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Marrakesh's Stylish Transformation

Medina vendors selling their wares.

Photo: John Kernick

A few streets away is Royal Mansour, the personal project of His Highness Mohammed VI, king of Morocco. The king has spared no expense on the hotel, which has encountered several delays but is scheduled to open this summer. Arranged around Andalusian courtyards and reflecting pools, the 53 two-story riad town houses have silk-paneled walls, tiled fireplaces, and roof terraces with bedouin tents and swimming pools. A butler is available in your riad upon request—and to make sure the staff never intrudes upon your privacy, the entire compound is serviced by a network of underground tunnels.

This summer, the Mandarin Oriental Jnan Rahma will open on 131 pristine acres in the Palmeraie, the palm forest northeast of the city. The fantasy of Morocco-based expat American architect Stuart Church, the hotel will bear a striking resemblance to the great Umaid Bhawan palace, in Jodhpur, India, with its 40-foot-high gilded ceilings. The bedrooms (the smallest is 750 square feet) will have gold-leafed four-poster beds, bathrooms of white and gray marble, and terraces with daybeds looking out toward the forest and the Atlas Mountains. It’s no wonder the hotel was used as a location for Sex and the City 2 (though Marrakesh masquerades as someplace in the Middle East in the story line).

Back in the medina, the riads continue to flourish. The nine-month-old riad Siwan is owned by a Dutch couple, Cees and Maryk Van den Berg, who have strong ties to the community and a track record of success with their popular riad Azzar, a 10-minute walk away. A former palace, Siwan has seven large guest rooms, all appointed with locally made furniture and one-of-a-kind handblown glass lamps.

Many medina properties are expanding, including riad Farnatchi, which was opened in 2004 by British hotelier Jonathan Wix (who launched the Scotsman, in Edinburgh, and Paris’s Hôtel de la Trémoille). Its five guest rooms—with large fireplaces, sunken bathtubs, and Modernist furniture—were so popular that Wix acquired an adjacent mansion and incorporated four more chic suites set around a maze of courtyards, terraces, and bhous (alcove seating areas). Similarly, at riad Noir d’Ivoire, in the Bab Doukkala area of the medina, co-owner Jill Fechtmann pulled out all the stops. Opulent rooms here have a mix of Moroccan, Syrian, and Indian furniture. Next door, Fechtmann created three of the largest riad suites in Marrakesh, along with a 36-foot lap pool in the courtyard. Meanwhile, over at riad El Fenn, one of the medina’s flashiest addresses, co-owner Vanessa Branson (sister of Richard) has tripled the size of the place since it opened in 2003. Favored by the British media and art-world elite, El Fenn now encompasses three adjacent palaces, with 22 extraordinary rooms—featuring leather floors, plunge pools, and modern works by British painter Bridget Riley—plus three pools, a rooftop putting green, and even a small theater.

When I was in town last fall with several houseguests in tow, I found my usual welcome-to-the-medina circuit blocked by crowds watching the filming of Sex and the City 2. Under normal circumstances, I start this tour at the northwestern edge of the famous Djemaa el-Fna and enter the souks via an archway just beyond the Place Bab Fteuh that leads to Rue Laksour. There, the tiny boutique Beldi dresses some of Marrakesh’s most fashionable residents in linen shirts, mandarin-collared cashmere jackets, and embroidered silk caftans. Rue Laksour feeds into my favorite street, Rue Mouassine, where hole-in-the-wall shops showcase artfully arranged pottery, lanterns, and Berber carpets. The latest addition to this area is KIS (Keep It Secret), a by-appointment boutique hidden on the upper story of a tiny medina house that carries more caftans, as well as jewelry and gorgeous bags designed by Brazilian globe-trotter Adriana Bittencourt and her French partner, Caroline Constancio.

After the hassle and haggling of the souks, Guéliz provides an antidote for low-key shoppers who like to look and not be pressured into buying (one of the downsides of the medina). Many of the best shops lie along a two-block stretch of Rue de la Liberté. Among them: Atika, which has a loyal following of travelers who come just for the latest models and colors of its Tod’s-like loafers (most less than $50 a pair). On the corner of Rue de la Liberté and Avenue Mohammed V, Intensité Nomade sells brightly colored caftans by owner Frédérique Birkemeyer, as well as soft leather pants for women, raw-silk pants for men, and Casablanca designer Karim Tassi’s jeans, slinky suits, and sweaters. On the opposite corner, Place Vendôme carries top-quality Moroccan leather goods, from $10 men’s wallets to $200 jackets. One of Guéliz’s newest boutiques, Moor, is the creation of Yann Dobry (who also owns the stylish little shop Akbar Delights, in the medina). Dobry’s new outpost, hung with distinctive lacquered lanterns, features his beautifully embroidered linen, silk, and cotton tunics.

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