NEW YORK POST, by Andrea Bennett (Marrakech, Morocco, Oct. 16, 2012) — Marrakech has long had whatever special power it is that spellbinds every kind of traveler. The City of Roses – among its other charming monikers – has been the inspiration for Winston Churchill’s watercolors and fashion of Yves Saint Laurent; haute hippies (think the 1969 rooftop picture of Talitha Getty in a caftan); and not-so-haute hippies (yes, they’re still here).
Perhaps more than many destinations, Marrakech has gone through distinct phases in the last decades. I first visited in the early 1990s, hiking around the Atlas Mountains and paying $5 a night – including gristly mutton tagines, but not hot water or electricity – in order to save pennies for a final two-night stay in La Mamounia. This, of course, was when the iconic grand hotel was really the only luxury game in town. In the years since my first visit, La Mamounia reopened after a three-year massive re-vamp (more on that below) and the number of design-forward private riads (palaces and private courtyard homes renovated as guesthouses) has catapulted into the hundreds.
But after a decade of turning luxury inward to secret courtyards behind non-descript walls, Marrakech is bringing back glamour – of the best, most ostentatious and decadent kind – in a building boom that includes nearly 20 new hotels opening by the end of this year. If you are wondering where the beautiful people have gone, look no further. They are here, being waited on by a clutch of servants who travel via underground tunnel at His Highness Mohammed VI’s own Royal Mansour, watching the Arabian horses at Selman emerge from their own equine blow-dry room, wearing jeweled Hublots in the pool at La Mamounia.
The city’s transformation makes it virtually all things to all travelers, with exoticism (snake charmers in the astounding medina, Djemaa el-Fan), amazing cuisine (vialongstanding favorites, new hotels, and reimagined regional around town), and truly off-the-hook properties, all in a virtually seasonless place that doesn’t take much longer to reach from New York than London. On a trip earlier this year, we stayed in eight hotels in as many days, and toured many more. My recommendation: Switch up your trip by staying in more than a single property. Since the new properties are themselves destinations, you’ll want to try a few.
My experience at Royal Mansour began in one of the fleet of house cars – a Mercedes 600SL – whose uniformed, white-gloved driver picked me up amongst the chaos near the medina, rifling through the streets in a perfectly choreographed ride that culminated in a dramatic slow-down to 5mph down the private drive in order to best appreciate the grandeur. Hoteliers describing the place to me had called it a museum – so grand you’ll feel you can’t actually touch anything.
But very little prepares you for the actual experience. Considering that it took 1000 artisans four years to lay the mosaic tile, it’s easy to expect ridiculous ostentation. In fact, His Highness’s pet project is layers upon layers of micro-details (walls and floors of traditional zellige tiles, glowing rose gold leaf ceilings, back-lit onyx, collections of museum jewelry), all adding up one richly orchestrated blend of courtyards and reflecting pools. You’ll stay in your own two-story riad, with a Bedouin-tented rooftop and swimming pool.
And then there’s the service: Get out of the shower, and some mystery person has popped out of the catacombs to rearrange the items on your vanity; another has a fruit platter and is making you tea.If you cannot justify the $2000-plus per night to stay here, do try one of the restaurants. We had dinner at Le Grande Table Marocaine (created by three Michelin-starred chef, Yannick Alleno), which will feature at least twice as many waiters as guests in a balletic performance involving a table crowded with an enormous number of beautifully reimagined Moroccan specialties (www.royalmansour.com).
You must not visit Marrakech at least dropping in on La Mamounia. The city’s 1923 grand hotel, which straddles the medina and Hivernage reopened in 2010 after a laborious makeover by French designer Jacques Garcia that lasted three long years. When I first visited, it was beginning to show its age. But what has emerged in its place: pure magic. Most traces of the Art Deco details added in the 1980s have been replaced by a reinfusion of traditional Moroccan artisanship, courtesy of painstaking zellige tilework and deeply saturated tadelakt (polished plaster) walls that create a clubby, masculine effect.
Every guestroom, suite and riad on the nearly 20 acre property overlooks the spectacular gardens and pools. A spa and two hammams, private spa suites and a full salon replace an older restaurant, while the newly built Le Marocain – a three floor pavilion with both old and nouveau Moroccan menus, library, drawing room and rooftop bar are a major draw. If you don’t stay here, at the very least have lunch at the Mediterranean-inflected poolsidebuffet, where we saw a table of at least a dozen of the most expensive handbags and watches we’ve seen in one place polishing off a seemingly endless supply of Dom Perignon rosé. The variety of dishes is incredible; the people-watching is better (www.mamounia.com).
This month, another Jacques Garcia-designed property officially opens, after a four-month soft opening. Entering Selman is pure drama – a palace imbued in every sense with the Kingdom’s rich history. The traditional, almost austere exterior of the newly built, 15-acre property ten minutes from the media borrows its stacked red brick style from the Arab-Moor tradition. Inside: pure stage set grandeur, with punchy, jewel-tone colors in the grand entrance, and a surprisingly small number of rooms and suites (only 56) with unexpected twits: anthracite gray walls and graphic, black-and-white tilework.
It’s the property’s sprawling gardens and a stable designed for the owner’s ten Arabian horses (valued at $2 million each, and no, you may not ride them) that inspire the most awe. The decidedly French pavilion is where to sit to watch them wander their grounds as you lunch. If I had the trip to do again, I would check into the hammam – the first destination spa in Marrakech, where the staff expects plenty of patrons to check in for a week of le detox. The traditional hammam design gives way to treatment rooms filled with the latest in German thalassotherapy tubs and the latest in spa technologies, offering treatments by French beauty legend Dominique Chenot (www.selman-marrakech.com).
Should you prefer the comforts of a recognizable brand, you can absolutely not go wrong with the new Four Seasons Marrakech, a vast complex of rooms and residences spread across 40 acres of Moorish gardens (one of the biggest spaces in the city). There will always be travelers who forsake a brand like Four Seasons in the name of authenticity, but you needn’t make that sacrifice here. All the elements that make the brand terrific are here: flawless wireless (try that in a city where the WiFi slows during busy times); snappy but lovely service; deep soaking tubs and possibly the most comfortable beds in Marrakech.
The hotel has a more deeply embedded sense of place than I’ve seen in many new properties – its natural, light- filled spaces a modern twist on riad living. This is undoubtedly where to go if you’re bringing kids. There’s one pool for families and another that’s adults only. The famed Four Seasons kids’ club concept outdoes itself here, with tennis camps, a screening room and teen club. While you might not gravitate toward Italian food in Morocco, you must try it at Bleu d’Orange, a modern twist on mostly Milanese fare. This Four Seasons has also emerged as a rather unlikely local party spot, with the opening of the rooftop bar Zest (above the restaurant), where international DJs spin for a relaxed crowd mingling around huge outdoor fireplaces with birds-eye views of the Atlas Mountains in the distance (www.fourseasons.com).
It is nearly impossible to list every superlative newer property in Marrakech. Among other recent openings are the first Aman resort – Amanjena – on the African continent and the decidedly French Naoura Barriere, as well as a new Delano hotel. But I recommend departing over-the-top glam for at least two nights in the small and very private Palmeraie-area Ksar Char-Bagh, inspired by 14th century Moorish design (now opened for several years). Go to the property’s website, and you will watch one of the most sensuous hotel video productions ever – involving mysteriously opening doors and a beautiful woman walking through water.
It’s easy to be skeptical, as I was, but in fact this is a fairly accurate representation of how it feels to be there.For any takers: this is where I would like to spend a week without emerging from the room, if you know what I mean. Incredibly simple details are made of incredibly high-quality materials, with courtyard rooms that open into private yards with low-slung chairs and plunge pools.
The ten acres of Persian-style gardens supply the restaurant and produce their own olive oil. Amid them you’ll find a roofless pis (earth walled) hut, within whose walls you can plan a romantic dinner. And should you be looking for a mystical hammam experience, you will find it here: deep below ground, a womblike room where you will strip naked and have even your face massaged by black soap (www.ksarcharbagh.com).
In Marrakech true luxury is all about going where the beautiful people go to be seen — and then where they go to escape.