The Moroccan port city of Casablanca will forever be associated with the 1942 film that made stars of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman – an exotic land of labyrinthine markets, hookah pipes, fez-wearing swindlers and clandestine drinking dens. To a romantic, Casablanca is a mythical place somewhere between a dream and reality. Visiting the city in early April, I was fearful that the reality would never live up to the vision I had of it in my head. It didn’t – it never does. But it didn’t matter. The real Casablanca is a rough diamond. A seaside city of crashing waves, soaring minarets and blindingly white Art Deco buildings lined along broad boulevards from which it gets its name.
Seeking to smooth out the city’s jagged edges is the Four Seasons, which opened a short walk from Casablanca’s bustling heart last November, adding a sense of grandeur to a city that has long languished in both Marrakech and Essaouira’s shadow. Designed by Foster + Partners, the hotel is within kissing distance of the ocean. The majority of its rooms make the most of its coastal location, offering stunning views of both its palm-lined pool and the big blue beyond.
With 186 rooms and 29 suites, the hotel is aiming the lion’s share of its operation at business travellers, but also hopes to attract curious Europeans with a taste for the exotic. Picked up at the airport by a Four Seasons chauffeur, on the way to the hotel I’m driven through streets lined with Christmas lights, making my arrival all the more dreamlike.
The first thing you notice about the hotel is its alluring signature scent, which fills the lobby with notes of white tea, musk and spices. My spacious room is a lesson in understated chic, from the plump silk cushions and lantern lights that cast cubic shadows on the white walls, to a bath so big you could do lengths in it. Donning my Four Seasons bathrobe, I delve into the pistachios, dates and dried apricots left as a welcome gift and pour myself a Cointreau. The hotel is in the process of getting its alcohol licence, meaning I had to surreptitiously sneak in a bottle of booze like a mischievous schoolgirl.
Tired from my flight, after drinking in the view of the turquoise pool by night, I flop into bed and am consumed in its cocoon. Soft as a marshmallow, the beds at the Four Seasons offer some of the cosiest sleeps I’ve ever had. One of the highlights of the hotel is its epic breakfast offering, where you can feast on Moorish delights like baba ganoush and almond croissants with homemade hazelnut paste, or dine like an emperor on Eggs Benedict and black truffle omelettes.
Keen to unwind after a stressful few months of city living, after breakfast I head down to the spa for a back massage. Approaching the task with a surgeon’s precision, my masseuse is so skilled, I can feel the knots in my neck loosen as her nimble fingers work their magic on my weary flesh. She sends me into an almost trance-like state of relaxation, making the simple act of getting back to my room a task that requires a super-human effort.
The hotel boasts two restaurants – the Moorish-themed Mint, and French seafood site Bleu, manned by Brittany born chef Thierry Papillier. A third, Latitude 33, is due to open this summer offering poolside dining inspired by the cuisines from countries on the 33rd parallel, including Tunisia, Israel, Iran and Japan. Lining Bleu’s pristine walls are thousands of snow-white muscle shells.
Close to the open kitchen live lobsters dance on ice beside freshly caught red mullet. Bleu offers the best view in the building of the rugged ocean and the lighthouse at the end of the beach whose emerald beam sends flashes of green into the night sky.
With alcohol off the menu, the barman does his best to make me a sophisticated virgin cocktail. Poured from a glass teapot billowing with dry ice, the heady concoction of iced tea, caramel, lemon and Earl Grey smoke is so complex, I almost forget there is no alcohol involved. Having made eye contact with the lobsters on entry, it felt wrong to see them meet their maker, so I order the perfectly purple yellow fin tuna steak with on-trend creamy burrata and peppery rocket instead.
Keen to see the city, the next day I venture to the market with my guide, the Four Seasons’ own Jihane Ayed, who kindly offers to show me Casablanca’s Art Deco heart. Founded by the Berbers in the 7th century BC, Casablanca was used as a port city by the Phoenicians and the Romans, and was a major supplier of wool to Britain in the 19th century. Our tour begins at the staggeringly beautiful Hassan II mosque, built by French architect Michel Pinseau.
Inspired by a line in the Qur’an that states: “The throne of God was built on water”, Pinseau’s ambitious design includes a glass floor, meaning worshippers can kneel over the sea when they pray. From its intricate mosaic tiles to its teal, turquoise and gold colour scheme, it is one of the most glorious and impressive works of Moorish architecture I’ve ever seen. Pleasingly, it serves as a social hub for locals seeking solace in its shady arches from the fierce afternoon sun.
The bustly habous market rivals Marrakech for colour and character, its paths filled with Aladdin slippers, magic carpets and stained glass lanterns. Ambling through it is a photographer’s delight, every kiosk offering a treasure trove of trinkets. After indulging in feather-light pastries from local gem Patisserie Bennis, Jihane takes me to the city’s main boulevard lined with dazzlingly white Art Deco buildings that pop against the bright blue of the sky.
The street is one of faded grandeur like those found in Havana. But its width and majesty makes it feel like Paris. On our travels we pass the Rialto cinema complete with an original poster for Casblanca that has yellowed in the sun. Before heading back to the hotel we stop for tea at the Sqala, an old fortress turned teahouse whose electric blue doors and shady fountains remind me of the Majorelle gardens in Marrakech where Yves Saint Laurent’s ashes are scattered.
Back at the Four Seasons, I indulge in a pot of mint tea at Mint, the hotel’s main restaurant and meeting point decked out with brass lanterns, turquoise cushions and ceramics by local artists, where bountiful tagines are served in burnt orange pots. On my final night Jihane recommends I visit Rick’s Café in the centre of town. Founded in 2004 by former American diplomat Kathy Kriger, the restaurant is housed in a beautiful white building next to the old medina. Stepping inside is like stepping back in time.
Keen to recreate her own version of the saloon run by Bogart in the film, Kriger’s venture could have so easily become a pastiche, but her sense of style and attention to detail has created a charming venue that takes you away from the everyday. Hidden behind a curtain, the courtyard café with its Art Deco bar lined with golden palm trees and fez-wearing waiters serving Amaretto sours has a clandestine feel to it – I half expect to see Bogey propping up the bar with a whisky and soda.
While enjoying the restaurant’s signature dish – a simple but sensational salad of goat’s cheese and warm figs drizzled with honey, a middle-aged man in a suit perches on a piano stool and starts tinkling the ivories. He’s a few songs in before he breaks into As Time Goes By – surely a nightly occurrence but made fresh by the delight on diners’ faces as Casablanca’s wistful theme tune is played out in this most wonderful and whimsical of settings.
Casablanca is a city in transition with one foot in the past and another in the future. It has a gritty charm I find alluring. It isn’t perfect or pristine, neither is it tying to be. Still as wild as the waves along its seafront, the city is a work in progress with the potential to be brilliant. The arrival of the Four Seasons serves as a statement of intent that Casablanca dreams of being and may one day be as important a tourist hub as Marrakech and Essaouira. For now, I’m happy to have this rough diamond to myself.
For more information about Four Seasons Casablanca, including details of services and amenities, what to see and do, and special offers, visit www.fourseasons.com.