Although Marrakech has outgrown its crenellated pink ramparts and the numerous flights into its gleaming international airport make the city easily accessible from the rest of the world, you only have to turn a corner in the medina to find scenes of local life unchanged in centuries: a baker standing before an ancient wood-fired oven; a craftsman beating brass with a wooden mallet; a dyer with stained hands working beneath gaudy skeins of silk.
The thought of a vacation in Marrakech can be daunting to some travelers. Most guidebooks offer hard-to-follow advice about how to bargain and what seemingly ubiquitous scams to avoid, needlessly worrying readers who are perhaps already anxious about visiting a Muslim-majority country. But as one Berber guide put it, “This is the Maghreb, not the Middle East.”
Morocco remains a moderate, heterogeneous and welcoming country.
The call of the muezzin floats over Marrakech five times a day, and consuming alcohol in public is forbidden, but numerous restaurants serve drinks, and Morocco even has a surprisingly high-quality wine industry. During our trip, bacon appeared more than once at breakfast. And several of my guides referred to Morocco’s rich Jewish history with pride.
Visitors to Marrakech can choose from a bewildering array of accommodations, ranging from small converted riads (traditional courtyard houses) hidden deep in the medina to sprawling big-name luxury resorts in the Palmeraie well outside of town. Many people try both, starting in a medina hotel before decamping to a resort to relax. Newer Palmeraie properties such as the Four Seasons Resort Marrakech and the Mandarin Oriental, Marrakech — near the recently opened Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden — compete with Amanjena, but I see no evidence that they surpass my longtime recommendation. So on this trip, I confined myself to hotels in walking distance of the Djemaa el-Fna, the large square where snake charmers, musicians and dancers entertain tourists and locals alike, as they have for centuries. It was something of a shock to discover that one of the finest hotels in the world lies within this radius.
Deciding, it seems, that Morocco’s premier tourist destination needed a showpiece hotel, the king of Morocco created the Royal Mansour. It opened in 2010, but it wasn’t until late 2016 that the 53-riad hotel completed its outdoor pool and gardens. With those essential pieces in place, the Royal Mansour has become a reason alone to visit Marrakech.
The king used an almost unlimited budget to take full advantage of the country’s rich tradition of craftsmanship, employing some 1,200 artisans with specialties in geometric zellij tile work, plaster carving, woodwork, stone inlay and painting. Only in Morocco, a country with both an absolute monarch and a 1,000-year-old decorative heritage, would such a hotel be possible. The links between historic masterpieces of Moroccan architecture and the Royal Mansour are obvious. But the craftsmanship on display at the city’s 19th-century Bahia Palace, for example, is no better than at the Royal Mansour.
After passing through the hotel’s monumental entry gate, we had a relaxed check-in in the main courtyard, a cool expanse of marble and mosaic tile centerpieced by a perfumed fountain. Reception was an opulent room of semiprecious stone tile, carved plaster, intricately wrought screens and Murano-style glass, capped by a cupola with a star-inspired pattern gilded in silver. A staff member gave us a tour of the grounds, laced with little canals and shaded by mature palms, before taking us to our accommodations. We had been upgraded from an entry-level 1,500-square-foot Superior Riad to a 1,900-square-foot Premier Riad. This dazzled almost as much as the public areas.
Beyond our zellij-tiled entry courtyard was an exotic vestibule with a cushion-strewn banquette backed by more mosaics. The main living room had a woodburning fireplace, walls covered with hand-painted wainscoting and embroidered silk, carved plaster moldings and a wood-beamed ceiling. Upstairs (one riad in each category has an elevator), a wall of carved plaster backed the sublimely comfortable king bed, and an elaborate room-width wood screen separated the walk-in closet. The adjacent master bath could hardly have been more sumptuous, with carved marble walls, marble accent strips inlaid with a spiraling vine pattern, dual vessel sinks each hewed from a single piece of marble and a deep tub with several choices of bath salts. Even the shower stall had its own brass chandelier. Throughout the riad, modern Moroccan paintings added a dash of contemporary style.
Up one more flight of stairs we found the roof terrace, where we had mint tea and Moroccan cookies while reclining on a tent-shaded daybed. Another woodburning fireplace stood near two sun loungers and a plunge pool. The man who brought our tea came through a staff entrance — each floor of our riad conveniently had one — and a network of underground tunnels connects all the accommodations with the main building and its kitchens, allowing employees to service each riad all but unseen. This is not a resort where you are likely to encounter unsightly housekeeping carts or used room-service trays.
After a delicious light lunch outside at Le Jardin, a restaurant that serves Japanese and Moroccan cuisine at palm-shaded tables, we walked over to the nearby swimming pool. More mature palms and centuries-old olive trees surround this turquoise expanse, which one can enjoy from a cushioned sun lounger or one of seven private pavilions, which are fully enclosed house-size cabanas. We were tempted to recline by the pool for the remainder of the afternoon, but a hammam appointment beckoned.
I accompanied my spouse to the immense spa, where a candlelit entry tunnel opens theatrically onto a soaring lounge. I decamped to the glass-enclosed indoor pool. Ninety minutes later she emerged from her treatment looking thoroughly relaxed and refreshed. The hammam took only an hour; the remainder of the time had been spent sipping lemon-ginger infusions on a daybed in the harem-like relaxation lounge amid whitewashed wood screens and creamy raw-silk drapes.
In the evening, we went in search of aperitifs. Two bar-lounges flank a courtyard with an orange blossom-scented fountain: the chic Royal Mansour Bar, notable for the net of brass vines arcing over the tables, and the masculine Chimney Lounge, with an extraordinary ceiling of muqarnas (honeycomb coffers) and a unique transparent woodburning fireplace. We had expertly mixed cocktails in the latter, accompanied by a jazz duo.
Our dinner in the lavish Moroccan restaurant La Grande Table Marocaine began with a ewer of orange-flower water with which to wash and perfume our hands. We relished every gorgeously presented dish of the eight-course tasting menu, followed by a selection from the Moroccan pastry cart. Standout courses included spiny lobster in an orange-mustard sauce with beet purée, and lamb cheek with Moroccan black truffle. A lapis-paved courtyard with a silver fountain separates this restaurant from La Grand Table Française, an equally opulent dining venue with a French menu. Michelin three-star chef Yannick Alléno oversees both kitchens.
After breakfast (served on Limoges china), the dismal reality of checkout was upon us. Now I know how Sultan Muhammad XII felt when he was ejected from the Alhambra. Very rarely have I experienced such a perfect combination of flawless service and exquisitely opulent décor. Every moment of the guest experience has been carefully considered to ensure maximum comfort, and every aspect of the design dazzles the eye. It felt painful to sit down in the house Bentley for our complimentary departure transfer.
Service that was incredibly attentive without being obsequious; the careful consideration of the guest experience from start to finish; the extraordinary craftsmanship of the palatial décor; the sumptuous restaurant; the sybaritic spa; the glamorous pool amid mature gardens; the vast and plush accommodations; the location within walking distance of the Djemaa el-Fna.
Checking out was a dagger to the heart.
Rates include airport transfers, as well as access to the FastTrack immigration line.
We moved on to the 28-room La Sultana Marrakech, set in the Kasbah quarter adjacent to the Saadian Tombs. This property routinely appears on lists of Marrakech’s best, and a review was overdue. A red-caped doorman led us down the short brick-lined alley to a door guarded by a metal detector, the beeping of which was studiously ignored by the staff for the duration of our stay. Once past “security,” we were warmly greeted at the front desk with cool towels, almond-stuffed dates and little bowls of chilled almond milk.
Since housekeeping was putting the final touches to the Suite Deluxe to which we had been upgraded, we sat down to some mint tea in the garden-filled Scheherazade Riad, one of five courtyards comprising the main public spaces of the hotel. Each has its own style; the romantic Saadian Riad, for example, has elaborate zellij-tile floors and intricately carved dark woodwork, whereas the Bahia Riad, where our suite was located, has bright stucco walls surrounding a hexagonal hot tub set into a white-marble floor. The best suites surround the latter and include balconies or small patios.
Our Rhinoceros Suite occupied the ground floor of the riad, and I have a hard time believing that it measured 650 to 750 square feet, as noted in the Suite Deluxe’s description. There wasn’t room for a sofa. It was a small junior suite, with two red-and-gold armchairs (showing wear on the arms), pink-and-white marble floors and an orange area rug that was either an antique or just tired. I did like the half-domed (nonfunctional) fireplace set against a wall of carved plaster, the grand Murano-style chandelier and the firm bed enclosed in an elaborate nickel frame. Two sizable closets flanked the door to the impressive bath, where a fresco of rhinos overlooked a deep pink-marble tub. Carved marble columns flanked both of the polished brass sinks.
The next day, we enjoyed a delightful cooking class on the roof terrace, a striking furnished space with palm trees and slender chimneys. After a lunch of taktouka (a salad of tomato and roasted peppers), and fish tagine that we had made, I headed to the spa. Its centerpiece is a narrow pool lined by a pink tadelakt (polished plaster) colonnade, with treatment rooms and loungers on either side. My steam and scrub seemed very authentic, in that it was mercilessly vigorous. But when it was finished, I felt both relaxed and revived. I reclined, wrapped in a thick robe and towel turban, while I awaited my massage therapist. Her technique was excellent, but she made a poor first impression by approaching with a tray of scented argan oils that she placed on my lap. A client is not a table.
Dinner, too, was hit-and-miss. I loved the romantic candlelit setting by the swimming pool, enhanced by a musician strumming an oud (lute). Our server was both friendly and efficient, but the pigeon pastilla, a pie of phyllo-like dough topped with powdered sugar, tasted too sweet, and the shrimp in my otherwise excellent seafood couscous had a rather grainy texture.
However, I certainly don’t feel ambivalent about La Sultana’s head concierge, Saida, who is the hotel’s greatest asset. She never failed to be both helpful and charming. For the same price as a ticket, she gave us a card allowing us to bypass the lengthy line at the Majorelle Garden, and she can also arrange surprisingly inexpensive private after-hours tours of the Saadian Tombs. It was reassuring to know we could always come to her for sound advice and quick assistance. I like the Kasbah location of La Sultana, its eager-to-please staff and its splendid décor, but it has too many rough edges for me to recommend it unreservedly.
The very helpful and proactive concierge; the various beautiful riads; the romantic roof terrace; the cooking class; the strong sense of place.
The signs of wear in our smaller-than-expected suite; the sometimes unpolished service in the spa.
Concierge Saida said she was happy to arrange for line-bypassing tickets to the Majorelle Garden and private visits of the Saadian Tombs for guests of other hotels.
On the other side of the medina from La Sultana, the Bab Doukkala neighborhood now overflows with historic riads converted into hotels. The best remains the first, La Maison Arabe, which is full of local character but equipped with modern comforts. It also has a very fine restaurant. I especially like the Junior Suites with fireplaces and balconies overlooking the pool.
But La Maison Arabe is old news. Travel magazines are currently falling all over themselves to praise the five-room L’Hôtel Marrakech, which opened in 2016.
Indeed, there is much to like about this hideaway owned by British designer Jasper Conran. His conversion of a 19th-century mansion is visually striking, and because it has so few rooms, L’Hôtel feels rather like a private palace. I loved the large, leafy courtyard, especially at dusk, when it was lit with lanterns, and the two greenery-filled roof terraces, one with dining tables and the other with loungers. It was very romantic to watch the sunset from a daybed while sipping glasses of citrusy Laroque Chardonnay.
We had booked the Fez Suite, located, like all but one of the accommodations, on the second floor. It had a sense of privacy not often found in riad hotels. The suite’s broad garden-view terrace came with an octagonal table of inlaid wood ideal for breakfasting. A thick wall separated it from the high-ceilinged suite, with a dramatic bed surrounded by (unnecessary) white mosquito netting, plum velvet armchairs and an eclectic mix of decorative objects, including framed Quran pages and a Thai-style Buddha sculpture. The small but attractive sand-toned tadelakt bath had a skylight, a single brass sink, a walk-in shower and several niches ideal for storing toiletries, in addition to fluffy robes and tasseled towels.
Service was attentive and thoughtful. On our first day, a staffer walked us some distance from the hotel to a main intersection, to make sure we had our bearings, and when we needed a taxi to a restaurant, another man escorted us to a driver he had arranged. And our dinner of Moroccan salads and traditional tagines in the hotel’s main lounge, lit by candles and a roaring fire, was delicious.
Unfortunately, small problems at L’Hôtel added up, including unreliable Wi-Fi and a lack of luggage racks and slippers. Most problematic was the climate control. The two portable heaters in our suite were totally inadequate. We felt quite cold even in the main lounge, wearing sweaters, while seated a few feet from the fire. L’Hôtel’s location is also not ideal for a first-time visitor to Marrakech. The five-minute walk down a narrow, winding alley to the property offers a real glimpse into local life — for better and worse. We encountered both a group of cheerful teenage girls playing soccer and a resident beggar, who took hold of my elbow and started kissing my shoulder while we waited for someone to unlock the hotel’s front door. Such experiences may be memorable, but I suspect that most travelers would be willing to skip them.
The sense of staying in a private mansion; the stylish décor; the helpful and friendly staff; our casual but delicious dinner; the airy roof terraces; the cozy bar; the sense of privacy, rare in riad-style hotels.
The location far down a dead-end derb; the inadequate climate control; the lack of slippers; the unreliable Wi-Fi.
The swimming pool in the garden courtyard is small but offers privacy; there is also a tiny hammam; airport transfers are included in the rates; weekends have a minimum stay requirement.
So that leaves a choice among three very fine and very different Marrakech hideaways: the riad-style La Maison Arabe in the medina, the sumptuously luxurious and more expensive Royal Mansour on the medina’s outskirts, and Amanjena, a plush retreat 20 minutes by car from the Djemaa el-Fna. But for those able to spend upward of $1,200 a night on accommodations, the Royal Mansour has little competition, in Marrakech or anywhere else in the world.