Riad-hopping in Marrakech

Riads, traditional Moroccan houses-turned-hotels, now offer a private, spacious and luxurious accommodation experience.

A room at La Maison Arabe in Marrakech, Morocco. Courtesy La Maison Arabe
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If there’s one thing that’s changed the face of Marrakech over the last 15 or 20 years, it’s the renaissance of the riad. One by one these traditional Moroccan houses and mansions, wedged in the narrow alleys of the Medina quarter, have been transformed into luxury guesthouses and boutique hotels — most with fewer than 10 rooms.

There are at least 1,000 of these riad hotels in the Medina, a fair few owned by expats who have taken advantage of Morocco’s eagerness to sell property to foreigners. But as there are several thousand more up for grabs, it’s unlikely that the supply will dry up soon.

Riads are the perfect antidote to the noisy, chaotic lanes of the area – and much better places in which to soak up Marrakech’s sizzling atmosphere than the bland modern hotels in the Ville Nouvelle outside the Medina’s walls. They’re like mini Edens – aptly enough, as riad means garden in Arabic. Cloister-like salons and rooms wrap around a central garden courtyard – often with a pool – and it’s all topped with a roof terrace with panoramic views. Many people who come to Marrakech wouldn’t consider staying anywhere else.

Some riads hide behind unmarked doors down nondescript alleyways, giving no clue as to what lurks behind. That's the case with Riad de Tarabel near Dar El Bacha Palace. There's no sign, but there are helpful staff who will meet you and lead you to this peaceful spot and its six rooms. Distressed blue shutters, doors and wooden rails offer a more French flavour to the decor — not surprising, as its owners are originally from France.

Some of the elegant, antique-filled rooms have roll-top baths and fireplaces, and all have easy access to several lavish salons. There’s only a tiny plunge pool on the roof terrace, but the owners are in the process of renovating a neighbouring riad to make room for a large courtyard pool, more bedrooms and, eventually, a spa. Rooms at Riad de Tarabel are from €180 (Dh730) per night.

Five minutes down the road and close to the sensory overload that is Jemaa el-Fna, is the relaxing Riad l'Orangeraie. Its seven rooms and suites take their inspiration from the spice world, with warm tones that match the welcome from the French owners. Two courtyards offer comfortable places to unwind — one with a garden and the other with a pool and hammam.

Its roof terrace offers a romantic setting for a candlelit dinner. As with many riads, l’Orangeraie will provide evening meals if ordered that morning, thus guaranteeing fresh ingredients picked up from the markets. Rooms from €140 (Dh567) per night.

In contrast to the nearby colourful souqs, there's a pleasing minimalist feel to the bed-and-breakfast Riad Wo. Its five rooms have simple white walls, brown leather furnishings and more modern decor than you would find in many riads. The stylish simplicity extends to the public areas, where the lounge has exposed brick walls and a huge open fire — a welcome sight on a chilly Marrakech winter's evening. There's a plunge pool in the understated garden, and sunloungers on the roof terrace to soak up the sun in privacy. Rooms from €90 (Dh365) per night.

The eastern part of the Medina around Issebtinne is untouristy, workaday Marrakech – its helter-skelter lanes filled with stalls selling vegetables and live chickens. In the midst of the hubbub is Riad el Mezouar, whose British owner refurbished an existing riad in a 17th-century palace and turned it into a tranquil and authentically Moroccan space. Almost everything in the riad and its five bedrooms was crafted locally, from its hand-cut tiles from Fez to the baths and basins made of tadelakt, a distinctively Moroccan polished plaster. Citrus trees shelter the deep green swimming pool in the centre of the courtyard, and the roof terrace is a sublime spot for an early-evening drink. Rooms from €125 (Dh506) per night.

The brainchild and former holiday home of British hotelier Jonathan Wix, Riad Farnatchi is hidden away down a tiny alleyway near the Ben Youssef Madrasa, a former Islamic university that reopened to the public as a historical site in 1982, in one of the busiest parts of the Medina. You wouldn't know that behind its plain door is one of the most alluring riads in the city. The decor is decisively, exotically Moroccan, with rich colours, gauzy four-poster iron beds, brightly coloured tiles and wooden grilles. The djellabas and fezzes waiting in each room are yours to take home.

All nine suites have spacious sitting rooms and private terraces overlooking the garden, a sparkling green-tiled pool and the alcoves, known as bhous, where you can lounge on plump sofas. If it’s too warm to have a meal in the bejewelled dining room with its ornate fireplace, head up to the roof terrace to dine by candlelight. If any of the food in the markets has tempted you, there’s a barbecue on the roof. And there’s a hammam where you can book spa treatments. Rooms from €287 (Dh1,160), including breakfast.

On the western edge of the Medina is El Fenn, one of Marrakech's most exquisite riads. Vanessa Branson – founder of the Marrakech Biennale – started off with one riad before buying its neighbours to create this enchanting collection of 28 rooms, suites and a separate four-bedroom riad with its own kitchen, terrace and plunge pool.

It’s a whirl of colours and textures – pink tadelakt baths, floors made of camel leather, hand-carved cedar ceilings, and original works from Branson’s extensive collection of modern art. Each room is different, but many feature fireplaces, private terraces and, in some cases, plunge pools. If the two garden pools aren’t enough, there’s always the rooftop plunge pool with views of the Koutoubia Mosque – not to mention the cosy restaurant, bar, mini cinema and rooftop dining area. Rooms from €200 (Dh812) per night.

The story behind Riad AnaYela is straight out of One Thousand and One Nights. When the current owners were renovating this 300-year-old palace in the northern part of the Medina, they discovered a small room hidden behind a wall. Inside was a wooden casket containing the story of 16-year-old Yela, who wrote the tale of how she fell in love with the boy she was about to marry – and how he charmed her with a magic carpet. If your Arabic is up to it, you can read the full story, which has been hammered in silver on the doors all around the riad.

Its three rooms and two suites are quietly elegant, with smooth tadelakt interiors. The open-air lounge invites you to flop on large sofas overlooking the heated pool. Chill out with a drink on the roof terrace, where the nomad tent reminds you that the Sahara isn’t that far away. There’s even a little covered tower where you can have breakfast and sit on the “magic carpet” within. Flying isn’t guaranteed, unfortunately. Rooms from €190 (Dh771), including breakfast and airport transfers.

On busy Rue Sidi Mimoune you have to look twice to spot the door to Villa des Orangers. Once inside this 1930s riad, however, there's no mistaking the unabashed luxury that's usually found 10 kilometres away in one of the deluxe hotels in La Palmeraie. Its 27 opulent rooms and suites have traditional Moroccan decor with intricate woodwork, vibrant tiling and cedar ceilings, and those without a private terrace or balcony share a communal courtyard garden. Master suites are spread over two levels, but you might be tempted to go for the two-bedroom private riad with its own terrace and plunge pool.

A large pool dominates the lush scented gardens, and if you want a swim with a view, check out the roof terrace where there’s another pool set in more gardens. The spa is pure self-indulgence, with five treatment rooms and a classic hammam. There’s a classy restaurant that’s open to the public in the evenings and features a menu that spans the Mediterranean in its influences. Rooms from €410 (Dh1,663), including breakfast, lunch and airport transfers.

The grande dame of riads La Maison Arabe, has been welcoming guests since 1946, although it was overhauled in 1997. Its 26 rooms and suites are wonderfully romantic, with refined Moroccan furnishings and most including fireplaces and private terraces. For complete privacy, book a stay in the douiria, the private penthouse that includes a suite with two terraces.

Even in the winter you can swim in the heated pool in the flower-filled garden, and the spa includes two hammams. Book ahead if you want a table in its highly regarded fine-dining restaurant, whose chefs also run popular cookery classes. Rooms from €179 (Dh727), including breakfast.

If you want a break from the Medina, hop on La Maison Arabe’s free shuttle bus to its Country Club in La Palmeraie, located 10 kilometres away. There’s an even larger pool here, and it’s next door to a golf course. But that’s not the real Marrakech, and the Medina — mad as it is — will soon entice you back to the carnival within the city walls.

Look out for this and more stories in the Ultratravel magazine, out with The National on Thursday, November 26.