Magical Magnificence in Marrakech

There’s something magical about Marrakech—a desert city that mesmerizes visitors with its blend of the traditional and the contemporary, it’s exciting nightlife and its surprisingly liberal Islamic culture.

Everywhere in this city there are contrasts and even more over the past couple of years as the interest in riad development—traditional Moroccan homes with a center courtyard around which the home is built—has become the hottest tourism trend in the country. These traditional old homes—some of which are hundreds of years old—are being turned into incredibly opulent and luxurious boutique rooming houses.

The contrast here in Marrakech is that these splendid tiny palaces sit amidst the scruffy medina—a busy little warren of twisting streets right out of the “Arabian Nights” and not too far from the fabled Djemaa el Fna Square, home to traditional storytellers, snake charmers, magicians and musicians. Even finding these places is difficult as you wander through the narrow, meandering, dirty streets passing old bakeries where men bake bread in traditional ovens buried in thick walls and metal shops where artisans sweat in the heat pounding away at their delicate creations, all the while dodging motor scooters buzzing about like annoying flies and sturdy carts powered by bored-looking donkeys plodding away hour after hour.

And then you’re there—standing before an age-old door at the end of a dirty street. Then the door opens and you step into a different world, like Harry Potter getting off the train at Hogsmeade Station. There’s this jaw-dropping beautiful courtyard with a swimming pool in the middle and beautifully furnished rooms.

This is Ana Yela, a small, 300-year-old city palace in the heart of the medina. “Ana Yela” translates literally to, “I am Yela” and the architecture tells the story of a girl named Yela who once lived in this house. The restoration of the building took months and was carried out using only traditional Moroccan craftsmanship, for which Marrakech is famous worldwide. All of the work was carried out by hand, without the use of electric tools, by more than 100 artisans. A famous Moroccan calligrapher hammered the story in silver on doors throughout the house.

All 10 rooms with their traditional archways in the 2-story building face toward the courtyard, the focal point of the place, and copper and silver plating decorates the walls and doors. Additionally, each room has its own bath, some with tubs big enough for two. Up on the roof overlooking the rooftops of the not-so-opulent medina buildings, there’s a genuine nomad tent and a small tea house with couches. Make no mistake, the art work, the design and the ambiance itself will have your clients living an “Arabian Nights” dream.

But with daily rates running anywhere from $427 to $1,331, there are plenty of creature comforts as well. Included in the room price are airport transfers, daily breakfast, room service and laundry, laptop hire, wireless LAN and DSL connection throughout the building, flat-screen TV in the lounge (meeting room), and a printer and fax. Additional services are available for a fee including driver hire, a 7-seater 4×4 with driver, a traditional Moroccan evening meal of the finest cuisine (approximately $51 at press time), a personal shopper who accompanies your clients to the best shops in Marrakech and assists in negotiating prices, an open-air cinema (for films and presentations), and an iPod with mini speakers. The staff can also organize a traditional “soiree”—an evening of traditional live music, Middle Eastern dance, snake charmers, soothsayers and a storyteller who will recount the story of the house with interpretation into English.

Not too far away from Ana Yela is another Moroccan treasure, a 63-year-old boutique beauty called La Maison Arabe with 26 rooms and suites—most with private terraces and fireplaces—three restaurants, a piano bar, a new spa with a traditional hammam, a heated pool in the garden and a world-famous cooking school that’s open to hotel guests or anyone else who wants to learn the art of Moroccan cooking.

The interior of the hotel is eclectic and refined at the same time with traditional Moroccan craftsmanship visible everywhere. The artwork is breathtaking. There’s a sense of elegant coziness to it, a homey feel that’s as far removed from the chain hotel look as you can get. In fact, at one time it was two different homes or buildings now joined by a second floor enclosed bridge that you would swear was just a plain hallway.