Monday 1 May 2017

Marrakech: Live like a king in the Royal Mansour, Morocco's ultimate hotel

Holidays in Morocco

Known as the Red City because of the pinkish-red walls that are to be found everywhere in the municipality, Marrakech is a vibrant mix of art and architecture, old and new
Known as the Red City because of the pinkish-red walls that are to be found everywhere in the municipality, Marrakech is a vibrant mix of art and architecture, old and new
The Royal Mansour in Marrakech was commissioned by King Mohammed VI of Morocco, who often hosts guests in its 53 private riads, situated in almost four hectares of gardens
Djema El Fna Square, Marrakech
Marrakech
The staff appear, almost magically, every time a guest gets lost in the vast five-star luxury hotel

Fran Power

The Royal Mansour is not just a five-star, it's a supernova of a palace says a suitably impressed Fran Power.

If you haven't heard of the Royal Mansour in Marrakech yet, you will soon.

The hotel is one of just six chosen to star in the upcoming BBC series about the most extraordinary hotels in the world, fronted by food critic Giles Coren and MasterChef judge Monica Galetti.

The hotels have been picked for various reasons - one is fashioned out of 'snice', a mix of snow and ice sculpted into rooms (admission to the sauna is free); another is set on an island, built by a returned islander to boost local employment.

And the Royal Mansour? It must have been chosen for its utter fabulousness. No doubt Giles and Monica will pick over its three restaurants, overseen by three-starred Michelin chef Yannick Alleno, to haunt the kitchens and peer into pots, grill the staff and run a finger along the skirting boards in the guest quarters.

But I doubt they'll find anything to tut-tut over. Royal Mansour is not just a five-star hotel, it's a supernova of a palace. The food is astonishing. The service happens as if by telepathy. And the 53 individual riads that serve as guest quarters are exquisite. No wonder the Beckhams love it (or at least so rumour has it - no member of staff would be indiscreet enough to name the star-studded guests who stay here).

The Royal Mansour in Marrakech was commissioned by King Mohammed VI of Morocco, who often hosts guests in its 53 private riads, situated in almost four hectares of gardens
The Royal Mansour in Marrakech was commissioned by King Mohammed VI of Morocco, who often hosts guests in its 53 private riads, situated in almost four hectares of gardens

And while I'm at the superlatives, the prices are also pretty stratospheric at nearly €1,000 a night, before you even think about a cup of mint tea.

The hotel was built six years ago at the command of King Mohammed VI of Morocco and is very much the country's showpiece.

It sits on the eastern edge of the medina in Marrakech, with roughly four hectares of gardens, a testament to what can be achieved when there is no limit to budget and grubbing irritations like profit margins sit well down the list of priorities.

The guest riad complex is built to mimic the maze of the medina with high terracotta-painted walls and pretty, narrow streets punctuated by courtyards with tall palm trees and everywhere water flows in mini canals and fountains. It took over 1,000 craftsmen three years to complete and is a beautiful confection of carved cedar, delicate stucco work and mosaics. It's understated and serene - nothing like the bling of Burj al Arab in Dubai, supposedly the world's most luxurious hotel.

While I'm staying, the King of Morocco's brother is also in residence. Our paths don't cross though. He and his retinue take the four-bedroom Grand Riad, which sits in its own compound and has a hammam and two pools, one on the roof, and a larger one at ground level, a billiard room and marble bathrooms - it costs from €35,000 a night.

About 460 staff tend us pampered guests, that's roughly five staff per guest. They smile and chorus, "Good morning, Mrs Power," each time I pass through the marbled and mosaicked lobby. They appear magically every time I get lost in the medina maze and patiently lead me back to my riad, or the spa or the pool. Occasionally I come across one of them perfecting the grains of sand that are sculpted into the shape of the hotel's logo in the ashtray outside my riad door, or sweeping away a brazen leaf that has dared to fall on the path.

Djema El Fna Square, Marrakech
Djema El Fna Square, Marrakech

But mostly, the staff are invisible - the hotel has an underground city built to service it and allow its workings to grind away unseen. Each floor of my three-storey riad has a door that connects down to the labyrinth of passageways, which are wide enough for a car to drive along.

The doors allow the staff to come and go invisibly to do things like reset the air conditioning to my preferred setting, switch my lights on and do origami to the end of the loo roll. Plates of sweet morsels appear on the lounge table, brownies, say, or baklava-like offerings or, one day, four perfect pomegranates lined up with precision to look like an art installation.

This is all heaven but I feel a bit out of my league - I'm used to soup and a sandwich at lunch. I go to the new Le Jardin spot - an al fresco restaurant by the pool where a mezze lunch of lobster sushi, tomato tartar, calamari, lamb shoulder, paper-thin slices of beetroot marinated in citrus juices and slow-cooked overnight, comes at us in waves - I plop my battered handbag on the ground at my feet. There's a swoosh and white-gloved hands whisk away the same handbag - H&M circa 2014 - and place it on its very own bag pedestal. There it sits through lunch for all the world as if it were the crown jewels, screaming, 'Look at me, look at me.'

The Irish mammy in me is squirming.

Tempting as it is to stay within the walls of the hotel, there is a buzzing city just beyond its battlements. I pause at the Koutoubia Mosque, the 12th century minaret that is visible for miles and was the model for the Giralda in Seville and the Hassan Tower of Rabat. Then I plunge into the mayhem of Djemaa el-Fna, the huge square where you'll see snake charmers, musicians, trained monkeys in nappies doing tricks, palm readers, story tellers, acrobats, flamethrowers, food sellers… It's magical, ear-splitting, and chaotic. Linger too long and you'll find yourself with a snake around your neck or having intricate patterns of henna applied to your hands.

Traditionally the souks were divided into 18 different types of wares but there's a bit of overlap now. The hotel concierge has advised me to 'get lost in it' and it doesn't take long. Each stall is jammed with goods, and I see sparks flying from the metalsmiths forging intricate lanterns, and smell the acrid whiff of tanneries that produce the fine soft leathers for bags and pouffes.

I soon attract a self-appointed 'guide', Mohammed who steers me first to a chic rug store set over three floors. Mint tea arrives and a flurry of rugs are shaken out for me to view.

The staff appear, almost magically, every time a guest gets lost in the vast five-star luxury hotel
The staff appear, almost magically, every time a guest gets lost in the vast five-star luxury hotel

But I'm flying Ryanair. I have no space to bring back a rug - though there's plenty to tempt me. Mohammed and myself tour on, each time I wave away the goods, he guides me on to a cheaper establishment, until we end up in a sort-of souk supermarket where I gather another follower each time I pause to look at anything.

I eventually pick a pair of soft leather slippers, then lose the run of myself and add azure Moroccan embroidered shirts, a phial of argan oil, a kaftan for my daughter, and a too-cute set of embroidered pyjamas for a little nephew.

I have quite an entourage by now and we all sweep up to the desk where the boss of the emporium sits over a huge ledger. He names his price and I know I should haggle. The concierge has instructed me to knock every price down by half. The sum I eventually pay out leaves my new friends far too happy. It's a game and I think I just lost, but it was a lot of fun. They press tokens on me - keyrings, handshakes, cards. Mohammed takes his leave, smiling from ear to ear and I wander out onto the souk, blinking.

Back at Royal Mansour, it is spa o'clock. I follow the palm-lined path to a temple of filigreed serenity where therapist Peki from Thailand wafts me through the high ceilinged, screened vestibule where white rose petals float in a vast bowl. She scrubs my feet in a hot towel, then uses argan oil with spices and black pepper to ease away the stress of trying to work out whether or not I need to tip my riad butler. It's not long before I drift off to sleep.

The next day, the hotel car takes me to Anima Garden, a 25-minute drive from the city in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains.

Here, artist Andre Heller has created a sculptural garden that is a delight - witty, restorative and provocative.

There is a mirrored garden house, a sunken herbed garden, baobabs, olives, lemon and orange trees and umpteen species of palm and cactus, including a particularly prickly squat one, nicknamed 'mother-in-law's seat'.

That night as I sit on my rooftop terrace, dandling my feet into the heated plunge pool and gazing at the stars, an absolute blow-out dinner at La Grande Table Francaise under my belt, I think, perhaps I could get used to this after all.

TAKE TWO: Top attractions

Jardin Majorelle

Visit at sunset when the birdsong reaches a crescendo and the exotic plants collected by artist Jacques Majorelle cast eerie shadows, and see the Berber museum; jardinmajorelle.com.

YSL Museum

Designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Berge rescued the Jardin Majorelle from being developed into a hotel complex. Now, the Yves St Laurent Museum will open later this year beside the garden. More on jardinmajorelle.com.

Getting there

Rates at Royal Mansour are from £782 (approx €917) per night including breakfast. See royalmansour.com for more information.

Royal Mansour has a Short Break Package which includes a two-night stay in a Superior one-bedroom Riad with upgrade to a Premier one-bedroom Riad on availability; daily full breakfast served at La Table restaurant or in your Riad; one dinner for two at La Grande Table Marocaine; one hammam per person (60 mins); fast-track service upon arrival and departure at Marrakech Airport

Including private transfers from and to Marrakech Airport, prices start from €2,100. Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies direct from Dublin to Marrakech.

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