Anyone who’s been back to Marrakech after a several year absence would have difficulty recognizing the place. The winding alleyways of the medina are still there, with atmospheric riads hidden behind nondescript doors and stall after stall of silks, slippers, brass on sale. And in the center of it all, Jemaa el Fna, the main square inhabited by snake charmers, acrobats, sizzling kebab grills, boulevarding locals and mobs of tourists.
What’s changed, however, is the hotel scene; it’s a veritable explosion with more coming on line all the time: Rocco Forte’s Assoufid, a Baglioni, a Mandarin Oriental, a W, a Park Hyatt, the Jawhar from Monaco’s Societie des Bains de Mer are all set to open over the next year.
Long gone are the days when La Mamounia, although still the most famous, was the only game in town. With all of this new construction, though, hoteliers fret about whether there will be enough visitors to fill all of these new rooms, plus the existing ones in longstanding hotels and ones that have opened over the last few years. For these visitors, it means that there is an embarrassment of riches and they need to decide which to pick. Here are a few choices: You can see the Atlas Mountains and the date palms of the Palmeraie from the top deck of the Royal Mansour riads. If you want to feel like a member of the royal family—and want privacy: Stay in the Royal Mansour, the hotel that the King of Morocco built. (Conversely, if you want a bustling bar scene and to be seen, stay at its neighbor and competitor, La Mamounia.)
The King spent untold millions, and thousands of artisans spent years creating the ceramic tilework, sculpted plasterwork , geometrically carved wood, inlaid marble and intricate leatherwork for which the country is known. The 53 triplex riads with plunge pools on the top deck have correspondingly lush décor along with courtyards and fountains; you never have to leave your room. But to do that would miss the clubby bar with its intricate, hand-tooled leather walls, the spa with its open white spiderweb décor and prodigious range of treatments and the exceptional Moroccan restaurant La Grande Table Marocaine, one of several under the supervision of Michelin three star chef Yannick Alleno.
Tagines are served all over Morocco but few as rich and delicious as the ones at Marrakech's Villa des Orangers. If you want the intimacy of a riad, a medina location but with more facilities: Villa des Orangers. You could easily pass the doorway of this Relais & Chateaux property on a busy street in the medina and have absolutely no clue about the grandeur inside: a large riad of Moorish architecture dating from the 1930’s housing 27 rooms and suites, three flowered patios, a large garden and a long pool,the latter not typical in medina riads. The décor is a mix of Moroccan, Colonial and African designs in the rooms and the lounges, creating a look that’s both stylish and cozy. The romantic, candlelit restaurant also turns out a superlative menu of mostly French specialities with some Moroccan dishes, a nice change if you’ve overloaded on tagines. But if you haven’t, their tagine was the best, most intensely flavored one that I had anywhere in Morocco. If you really like Arabian horses: The Selman which opened in 2012, has a location several miles outside of the city, a French interpretation of Moroccan décor by Jacques Garcia that looks just a little similar to his 2009 renovation of La Mamounia, and stables housing the owner’s Arabian horses that were also designed by Garcia. Lucky horses.
But apart from the ability to observe these fine creatures—guests are not allowed to ride them—there doesn’t seem to be a reason to stay here instead of the others. Palais Namaskar, in the Palmeraie outside of Marrakech, has been designed for pure knockout drama. If you like sleek, international décor, and your own pool. The Oetker Collection’s Palais Namaskar also opened in 2012 out in the date palm shaded Palmeraie, 15 minutes from the medina. The design is pure drama—long, narrow walkways linking villas with Moorish arches punctuated by gardens and pools—there are 28 water features on the grounds, 27 of which are private pools. (Beware how narrow those walkways are, though, when walking back from the bar or you could easily fall into one of them.) In the bar, a chandelier that looks like something out of “The Phantom of the Opera” hangs low overhead.
You feel like you’re in a magazine layout, not necessarily in Morocco but it’s all so beautiful that ultimately you don’t care. And one advantage of staying here is the property’s jet, which can bring guests in from Casablanca, fly them to other Oetker properties (Nice for the Hotel du Cap, Paris for Le Bristol..) or in from other cities around the world. The design of the Taj in Marrakech's Palmeraie is India in Morocco but the bedrooms are beautiful. If you’re also fond of India: The Taj Palace Marrakech nearby in the Palmeraie which opened late in 2012, has another element of national confusion in that it stood in as a palace in Abu Dhabi in the movie “Sex and the City II.” Apparently, the Moroccan owner loves Indian design and both the imposing palace doors entry and the pool with cupola floating within it in the rear are reminiscent of a Rajasthan palace. The bedrooms are beautiful; the common rooms, kind of nuts and floridly shaded. If you don’t like color schemes of purple and jade green splashed on a huge scale, this probably isn’t the place for you.
If you want to meet interesting locals and artists: Staying at Jnane Tamsna in the Palmeraie is like being at an extended dinner/house party. Owner Meryanne Loum-Martin knows everyone in town—at a recent lunch, I met Vanessa Branson, sister of Virgin Atlantic’s Richard Branson, owner of the art filled Riad El-Fenn in the medina and the driving force behind the Marrakech Biennale—and international cultural types are always passing through. Loum-Martin is a designer and her style here is classic Moroccan shot through with contemporary touches and wit. The food is also top of the line, home cooked Moroccan. And the property has several pools surrounded by lush flower and vegetable gardens created by her botanist husband Gary Martin. It’s a very soothing place. Riad Fes in the heart of the Fes medina is a bastion of luxury in a UNESCO World Heritage site. The same can’t always be said for the main city, particularly as it goes through this development boom. But two other Moroccan cities that can be excursions from Marrakech remain peacefully unchanged. Fes is a UNESCO World Heritage site for its perfectly preserved walled medieval city and staying in the old city instantly transports you back. There are no tee shirt or souvenir shops, just bakers and food stalls supplying the locals who live in small stone houses tucked into the alleyways.
The subdivisions are by trade—the leather crafters, dyers, ceramicists settled in different sections and still work there; stalls sell their products. If you stay in the Relais & Chateaux Riad Fes, a former nobleman’s house in the center of the medina, you just walk out your door and into another age. Just remember to hug the walls if you hear someone scream “Balak! Balak!” meaning “Make Way!” It means a donkey cart, the still used means of transport, is heading down your way ferrying goods. Two hours west of Marrakech on the Atlantic coast is Essaouira, the haven of musicians such as Jimi Hendrix in the 60’s and it still retains its casual, drop out ease, a seaside town surrounded by fishing boats, encircled by seagulls. In its medina, stores sell artisan clothing designs and food stalls present just caught fish, mounds of spices, ripe olives. The best lunch plan is to go to the fish market in the medina (not the fish stalls on the waterfront) and have a simple place around the corner grill your fish. The best hotel in town is the 19th century mansion the Relais & Chateaux L’Heure Bleue Palais just inside the walls of the medina, with rooms decorated in Moorish, Portugese or British Empire styles. And the best view: from the roof, looking out at the old city with its crisp white buildings that through the years haven’t changed at all.