The pool at La Mamounia Marrakech // © 2011 Jimmy Im
Marrakech, Morocco, is everything you would expect it to be. Grand palaces and bustling souks. Exotic tapestries and hand-crafted antiques. Colorful tiles and intricate wrought-iron decor. Flavorful tangines and fresh orange juice. Marrakech is a unique city rooted centuries deep in tradition that, luckily, has not changed much. There are, however, a new crop of hotels and attractions that are giving Marrakech a contemporary facelift while preserving the city’s rich heritage.
What may have first facilitated the birth of a more fashionable and modern Marrakech is the International Film Festival of Marrakech. With it’s inauguration in 2000, the film festival continues to lure international visitors and exposes a wealth of movies to a city that's not exactly known for film. The festival, which has helped introduce cinematic arts into the local culture and is chaired by Prince Moulay Rachid of Morocco, is Marrakech’s surprise gem event. Ask a local, and they will probably tell you the Marrakech Film Festival is the biggest event of the year. It has become an iconic festival with public screenings in the historic Jemaa el Fna square and celebrity sightings in the Medina (Sigourney Weaver, Jessica Chastain and Forrest Whitaker were spotted last year).
Celebrities can also be seen at La Mamounia Marrakech, which reopened in 2009 after a three-year renovation. Originally opened in 1923, the 210-room property flaunts a completely new redesign — thanks to designer Jacques Garcia, who worked with local artisans — and guests can expect a more contemporary approach to all rooms, the 27,000-square-foot spa, Michelin-recognized restaurants and swanky bar.
Already a favorite for Moroccan royalty, Four Seasons Resort Marrakech officially opened November 2011. Contained within 40 acres and featuring a spa and gardens, the new property is a comfortable retreat in the trendy Hivernage district. The signature Solano restaurant features a fusion of Moroccan, Andalucian and Italian cuisine, which is fast-becoming a favorite for locals and visitors alike.
Most visitors to Marrakech will agree a riad (a traditional Moroccan home with courtyard, fountain and a garden) is the most authentic type of accommodation. Opened last year, Riad Joya is the newest luxury riad inside the Medina (literally steps from the Jemaa el Fna square), with seven generous-sized suites, uniquely designed with contemporary furnishings. A personable staff attends to any needs and won’t hesitate to escort you to nearby destinations inside the medina (it’s easy to get lost). The hotel’s hammam spa is scheduled to open this year, and there’s currently a quiet rooftop terrace for stargazing.
The best stargazing is perhaps at Amanjena, which is located just outside the main city of Marrakech and is the first Aman resort on the African continent. Amanjena is consistent with its top marks for design, location, spa and food. (It’s touted as having the best Thai food in Morocco.) The 39-villa property recently introduced a Caidal tent, an intimate tent for events and dinner off the main grounds.
The most talked about hotel opening in Morocco is Royal Mansour. Opened in June 2010 and built by the king of Morocco, this palace has been called the world’s only “seven star” hotel. The entire property is made to resemble a typical medina, so it’s like a self-contained village with 53 riads, ranging from one- to four-bedrooms. One-bedroom accommodations start at $2,000 per night, and include a courtyard, living room, large bedroom with a tub and rainshower and a rooftop terrace with private plunge pool — all spanning four levels.
Spa-goers will appreciate the new Dior Institute at Palace Es Saadi. It’s the first to open outside the famed Plaza Athene in Paris. Open for about a year, it is a decadent, three-story spa with a hydrotherapy circuit, seven hammams, sensory showers, a fully equipped fitness center, studio space, a hair salon and Dior treatment rooms.
While haggling at a souk is an art and a pastime, affluent travelers will head to 33 Rue Majorelle, once coined as the “Colette of Morocco.” This newly opened boutique across the street from the Majorelle Gardens (or Yves Saint Laurent Gardens) features fashion, art and handicrafts by local and international designers.