Marrakech | Ramadan, riads and royal palaces


Midsummer in Morocco is low season – Ramadan and 45-degree temperatures slow things down to a crawl. But there’s still luxury aplenty in Marrakech. Mark C O’Flaherty heads to North Africa for some local rosé, beside the best pools in the best hotels in the city

The best spa in the world

The spa at the Royal Mansour Marrakech

No one in their right mind goes to Marrakech in mid-summer. Temperatures soar into the forties, and the populace is in a daily Ramadan-induced trance until sundown. I travelled to Morocco because I had no faith in the London summer (last seen seven years ago). I wanted guaranteed, blazing heat somewhere that I knew well enough not to be tempted to sightsee; I wanted to sit by a pool with a bottle of rosé and the Diana Vreeland biography, with nothing but a few spa visits in the diary.

Of course, when I booked my flights in the midst of an April snowstorm, I had no idea that the London weather would get its act together after all. Still, better to be poolside and have a viciously air-conditioned bedroom to go back to than to schvitz in Stoke Newington with only a rarely used Cinni fan to make things bearable.

I spent a week hopping between what are considered the best and most luxurious hotels in Marrakech, focusing on properties that had either opened or been refurbished since my last visit. Some of the places on my initial hit list were closed because of low season (Palais Namaskar and Selman Marrakech), while the mighty La Mamounia claimed it wasn’t taking bookings (although appeared to be selling day passes for pool use for non-residents via its website).

Four Seasons Resort Marrakech

Breakfast at the Four Seasons Resort Marrakech

Most of the other hotels in the city and Palmeraie had less than 20% occupancy, lending them a kind of North African twist on The Shining. In the cases of the Taj Palace Marrakech, Four Seasons Resort Marrakech and Royal Mansour, secondary or fine dining restaurants were closed. And at the Four Seasons, one of the pools was closed for an overhaul (meaning no separate adult and family pools, which is one of its biggest draws). Not that it caused a major problem – there was only one child in the pool. And on my last day at the Taj, I was the sole occupier of a poolside lounger. My only real gripe about the pool at the Four Seasons is the poolside menu, which consists entirely of sandwiches. A request I made from my lounger for a Caesar salad (sans croutons) was politely refused, and I was directed instead to a table in the café. But I didn’t want to move. Five minutes later, they had a change of heart, and apparently a salad could make it the few yards further.

Taj Palace Marrakech swimming pool

Taj Palace Marrakech

If you’ve never visited Marrakech before, then avoid Ramadan – hotels aside, many of the best shops are closed. But if you’ve already done the Medina and Yves Saint-Laurent’s eye-popping, cobalt blue and cactus-filled Majorelle Garden, and you just want guaranteed sunshine and a luxury hotel (at a discount) to yourself, then go. One note of caution, though: if you’re intending to treat this as a resort town, then you need to know where to find the best hotel swimming pools. On an earlier visit, I stayed at the Murano Marrakech, drawn by its famous red-tiled pool. In the heavily retouched marketing photographs, it looked an amazing primary rouge. In reality, filled with chlorinated water, the effect was sludgy, rusty, lightless and a bit rubbish. There was also a total absence of parasols – alarming given the 50 degree temperature. “We don’t think they look nice,” explained a member of staff. Good luck with that.

Riad El Fenn Marrakech

Riad El Fenn

The Taj Palace Marrakech and Four Seasons Marrakech have seriously great pools (although the Taj needs to get new loungers, with backs that don’t periodically collapse). Riad El Fenn is a proper riad, famously owned by Vanessa Branson, in the old part of the city, with a lovely but small pool area in a courtyard. With its mix of modern art and appealingly industrial modernist furniture, it has atmosphere to burn. This is a really beautiful property, and it might be my favourite hotel in the city, but its pool only gets direct sun for a few hours a day (although the roof and its plunge pool bake all day). Not an issue for me – I’m a melanin-free Celtic geisha and stay in the shade anyway. But it’s worth noting if you’re a sun-worshipper.

The pool at the Royal Mansour isn’t much to write home about, but then its guests prefer to stay in their own private riad, each with their own rooftop plunge pools. And anyway, the Royal Mansour isn’t a hotel with a poolside scene. Instead, it’s a hotel with… everything else. I’ve stayed in many of the most luxurious places in the world, but the Royal Mansour was a revelation to me – I think it’s the most beautiful hotel in the world. If there’s a heaven, it will look like this. Words can’t do it justice. Its budget must have been limitless – and then some. Every whim has been executed, in crystal and marble and leather, and embellished with the most extraordinary and detailed Moroccan craft. The flower arrangements are lavish, with a unique eye for colour coordination. Exotic birds sing in huge cages by fountains. Two-storey, teardrop-shaped filigreed copper lighting installations by Yahya – the modern master of Moroccan lanterns – hang between floors. The lifts alone at the Royal Mansour are worth the trip to Morocco – encased in white fractal Moorish-pattern ironwork, with silver railings.

Royal Mansour Marrakech

Yahya lantern, Royal Mansour, Marrakech

There are surprising touches of luxury at the hotel: your name embossed in gold on your own stationary, and ceilings that retract (the library ceiling parts in the shape of a book being opened). The art of service has also been revolutionised: the owners built an underground city connecting all the riads and common areas, so staff can get pick up your luggage or deliver the International Herald Tribune (its pages bound in taffeta ribbon) without having to do anything as gauche as knock at your front door.

I moved from the Royal Mansour to the Taj, which looked plain in comparison, although isn’t at all. It’s another epic resort, finished with polished, jewel-coloured tadlakt walls and ceilings. It flirts with palatial kitsch, but pulls it off, mixing Indian and Moroccan styles. The use of colour is wonderful – staircases mix plum and violet in a way that echoes Mark Rothko at his most optimistic. Bedrooms have soaring ceilings, dressed with ornate Sari fabrics and crystal light fixtures. They’re as memorable as the service – which can border on the fanatical. I was asked four times, by four different people, in person and on the phone, if everything was okay with my room, within ten minutes of checking-in. I began to wonder if Room 1 had its own poltergeist.

Bedroom at the Taj Palace Marrakech

Bedroom at the Taj Palace Marrakech

For all their jaw dropping detail and luxury trappings, the bedrooms at the Royal Mansour feel darker and more claustrophobic than at the other hotels I stayed at. At the Four Seasons Marrakech and Taj Palace Marrakech, my rooms had full height glass doors to their own terraces. The former was slick and modern –every inch the international five star Four Seasons property. (I’ve never visited a Four Seasons I didn’t love). And then there was the bed… Oh the bed! It made my own at home seem like a rattan rug on a stable floor in comparison. One day, I will own a bed this comfortable.

My favourite bedroom on this trip to Marrakech was the red-leather walled one at Riad El Fenn, with slick 1950s Scandic furniture alongside the Moroccan stylings. I particularly love the use of stained glass in the doors at El Fenn: every space looks like a page out of Casa da Abitare. It’s a joy and a half to stroll around the riad’s inner courtyards, full of hanging gardens and roaming tortoises: this is the kind of hotel that makes you want to redecorate your entire house in Moroccan style.

As well as the aforementioned hotels, I made a point of visiting the Delano Marrakech for dinner. Now, while Marrakech has just about everything else going for it, a great culinary city it is not. The likes of Dar Moha aside, the food can be uniformly dreadful (and I’m counting some of the most celebrated restaurants in the city in that). I went to Namazake on the rooftop of the Delano to check out the Japanese restaurant. It’s very Delano… you can see Marrakech all around you, but with its cookie cutter Balearic soundtrack, ring-shaped rooftop pool and vast sofas atop the Louis Vuitton store, it feels far more like Miami. Which, after a week of pigeon pastilla, is no bad thing: the sushi rice is a little on the Pret a Manger side, but the inventive sashimi dishes, in zesty dressings, with very fresh fish, are all excellent indeed. It’s well worth devoting an evening to.

Bedroom at Riad El Fenn, Marrakech

Bedroom at Riad El Fenn, Marrakech

I wish the food was better at El Fenn, because it does everything else so fantastically, and the dining tables on its rooftop surround you with the very essence of Marrakech (particularly when the Muezin’s call to prayer is amplified from the nearby tower). The seabass tagine is good, but unremarkable. The most memorable part of my one dinner at the hotel was the sudden break in the background loungecore soundtrack, which made way for Lou Reed’s “Caroline Says”. I love his Berlin album, but I’m not sure it’s romantic supper time listening: “Caroline says, as she gets up from the floor, / ‘You can hit me all you want to, but I don’t love you any more’”, et cetera.

Dinner at the Four Seasons Resort Marrakech was, largely, as you might expect… international and slick, prefixed with a drink on the terrace, lit by the atmospheric shadows from scores of filigree lanterns. A gnocchi dish was particularly excellent, although a duck main was a touch schizophrenic, with an odd array of dressings and flavours. Far better was the breakfast, one of those hotel buffets that put you to sleep the night before with a smile on your face because you know what’s coming. And as an agnostic gourmand, I like to start every day of Ramadan with a sumptuous round of scrambled eggs and smoked salmon, and then crack open the rosé sometime after midday. Even the coffee at the Four Seasons Marrakech is excellent (a rarity for luxury resorts – even though it shouldn’t be). Enjoying all of this on a luxe terrace, at the edge of a huge water feature that stretches out, out, out into the distance, is a wonderful thing indeed.

Breakfast at the Taj Palace Marrakech, conversely, is of the luncheon meat, snack pack cheese slice and refined white bleargh variety. Similarly, a club sandwich I had for lunch in the pool restaurant seemed to have been teleported in from the 1980s. Surprising, then, that its Indian and Moroccan restaurant Rumi proved to be so fantastic. Two different fish dishes (one plain grilled and one masala style) and a creamy black lentil dish with were as good as anything I’ve had anywhere. And the setting – on the lawn across from the candy-coloured night lighting of the pool terrace – is splendid.

The lunch I had the Royal Mansour was in a different league from the rest of the F&B in the city. It would put most Michelin starred restaurants in Parisian palace hotels to shame: the tableware is by J.L. Coquet and Christofle, and the candy-coloured crystal glassware is by Deshoulières. The menu is overseen by Yannick Alléno, the waiters wear the kind of white gloves that suggest they are handling priceless jewels rather than bread baskets, and the prices are eyewatering. A pigeon pastilla and a crab starter were superb; a veal casserole even better – the softest, lushest veal I’ve ever encountered, with vegetables in a rich unctuous reduction. And to finish… a trip to the patisserie library, for something camp in chocolate and gold.

No trip to Marrakech is complete without a hamam, and I had two – at the Four Seasons Resort Marrakech and Royal Mansour. I’ve had countless hamams before, and my treatment at the Four Seasons Marrakech is amongst the best I’ve had. There was all the prerequisite steaming and scrubbing (including a facial exfoliation and facial clay treatment), and a repeated dunking in a cold water plunge pool that left me euphoric. An hourlong treatment at the Royal Mansour, however, went beyond the trad hamam to involve some extraordinary feats of strength from my masseur, and concluded in a welter of embarrassment. After the steaming, sluicing and scrubbing, I was stretched and crunched by the masseur – to the point, frankly, of discomfort – until, climactically, I was slid on my back off the marble treatment slab and onto a kind of table formed by the masseur’s shins and forearms. I had to hang on to his feet as he tilted and whirled and held me aloft like a limp and startled trophy – a demonstration of strength all the more remarkable for his carrying it out during the fasting month. Unfortunately, the conclusion of the treatment was a none too subtle request for a tip; I indicated the pocketless towelling robe he’d just put me in, and pointed out I really hadn’t any money about my person (he wouldn’t have wanted it if I had). “Soon, then,” he grinned. Way to bring me back down to earth.

That lone sour note aside, the Royal Mansour spa has to be seen to be believed. It’s like being in a white celestial birdcage, and the tadlakt work on the walls is ravishing. The most beautiful spa in the world in the most beautiful hotel in the world? Again – perhaps.

I left the city feeling mildly euphoric and immensely relaxed, with the usual over-ambitious plans to redecorate my house from top to bottom. Which is, of course, just how you should feel after a trip to Marrakech. C