the Atlas Mountains skiing or climbing it’s highest peak, Toubkal — 4,267 meters — (just 40 miles from Marrakesh!), you should start in the Imlil Valley and stay at Kasbah du Toubkal, Morocco’s premiere mountain retreat. Kasbah Toubkal is actually one of NatGeo’s Unique Lodge of the World.

sunset at the Kasbah

 “Whatever you want. Anything you need. You’re a guest in our home.” That was the policy at the Kashbah and from the delicious dates in goat milk, to their birthday cake for me (surprise!). We relished in the Berber hospitality — even a bit reluctant to return to Marrakesh! 

my birthday cake surprise — I think Michele was surprised as well!

A kasbah is an old city keep or fortress and summits in the area are dotted with them. Including one owned by Richard Branson. They are essentially ancient walled compounds, this one being a colonial mansion that had been abandoned. Kasbah du Toubkal opened in 1995 servicing an area that didn’t have very many luxury accommodations for trekkers. Martin Scorcese even shot parts of his film Kundun here!

property views

Kasbah du Toubkal is one of those properties where every traveller seems to have a great story. We met newlyweds, families, trekkers and it was wonderful to share this experience with them. After a long trip, we were immediately welcomed with food and had my birthday dinner watching the sunset in the mountains as the air got crisper. Smiling at Michele, breathing in fresh Atlas mountain air, when I close my eyes now I can still remember it. I walked to the edge of the balcony and took a mental panorama, wanting to register how the air grazed my skin, the herd of mountain goats making their way home almost vertically, the rust color the sunset created on the mountain, Michele’s peaceful spirit. I wanted to remember it all, so I can do exactly what I’m doing now, close my eyes and just got back there.

dinner on our first night

The Food

We were welcomed with Moroccan mint tea as well as local dates dipped in goats milk. Traditional bread, amazing coucous, fresh yogurt at breakfast, we very much enjoyed meal times at Kasbah du Toubkal.

this Argan butter was incredible with the skillet bread. Here’s a recipe!

The property is also quite spacious so more often than not Michele and I felt like we were the only ones there!

We spent the night of my birthday gazing at the starts from the watchtower at the Kasbah.

We were heading to North Africa in the summer but were woefully unprepared for the Atlas mountains where the temperatures drop dramatically at night. I think it was in the 40s F while we were there and we could see our breathe in the night. We were so happy to have traditional Berber mountain robes in our room to put on for stargazing. During the day, I made use of the straw hat provided in our room too!

The next day, well rested from a wonderful night in our cozy cabin, we were ready to explore the Imlil Valley! Most of the guests were up and out while we were having breakfast as they were hiking big summits.

If you’d rather just take a day trip exploring the surrounding villages in the Imlil valley, the Kasbah can arrange that too. We went with Ali and had an amazing time.

After trekking, Michele and I booked a private session in the wood heated hammam — you do have to book it with the front desk so they prep the room for you.

Getting There

We flew into Marrakesh and Kasbah du Toubkal arranges for a driver to pick you up from the airport and driver you about two hours through beautiful vistas into the valley town of Imlil. Your hosts will meet you in the town of Imlil with a trekking donkey to carry your things up to Kasbah du Toubkal. It is a little bit of a hike and surprisingly gets steep at some points!

You guys are in love. Do you love her? I know a man in love. Happy wife, happy life! – salesman in a carpet store in Imlil Valley

Every trip Michele and I take together is special, but Morocco, without a doubt holds a place in our heart. We grew and truly blossomed as a couple. It actually could be the first place where Michele told me he loved me!

The Imlil Valley and Atlas Mountains are truly magical. Kasbah du Toubkal gave us a completely different taste of Morocco that we were truly lucky to experience. Have you been there? Have any other recs for the Atlas Mountains? Let me know!

PHOTOS BY NNEYA RICHARDS & MICHELE SCAGLIONE