November 26, 2015
Marrakech is once again Morocco’s most sought-after city. It was, remember, hugely popular in the sixties and seventies, when it was known as the capital of hippiedom. (For verification, just listen to Crosby, Stills & Nash’s 1969 recording of “Marrakesh Express,” or rent the movie Hideous Kinky.) Real and faux bohemians of all stripes–including Talitha and Paul Getty and Yves Saint Laurent, who still has a house there–went for drugs and sex (and maybe for rock and roll too, although I doubt it; more likely they came for the richly flavored Moroccan food).
For those who knew it back then, Marrakech is not exactly what it used to be (oh, jaded travelers, is anything?), but that hasn’t stopped Morocco’s third-largest city from enjoying yet another favorable moment in the North African desert sun. This time around, Marrakech has become a popular weekend destination for Europeans. It always has been one for the French: after all, Morocco was a protectorate from 1912 to 1956, and French remains the second language (the first is Arabic, with the primary religion being Islam; it is not, however, a country known for religious extremism). But now the British, many of them young and newly prosperous, are coming. So too, the Italians. Some travelers are liking it so much, they are staying on for longer periods, even renting or buying. One reason is that Marrakech is such an easy hop from Paris (a three-and-a-quarter-hour flight) and London (about five hours). But that is only part of it.
Marrakech is ambrosia, and always has been, owing to the intoxicating desert air, the fragrant vegetation, the color of the ancient city itself (terracotta), the pungent smell of spices (cumin, cinnamon, precious saffron) and the surrounding, often snow-capped, High Atlas Mountains. Even Winston Churchill was known to spend long periods here, housed in his expansive suite (let’s face it, what other kind would Churchill have?) at La Mamounia, for years the best hotel in town.
Marrakech is much tamer than it was in the ’60s and ’70s, although I use the word advisedly. Marrakech will never become truly tame; if it did, it would lose its appeal. It is cleaner than it used to be and now has several tasty boutique hotels, many of them in the medina (old city). But the most stylish lodging isn’t remotely “boutique,” nor is it in the medina. I refer to the Amanjena, the first hotel in the superluxury Amanresorts chain to be built in Africa. Amanjena–part Sanskrit and part Arabic for “peaceful paradise“–lies about four miles south of Marrakech, just beyond an exclusive residential development called the Palmeraie. The Amanjena is quiet, so don’t go looking for any action beyond the wrist action of raising your Champagne glass to drink a toast before dinner. And for heaven’s sake, don’t go alone. Amanjena is for couples–intimate couples. If you’re just holding hands, you can do that at any number of hotels in Marrakech. But if you want to hold each other, this is the place.
Like those of many of the Amanresorts, Amanjena’s interiors were designed by Ed Tuttle, the talented man who has long been responsible for the look and feel of the best of the Amans. He also did the exteriors. Tuttle has a flair for stark drama and an appreciation of the local culture.
When you stay at any Amanresort, especially one designed by Tuttle, you feel as if you couldn’t be anywhere else at that moment. And Amans are located where anybody would want to be–the island of Phuket in Thailand, Bali and other Indonesian islands, the Philippines (far from the political problems in Manila), even Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Incidentally, the mastermind behind the Aman concept, Adrian Zecha, an Indonesian who left the company in 1998, rejoined it in 2000, which is good news for Aman cultists, who seem to travel from one Aman resort to another almost as a way of life.
Amanjena opened in February 2000, so it still feels relatively new, at least in terms of landscaping and management. Let’s hope it will age slowly and gracefully. But the basics–if one can call such luxuries “basic”–are in place. It looks like a miniature walled city, not unlike Marrakech itself. The layout, with its Moorish arches and domes, is low-slung, and the resort seems deceptively large (it has just thirty-four “pavilions” and six freestanding, two-story maisons).The hotel’s centerpiece, just beyond the entrance, is a bassin, or reflecting pool–not for swimming, just for effect; there is also a proper swimming pool on the property. Local materials and techniques are used widely throughout the hotel, so there is a feeling of authenticity, if not of age.
Landscape lighting is one of the many things that Amanresorts excel at, and nowhere is it more dramatic, some might say Disneyesque, than at Amanjena. Okay, so maybe the architecture is a little overdone, even over-domed, but when you’re in Marrakech, you might as well feel as if you’re in a sultan’s palace. As Mel Brooks might say, “It’s good to be the sultan.” (And it’s not bad to be the sultan’s guest, either.)
The accommodations at Amanjena are generous in size, from the pavilions, which are single-story, to the two-bedroom maisons, which are larger and more stately, but also less cozy (better for two couples or a family). The maisons have private terraces and their own private pools, by the way. The overall decor is minimal Moorish, so clutter is not an issue. Because of the dimensions of the rooms, the soaringly high ceilings and the spare furnishings, it can feel a little cool–until the fireplace is lit and the body heat (yours) is turned up. You will not suffer from claustrophobia here.
The Moroccan restaurant is excellent, albeit subdued in its decor by comparison to the more established restaurants in Marrakech, like Dar Yacout. Of course, there is a health and beauty center (try the hamman, the Moroccan steam bath, and a scrub down that will make your skin feel like satin). The swimming pool has an outdoor terrace where lunch is served in good weather, or you can go inside if it is cool or, alternatively, blazing hot. When I was there, in late fall, it was in the fifties and rainy, so no poolside anything for me or anyone else.
But that gave me ample time to see Marrakech, and the best way, at least the first time, is with a guide and driver. My guide, Hatim, whom I booked through Amanjena, was first-rate. With him, I became reacquainted with Marrakech–I’d been twice before–particularly with the souks and the medina, which are a tangle if attempted on one’s own. In his hands, I went to better-quality shops and ran into less-beseeching shopkeepers. Hatim was excellent at maneuvering me through the dark, narrow, sometimes sinister streets.
As for Amanjena’s location, staying outside Marrakech wasn’t a problem at all. In fact, I found it a relief. Things can get pretty touristy in town, especially in the Djemaa el Fna, the famously raucous public square that is the gateway to the souks. But you would be missing the essence of Marrakech if you were to skip the Djemaa altogether, for it is the gathering place of locals and visitors alike. Snake charmers, musicians and jugglers, food stalls piled high with spices, nuts, figs, dates and oranges, and more hustlers than you’ve ever seen (although not nearly as many as there used to be, owing to a crackdown by the government) are at your service, especially in evidence at sunset and later in the evening, when the activity in the square reaches its peak.
Relatively speaking, Marrakech is about as close as you can get to a full-tilt exotic experience in the Western Hemisphere. If you fly Royal Air Maroc directly from JFK and all systems are working (alas, as they so seldom are in air travel these days), you can be in Casablanca in seven hours–but don’t even think of staying there. Move on to Marrakech via the forty-five-minute connecting flight. You won’t need all that much time to take it all in–four or five days are plenty, unless you are planning on going into the desert to Taroudant or to visit Fez, my second-favorite city in Morocco.
Marrakech is still number one, as far as I am concerned, and for good reason, because there is much to see, do and experience–and while there’s a fair amount of poverty and the blight that comes with any exotic destination, there are also plenty of mind-boggling, mind-changing sights and sensations to counter them. You will not be at a loss for decent places to stay and will be perfectly content at a major hotel like La Mamounia or smaller lodgings within the medina. But why be merely content when you can stay at Amanjena and know bliss?
In Marrakech Once you in the Casbah (the old walled city within the medina), you will find yourself deep in Moroccan culture and mystery. The Casbah is where both Marrakechi and foreigners live, rich and poor side by side. Also within the medina is the souk (or market), selling meat and poultry, spices, rugs, leather goods, silver and souvenirs. The most common entry is by way of the Djemaa el Fna, the main square, and it’s not to be missed, as touristy as it is. Go with a licensed guide, at least the first time. Marrakech is teeming with them. The best plan of action is to book a guide through your hotel, as I did. At the Amanjena, I lucked out with Hatim. Ask for him and hope he is available.