Poolside at La Mamounia Hotel

Marvels of Marrakech

18th September 2015

The city’s beating heart: Djemaa el Fna

Only just over three hours from London, the Western Morocco city of Marrakech is an exotic, but easily accessible, taste of North Africa. Rowena Carr-Allinson enjoys a glamorous – and surprisingly child-friendly – weekend in one of its most luxurious hotels...

Once a trading crossroad, Marrakech is now an exotic, buzzing destination. Known as the Red City, it’s kept its ancient traditional charm while embracing all things hip and stylish, and it’s so close it’s the ideal place for a sunny break. To stay in style, the legendary La Mamounia hotel is one of the most luxurious and glamorous addresses in town. Like stepping right into the The Arabian Nights’ Tales, the palace is a wonderful hideaway with famous fans ranging from Winston Churchill who wintered there, to Poppy Delevigne who chose it to tie the knot and Gwyneth Paltrow who names it as one of her favourite hideaways.

The VIP treatment starts at the airport, where I’m very pleasantly surprised to be whisked off the tarmac on ‘de-planing’, straight into a cosy lounge with juice, cookies and comfortable sofas. It beats standing in line for an hour or so. Even better, when it’s clear that the bags have been taken off the plane, you’re taken via the diplomatic passport queue into the care of a smart uniformed driver who does yet more whisking – this time to a sleek black Jag – and onto the dreamy La Mamounia, a mere 15 minutes later. Very smooth. The last time I set foot here, just out of Uni, a decade ago (or was it two?) I recall acres of grandiose bling. I was overawed by its sheer opulence, Art Deco setting and liberal use of gold leaf. Today the ambience is dark and cosy – acres of red velvet, marble and oversized chandeliers with water features aplenty. Since its 2009 overhaul the feel is still uber-plush but the contemporary twist brought about by designer Jacques Garcia bring the traditional Moroccan mosaics and patterns into the 21st Century. The entire place exudes luxury from the Dior and Prada boutiques to the elegant, discrete staff.

In our Executive suite, it’s hard not to be wowed by the intricate plasterwork carvings, the-star themed green, ochre and blue mosaic, the grey marble bathroom with a claw foot bathtub and the signature fragrance bath products: a heady mix of jasmine, orange blossom and cedar wood.
First things first: exploring the grounds and the pool for a refreshing dip. The gardens are definitely worth a stroll too. Getting lost amongst the bougainvillea, the dizzying array of cactus and the red gravel paths is a great way to discover this unexpected oasis. It’s lovely and feels calm and secluded, nothing like the chaos that lies beyond the walls.

The huge pool is obviously the place to see and be seen, with its pristine sun-loungers, chic white clad pool boys in panama hats. Beautiful people flaunt their Moroccan holiday-leisurewear: designer bikinis and multi-coloured kaftans, while enjoying nibbles from the ‘Pavillon Piscine’ menu or a fresh local Casablanca beer…

There’s also a stunning indoor pool, a vision in iridescent mosaics with its golden pillars under intricate cedar wood painted ceilings. It’s attached to the swanky spa where the specialty is the famous Hammam experience with tip-to-toe black soap scrub. For dinner we keep it simple and swish, heading to the hotel’s “Le Marocain” restaurant. Set in a separate Riad in the garden, the opulent, exotic theme continues: an interior courtyard with fountains and mosaics, and low-slung sofas for drinks. The dark, cosy setting, with separate booths, offers the most intimate of dining experiences. The chef gives traditional Moroccan dishes a twist and my chicken, pea and artichoke tagine melts in the mouth. One can also pick traditional local specialties like couscous dishes or grilled meats. There’s time for a quick cocktail in Le Churchill bar, untouched since he enjoyed his own nightcap here. The same leopard print carpet remains; there’s gilt aplenty, and the aroma of his cigars still hangs in the air.

The next morning, after a copious breakfast by the pool (the buffet is rather impressive), our guide Hussein picks us up for our tour. Although it’s not my first visit to the Red City, this time I’ve opted to get someone who knows what’s what to take us around. We amble from the hotel via the Koutoubia mosque into the Place Djemaa el Fna and get the low-down on the complex local history, the mix of cultures and the conversion of the local Berbers to Islam. As you can imagine, it’s a long story, but definitely helps shed light on this vibrant and chaotic yet beautiful city.

Weaving our way through the 1000-year-old Medina’s human throng and past other obstacles – carts, horses, donkeys, bikes, scooters and the like, we make our way to the famous central square that is home to all manner of vendors, from souvenir salesmen to herbalists, orange juice carts and of course the odd snake charmer… It’s hard not to be entranced. Bewitched by the atmosphere, it never fails to get to me. So far out of our usual world, the assault on the senses is dizzying and thrilling.

Peering past the impressive ancient wooden doors into the riads’ inner courtyards, each is a tiny oasis of calm amidst the constant noise. Most have now been converted to B’n’Bs or hotels, so if you prefer an intimate riad experience in the heart of the action, there’s plenty of choice, from the smart Angsana Riad collection to the swish Maison MK, a boutique hotel run by Brits which has gained a reputation as one of the finest in town. The souk is next, with its hundreds of colourful stalls selling leather goods, ‘Aladdin’ shoes, lanterns, herbal medicines, carved wood, glassware and so much more. It’s hard to know just where to look. The choice is overwhelming. We indulge in a little light bartering, best undertaken with a smile, and pick up a few tips. Visiting early is a bonus, to avoid the suffocating afternoon heat, the crowds and to make the most of the ‘first sale’ advantage. Believing that first transaction to be lucky, vendors will sooner offer a bargain in order to secure that first deal. Out of town, follow Mohamed V Avenue and Rue de la Liberté for big brand names like Zara, but there’s no doubt the souk is more fun!

After a quick pit stop for lunch at the Terrasse des Epices rooftop lounge, where we enjoy tasty saffron-marinated chicken skewers and cheese ‘briouates’ (folded pastries) we hop into an apple green horse drawn ‘calèche’ for a ride to the famous Majorelle Gardens. A haven of peace, this beautiful garden is best known for its bright blue buildings (a tint created by painter Majorelle) and for having been owned by Yves St Laurent. It’s also home to the Museum of Islamic Art, plus a fine collection of cacti and a handful of turtles. More greenery to add to the ‘must see’ list is the Menara Garden on the edge of the city, amongst olive groves and roses, to catch Marrakech’s most photographed landmark: the lake and pavilion built by Sultan Adur-Rahman.

For dinner that night, looking for a lively atmosphere, we venture back to the city’s beating heart: Djemaa el Fna. La Salama overlooks Marrakech’s twinkling lights and its Casablanca movie theme oozes retro colonial chic. Upstairs, the rooftop bar’s happy hour means you get two tasty cocktails for the price of one – always a welcome surprise! At dinner, the candlelit atmosphere, sparkling chandeliers and dark wooden panelling make the ambience cosy, relaxed and romantic. The classic lemon chicken with candied lemons and olives does not disappoint. As the night draws on, the tables get raucous thanks to the music, the (compulsory) belly-dancing show and the flowing wine. It’s a quick stroll back to the comfort of La Mamounia and a good night’s sleep, only briefly interrupted by the early morning call to prayer.

On our last morning we head out of town with our guide Nouri to the Lalla Takerkoust lake in the foothills of the Atlas. We’ve booked that essential Moroccan experience: a camel ride. Roaming through the fields of wheat on top of the tame creature is rather surreal but strangely soothing. The obligatory mint tea under an improvised tent is surprisingly fun, with the farm owner grinning away and Nouri showing us a few magic tricks. Before long it’s time to head back for a quick shower and set off back to the airport. It’s impressive just how much one can pack into 48 hours, although there’s still so much to see, we’ll have to come back – but that is just fine with me...

Think you can’t bring the kids? Think again!
We found Marrakech surprisingly child friendly...
Meet the locals – Moroccans love kids and soon bond, regardless of language.
Hunt for turtles – whether you’re in the souk or in la Mamounia’s gardens, children will be intrigued by the little turtles that hide amidst the lily pads and are kept as lucky charms to ward away snakes and scorpions.
Spot the cactus – roam the Majorelle gardens and take in the huge variety of spiky plants. Surprisingly fascinating.
Ride a camel – take an excursion out into the desert and take a stroll on camelback followed by tea under the tent.
Bake Moroccan Pancakes – at the Royal Palm’s kids’ club, a veritable paradise for children, aspiring chefs (in full mini chefs’ gear) can learn how to bake the local pancakes, and then eat them, smothered in honey – fantastic!
Take a calèche tour – after all the walking, a horse drawn cart is a good way to get from A to B.
Take in the souks – the hustle and bustle and the snake charmers will weave their magic on the youngest of visitors.
Eat! – Couscous, skewers and fresh Moroccan pancakes are just some of the very kid-friendly culinary delights in store. The fresh orange juice is a treat too.
Discover Berber Life – visit the Berber Cultural Center at the foothills of the Atlas mountains where children can experience the life of Berber people milking goats, weaving rugs, cooking, harvesting and even tea making.
Hit the Eco Park – Terres d’Amanar, about half an hour out of town is an excellent eco park with zip lines, bmx bike track, camel rides and you can even overnight in a Berber tent.

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