Big things are happening in Marrakesh. Or rather, small things, as aging Moorish mansions and palaces are being transformed into guesthouses, and chic hotels are springing up like oases in the desert
Although it's just steps from Marrakesh's teeming souks, Riad Maji—one of the many new guesthouses deep within the ancient walled medina—is the epitome of tranquillity. Breakfast is served on the tented roof, an enchanting aerie with a view of the Atlas Mountains. As I slather homemade fig preserves on a freshly baked croissant, Abdourrazak, the majordomo who makes Maji feel like a home away from home, stops by to see whether I'll need help arranging sightseeing, shopping, or lunch—and even offers to take me around the city himself. Such is the advantage of staying at a riad and experiencing the Marrakesh medina firsthand. (Adding to the allure: local authorities have made it illegal for the famously bothersome street hawkers to hassle foreign visitors.) Meanwhile, there's more happening in the palmy outskirts, where a handful of stylish hotels have recently opened, promising the peace and privacy of a rural setting. With options like these, Marrakesh has never been more welcoming, more seductive.
RIAD EL CADI Carved out of five interconnected mansions, El Cadi is a labyrinth of patios and pools, secret alcoves and terraces. Many of the 12 rooms have fireplaces, for cool desert nights. Boosting the charm of the place is its collection of Islamic and Berber art, amassed by owner Herwig Bartels, a former German ambassador to Morocco. 87 Derb Moulay Abdelkadel, Dabache; 212-44/378-655, fax 212-44/378-478; www.riadelcadi.com; doubles from $120, including breakfast.
RIAD ENIJA The eight guest rooms in this 280-year-old former caid's palace retain their tiled floors and sculpted ceilings but are appointed with all sorts of bizarre Art Nouveau—style furnishings: iron beds, outsized pedestal tables, pink and purple Berber carpets in Modernist patterns. It's not everyone's cup of mint tea, but if you're looking for fantasy, this place delivers. 9 Derb Mesfioui, Rahba Lakdima; 212-44/440-926, fax 212-44/442-700; www.riadenija.com; doubles from $280, including breakfast.
RIAD KAISS Two mansions have been joined to create a hip eight-room retreat where cool North African house music fills the enormous tiled courtyard, thick with tropical trees. The grand salon—with 20-foot carved niches at either end, a baronial fireplace, and enough North African antiques to fill a small museum—is one of the city's most spectacular interiors. At night, candles and lanterns light every beguiling passageway. 65 Derb Jdid, Riad Zitoun Kedim; phone and fax 212-44/440-141; www.riadkaiss.com; doubles from $120, including breakfast.
RIAD MABROUKA Owners Catherine and Pierre-Jean Néri have pushed typically opulent Moroccan décor in a bold minimalist direction. The roof terrace (a tailored banquette here, a wicker chaise there, white umbrellas and cacti in earthenware pots everywhere) has a Delano—meets—Santa Fe feel. Instead of colorful tile and mosaics, floors and walls are tadelakt (polished plaster); in place of doors, thick canvas curtains shut off closets and entryways. 56 Derb el Bahia, Riad Zitoun Jdid; phone and fax 212-44/377-579; www.riad-mabrouka.com; doubles from $125, including breakfast.
RIAD MAJI Set around a tranquil orange tree—shaded courtyard, this tiny guesthouse is the best deal in town. British writer-photographer couple Maggie and Clay Perry have restored a former Moorish mansion. The six unpretentious guest rooms have carved plaster ceilings, billowy white window treatments, and some of the most comfortable beds in Marrakesh. 79 Derb Moulay Abdul Kader, Derb Dabachi; phone and fax 212-44/426-688; doubles from $70, including breakfast.
RIAD NOGA A turquoise-tiled swimming pool surrounded by a two-story colonnade of deep red arches forms the centerpiece of this handsome riad deep in the medina (you didn't read it here, but rumor has it the place was once a brothel). Run by a garrulous former economist from Germany, Noga has a staff of nine to attend to seven guest rooms. Although the rooms are relatively small, this is one of the few riads with satellite television; nooks and terraces offer private space for reading and relaxing. 78 Derb Jdid at Douar Graoua; 212-44/377-670, fax 212-44/389-046; www.riadnoga.com; doubles from $139.
CARAVAN SERAI In the village of Ouled Ben Rahman, five miles north of Marrakesh, Caravan Serai was designed by the acclaimed Morocco-based architects Charles and Mathieu Boccara. Austere mud walls conceal 17 rustic-chic rooms; the swimming pool is set in a dramatic arcaded courtyard that has the look of a postmodern Elizabethan theater. A shuttle takes guests into town, but many prefer to luxuriate in the traditional hammam or go horseback riding. Ouled Ben Rahman; 212-44/300-302, fax 212-44/300-262; www.caravanseraimarrakesh.com; doubles from $136, including breakfast.
JNANE TAMSNA Meryanne Loum-Martin helped make Marrakesh a must for fashionable travelers back in 1990 when she started renting out Dar Tamsna, two fabulous villas in exclusive La Palmeraie, a neighborhood just north of the city. Now, for wanderers in search of a villa experience (but who don't want to take over an entire house), Loum-Martin has unveiled this nearby riad, built around two Zen-like courtyards. The 10 spacious bedrooms have fireplaces, custom-designed iron beds, and antiques galore (bone-inlaid chaises, studded chests, North African photos). Douar Abiad, La Palmeraie; 212-61/242-717, fax 212-44/329-133; doubles from $347, including breakfast.
KASBAH AGAFAY Ten miles beyond the Marrakesh airport, overlooking green fields and golden desert foothills, British-based Moroccan entrepreneur Abel Damoussi has restored a 150-year-old Berber casbah, or fortress. The main building encompasses six courtyards, 14 guest rooms, and salons and dining areas of all shapes and sizes. Outside the casbah walls, there's a pool, clay tennis court, open-air spa, and four over-the-top private guest tents, with air-conditioning, tiled baths, and canopy beds draped in antique textiles. Rte. de Guemassa, km 20; 212-44/420-960, fax 212-44/420-970; www.kasbahagafay.com; doubles from $400, including breakfast.
TIGMI Blending seamlessly into the village of Tagadert, 15 miles south of Marrakesh, this eco-resort lets travelers experience an unspoiled Berber community. Created by Max Lawrence, an Englishman who has lived and worked in Morocco for almost a decade, the mud-walled Tigmi was built with the enthusiastic help of 250 villagers. Everything is wonderfully simple, from the L-shaped pool in the front garden to the eight suites with their unfinished country furniture. Numerous terraces offer dreamy views of the Atlas Mountains. Tagadert; 44-1380/828-533, fax 44-1380/828-630; doubles from $267, including all meals.
Where to Shop
Beldi 9—11 Souikat Laksour; 212-44/441-076. Jean-Paul Gaultier is a regular at Taoufiq Baroudi's boutique, for glamorous caftans, babouches (slippers), silk quilts, and pillows.
Ministero del Gusto 22 Derb Azzouz el-Mouassine; 212-44/426-455. This Italian-run gallery with a pool in the middle specializes in contemporary art and furniture.
Ryad Tamsna 23 Derb Zanka Deika, off Rue Riad Zitoun Jdid; 212-44/385-272. Meryanne Loum-Martin's restored medina town house has an excellent bookstore, an art gallery, and a boutique offering one-of-a-kind fabrics, scarves, bags, and jewelry.
La Porte d'Orient 9 Blvd. Mansour Eddahbi; 212-44/438-967. This vast emporium of North African antiques specializes in wood, including ornate doors, chests, and entire carved ceilings (they can be shipped anywhere).
Cooperatim Ave. Mohamed V, just beyond Place Djemaa el-Fna; 212-44/440-503. A well-edited collection of the usual souk stuff—carpets, pottery, jewelry—at fair, fixed prices.
Where to Eat
In addition to the city's riad revolution, Marrakesh is stirring up interest on the food front. Here, some of the town's top tables:
Alizia Rue Chouhada-chawki, Hivernage; 212-44/438-360; dinner for two $30. Excellent Italian, French, and fish dishes; on mild evenings, Alizia's bougainvillea-shaded front garden is the place to be.
Amanjena Rte. de Ouarzazate, km 12; 212-44/403-353; dinner for two $94. For a change of scene and cuisine, the Thai dining room of the stunning Aman resort is worth a trek to the outskirts of Marrakesh.
Dar Moha Almadina 81 Rue Dar el Bacha; 212-44/386-400; dinner for two $72. The former mansion of designer Pierre Balmain provides the sumptuous setting for chef Moha Fedal's nouvelle cuisine marocaine.
La Maison Arabe 1 Derb Assehbé, Bab Doukkala; 212-44/387-010; dinner for two $50. One of the city's best small hotels now has a romantic new dining room, its blue ceiling inspired by a Persian mosque.
Le Tobsil 22 Derb Abdellah Ben Hessaien, R'mila Bab Ksour; 212-44/444-052; dinner for two $94. Innovative Moroccan cooking—lamb tagine with quince, moist pastilla (pigeon pie)—served in the courtyard of a lovely riad.