With its souks and minarets, old Marrakech forever romances the visitor, yet the new part of town with its burgeoning scene of modern cafés, galleries and artisan shopping is equally captivating, as is Mandarin Oriental, Marrakech
Mandarin Oriental, Marrakech's Pool Garden restaurant
The hotel's main pool area
Marrakech is on the move, spreading its wings and shaking out its feathers as a shining example of a cosmopolitan 21st-century African city: one that has near miraculously stayed true to its roots and identity. You won't find flashy skyscrapers piercing the horizon – rather, ancient minarets that puncture the largely two-storey skyline. There is a freshness of spirit and creativity that beguiles and entrances in the same way the wild, thrumming beat of the central square – the legendary Djemaa el Fna – must have for the Red City's early visitors, among them Winston Churchill, Josephine Baker and Mick Jagger.
A lantern stall in the Medina
The lobby, with mountain views
New to the city, but in tune with the vernacular, is Mandarin Oriental, Marrakech, located only 10 minutes by petit taxi from the atmospheric souks of the Medina and the spruce, palm-lined avenues of the modern part of town, Guéliz. Work began at the resort seven years ago to establish gardens in keeping with the city's rich heritage for landscaping – Marrakech has no less than 67 manicured parks and green spaces.
This clever move by Mandarin Oriental means guests arrive at the resort to a lush green space befitting of the city. Within the 20 hectares of emerald-green lawns, weeping willows cascade into gleaming water features, 100,000 rose bushes perfume the air, and thick jasmine frames the 54 private villas. Replete with organic fruit, vegetables and herbs, the gardens also supply Mes'Lalla, the hotel's modern Moroccan fine-dining establishment, as well as the more informal Pool Garden restaurant. It's not unusual, should you stroll through the grounds early in the morning, to see Mes'Lalla's head chef, Meryem Cherkaoui, filling her basket with herbs and any number of the 94 varieties of tomato grown here, before beginning work on the day's menu, which includes delicious Barley Berkoukech (cracked olives and squid cannelloni stuffed with smoked aubergine) and spiced avocado and spider crab salad.
Landscaping in the resort
There are few luxuries greater than a hotel or restaurant that grows its own food, but the attention to detail that underpins every aspect of the experience in Marrakech makes it stand out as one of the brand's flagship properties. When French interior designers Patrick Gilles and Dorothée Boissier were tasked with getting to grips with the decor, they looked to Andalusian-Arabic finesse and Berber artisan crafts, resulting in diaphanous, calming spaces that evoke Moroccan design with grace and subtlety. 'We are great admirers of the Ben Youssef Madrasa, the Islamic college in Marrakech,' they say of their inspiration. 'We wanted to lend the entrance a similarly perfect symmetry, with columns and dark wood frames, marble tiles, a tranquil pool painted in gold, carved fireplaces, large bronze bells, and the distant view of the mountains.'
A modern Moroccan dish from Mes'Lalla
Guests arrive at the resort to a lush green space befitting of the city
The result is a space that offers a sense of place – Marrakech and the surrounding villages in the Atlas Mountains – yet is deeply contemporary. Tranquil villas featuring creamy stone floors, elegant columns honed from dark tadelakt (traditional lime plaster) and sultry, tiled swimming pools may have an air that oozes Bel Air, but the finish – in the form of hand embroidery on banquettes, tadelakt etched with Berber motifs, traditional handwoven carpets and glazed ceramic table tops by local ceramicist Loun Céramique – represents the new wave in young Moroccan designers and is 100 per cent Marrakech. There's depth to the concept, too, that reflects the country's larger history. The Spa, for example, pays homage to the traditional red-brick construction of Marrakech, while its corridor of graceful arches recalls the Islamic architecture of Andalusia, a region presided over by the Muslim Moors for nearly eight centuries.
The hotel's greeting staff
To stay here is to absorb the spirit of Marrakech by osmosis, the temptation, naturally, being not to leave. But the opening of Mandarin Oriental, Marrakech is a direct reflection of the city's own evolution. 'The hotel is truly a vision of contemporary Morocco,' says Parisian designer Robert Merloz, whose shop and atelier, Maroc'n Roll, is in Guéliz. 'There's no place like it: it's dynamic yet soft; it's light and sun and flowers. For me, this is true chic. It has a happiness that makes you want to be there.'
However, it's well worth stepping out. Visitors who dig deep will find that the Marrakech of today goes way beyond the roiling, tourist-packed souks. Rather, they will find a modern stylemaker that remains unwaveringly true to traditional craftsmanship and design.
Al fresco dining in the gardens
The corridor to The Spa
To put everything in context, it's worth seeking out the places that provide the inspiration, such as the Agdal Gardens – a series of rectangular plots, south of the Medina – which was formative in the creation of Mandarin Oriental, Marrakech; while the details such as the symmetrical entrance, marble floor tiles and pool inlaid with gold zellije (Moroccan tiles) are all reflections of the eye-popping features of the Ben Youssef Madrasa. Aspects of the Berber influence can be better understood by visiting the local museums, including the Maison de la Photographie, which documents life in Morocco in photographic form from 1870 to 1960. The Berber Ecomuseum, about 45 minutes away in the Ourika Valley, also offers an insightful look at the old way of life.
A gallery at Jardin Majorelle
Given the city's strong artistic past, it's little wonder that the emerging arts scene exudes such semiotic seductive power. When Vanessa Branson established the Marrakech Biennale in 2004, it assured the city's position as a serious player on the global art scene. These days, discerning collectors can pick up everything from local artist Hassan Hajjaj's Warhol-esque photos of biker chicks and medina rapper boys at his gallery-cum-studio Riad Yima, to the inspired Moroccan works at Lawrence-Arnott, gallerists of choice to royalty and rock stars.
Perhaps the most significant addition to the rapidly expanding arts scene in recent times is the arrival of The Marrakech Museum for Photography and Visual Arts. Set within the crumbling glory of the Badi Palace, it brings together some of the worlds most respected artists, earning the city the title of 'Best Emerging Culture Destination in Africa' at the Leading Culture Destinations Awards in 2015. It's not hard to see why. For years now, Marrakech has been the chosen hub of Pure Life Experiences, the high-end, experiential travel exhibition that shows in September; Riad Art Expo, which is aimed at designers and decorators, in March; Caftan – the city's answer to Fashion Week – in April; and the International Film Festival in December.
A Pool Villa at Mandarin Oriental, Marrakech
Art and food always seem to be the ingredients that kick-start a city's renaissance. Marrakech's iconic Le Grand Café de la Poste still takes centre stage at the top of Avenue Mohammed V, which cuts through the heart of Guéliz, the most commercial neighbourhood of the Ville Nouvelle (New Town); but the real blossoming of the dining scene started with the opening of Kechmara just over 10 years ago on leafy Rue de la Liberté. This Fifties villa-turned-funky café and bar, filled with vintage furniture and old movie posters, turned around the fortunes of the local area, making it a hot spot for boutique shopping, hip bistros and art galleries.
Traditional shopfronts in main square Djemaa el Fna
Across the road, Laetitia Trouillet has recently opened her new boutique, Lalla, in a former showroom for electrical white goods, transforming it with deeply covetable limited-edition accessories for those who prefer their design pieces to be unbranded. Among the treasures are leather, bone and bead necklaces by Parme Marin; cotton and linen his-and-hers scarves by Florence Teillet; and Lalla's own emerald-green, fringed bucket bags and ultra-light, sparkly weekend sacs fashioned from vintage Moroccan kaftans.
Organic vegetables from the garden
A short stroll away on Rue des Vieux Marrakechis, opposite David Bloch Gallery with its cutting-edge, street-art-inspired art, is Robert Merloz's Maroc'n Roll, where a small team of seamstresses embroider and embellish his outré designs on the shop floor. He describes the label he founded as 'sophisticated beldi' (beldi meaning traditional in the Moroccan dialect of Darija), drawing inspiration from local culture and people – in particular the water bearers in Djemaa el Fna square, whose colourful clothes and metal trinkets Merloz finds naively 'rock and roll'. In a similarly devil-be-damned fashion, he eschews conventional seasonal collections in favour of day-by-day creations, such as his cut-out bags that take their design cue from zellije floor tiles, clutch bags fashioned from colourful Boucherouite rag rugs, studded leather totes, and silk kaftans emblazoned with precious stones and creamy pearls.
The hotel lobby
A Spa therapist
Even the boutique at the dazzling Jardin Majorelle, with its vibrant daffodil yellows and trademark Majorelle blues, has undergone a transformation, thanks to the arrival of creative director Stephen di Renza two years ago. His reimagining of the inherent savoir-faire of Moroccan craftsmen, combined with the style legacy of Yves Saint Laurent, who made the gardens his home before his death in 2008, has transformed the gift shop into something magical, unique and exclusive. Among the statement head turners are a hand-embroidered 'Love' cushion inspired by Laurent's series of posters that ran from 1970 to 2000; silver teapots with natty leather handles that also serve 'to stop you burning your fingers'; and a brand new line of exquisite precious stone necklaces in malachite with jade, red coral and rock crystal, and black onyx with garnets. Post-shopping, across the road in Kaowa café, you can snack on fresh salads and juices before continuing your shopping mission at 33 Rue Majorelle, the city's first concept store and the collaborative HQ for many of Marrakech's young designers.
A detail in Mes'Lalla restaurant
The Medina – never a place to lag behind on anything – has responded to the effervescence of life in the new town by reinvigorating its own identity. The newest boutique on the block is at Vanessa Branson's El Fenn, where art gallery chic meets local's café, restaurant and bar. Taking the shopping experience to a whole new level, you can peruse a sublime collection of coffee-table books over a cup of tea or glass of champagne, admire the divinely deep-pile contemporary carpet collections of local designer Soufiane, twirl around in one of Paul Rowland's trademark leather cloaks or his brilliant 'shirt' kaftans, or wrap up in an unbleached cotton throw by Anajam Home – perfect for travel or cool spring evenings. From here, it's a hop skip and a jump (take the Medina's Dar el Bacha entrance) to Moroccan-made fashion brands such as Marrakchi Life for elegant menswear, Max & Jan for shiny tops and faux-fur gilets, and Norya Ayron, whose new-wave kaftans are celebrity favourites.
One cannot live on shopping alone, of course, and with the city's new-found confidence comes a new breed of restaurant that might best be described as the New Moroccan. Just as designers embrace influences from elsewhere to add flare to their creations, so too has the dining scene broadened, moving away from the ubiquitous tagines and couscous of the formal riad restaurants, and offering something more laid-back and open-minded.
A corridor in the hotel
A Pool Villa's outdoor seating area
While Mandarin Oriental's very own Meryem Cherkaoui's Mes'Lalla represents the new wave at fine-dining level, the forerunner of the modern Moroccan bistro is Nomad, located just off the Place des Epices in the heart of the Medina. Spread over three floors – two of which are terraces – it encapsulates the spirit of the new Marrakech, with dishes that are light and bright: the beetroot and turnip briouattes, the lamb burger with caramelised aubergine and harissa mayonnaise, and a saffron date cake so decadently fabulous it should come with a warning. Nomad is also a partner of the critically acclaimed chefs-in-residence project at Restaurant Numéro 7 in Fez, co-hosting a pop-up three to four times a year with visiting chefs.
With so much happening in this charming North African city, putting a visit to Mandarin Oriental, Marrakech on your bucket list is not so much a question of if, as when.