Morocco's New Paradise
Published: May 2009
By Carol Barden
Amanjena--just opened in Marrakesh, and possibly the best Aman resort yet
"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.
Long before minimalism emerged as a buzzword, Tuttle grasped the wisdom of expressing himself in as few gestures as possible. "In Marrakesh, I decided to avoid the colorful, whimsical, and geometric patterns of Islam," he said. "My approach is a little foreign in a country accustomed to layering design upon design, pattern upon pattern. But I wanted the hotel to look nomadic." Tuttle cannot bear imperfect proportions, so he carefully observed the rules of Islamic architecture--the curve of the arches, the weight of the cornices, the pitch and angle of the green tile roofs. He also paid homage to many Andalusian influences: the inward-facing layout, colonnaded arcades, domes, arched portals, and the sound of water everywhere.
"We employed Morocco's finest--armies of skilled weavers, carpet makers, and metalworkers," Tuttle said, pointing out beautiful parquetry and hand-rubbed wall finishes. "It's a Moroccan hotel, so it was important to select Moroccan materials. We used cedar for ceilings and doors, cherrywood for furniture, and an enormous amount of leather. Twenty-two wood-carvers were able to reproduce beautiful Berber designs in the 20-foot-high entry doors." Local artisans made every piece of furniture, every lamp and stationery box, "every inch of the place except for the makeup mirrors, water taps, and fabrics," Tuttle said. Tile-workers hand-cut and installed millions of glazed tiles. Amanjena is plush, all right, even for tots, who enjoy specially designed cribs and suede-covered high chairs.
At $550 per night, my standard room was the cheapest in the house. Room plus menzah (a partially covered gazebo/terrace) measured a staggering 1,700 square feet--vast enough for a 60-person cocktail party. Tuttle designed cavernous dressing areas and a 26-foot-high domed ceiling. The colors were soft and the tadelakt wall finish (a hand-applied lacquer) was subtle; Berber rugs in crimson and saffron provided what Tuttle calls "hot flashes."
There was no reason to leave this cozy orbit. Every day I dined and sunbathed on my menzah, hidden by fortress-like walls and billowy curtains. I could have put on tennis whites or golf shoes, could have hiked over to the health club, but why?I had 24-hour room service, satellite TV with a DVD player, a platter of sweets the size of a rowboat, and a gurgling fountain strewn with fresh rose petals every day. Amanjena has a spa, naturally, but why go when I could get a tranquilizing rubdown beside my own fireplace?
Late one afternoon, the masseuse expertly pressed, stretched, and bent my jet-lagged body back into shape using anti-aging argan oil. The world seemed to disappear into silence as I looked out over the jagged profile of the mountains. "Do you want to rest, Madam?" she asked as she wrapped me in my robe and offered mint tea. Later I relaxed in the bathtub and contemplated my serene garden of orange trees.
Though you need a fair amount of cash to stay in a standard room, you need even more for one of the two-story maisons--a lofty $1,200 to $1,400 a night. With private swimming pool, personal butler, and 3,700 square feet, these accommodations are snapped up quickly. The tab mounts when you tack on the 10 percent service charge and 10 percent tax, and throw in a $350 bottle of Dom Pérignon, a body mask in the steam room, and a tennis lesson. Paradise has its price.
On my first morning at Amanjena, I was shocked when I answered the door in my robe to see the breakfast I had ordered 10 minutes earlier. Holding the tray was a room-service waiter, practically breathless from sprinting to my door. "As-salaam alaykum"--"Peace be with you"--he said, giving the standard Amanjena greeting. Service is something you don't even question here.
"Every employee is trained to be intuitive, to watch body language and not intrude," says Sharon Howard, who has instructed Aman employees for 13 years. The company recruited a virgin staff without hotel experience (that is, bad habits). Howard used Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and John Cleese's Think or Sink video to teach fantasy hospitality. "Bonjour, Madame Barden. Did you have a good rest?" asked my omelette deliverer as he poured the coffee. "Thank you for your attention, and have a nice day," he said as he backed away, smiling, hand on heart.
I could see why an Arab sheikh had offered to buy Amanjena if it came with all 215 employees (which works out to about 5 1/4 employees per room, more than enough to get the job done).
As for the food, well, the choice in each restaurant is bewildering. The chefs have aimed their culinary rudders in half a dozen directions: you can have American fare, French and Asian dishes, or cuisine marocaine (with or without belly dancers). I loved the breakfasts--brioche la faon pain perdu (French toast), baghrir (Moroccan crépes), and the sweet orange butter that went with everything. This is not, however, a destination for weight watchers. Dinners are multicourse affairs that start at 9 p.m. with a round of drinks and olives and end many hours later.
Immediately after the opening, those loyal Aman junkies had already begun to appear. A pair of Modern Japanese Young Things sat by the pool in tiny bikinis and expensive sunglasses, and some centimillionaire in blue jeans and a black T-shirt arrived from California. I met artsy kids with grown-up incomes, techies who had launched a dot-com, and generous husbands who had brought their wives. Adrian Zecha is a latter-day hero to his rich and famous guests, who know that their whereabouts (or photos) will not be leaked to the press.
Amanresorts is now controlled by a corporate body of shareholders, and Greg Sirois, who manages the company, assured me that "the Aman service and philosophy will continue, and there will be new Amans." There's reason for hope--Sirois worked with Zecha for five years.
As for Zecha, he plans to launch a new group of small properties called Maharesorts; maha means "great" in Sanskrit. "I will not compete with the Aman series," he said, "and I don't want to harm them in any way. I'll be working with the same people, and nothing will change, except the new properties will bear a different brand. They will be exactly like the old. I love them, these little ones."
Whatever else Zecha achieves, he will be remembered as the man with the brainstorm, and his 11 Amans will be remembered for their unimaginable luxury and legendary refinement. Here's to the arrival of more pint-size paradises.
Amanjena, Route de Ouarzazate, Marra-kesh; 800/637-7200 or 212-4/40-33-53, fax 212-4/40-34-77; doubles from $550.
Daytrips the Amanjena Way
When it comes to excursions, the wandering tribe of Aman junkies couldn't be happier. Everything is private and customized; no guest is ever sent off to join a bus tour or stand in a line. A cab?You must be kidding. There are no taxi stands in Aman-land: only chauffeured cars will do.
Amanjena can arrange jaunts to nearby palaces, the Saadian tombs, and the Khoutoubia Mosque, as well as walking tours of Jardin Majorelle, the garden owned by Yves Saint Laurent. If they want to roam farther afield, guests can spend a night or two in a Berber village; take a day trip to the whitewashed seaside village of Essaouira; or hike, bike, and ski in the Grand Atlas Mountains.
One morning, I rose at dawn to set off for a chartered plane ride over the mountains, date farms, and ancient stone villages--a perfect way to see the sights without a long, grinding drive. Next on my agenda: beautiful arts and crafts. With comfortable walking shoes and a credit card, I began to explore. Galerie Birkemeyer (165167 Rue Mohamed El Beqal; 212-4/44-69-63), Marrakesh's biggest and best leather store, has everything from golf bags to sandals. Visit L'Orientaliste (15 Rue de la Liberté; 212-4/43-40-74) for decorative bottles and candleholders; Al Badii (54 Blvd. My Rachid) for its selection of antique furniture, textiles, bone mirrors and tables, and tribal crafts; and Amazonite (94 Blvd. El Mansour Eddahbi Gueliz; 212-4/44-99-26) for stylish ethnic jewelry.
Without a tip from architect Ed Tuttle, I would have missed Cuivrerie Moulay Youssef (46 Foundouk Moulay Mamoune-Mellah), the metal shop where all the lanterns, trays, candlesticks, and key rings for Amanjena were made. Other great design sources include the Bazar du Sud (117 Souk des Tapis; 212-4/44-30-04) and La Porte d'Or (115 Souk Semmarine; 212-4/44-54-54) for carpets; and Bridgitte Perkins (Foundouk Elkabaj, 129 Ben Salah; 212-4/42-74-16) for superb weavings and textiles.
My favorite stop was Ryad Tamsna (23 Derb Danka Zaika, Riad Zitoun; 212-4/38-52-72), where the merchandise comes from many African cultures. Meryanne Loum Martin has packed her magnificent two-story space with a huge inventory of well-designed home furnishings--iron lamps, mirrors, tables, candleholders, and furniture; there's also a bookshop and a restaurant. Tables are laden with the kind of finds that might appear in fine shelter magazines--like the handwoven cotton fabric from Senegal, expensive but worth it. Choosing was easy: I wanted everything.