Having spent the last four years working a demanding job by day and studying by night (and any other spare minute left in the day!), I seriously needed to plan a holiday and have something lovely to look forward to. But planning a getaway so close to my final exams wasn’t the best timing – and acknowledging that I’m a bit of control freak and travel junkie too, I couldn’t allow myself to leave the arrangements to my husband, Steve. I’d usually spend hours and hours trawling the internet for the best holiday deals, but this particular mission called for some super-speedy decision-making.
Although we tend to rule out places we’ve already visited, we both shared incredible memories from our last visit to Marrakech, back in 2011, and it ticked all the boxes for this much-needed break; short-haul at only 3.5 hours’ flight time, an environment oozing with culture, offering great food, somewhere we could get the most for our money, pretty much guaranteed sunshine central and, most importantly, somewhere we could switch off and indulge in pure relaxation without either of us being distracted by an impending deadline. So, Marrakech it was!
What I didn’t realise at the time of booking was that we were travelling during Ramadan. This might have put me off had I known, for fear of everything being closed but I am glad we were oblivious as in truth, it had little impact on our trip.
Arriving in Marrakech
With hoards of travellers flocking to Marrakech every year to explore the city, head to the coast for some surfing or even experience the annual international film festival, this already busy city has come a long way to live up to its ‘tourist capital of Morocco’ status. A shiny new airport terminal being one of the latest new additions.
If you’re arriving during the daytime, the airport bus takes you directly to the centre and can stop at some of the main hotels along the way – but as we were arriving first thing in the morning, we decided to pre-book a taxi with Marrakech Airport Transfers. We were reminded that, just like our last trip, the ‘fun’ really does start from the moment you leave the airport with taxi drivers vying for your custom and trying to charge you 10 times the genuine fare! The need to start haggling can all be a bit much as soon as you arrive so having something pre-booked is highly recommended.
Tip: if you’re on a budget and planning on having a few drinks, pick up a bottle of something at Marrakech airport at the duty free shop.
Dar Rhizlane Boutique hotel and spa
Choosing a hotel in Marrakech is no simple task, only because the standard is so high and they all seem to have great reviews. It helps if you’re sure about some of the facilities you want so that you can narrow down the options. As Steve loves swimming and I wanted to relax by a pool, this ruled out the traditional riads in the medina, as they tend to have small indoor plunge pools; beautiful, but not quite what we were after for this trip.
Instead, we opted for Dar Rhizlane, a boutique hotel and spa in the modern Hivernage district about a mile from the Jemaa el Fna and Koutoubia, the city’s central square and mosque. We arrived at 10am, a short 15-minute drive from the airport, and were welcomed with mint tea and a feast of a breakfast – Moroccan pancakes (msemen) and honey, fresh orange juice, homemade yoghurt with jams, croissants, fresh fruit – it went on and on, taking indulgence to all new edible heights.
Our hotel room was beautiful with an enormous comfy bed, leather slippers, Egyptian cotton robes, the prettiest bouquet of peach roses and large windows opening out to the perfect pool view. The classic pot pourri in the bathroom was ditched for bowls of rose petals, cloves and cinnamon. We shared a living room and large terrace with three other rooms, but no one spent very much time indoors, what with the incredible sunshine that was outside.
The hotel’s own restaurant is well worth a try; as we were still shattered from an all-nighter (late post-exam celebrations plus super early flight), we decided to stay put and try out the restaurant on the first night. I don’t know why but we were surprised by how good it was! If you go, you have to try the Dar Rhizlane salad – it’s presented in the same way as it is at the famous Al Fassia restaurant we’d visited in 2011, think small salad-type dishes on individual canapé-sized plates – about 15 of them in all! It’s like that moment the sizzler makes its way over to you from the kitchen and everyone stops to stare.
The pool area was fantastic too – starting with poolside breakfasts in the morning and day beds to retreat to for the remainder of the day. The heat did get a bit much at times with the daytime temperature not dropping below 35 degrees, but there was often a light breeze and the pool was perfection.
On day three, the temperatures reached 38/39 degrees and the restaurant offered everyone delicious fresh watermelon. There were lots of small touches like this that made our stay here so memorable. We would absolutely not hesitate to return to Dar Rhizlane, and highly recommend it to anyone else considering visiting Marrakech.
The Majorelle Gardens
Despite being in love with our hotel, we did manage to venture out and explore Marrakech’s sites. The Majorelle Gardens, owned by Yves St Laurent, are not to be missed. You can’t help but be struck by the bright blues and golds of the walkways and the Museum of Islamic Art amongst the exotic palm trees, cacti and lily pond. It’s such a serene place to explore. Arriving in the late afternoon, the temperature was much more comfortable and the sun was perfect for the hundreds of photos we took.
Tip: entry to the gardens (not including the museum) is 70 dirhams each. A couple of hours should be enough time. If you need a taxi when you leave, hail one from the main road. The touts at the exit might look official and organised with their clipboards but they are not and can be quite forceful! None of them offer taxis by the meter, instead trying to charge 50 dirhams for a 10 dirham ride. Be warned!
The Koutoubia Mosque
This is Marrakech’s main and tallest landmark, looking over the Jemaa El Fna and visible from the rooftops of many riads. Unfortunately, unless you are Muslim, it can only be admired from the outside but, if you are staying or exploring anywhere around the mosque, you will no doubt hear the mesmerising calls to prayer throughout the day.
The Jemaa El Fna Square
This ‘square’ (it’s actually L-shaped) is like no other place I’ve ever seen! The sights and sounds of snake charmers, drummers, monkeys, mopeds, ladies offering henna and the stall holders trying to sell you leather bags, spices, ceramics, food, drinks, etc., is pure chaos. As tends to be standard when I’m abroad, I get calls of ‘Miss India, Miss India!’ But a new one for Steve during our time at Jemaa El Fna was, ’Harry Ramsden!’ Where did that even come from?! 🙂
We retreated to the Marrakech institution that is Café France, the least stressful way to admire the buzz. The best time to go is shortly before sunset. Grab a mint tea (don’t have the coffee, it’s horrible!) and try to get a seat on the roof terrace. It’s a no frills kind of place so go with no expectations but the view as the sun goes down and as the square transitions from day to night is well worth seeing. The music in the square turns up a notch, the lights of the stalls turn on and you begin to hear and smell the sizzling of the grilled foods.
We enjoyed a spot on the ground floor this time while we watched workers preparing to head home to break their Ramadan fast. We made use of the free Wi-Fi to figure out how on earth we were going to find our next stop, Dar Cherifa, somewhere hidden in the medina. It still makes me feel slightly nauseous to think back to me looking across the square for the alleyway by the chemist, trying to avoid the men with those poor monkeys, and Steve grabbing me when I didn’t notice that I’d wandered a little bit too close to the cobra!
The minute you look lost, there is sure to be a local who will happily show you the way (always for a fee). But soon enough, once you’ve found your spot and walk through the grand wooden door, you leave that all behind and enter a space of tranquility, with only the sound of the trickling fountain in the centre of the riad. The prettiest of those are adorned with candles and rose petals, making the whole atmosphere so romantic.
Situated in the very heart of the souks, this building is a hidden secret, only found by the discerning and curious visitor, where history is recorded in the delicate tracery of the stucco and skilfully carved wood (Dar Cherifa.com)
We didn’t have a booking at Dar Cherifa but were, thankfully, squeezed in by the very hospitable staff. The food was delicious, but not quite as remarkable as Dar Rhizlane on our first night. We enjoyed the classic Moroccan salad and the chicken and lamb tagines but it was the saffron panna cotta that stood out for us. The staff were super attentive too. We had a good but not great table at first but, as soon as a better one became available, it was offered to us. It’s a lovely restaurant and well worth the trip.
A few steps away was Riad Dar Justo where we enjoyed a couple of Casablanca beers on their picturesque roof terrace with views of the Koutoubia, a few rumblings of thunder that amounted to nothing and a very welcome evening breeze.
For a splurge, Kasbah Tamadot is the place to go. It is truly out of this world! Richard Branson’s riad is tucked in the High Atlas Mountains near Asni, just one hour from Marrakech. We arranged to spend a day there and hired a driver who would take us there and back, with a few stops along the way. Firstly for a chat over a mint tea with a local Berber followed by a camel ride and finally a visit to an argan oil cooperative where we watched the women at work.
Kasbah Tamadot was breathtaking. We had beautiful sunny weather whilst enjoying an outdoor lunch at Kanoun, with views of the pristine pool, cypress trees and snow-capped mountains in the distance. We indulged in a couples massage and spent the rest of the day wandering the secret courtyards and gardens before we headed back to Marrakech in the evening.
If you can squeeze it in, do try to spend some time in the mountains outside the city and also visit Kasbah du Toubkal for lunch or a mint tea. The views are beautiful and really give you a genuine feeling of escaping it all and getting back to nature. It also gave us a chance to work off all that food!
Needless to say this won’t be our last visit to Morocco as there’s still so much to see!
Next on our Morocco checklist will be ‘the blue town’, Chefchaouen!