New flights and luxury hotels are increasing the appeal of a short-break favourite. Mike Walsh joins agents on a fam trip to Marrakech
Morocco may feel far away, with its souks, mosques and deserts, but in tourism terms, it’s nearly a neighbour – barely beyond Spain. It’s also served by a good handful of carriers, making Marrakech a perfect short-break destination.
Moroccan National Tourist Office figures suggest visitor numbers are rising and, despite staying for shorter periods, they’re spending more on accommodation, shopping and dining, reflecting Morocco’s growth as a luxury destination and the level of investment in this market.
LIFE OF LUXURY
A new style of five-star property arrived last summer with the Four Seasons Resort Marrakech. Set in 40 landscaped acres, this €160 million development is just two miles from the medina yet provides a spacious haven away from the mayhem of the souks.
“Visitors who love La Mamounia hotel, for example, probably won’t like the Four Seasons as we’re a more modern, relaxed, resort-style property,” says sales and marketing director Holger Frehde.
And there have been luxury openings since. The Palais Namaskar opened in April, with 41 villas and suites set in vast Balinese gardens, the fifth hotel in the über-luxury Oetker Collection.
The Selman Marrakech also opened its doors last week, differentiating itself from other high-end properties by offering guests in its 56 rooms and suites and five riads access to a stable of Arab horses, alongside the usual spa and restaurant choices.
There’s more to come. The Taj Palace Marrakech, formerly managed by Mandarin Oriental, is due to reopen in September in the upmarket Palmeraie area, while luxury boutique The Pearl by Hivernage is also set to open in autumn. Properties from Rocco Forte, Baglioni and Monte-Carlo SBM are to come.
WHAT TO SEE
At the heart of everything is Djemaa el Fna, the lively central square, where I was greeted by a snake charmer who ignored my protestations and draped a wriggling reptile around my neck. But I also met brightly dressed, bell-ringing water carriers, rows of orange juice sellers, and stall holders beckoning me to try their aromatic dishes.
Adjoining the square are the labyrinthine souks, where you hide your valuables, head in and get lost. Haggling is the game – offer a third of the asking price and edge upwards. As well as chessboards and fruit bowls, the best wares are ceramic plates, silk slippers, iron lamps and spices.
For some respite, we headed to a rooftop cafe overlooking Djemaa el Fna and watched the panorama of activity below.
Marrakech also has a clutch of more conventional sights. Ben Youssef Madrasa is a former Islamic college with a beautiful courtyard, marble pool and ornate carved wooden panels. El Badi Palace is a sprawling former royal residence, while Bahia Palace is a heady mix of 19th-century Islamic mosaics and stories of concubines.
An unexpected delight is Majorelle Gardens. Designed by French painter Jacques Majorelle in 1919, this botanical garden is home to rare plants, cacti, bamboo groves and coconut palms. Fashion legend Yves Saint-Laurent bought the gardens in 1980 and a small monument to him was erected after his death in 2008.
WHERE TO EAT
Visitors who haven’t overspent in the souks can try Ksar el Hamra, a smart riad-style restaurant within the medina. It’s a great place to enjoy a traditional three-course Moroccan lunch, though with prices from £30 it’s not cheap.
For a more modern venue, try Le Tanjia, where the menu is à la carte; the Tanjia Marrakchia boeuf, for example, costs £27. Alcohol is available, and a trio of belly dancers even kept us entertained as we ate.
For bargain bites, head back to Djemaa el Fna where hundreds of food stalls pop up every evening. Head for the busier ones and tuck into simple chicken and couscous or take the plunge with sheep’s brain, snail soup or skewered hearts.
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