You can either hide away in a luxurious riad in the Medina – sleek retreats that belie the chaotic business of daily life outside their fortress-like doors – or, if you want something altogether more lavish and spacious, seek out the plush hotels of the Palmeraie, that ever-expanding desert-suburb to the south of the city that these days is punctuated more and more by walled oases of bucolic lushness and which increasingly attracts the major luxury marques.
Artisanship, ingenuity and chic are the hallmarks of even a workaday Moroccan hotel, so hoteliers know that you really need to raise the bar to get some recognition from savvy Moroccophiles – and this is what Palais Namaskar has done.
The back-story of this hotel is intriguing. Its previous incarnation was as the second home of an Emirati and his Indian wife, who built the pre-existing main structure of the restaurant and pool villa, both topped by burnished, Mughal-style domes. The garden was mature but wild.
The current owner, a swashbuckling logistics entrepreneur of French extraction who made his money in ‘logistics in Africa’ – perhaps it’s best to ask no more questions – fell in love with the spot on first sight, and was determined to buy it there and then.
He lavished six years – and countless millions – on realising his hotel dream. The result is a place that feels like a one-off.
Strong Indian accents meet cutting-edge modernity. Top-notch sophistication meets rustic profusions of flowers and plants. There’s not much of the folkloric here, but there are touches ofeccentricity amid the plush, grown-up, utterly modern glamour. It’s unsurprising to know that the interior designer Imaad Rahmouni worked under Philip Starck, as he’s chosen wild hanging Murano lamps for the restaurant, and a swirling insignia has found its way onto all the soft furnishing (this, I might add, is the one thing in the hotel I don’t like).
That the hotel is part of the Oetker Collection that includes the imperious grand dame of the French Riviera, Hotel du Cap Eden Roc, and the maximalist Parisian palace that is Le Bristol, hints at its French notions of luxury.
A Falcon 900 LX jet can whisk guests from another Oetker property to nearby Casablanca airport, by the way). As well as vast suites and villas, which are contemporary-cool, not at all traditionalist, and spot-on service, there is most serious food. No club sandwiches on the menu here, your lunch comes courtesy of Antoine Perray whose CV includes Paris’ Hôtel de Crillon and the Plaza Athénée.
The Ila Spa is darkly glamorous and its therapists include a former Kung-Fu Olympian with masterful hands. There is a hammam, of course, for those classic rhassoul moments, but afterwards it’s de rigueur to have your blow-dry and nails done, your make-up touched up. I cannot imagine anyone shuffling around in slovenly towel robes and slippers here – the residents I saw were more of the French-magazine-editor-in-exquisitely-tailored-harem-pants variety.
The pièce de resistance of the property is, of course, the gardens. I have marvelled at gardens in the Palmeraie before, but these 50,000 square metres of glorious water pools that reflect back the prettiness of the buildings and their decorative jasmine and bougainvillea really blew me away. They are Eden-like in their beauty: even the frogs by the restaurant croak praise at the Feng Shui principles that have been so rigidly applied here, so that everything feels just so.
Marrakech, you will discover, once you have imbibed the alluring craziness of the Jemaa el-Fnaa (the main square in town) with its henna tattooists, snake charmers, monkey handlers, charismatic kebab and juice sellers and assorted rag-tag Artful Dodger-esque local boys, is quite small.
Navigate the overwhelming chaos of the magical, but claustrophobic souks (Namaskar can equip you with a guide to navigate the place), have tea in the beautiful environs of the refurbished La Mamounia, wander in the Majorelle Gardens, dashed with bleu Majorelle, loved by Yves San Laurent, whose ashes were scattered there. Marvel at the contrasts of this city – the urbane Francophile sophistication of the Gueliz, and the timeless Berbers, whose hooded garb inspired George Lucas’ Jedi in Star Wars. Then soon, instinctively – perhaps out of necessity, to escape the clammy clamour of town – you’ll look out to the mountains and desert that famously ring this walled city, and wonder what lies beyond, and what adventures can be found out there.
Palais Namaskar has got that escape instinct covered. Apart from the ubiquitous golf, there are daytrips to windy coastal Essaouira, excursions to Berber and Arab villages, treks in the Atlas, scenic camel rides, quad biking amid the palm-studded sandy expanse of the Palmeraie and paragliding.
That heady injection of adventure is needed, they know, to offset all the reclining luxury that otherwise permeates Palais Namaskar – this feeling that you are lolling around hedonistically like a well-fed Roman emperor, the only thing left being someone to fan you and stuff grapes into your mouth (though they would probably do that, if you asked).
My perfect adventure moment was hot air ballooning with Ciel D’Afrique and its dashing balloonist-silver-fox-Frenchman Maurice, who whisks you high in the sky over the Djebilet Hills at dawn. To watch the daybreak sun kiss the Atlas is to feel perfect peace and silence.Rates at Palais Namaskar start from €390 based on two people sharing a double room and including breakfast.
Perfectly concealed within the medina, the five-suite Farnatchi is the brain child of Jonathan Wix and Lynn Perez (the latter the ex manager of Villa des Orangers) and is the sine qua non of modern riad glamour, a masterpiece of polished luxury within traditional surroundings, from the perfect hammam to the hand-hewn beds. Don your djellaba and pretend you live there.
The newest addition to the Palmeraie, which opened in May, is these Jacques Garcia-designed suites and riads (56 rooms and suites and five riads) with an Orientalist-luxe style. This is also the home to a côterie of thoroughbred horses that you can ride in the desert. Don’t neglect to wallow in the Espace Vitalité Henri Chenot. Glamour and adventure are the watchwords here.
This is a collection of 53 private riads (with butlers) scattered through songbird-filled gardens. They are the work of the Moroccan king’s own artisans, who have produced a hotel near the medina that calls itself ‘the embodiment of Moroccan living as an art form’.
Resplendently exuding old-school glamour, La Mamounia was the original high-class Moorish-chic establishment in town. Medina-side in royal gardens, it was beloved of Winston Churchill and a spate of silver screen beauties.
In recent years a Jacques Garcia refurb of its 209 rooms and suites has put the spring back in its step and restored its original Thousand and One Nights concept (while getting up the nose of some longstanding customers).
It has four restaurants and two Michelin stars.
Between the medina and souk, and owned by Richard Branson’s sister Vanessa and Howell James, this is the funkiest riad in town where you’ll rub shoulders with fashion editors, photographers, writers and artists (of the solvent variety) and where Bridget Rileys and Antony Gormleys grace the walls of the 21 rooms and suites. Hammam, marble pool, mini cinema, and a resplendent roof terrace complete the picture.