"Amanjena is my last Aman baby," says Adrian Zecha of his new resort in Marrakesh.
By now, everyone on earth must know the story of the founder of Amanresorts. Tired of hotel monotony, the Indonesian-born hospitality prophet opted for a moon shot by starting a distinctive chain that eventually grew to 11 resorts. Though most of his guests have never laid eyes on Zecha, he has become a legend, especially among the 60,000 Aman junkies who circulate from one hotel to the next.
With the 1988 opening in Thailand of his first resort, Amanpuri, Zecha initiated a top-to-bottom rewrite of hotel service. He simplified arrival and departure--there is no formal check-in. Every Aman has a library. Guests are ferried to local points of interest in private cars, and while they're on the property there's no need for them to carry anything, including change for tips. Other signature Aman amenities include separate sinks and dressing areas, an utterly casual dress code, and an absence of discos, tour groups, or crowds. There are never more than 41 rooms. (This is also part of the philosophy: don't let them all in, and they'll go nuts for it.) In proper Aman style, each resort is a sanctuary, a place of peace.
When Amanjena officially opened last November, Zecha himself was not on the scene. The shorthand explanation is that there's a litigious dispute between two major Aman shareholders. "It's like a marriage, you know," he told me over the phone from Singapore. "The kids are still your kids, and I'm enormously proud of Amanjena, but it's the last in the series."
Africa waited seven years for an Aman. No one would confuse this hotel with any other in Marrakesh. Four miles removed from the city proper with its horn-happy drivers and exhaust-belching cars, Amanjena rests in an oasis of date palms and olive trees once owned by the royal family, facing the snowcapped Grand Atlas Mountains. Aman is Sanskrit for "peaceful," jena is Arabic for "paradise."
Subtle it most certainly is not. Arriving at night, I walked through the stately doors to be greeted by an imperial space of soaring columns, marble fountains, and a sweeping view of the candlelit bassin, which in the dark I mistook for a swimming pool. (The bassin is an ingenious Arab invention used to collect irrigation water from the mountains.) One guest summed it up. "This is not a hotel," said Peter Nicol, who came with his wife from London. "It's a fairy tale."
Adhering to the Arab tradition of "what's inside is nobody's business," American architect Ed Tuttle created a façade of towering walls that conceal his formidable design. The thick walls, made of ocher pisé (pounded red earth reinforced with straw), suggest that the resort has been around for centuries. "It's very interior architecture," says Tuttle. "From the road, you don't know what it is. As you enter, it reveals itself bit by bit."
All the Amans designed by Tuttle (Amanpuri, Amankila, Amanjiwo, and Amangani in Southeast Asia; and Le Melezin in the French Alps) are not to be missed, but this looks like nothing he has done before. Spread over 13 acres, Amanjena is a kind of Moorish kingdom that respects the authenticity of the place, a nearly sacred concept in Aman resorts. Here Tuttle evokes what he calls "mosque architecture"; the hotel is both exotic and startlingly familiar. He was influenced by the Saadian tombs in the royal cemetery built by Marrakesh's legendary Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur. "The tranquillity of the tombs brought out a lot of emotion in me," he said as he led me on a tour of the hotel. Further inspiration came from the unadorned towers, fortress-like walls, and soaring arches of Granada's Alhambra palace, built during Spain's Muslim era in the 14th century. Central to his design was the classical Arab-style bassin, almost 200 square feet, the cornerstone upon which he built the hotel. I could see Tuttle's reinvention of great architecture when he and I later visited Marrakesh's Bahia Palace and the Menara Pavilion, whose olive grove dates from the 12th century.