The plaintive cry of the muezzin’s call to prayer lies heavy in the air. Behind the ancient red-clay walls of the medina the everyday frenzy continues: traders, musicians, hawkers, snake-charmers and food sellers all crammed together in chaotic scenes. But we are yet to experience this, the heart of Marrakech, and instead are heading towards the latest new opening creating a buzz in the city.
Mandarin Oriental Marrakech may have recently opened its doors just a 10-minute drive away from the old town, but the sprawling resort feels like a world away from the noisy confines of the souk. While its pink-coloured walls echo the medieval ramparts of the city, and the 50 acres of gardens have undulating hills to reference the dunes of the desert, its appeal lies in the peace and privacy that is found here.
After wafting through the spectacular entrance, where a palm-tree lined avenue brings you to the airy, light-filled lobby with its gold-lined pool, dramatic black-and-white marble floor and elegant fretwork, you’ll wander through shady, covered walkways and olive groves (where some of the trees are up to 600 years old) to find your own private villa.
While the nine luxury suites in the main building, with Atlas Mountain views, are not to be sniffed at, it is the 54 stand-alone villas, which are the stars of the show. Detailing is everything. Each villa, for example, has its own different coloured rose-garden to greet you (my blooms, dreamy with perfume, were all sunshine yellow). You enter the private, walled garden via a heavy, wooden door complete with iron work which would not have been out of place on a 12th century castle. It swings open to reveal a private, riad-style courtyard with swimming pool, iacuzzi, dining and living areas and chic all-white furniture. Birds swoop down, cicadas chat happily and the sun casts long shadows all around.
Inside, the vast villa has a series of three separate rooms – lounge, bedroom and bathroom – which all look out on to the courtyard. French interior designers Patrick Gilles and Dorothée Boissier have given a modern take on traditional Moroccan themes for an über glamourous and beautifully textured feel. Thick cream handwoven rugs and creamy stone plaster on the walls feature naïve tadelakt motifs. The overall monochrome palette is brightened with subtle pops of colour from the burnt-orange and avocado-green throws dotted around. The marble bathroom, with its glorious round tub, in-shower hammam and dressing room, is super-slick yet prettified with mother-of-pearl accessories and ornamental wall-lights.
At night, the hotel switches from sophisticated to romantic. Paths are lit with candle-filled lanterns and the air is full with potent fragrances from the gardens – jasmine, rose geranium and night-blooming cestrum will leave you feeling heady. For evenings a deux you can request private dining in your villa, where the designer Ceramic Loun dining table is exquisitely set by the flickering flames of the outside fireplace, the mood heightened by the star-filled sky above.
The triumph of the design concept lies in its nod to locality. Bathrooms, for instance, are stocked with Nectarome products sourced from the renowned aromatherapy company, which guests can visit, located in the nearby Ourika Valley. The 100% Moroccan-made products are based around essential oils and deep-rooted in traditional herbal know-how. The architecture of the hotel is grand and symmetrical – perfect for framing the distant mountain, as if looking out on a work of art. Soaring columns, dark wood surrounds and Zelliges tiles combine to reference local Islamic buildings. Carved fireplaces, large bronze bells and bamboo panels give a nod the land’s ancient Berber heritage. It’s stimulating on the eye and thought-provoking and a move away from a corporate ‘one size fits all’ aesthetic that many big hotel chains are guilty of.
The interplay of new and old continues in the spa, which is a true highlight of this hotel. Space and light are key. Inspired by ancient mosques and cathedrals of Andalusia, it has a monastic quality with arched corridors built from red brick, shimmering pools and glass walls. The choice of treatments is wonderfully edited with a mix of brands on offer: Aromatherapy Associates, Biologique Recherche and Nectarome. The Hammam experiences are sensual, all-encompassing treatments, with most featuring body cleansing with black soap, all over exfoliation with a kessa glove and deep massages with essential oils (such as orange blossom or almond oil).
While Morocco is renowned for its restaurants, cafés and bars (in the Medina, try the eclectic roof-top Nomad for a modern twist on Arabic cuisine, nomadmarrakech.com), the hotel’s signature restaurant Mes’Lalla is a treat. The effortlessly glamourous chef Meryem Cherkaoui revs up local street-food recipes to new heights, with many ingredients being sourced from the hotel’s vast organic kitchen garden. A range of local recipes, sourced from farmers and fisherman, have been given a contemporary twist. Standout dishes include the squid cannelloni with smoked aubergine, prawns with tomato zaalouk and flat bread, and seabass with purple olive crust. The restaurant surroundings are equally as charming, with mosaic flooring, shelves heavy with antiques and walls adorned with traditional H’ssira straw mats.
It is, of course, tempting to say put in what is a luxuriously peaceful oasis, but to get to grips with Marrakech, it is essential to go out and immerse yourself in local life. Shopping in the souks is a must: grab one of for the beautifully-made straw bags, sold in Rahba Kedima square, which can be personalized with brightly coloured writing on the spot, stock up on traditional linen bedspreads and colourful tea glasses. Visit the impressive 16th-century Medersa Ben Youssef (medersa-ben-youssef.com), a former Islamic college with standout Moorish architecture and take a trip to Yves Saint Laurent’s magical gardens Jardin Majorelle (jardinmajorelle.com/ang). Then return to your villa – take a dip in the pool, sip mint tea in the breeze – it would have got even better.
Mandarin Oriental, Marrakech costs from £510 per night on a B&B basis. For more information or to make a booking, call +212 5 24 29 88 88 or visit: mandarinoriental.com/marrakech
Angelina Villa-Clarke’s flights were supported by The Moroccan National Tourist Office. Visit the website for more information on Morocco: visitmorocco.com