It takes more than a few decorative lanterns to earn a riad widesread acclaim as Marrakech's most stylish… El Fenn achieved this unofficial title by restoring the 19th-century's wrought iron, carved wood and filigree plasterwork, and adding allurring modern touches – graphic prints, a smattering of avant grade artwork, a few mid-century modern bits in Marrakchi colours – with the input of architect Amine Kabbaj and manager William Smit. The unassuming doorway of this labyrinthine, 28-roomed property leads onto three inner courtyards: pass through the sensually lit spaces with marble fountains, rose-petal-filled basins and cushioned alcoves, to antique carved wooden doors leading to a WiFi'd library.El Fenn is the place for creatives to stay.
Get this when you book through us:
A bottle of wine; members staying three nights or more will receive a pair of Babouche slippers each, fruit, flowers, a bottle of wine and macarons
28 rooms (including 12 suites) and one private four-bedroom riad set away from the main house.
Noon, with free late check-out whenever possible.
Double rooms from £216.32 (€256), including tax at 10 per cent. Please note the hotel charges an additional service charge of 7.5% per booking on check-out.
Breakfast, afternoon mint tea and home-made pastries are included for Smith guests. The hotel doesn't accept cash, only Visa Debit, Visa Credit or MasterCard.
The artworks on display are by Bridget Riley, Antony Gormley, Frances Upritchard, Fiona Rae and so on. No pets allowed – El Fenn has its own tortoises, chameleon and iguana. If you're staying in a lower-category room and need an AM shot of caffeine, a tray of fresh coffee, tea and hot water will be left outside your door at around 7.30am. And, afternoon tea of pastries and snacks is served daily – all delightfully free.
At the hotel
Spa and hammam, heated marble swimming pool, treatment room, mini cinema, free WiFi throughout, massive roof terrace with dining area, hanging garden, sun deck and heated reading pools, library, boutique, painting kits (oils and watercolour), yoga mats, concierge service. In rooms: artwork from the owners' collection, hand-stitched Egyptian-cotton linen, leather babouches, free bottled water and air-conditioning. Suites have a minibar, a kettle and a coffee machine; some rooms have working fireplaces and a stash of logs.
Our favourite rooms
The Pool Suite, aka Room 6, is a split-level rock-star retreat with its own 600-foot private terrace with little unheated pool. Room 11 has a dramatic, scarlet-upholstered 10-foot headboard, white marble fireplace, and private veranda. Room 10 is similar, but turquoise. In the main riad, most of the rooms are open-plan suites, six with fireplaces and all with six-foot-wide beds and Egyptian cotton bedlinen, giant custom-built baths, and powerful showers. The 'Pink Room' an Extra Large Suite, lives up to its name, with shades ranging from fuchsia to ballet-pump; we liked its grey-marble bathroom with a mini hammam and a bath tub lined in marble shot through with rosy hues.
Three pools. In serene and shaded open-air courtyard's, the hotel's two Carrara marble-lined pools are surrounded by day-beds and a fire-pit; the petite plunge pool on the roof has a Berber-tented sitting area and sweeping views of the Atlas Mountains and the Koutoubia mosque.
The little spa is tucked away in its own serenely shaded courtyard. Dip in the spa pool or lounge alongside it between treatments. Try the hammam and massage – they're both first class, or perhaps a Saharan-sand scrub; gents get their own facial too. Guests get a 20 per cent discount on treatments taken between 10am and 3pm, and you're asked to arrive in your bathrobe.
This Moorish hideaway is a jewel-coloured mishmash of patterns and textures, which will undoubtedly bring out your artistic side. Bring a sketchbook so you're ready when inspiration strikes.
The little shop behind the lobby is packed with super-stylish Marrakchi delights, from tasselled babouches to ornate tablewear worth bringing an extra suitcase for.
El Fenn is not ideal for kids, though they love the pools and the pets. Cots and extra beds are free for under-5s (€25 a night for 5–12s, €50 for over-12s). Babysitting can be arranged for around €20 an hour, and meals can be tailored for tots.
The little table facing the fireplace in the dining room, or the end table on the roof with a view of the Koutoubia.
As though you’re at home.
Daily-changing Mod Med-Maroc menus based on what’s in season from El Fenn’s organic garden suppliers: country-style at lunch (burgers, salads and light bites), polished and inventive 'new-wave' Moroccan fare at supper, (both €30). Expect dishes such as fillet steak with coriander couscous, caramelised duck breast with ras-el-hanout-spiced vegetables and nougat for dessert. Breakfast is a lavish spread (€15 a person, but included for Smiths) of hot and cold delicacies: home-made yoghurt and granola, fresh fruit, cakes, pastries, breads, Moroccan pancakes, tea, coffee and orange juice and eggs cooked to your taste: shakshouka – in a spicy tomato sauce – fried, boiled, poached, scrambled or in an omelette.
As well as in the stylish, art deco-inspired Krug bar, guests are served drinks anywhere they like in the riad. We recommend flopping down onto one of the rof terrace's soft banquettes and sampling the drinks list while you gaze out over the city. Drinks are served four ways: tall, short, tropical or shot. We recommend a tall drink on the rooftop (perhaps an El Dorado with tequila, lemon juice and honey), short then tropical libations in the bar (the piña coladas are eminently sluggable) and finish your night with a few potent shots.
Until 11am for breakfast, 3pm at lunch; 10pm at supper, unless pre-arranged otherwise. Can serve until midnight. Afternoon tea kicks off at 3.30pm.
You can order up burgers, pasta, light dishes and desserts on request, up until 10pm.
Located by the Bab El Ksour gate, El Fenn is a three-minute walk from Djemaa El Fna square and its bustling souks; the bars and restaurants of Gueliz, Hivernage and the Palmeraie are a quick taxi ride away.
From the UK and elsewhere in Europe, British Airways (www.ba.com), Royal Air Maroc (www.royalairmaroc.com), EasyJet (www.easyjet.com) and Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) fly into Marrakech’s Menara Airport. Transfers to or from the airport can be arranged with the hotel for €30 each way.
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 an air-conditioned journey in summer. You’ll find plenty of taxis waiting at the city’s charming, if slightly run-down, station on Avenue Hassan II.
Driving in Marrakech can be horn-filled and hectic, but if you insist, hire a car from one of the desks at the airport. To reach the hotel, follow Avenue de la Menara to the city centre.
Worth getting out of bed for
Book yoga or Pilates lessons (MAD700 an hour, MAD900 for two); soak in the rooftop pool or swim laps in the main pool; shop in the artsy boutique or book a spa treatment. The reception staff can recommend jogging routes or arrange biking and hiking tours. Jemaa-el-Fna and the souk are within walking distance and landmarks nearby include El Badi Palace, the Ben Youssef religious school and Bahia Palace. To get a glimpse of the Medina as it once was (and in some ways still is…) head to Maison de la Photographie. Jardin Majorelle is a riotously colourful delight, with a small Yves Saint Laurent (its former owner) museum at its heart, and further afield are the olive groves and fruit orchards of Menara Gardens. Ask nicely and El Fenn's chef will take you on a mystery food tour of Marrakech's markets, followed by a cooking class (MAD750 a person).
Le Grand Café de la Poste has been around since the 1920s; it’s somewhat of an institution in Marrakech, with an art-deco setting of checkerboard floors, potted palms and plush sofas. Highlights include roast fish and delicately pink duck breast. Terrasse des Épices is the big sister of the much-loved, medina-perched Café des Épices. People-watch on their lantern-strewn terrace while sampling grillades (grilled meats and kebabs), followed by something rich and sweet from the classic dessert. The no-frills, souk-side eatery Chez Chegrouni (+212 (0) 246 54761) offers classic dishes of skewered meat, lamb and plum tagine, and fluffy aromatic couscous at fabulous prices. They don’t take reservations so join the queue to devour hearty portions of traditional Moroccan fare.
A mixture of jazz and pagan ritual music blared out of the speakers of the taxi taking us on the ten-minute drive from Marrakech airport to El Fenn. Parking in a narrow alley, the driver carried our luggage down an even narrower alley to an entrance resembling that of an urban after-hours club.
A riad is a house built around a central square courtyard. Its exterior walls and entrance door are usually weather-beaten and uncompromising. Moroccan architecture encloses space, creates a sheltered garden from a wilderness, turns away from the outside world, shuts out its noise, and looks in on a personal paradise of shade, rippling cool water, and fragrant flowers. The door’s eye-slit slammed open and shut, and the massive door swung open to reveal a smiling face.
‘Welcome to El Fenn.’
Splashes of cherry red and pomegranate pink beamed at us as we walked down a dark corridor. At the end, a neat array of about 50 pairs of sparkling slippers and jewelled trainers lay next to a large mirror. I was about to show respect by taking off my shoes and adding them to the pile, when Mrs Smith exclaimed: ‘This is art at its best?’
Feeling sheepish, I recalled that while Richard Branson had been in the neighbourhood converting a kasbah, his sister Vanessa had bought a heap of ruins and vigorously set about restoring them to the current combination of family home, boutique-hotel business, and artistic retreat. Some of her favourite and most precious works are exhibited here. A portrait of George Bush was hung upside down. A sign read: ‘I Believe in Van Gogh’. El Fenn means ‘art’ in Arabic and ‘hip’ in local slang. The double meaning made sense.
We walked through a sensually lit courtyard, past a marble fountain trickling water into a rose-petal-filled basin, and up a short flight of steps to a WiFi’d library stocked with French and English books on all subjects. In the corner was a laptop and desk diary, which served as the reception desk. Frederic, the man responsible for the riad’s final design, welcomed us and reeled off a list of the facilities. There was a hammam, a marble swimming pool, and a lounge cinema with a digital projector to watch DVDs.
All food was freshly prepared with local products bought daily at the city market or produced at El Fenn’s own organic vegetable garden in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. Drinks and snacks (breakfast, lunch and dinner, too) would be readily on hand anytime. Beauticians and masseurs, including a Japanese-trained shiatsu master, were constantly available to offer treatments varying from hot-stone chakra stimulation to upper-lip waxing, either in one’s bedroom or in designated healing rooms. We were offered the choice of eating dinner now or sometime after settling into our room. Tired and starving, we opted for the former.
In a cosy, informal dining room where Moorish architecture blended with superb modern interior design, we were served a delicious and delicate feast of lobster mousse, sesame wafers, artichoke hearts, grilled sea bass with olives and lemon peel, apple ratatouille, pulses, mashed turnips, harissa, pigeon, chocolate timbale, strawberries, and two bottles of wine. Well fed, we asked for the room key and were told there weren’t any: there was no need.
A feeling of complete safety overcame us. Soothingly exhausted, we climbed slowly up the steps to our room, which had an open fire and a private roof terrace with small plunge pool. Scented candles flickered seductively. Bowls of roses perfumed every corner. A giant powerful showerhead towered over a deep marble bathtub surrounded by various oils, salts and erotic products. Mrs Smith turned on the taps. The massive bath filled with hot water immediately. Twenty minutes later, we were lying in our hooded and tasselled dressing gowns on a huge firm bed with plentiful pillows and the finest of linen listening to the silence. Unexpectedly, we fell asleep.
Next morning, I cautiously opened the door and let in streams of strong sunlight. On a stool outside, the caring staff had placed a tray of hot tea and coffee flasks, milk, sugar, and tiny cakes. Consuming the lot simply increased our appetite for breakfast. We went to the main rooftop terrace, overlooking the snow-covered peaks of the Atlas and replete with corners containing woven-leather chairs, daybeds and giant cushions to make one’s own for reading, eating, drinking, sunbathing, or snoozing. Freshly squeezed orange juice, strong coffee, home-made yoghurt, beetroot marmalade and warm croissants took seconds to arrive at our chosen table. Smells of rosewater and incense and songbirds’ melodies floated over us we drifted back into dreamland. Carved wooden doors, ornate metal jalousies, antique mirrors, intricate carvings and lanterns in alcoves, and faded rugs reminded us where we were. Perhaps we should explore.
We ventured out to take a short walk, which was curtailed by Mrs Smith spotting the horse-drawn carriages. We grabbed one. Anxious to please, the toothless driver, proud of his city, took us for a ride around the sights of Marrakech. He stopped at a herbalist whose shelves were stacked with jars of medicinal plants, dried flowers, spices, cosmetics, and dyes. Mrs Smith bought some cream of argan (a tree that refuses to grow if transplanted outside Morocco) and some of the diet tea favoured by Victoria Beckham. I sampled some Moroccan Viagra (red ginseng) and Spanish fly (beetle wings).
The hotel room had been thoroughly serviced by the time we returned. This time, sleep eluded us. For providing a mixture of African exotica, Arabic glamour and European comfort, El Fenn is unbeatable.