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Luxury desert camping, minutes from Marrakech

A queen-size bed with traditional Moroccan linens awaits in a 165-square-foot tent of thick white cotton.
A queen-size bed with traditional Moroccan linens awaits in a 165-square-foot tent of thick white cotton.Jeannie Greeley for The Boston Globe

Within 36 hours of arriving in Marrakech, I was hit by an errant scooter, duped into buying snail cream for my face, and caught in a fever dream of snake charmers, denture salesmen, and fez-wearing monkeys. Needless to say, I needed a break from the ancient labyrinthine city, whose winding alleys and narrow passageways were designed to ward off foreign invaders, but do a pretty good job at mystifying the modern tourist as well.

Enter Scarabeo Camp.

A mere 45-minute drive from Marrakech, this luxury camp appears like a mirage in the middle of Morocco’s Agafay Desert. With miles of rolling hills between you and the snow-capped Atlas Mountains, it is the perfect respite from the mayhem of Marrakech to the serenity of the stone desert.


A bit disoriented as we emerged from our SUV to take in the barren landscape, dotted only by our white tents, we were soon introduced to Scarabeo’s brand of “dusty luxury” — from exquisite candlelit dinners to heartracing desert adventures.

Greeted by Scarabeo’s congenial staffers, we were first treated to a customary Moroccan mint tea and tray of sweet treats, while our baggage was brought to our tent — a 165-square-foot nomad tent of thick white cotton. It is one of only 15 tents on the exclusive site, which can accommodate anything from families to wedding parties.

As you approach the dusty doors of your tent, you can’t help but have a little Indiana Jones swagger in your step. But as soon as you part the flaps, you’re more like a giddy contestant on “Extreme Home Makeover,” speechless as you soak in your posh surroundings.

A plush Queen-size bed is blanketed with traditional Moroccan linens, leather hassocks are perfectly appointed next to a raging wood-burning stove, and vintage suitcases are heaped in the corner, like Humphrey Bogart dropped in after filming Casablanca and forgot his stuff. Antique globes adorn silver-hewn tables, and a director’s chair is tucked under a small writing desk, where you can pen your family and tell them you’re never coming back.


It’s a far cry from the New England campgrounds of your youth, where your family crammed into a polyester pitch tent and used a nearby tree as your “restroom.”

At Scarabeo, each tent is equipped with its own private bathroom offering all the comforts of home, with just a touch more elbow grease required. (You’ve got to pump your commode.) The steel sink/vanity and shower offer plenty of hot water.

Contrary to rumors I had heard, there is some electricity — not only for a bathroom light, but enough to power an iPhone dock that doubles as a stereo. And the property’s solar panels soak up plenty of desert sun. But the true ambiance of the camp comes from its fiery glow, as all the tents and communal areas are lantern lit, while several fire pits are ringed with chairs and even feature the occasional local musician.

Sure, this qualifies as “glamping,” that trendy portmanteau that adds a dash of glamour to camping and makes nature palatable to city folk that can’t survive without Wi-Fi and eight bedside outlets. But, if you’re driving past open air butcheries and hearing four different languages en route to your campsite, you’re likely of an adventurous ilk that has braved the elements a few times in your travel tenure.


However, don’t mistake Scarabeo for the Sahara, with its signature sienna hues and storied history. That journey is an ambitious 8-hour drive, and is often the multiday focal point for many Moroccan travelers. Scarabeo is a perfect alternative for the traveler short on time or for those setting out in many directions to explore the country.

“So what did you do? Just sit in a tent all day?” a friend quipped. Had my answer been ‘yes,’ that would have been enough for my work-weary mind and body. Plenty of guests, in fact, seemed to do nothing more than relish in the total peace and simplicity of the experience.

My girlfriend and I, however, decided to partake in a few of Scarabeo’s many recreational offerings, which range from hot-air ballooning and stargazing with an astronomy professor to yoga and buggy rides. Oh, and if you want to start your adventure early, they even offer transport to the campground via vintage sidecar!

We went with the obligatory desert camel ride, in addition to an adventurous ATV excursion. Our ATV ride had us racing through the desert, past abandoned stone huts, and through the reeds, cresting at the top of a hill for a pristine view of the Atlas Mountains. We even stopped at the tent of a lone Berber who offered his wares, along with tea and a snack.

The hour-long camel ride was an unexpectedly comfy guided journey that takes you into the nearby hills and offers beautiful panoramic views of the Scarabeo campground and surrounding landscapes. If you’re lucky, you’ll have the ride all to yourself, as we did, and can use it to take copious camel photos. And it is quite the travel photographer’s dream. In fact, as we returned to camp at sunset, a group of international pro photographers was capturing a camel caravan guided by torchlight. I actually slapped myself at that point because it was all a bit too surreal.


And then dinner came. Held in a communal tent with tables lining its perimeter, the entire experience happens in the glow of candelabras and a wood-burning stove. The 3-course meal was one of the best we experienced in Morocco, complete with a traditional Moroccan vegetable soup (“harira”), sumptuous orange and olive chicken tagine, and breads cooked daily in the camp’s own earthen oven.

“Sleep like baby,” said the worker stoking our tent’s wood-burning stove one final time before everyone set in for the night.

That evening, as we sat wrapped in blankets under the vast sky, we sipped wine and marveled at the many constellations in plain view, a sight for city-sore eyes. There’s the Big Dipper. And Orion’s Belt. And Cassiopeia . . . I think. And there, just along the horizon was a glistening cluster of another kind, the distant sparkle of Marrakech, with a twinkle in its eye that lures you back to its magical maze.

Jeannie Greeley can be reached at jeannie.greeley@gmail.com.