As I write this review, I’m sitting in my white bathrobe on a cozy white couch with white stemless roses bobbing in a ceramic bowl in front of me, listening to the hum of the jacuzzi jets compete with the sound of chirping birds.
I have settled into my ‘riad’ at the Mandarin Oriental, Marrakech – a five-star hotel located 15 minutes from the old medina, the endlessly fascinating pink-walled city filled with snake charmers, hustle and bustle, babouches for days, and ceramic plates in such vibrant tones and patterns that a visit there will make you feel as though you’re walking through a fantastical coloring book come to life.
My journey began by flying into Casablanca airport with Emirates. A few logistical details: Emirates provides a direct flight, which is eight hours long, from Dubai to Casablanca. This means that travelers can either opt to take a short domestic flight from Casablanca to Marrakech or drive two and a half hours from the airport to the Mandarin Oriental. I opted for the latter option, and I was greeted at the airport by a friendly driver dressed in the Mandarin Oriental’s signature gray-and-white uniform, who escorted me to a sleek, black Range Rover Vogue. Together we coasted effortlessly along the country’s main highway, with flat planes and the occasional sighting of a sheep herder standing out as the most fascinating moments of the ride. However, I was told that on a cloudless day you can spot the dramatic snow-capped Atlas mountains as you approach the Red City.
When we reached the Mandarin Oriental, we passed through a large gate and pulled up to the front entrance of the hotel, where in the driveway there sits a single twisted olive tree in a rectangular reflection pool surrounded by sand-colored gravel, with a sense of minimalism that calls to mind an oversized karesansui garden. As I entered the lobby, up dark gray slated stairs lined with lanterns, I could see through the black-and-gold reception area out to the calm waters and infinity pool lined with feathery trees.
I was quickly whisked off to my villa, passing plump rose bushes (each villa has a rose color of its own and my villa’s color is blush pink), cactus clusters, orange trees, almond trees, and artfully manicured shrubs cut into Japanese shapes in a nod to the Mandarin Oriental’s Asian origins. I later visited to the hotel’s vegetable garden, where 90 varieties of tomatoes, as well as aubergines, pumpkins (a traditional base ingredient in Moroccan couscous), swiss chard, artichokes, and a variety of herbs from mint to rosemary are harvested.
In traditional North African architecture, a ‘riad’ consists of an interior garden or courtyard, and the Mandarin Oriental pays tribute to this tradition by having each of its 54 signature private villas built around a courtyard that contains an infinity pool, the (aforementioned) jacuzzi, luxurious loungers, an outdoor kitchen, and a fireplace area. Enter through a towering dark wooden door and all of these features elegantly greet you before you’ve even stepped foot into the villa interior itself. The cream-colored furniture paired with the sandy walls and climbing white wisteria are said to pay tribute to the colors of “traditional Berber women’s clothing” according to the French duo, Patrick Gilles and Dorothée Boissier, responsible for the interior design of the hotel.
Berber and Andalusian-Arabic influences are echoed within the villa itself, with Berber motifs etched in the tadelakt wall of the living room and bedroom, black-and-white diamond-patterned handwoven rugs lining the bedroom floor, and the khaki-colored chaise lounge with elaborate patterns sewn into the cushions. Marble accents and the flat-screen television that rises from a brown leather console in the bedroom add contemporary touches, and the dark wooden symmetrical doors and ceiling in the bedroom bring you back to the Asian-inspired principles of Feng Shui that dictate an imperative sense of balance. Open the cream-colored curtains and you have a view of the infinity pool and cozy outdoor alcove with cushions designed by Marrakech homeware label Moon Garden.
For those guests wishing to venture into the city, the hotel currently provides VIP passes for the 6th annual Marrakech Biennale. The event, which began in February and will end on May 2nd, explores the theme of ‘Not New Now’. Curated by Guggenheim Abu Dhabi Associate Curator Reem Fadda and Assistant Curator Ilaria Conti, the biennale explores cultural orientations towards newness. Featuring 47 artists, the show spans across historical locations around the city, including Palais Bahia, Koutoubia Mosque, and Palais Badi.
There were several surreal moments throughout my tour, including one during which I found myself staring up at Ghanaian, Nigeria-based artist El Anatsui’s monumental metallic tapestry, ‘Kindred Viewpoints’, which covers one of Palais Badi’s destructed facades and calls to mind issues of labor, the environment, and colonialism. During another such moment, I wondered whether to focus on the mosaic fireplaces and beautiful gardens of the 19th century Palais Bahia or Mohssin Harraki’s forest of 87 lightbulbs, each of which bears the name of late Moroccan critic and filmmaker Ahmed Bouanani. This mix of contemporary art in historical places around the ancient city is both a moving and fascinating way to meet the city of Marrakech – or, for some, to rediscover it through new eyes.
After a day of walking around the city exploring the exhibition, touring the biennale, and browsing the markets, where I was seduced by Moroccan antiques (a mother-of-pearl mirror won over my heart) and Jasmine-infused argan oil at a traditional Berber pharmacy, I returned to the quiet, fragrant grounds of the Mandarin Oriental for steak tataki and a ginger, honey, and cucumber mocktail at the Pool Garden. I continued to the hotel spa, with its warm and seductive indoor pool and red-brick features paying tribute to the cathedrals of Andalusia, for an argan-oil treatment.
Later that evening, over dinner at Mes’Lalla by Meryem Cherkaoui, where I sampled dishes of octopus carpaccio and beef tangia (which my waiter explained had been slow cooked in an urn-shaped terracotta vessel for hours) with a side of vegetables from the organic garden, I thought about how I felt equally thankful for my time bobbing and weaving through the frenzied streets of the unforgettable Marrakech medina as I did for having this tranquil refuge with its stemless white roses to return home to.