Go ahead and call him crazy. Thierry Teyssier – the Paris-based visionary behind Dar Ahlam, a 200-year-old kasbah turned 14-room hideaway within a traditional Berber village in the wadis (valleys), four hours’ drive southeast from Marrakech – has heard it before. “Totally insane”, the Frenchman gleefully admits, was the initial reaction to his company Maison des Rêves’ latest Morocco venture. A 200-kilometre real-life flip-book of a five-day journey, La Route du Sud brings one booking at a time by well-appointed Toyota TX past argan bushes and wizened fig trees; along jagged red earth Atlantic coastline, among the sculptural contours of Anti-Atlas Mountains and through Saharan lunarscapes, before arriving at Teyssier’s ultra-chic dune camp in a seemingly endless sandbox. If not with Teyssier’s meticulously trained team, one is highly unlikely to travel across this ever-changing landscape – one of North Africa’s most evocative.
Unsurprisingly, the path that led him to take others so far off-piste was circuitous. Having starting out in the theatre world, Teyssier launched an events company in 1991. “I found my talent is for mis en scène”, says the former producer of his evolution from the stage to real life. “People were willing to pay me to create exceptional moments for them.” So satisfied were his clients with these inimitable, one-night-only spectacles that they began asking Teyssier to plan their holidays, too. Soon he was booking after-hours museum tours and organising for customs officers to handle formalities aboard private planes. Only one person was left feeling disappointed. “Even at the highest-rated hotels and everywhere in the world, I found staff focused solely on their brand.” After hearing ‘no’ too many times, Teyssier set out to create his own hotel, “where I could practise my philosophy of thinking about my clients first.”
Even today, 15 years after it opened, Dar Ahlam – Teyssier’s first hospitality venture, based on the edge of the Moroccan desert near
Ouarzazate – remains irrefutably radical. The dusty rose-hued fortress has been sensitively modernised and extends to resort requisites like a candlelit spa and palm-fringed swimming pool; yet Dar Ahlam is not so much a hotel as a team of unreservedly dedicated people – from its hundreds of gourmet recipes courtesy of the likes of Thierry Alix, Philippe Conticini and Pierre Hermé, all the way to Teyssier’s own storytelling book. Of the 100-plus staff members, most come from the surrounding village. All have been schooled and empowered to sense, then exceed, the expectations of no more than 30 guests at a time. There are no keys, no bar, nor restaurant. “But also no limits”, Teyssier points out. “Everything is just for you. You can change your mind in the moment, because my team revolves around you. To all of this we add elements of surprise.”
Dar Ahlam may be a Berber fortress, but it is no ivory tower. Activities, which are always private, dive deep into environs rarely visited by other tourists and so authentic that it is not unusual for a guide to introduce passing family members as he leads the way through a nearby palm oasis. Treks across the Valley of Roses, picnics along hidden rivers and hilltop tea ceremonies are orchestrated with military precision and delivered with genuine flexibility. “I wanted to bring people to places as I had discovered them”, recounts the charming Frenchman. “Equally important is that we do so with the care I would show my own loved ones.”
Typically, guests do not reach out to him immediately upon returning home. They do so after their next holiday, when they better grasp the extent of Teyssier’s out-of-the-box approach. “I am not interested in travel just for pleasure or entertainment. These are addictive but fleeting”, he observes. “We are about helping our guests to find their own happiness.”
This mission drives Teyssier’s seemingly inexhaustible determination to make the inaccessible accessible, both physically and metaphorically. Around 10 years after Dar Ahlam opened, a Moroccan friend’s invitation to explore the country’s southern reaches unexpectedly sparked an enthusiasm to share this journey of sun-dried valleys and palm dense oases – impossible at the time, since there was nowhere suitable for Dar Ahlam guests to stay.
“Maybe it was outrageous thinking to extend our dreams like this”, he concedes, “but I did not get discouraged.” Instead, he got out maps and methodically built an itinerary. “I would need somewhere for my guests to sleep near Agadir, which is halfway between Marrakech and Guelmim, then another stop halfway to Akka and a third en route to our dune camp.” What would have seemed like fantasy fodder to most was very linear to Teyssier.
Local craftspeople erected La Route du Sud’s three photogenic houses, all of which fit contextually into their respective environments, yet stand out for their thoughtful comforts. After a good knead in the bijou spa and equally commendable Volubilis rosé at Maison des Arganiers, which is tucked away in an authentic hillside Berber village, guests cross sun-scorched scenery until palm trees suddenly shoot up around Tighmert’s lush palm grove near the Mauritania border. Here they come across La Maison de l’Oasis: an air-conditioned, canvas-clad explorer’s camp complete with clawed bathtub and organic bath oils. Next, the custom caravan heads off towards the stone-clad La Maison Rouge, designed by French architectural firm Studio KO and perched within a scarlet-streaked desert canyon. “This journey is about the thrill of movement and discovery”, says the peripatetic explorer. Subtly choreographed, yet completely spontaneous, Teyssier’s masterful staging culminates among the light and shadows of Iriki, an ancient salt lake turned larger-than-life sandbox sure to evoke pure awe from anyone’s inner child.
Teyssier saw his guests along La Route tap into something even deeper than he has witnessed at Dar Ahlam. “So I began to imagine again.” Having upturned notions of customer service and stripped away the four walls of a traditional guest experience, for his third act Teyssier has been eyeing national borders. Starting next year, 700,000 Heures (‘Sept Cent Mille Heures’) will operate as an ephemeral version of La Route, based in a different country every six months or so, decamping from one continent or hemisphere to another according to weather conditions. Leading his guests to previously unseen yet magnificent corners of our planet and inviting them to stay at breathtaking pop-up properties that are otherwise off-limits, Teyssier envisions this as something of a travelling dinner party, based on the notion that we remember and are enriched by the people we encounter, long after the names of each Angkorian temple or Icelandic fjord visited are forgotten. The curious name refers to the average human lifespan in hours; it reflects his genuine concern for how we spend that finite time. “You can choose to spend it with us and I promise we will lead you to shared moments of happiness.”
Teyssier is still very much in start-up mode, reaching out to past guests in search of new ideas and directions. “I like to collaborate when I create, and I am seeing that guests want to deepen this relationship from just being served. Not all, of course, but some.” This listening tour has already inspired some game-changing ideas. While all prospective guests must apply for membership prior to joining their first ephemeral journey, those who upgrade to his highest category, le Circle des Amazigh, may come scouting upcoming destinations with Teyssier. “Guests will help to define the guest experience”, he declares, excited to erase more conventions. “I suppose that’s a bit audacious, but it’s also the natural progression of what lured me into this business.”
Cynthia Rosenfield is Editor-at-Large for Surface magazine, covering all that is compelling across contemporary architecture, design, fashion, culture and travel. She studied Chinese at Yale after (nearly) failing her first architecture course. Now she just checks into hotels after someone else has done all the work.