Take a Moroccan riad, renovate it in a contemporary minimalist style with Starck-ian bathroom fixtures, cubic leather furniture and boldly striped textiles à la Missoni or Paul Smith, and you’ve got riad Dar One. At the end of a gated alleyway in the Jewish quarter of the medina, this has to be one of Marrakech’s best-kept secrets: sleek, quiet, cosmopolitan and eminently affordable.
11am, but flexible subject to availability. Earliest check-in, 1pm.
Double rooms from £81.10 (€95), including tax at 10 per cent. Please note the hotel charges an additional local city tax of €2.00 per person per night on check-out.
Rates include breakfast. You can rent the riad exclusively for €530–€820 a day, accommodating 12 people.
Owner Jean’s impeccably behaved dogs Loukoum and Tosca follow him loyally wherever he goes. He visits the riad every morning to help guests plan their day, and then hands over to his excellent team of staff. Book an airport transfer for €15 a person; almost as cheap as a regular taxi and much less of a headache. A vase of fresh roses will appear in your room every day.
At the hotel
Courtyard with water feature; roof terrace with a Jacuzzi, sunloungers and day-beds; free WiFi; open fireplaces; AC; hammam or beauty treatments and in-room massages by arrangement.
Our favourite rooms
Dune has an open fireplace, exposed beams, a sexy black marble sink and big tadelakt bath. Darkly elegant Mirage has a deep grey tadelakt bath and modern chandelier. Colourful St Ex (named after author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry) features chocolate browns, cornflower blues and tomato reds. Sirocco is up on roof-terrace level, with a putty-coloured suede headboard, a red rug and stripey lampshades. All the rooms are about the same size, apart from Petit Prince, which is a touch smaller (and therefore costs a bit less).
No pool, but you can dip a toe into into the courtyard fountain and the roof terrace Jacuzzi, or freshen up after sunbathing with an alfresco shower.
There are sunhats to borrow on the roof terrace, so don’t worry if you forget yours. Bring comfy pumps or trainers for exploring the medina on foot, and a French phrasebook will come in handy.
Between 22 December and 6 January the riad must be booked in its entirety, for a minimum of five nights.
Welcome. Cots and extra beds are charged at €30 a night for children staying in parents’ rooms. Sirocco on the roof terrace is the best room for families, although this designer den is more of an adults retreat. Babysitting can be arranged.
In the salon by the fire in winter; on the roof terrace in summer.
Whatever you like, but Jean’s chic wardrobe will have you wishing you’d packed your favourite crisply laundered shirts and Prada sundresses.
Take breakfast on the roof terrace or at a communal table in the salon. If you want to dine at the riad, a Morrocan three-course menu costs Dhs250 a head, and features tasty salads, aromatic tagines with couscous and fresh, fruity desserts.
Aperitifs are served each day and you can order beer, wine or champagne to drink wherever you please – we like the cosy lounge with its open fireplace.
There are no rules here: take breakfast whenever and wherever you like. You’ll have to give a few hours’ notice if you want lunch or dinner, however, so that cooks Meriem and Asma can pop out to buy fresh ingredients.
None, but a porter is on hand 24 hours a day if you need anything.
Marrakech’s Menara Airport is 6km from the city centre. Gety there from the UK and other parts of Europe with British Airways (www.ba.com) or Royal Air Maroc (www.royalairmaroc.com). Taxis from the airport to the city centre take 20 minutes and cost around €12 – make sure you agree a price before setting off to avoid being overcharged.
The Moroccan state railway, ONCF (www.oncf.ma), runs inexpensive (but limited) services to Marrakech from Casablanca, Fez and Tangier. Look for TCR (Train Climatisé Rapide) trains to guarantee air-conditioning in summer. You’ll find plenty of taxis waiting at the station on Avenue Hassan II.
Driving is not advised in the congested centre of Marrakech and parking around the hotel can be difficult. Should you want your own wheels however, there are hire desks at the airport. Follow Avenue de la Menara into the city.
Worth getting out of bed for
Just round the corner, you’ve got the Palais de Bahia, Royal Palace and the Kasbah to visit, and a walk of mere minutes will get you to the Koutoubia mosque and Djemaa el Fna. Jean and his team at Dar One can sort out city guides or hiking daytrips into the mountains, where you’ll probably spot wild monkeys, and then have lunch in a Berber village (about Dhs200 a person), as well as longer expeditions exploring little-visited parts of Morocco, perhaps combining camel riding and camping in the desert. He can also help you with bespoke requests, from a picnic party on the Ourika riverbanks to floating across the Palmeraie in a hot-air balloon at sunrise. Learn about fashion legend Yves Saint Laurent's time in Marrakech in the museum dedicated to him, then see the brilliantly hued Jardin Majorelle, which he saved from being built over. And see the work of Morocco's modern creatives at Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden (aka MACAAL).
A short walk (or even shorter taxi ride) from Dar One beyond Marrakech's Djemaa el Fna square, El Fassia at 232 Avenue Mohammed V is run entirely by women, who conjure up tasty tagines and fluffy couscous. Bô-Zin is a sleek sultirly lit space with an extensive dim-sum menu and elegant Franco-Moroccan mains. Let Grand Café de la Post transport you back in time with its Twenties decor, or chill out in the more modern La Famille, which has chic latte-hued interiors and a pretty courtyard garden for dining alfresco.
Get a table at one of the roof-terrace cafés or ice-cream parlours skirting the Djemaa el-Fna at around five and watch the square throng into action – all the stallholders set up for the night as the sun goes down. We're taken with the quirky and colourful Café Clock, where you can add 'trying a camel burger' to your to-do list.
Our cab pulls up outside the Palais de la Bahia. It's a corner of the medina thronging with locals and tourists alike. Standing on the northern edge of the Mellah (Jewish quarter), we wait momentarily for our Dar One contact, and we feel like something out of a Dashiell Hammett detective thriller. Surely we should be trading in some lost colonial treasure or tracking down the British ambassador’s missing daughter, not waiting to be escorted to a boutique retreat?
I’m half expecting our maitre d’ to appear in a pinstripe three-piece, a gilt-handled walking stick in hand, a cigarillo poking out beneath his pencil-thin moustache. As it turns out, of course, Michel – for that’s his name – is an entirely modern Marrakshi in designer sunglasses, jeans and a loose shirt. He is also charming, cheerful, and has most definitely nothing to do with a fictional antique-smuggling ring.
While I’m busy trying to work out whether to be disappointed our relieved by this normality, Mrs Smith is absorbed by how perfectly Moroccan the spot is: behind us are towering walls concealing an intricately decorated 19th-century palace, there's an endless stream of swerving spluttering mopeds, there's a hubbub of Moroccan daily life chattering all around. Could there be a more beautifully authentic place to begin a long weekend in this ancient city? Surely not.
‘Don’t worry,’ reassures Michel as he leads us down a sloping path off the main street and into a narrow medina alley of bright orange walls. ‘The directions are simple. You take a right off the road, then the second right. Then another. Then the last left… And then we’re just up here on the left.’ We pass through a private gate, its keeper is a smiling local boy of about 10, with someone who appears to be his equally cheerful grandfather. The deep amber of the private alley is almost luminous beyond a dense green line of potted plants.
‘Right’, I think to myself, ‘I can handle that’. Right, right, right, left and left. That’s right, right? Oh, bugger. Anyone with even half a sense of direction should be more than fine finding Dar One… Sadly, I lack even that. Thankfully, however, my particular Mrs Smith model comes with in-built SatNav. She also comes with quite a wardrobe – and as we turn the last dusty corner past the gatekeepers, Michel catches sight of her new ruby-red sandals.
‘Beautiful!’ he declares. ‘And the colour matches your luggage perfectly.’ (The scarlet Globetrotter is currently the pride of my beloved’s travel accoutrements collection, second only to the aforementioned footwear – so he’s firmly in her good books. Charmer.)
The front door to the riad swings wide open and the bustle of Marrakech fades instantly to a distant hush. Long canvas sheets hang from the ceiling, billowing gently. Around them, softly textured plaster walls frame a lounge of modern square tables, chairs and sofas. Daylight streams in from the open roof while a small waterfall in the centre of the room tumbles steadily into a svelte plunge pool, a scattering of dusty lilac roses bobbing on the surface. It’s one of those moments that forces you to take a deep breath, exhaling away all of life's petty stresses.
Dar One itself isn’t enormous, bearing instead that tall and slender format of the riad species; its three floors spiral up around a canopied atrium to a sun-drenched roof terrace. We climb the smooth concrete stairs to our room on the first floor. While hardly huge our room is certainly cosy, with plenty of character. We draw the curtains on the glass doors and collapse onto the large bed – drifting off in each others’ arms for a small post-flight siesta.
Design aside, perhaps Dar One’s greatest strength is its location. So when I awake with a profound craving for a Marrakshi tagine lunch, it’s only a 15-minute wander over to Chez Chegrouni on the central medina – an inexpensive favourite for watching the mulling anarchy of the square unfurl. And when Michel books us a romantic dinner that night on the roof of Hôtel Farouk, again it’s only a reasonable saunter away (although for the uninitiated, it can be a bit of a pain to find, so maybe allow an extra five minutes of getting-lost time).
The specific details that attract Mrs Smith’s eye when we’re travelling never cease to amaze me. The attribute of Dar One that most catches her attention? Even above the fabulous late breakfast we share on the sun-drenched rooftop? And more than the fresh roses that appear magically in our cosy little room, daily, their ivory petals glowing against the swirling deep grey walls? Believe it or not: it's our bedsheets.
So enamoured is Mrs Smith by the bed linen's thick, sensual softness that when we meet the riad’s proprietor Jean the next morning, my sybarite launches straight into pillow talk. And Jean, infinitely affable and distinctly approving of her admiration, promises to introduce her to his source. As they talk fabric weight and threadcount it’s like watching a linen drug deal going down. Yet with the waterfall trickling away in the background I couldn’t be more content. That is how magical this hip little house is.
For 15 years Jean was a lawyer back in France – but try not to hold that against him. With his two impeccably behaved hounds Tosca and Loukoum by his feet and the haven of Dar One around him, he is in fact decidedly charming. We pick his brain about where to spend the day awandering, sharing the city’s secrets and his excitement over his new riad, Dar White, set to open next year. After signing up for a candlelit dinner that night on the riad’s roof, we leave Jean to it, and we head off to tackle the Red City.
Mrs Smith is something of a legend when it comes to haggling. Further armed with Jean’s recommendations, we hit the souks hard. My only concern is that we’ll return one day to Marrakech to find warning posters tacked up throughout the markets: my better half’s visage smiling seductively above a note advising stallholders to barter with her at their own risk. Eventually we call time and back we trudge, foot-sore but loaded with a stack of impeccably bartered treasures.
Just before the first right (or is it a left?) into Dar One, the local cornershop has a drop-freezer that calls our name. Back in the riad, feet soaking in the waterfall-fed plunge pool, ice-creams in hand, we compare notes: the Palais was certainly a beautiful welcome. The winding amber streets are stunning. The souks are atmospheric, as is the call-to-prayer streaming over the roofs. And oh that breakfast on the top terrace, our rose-rich room, our smooth, welcoming bed... All of this is beautiful and irreplaceable and seductively unique…But this moment now – as our retail-beaten feet are draped into the flower-strewn pool, the cool marble beneath our legs, ice-creams clutched and a chilled bottle of wine beside us, the warm breeze slipping down through the canopies, Mrs Smith looking radiant in the dappled sunlight – this, strangely, will be the moment that brings us back to Dar One. And back again, most certainly, we will be.