A visit to Marrakech, with its hectic souks, buzzy restaurants and traditional sights, will always get the heart racing. Promising a respite from the chaos, is the new Mandarin Oriental Marrakech – guaranteed to leave you breathless.
In front of me, a black cobra is swaying to the wail of the pungi, and the air is heavy with the aromas of spice and oud. Women, in cerise and scarlet djellabas, push their way through the crowds – the day’s purchases on their minds. Coming from within the medina there’s the tinny sound of what sounds like Arabic techno – fast-paced and frantic. People are calling out, shouting to friends and selling their wares. It’s a sensory overload, a heady experience: it’s Marrakech at its best.
The ancient, fortified medina is the heartbeat of Marrakech, which has long since attracted curious European travellers, who first made it a ‘must-see-city’ in the 1920s and then a fashionable hub in the 1960s. Its popularity hasn’t waned since.
Circled by pink sandstone walls, that stretch for 12 miles and which date back to the 12th century, the medina is an epic, exotic place. Inside there’s a series of artisan quarters (40,000 individual sellers to be precise), organised into different souks, plus a myriad of riads, restaurants, hammams and beautiful historical buildings. From the bash and clang of the Haddadine, the metalworker’s souk (head here for covetable ornate lanterns), to the overpowering sight and smell of the spices in Rahba Kedima, the old spice market, you can pick up almost anything your heart desires.
Traditional carpets, vibrant-hued slippers, and brightly-painted ceramics… the souk is crammed with retail-therapy opportunities the like of which you’ll not find at home. Just be prepared to barter and negotiate the sometimes perilous winding, narrow lanes, watching out for the daredevil moped drivers and clomping donkeys and carts.
By contrast, the wide, main square Djemaa el Fna, gives some breathing space, and comes into its own after dark, when food carts, local musicians and a variety of hawkers fill the area (monkeys walking on leads, vultures dyed blue and traditional water sellers dressed in elaborate scarlet costumes were just a few of the sights we witnessed.)
The old city also has plenty of places that reveal an insight into its rich history and which give any visit a touch of gravitas. A must, for example, is the impressive 16th-century Medersa Ben Youssef (medersa-ben-youssef.com), a former Islamic college with standout Moorish architecture, while the Andalusian-Arabic Bahia Palace, with its 150 richly decorated rooms with gilded ceilings, is also well worth a pitstop.
For a much-welcome antidote to the frenetic pace that is the medina, however, head to the new Mandarin Oriental Marrakech, a 10-minute drive outside the city walls. Found within 20 acres of olive groves and lush grounds, it is an oasis of calm, a world away from the hubbub of the souk. With its pink-coloured walls, scented rose gardens and views of the Atlas Mountains, it is also impossibly romantic.
While you can choose one of the nine suites found in the main building, most boasting exceptional views over the estate, it will be hard not to be wooed by the charms of the private villas. Based on traditional riads, these are vast in size (some are 440m2), each with its own private courtyard, complete with fig trees, swimming pool, hot tub and outside living area. French designers Patrick Gilles and Dorothée Boissier have given a pared-back Moroccan theme to the décor – streamlined yet über glamourous.
An imposing, dark wooden door leads into your walled garden where pristine, white day beds, black timber screens and oversized lanterns give an architectural vibe to the outside courtyard. Inside, is a series of rooms – living room, bedroom and bathroom – which have creamy-stone tadelakt plastered walls decorated with Berber motifs, thick hand-woven rugs and a round marble tub for a modern-day nod to traditional Moroccan interiors.
Public spaces, meanwhile, bring a similar sense of drama and make the most of the startling African daylight and the all-encompassing black of night. At sundown, covered walkways are lit by flickering lanterns and the air is thick with jasmine and cestrum, the sky overhead heavy with stars. By day it’s all angles created by fretwork, shade-giving almond and orange trees and the long, shimmering infinity pool.
Dining at Mes’Lalla, the hotel’s signature restaurant, continues the interplay of old and new Morocco. Chef Meryem Cherkaoui revs up local street-food recipes to new heights. Standout dishes include the squid cannelloni with smoked aubergine, prawns with tomato zaalouk and flat bread, and seabass with purple olive crust.
End your meal with one of the organic teas, which use herbal infusions grown on the estate (the hotel has a vast kitchen garden from which many ingredients are sourced). A grounding end to the gastronomic heights.
While the surroundings and cuisine will have got your heart racing, The Spa will no doubt have you falling head over heels with this sublime retreat. Inspired by the cathedrals and mosques of Andalusia, this is a paean to the religion of pampering. Running either side of the central swimming pool are long corridors framed by arches and built from red brick. Whispering is essential.
The spa lounge features cosy sofas, leather pouffes and a large fireplace, with a collection of rustic, terracotta vases, jugs and plates on its mantle, and looks out onto a decorative pool. It’s a treat just to sit here and read, snooze or ponder life. Each treatment room, meanwhile, has its own private garden, where you can choose to have your facial or massage under an olive tree, the scented breeze wafting over you. For something extra special, try the Hammam Discovery experience. This take on the traditional Moroccan activity includes an all-over body cleanse with black soap, followed by exfoliation, hair washing and massage. Lastly, just as you are dozing off, a mineral-rich body wrap, infused with aromatic plants and rose water, is applied. It’s as zen as it gets.
While the hotel’s overall sense of space, contemporary design and striking aesthetics give an instant wow-factor, it’s the attention to detail throughout that will impress. Each villa, for instance, has its own steam room and hammam complete with Nectarome products, sourced from nearby aromatherapy gardens. Every afternoon, the casual restaurant Le Salon Berbere is converted into a Moroccan tea-room with delicious pastries and traditional teas on offer. Gardens are planted with undulating hills, grasses and trees to reflect the desert landscape of Morocco. Touches like these reflect a sense of locality, that is refreshing from such a big-name hotel brand, and which will undoubtedly keep savvy travellers returning for more. They had me at hello.
Mandarin Oriental, Marrakech, +212 5 24 29 88 88, mandarinoriental.com/marrakech
Rates start from £510 per night on a B&B basis. For more information on Morocco contact the Moroccan National Tourist Office, visitmorocco.com
This article appeared in the June issue of Canary Wharf Magazine