Marrakech is one of those enticingly exotic cities of many a traveller’s imagination. Her texture, light and visage are a sensory overload, and her welcoming people create instant connections with her guests. And we were immediately smitten by our home for the too brief three nights of our stay – La Maison Arabe.
La Maison Arabe is one of the finest hotels in Marrakech, not only due to the five star luxury in every element of its presentation and service, but because of its history and authenticity. It is an Escher painting maze of steps and corridors, with stunning rugs, furniture and a seamless combination of Moorish and Islamic architecture.
Upon arrival, Hakim ushered us down terracotta brick stairs to the patio where we were treated to a cool mint, pineapple juice and ginger welcome drink – refreshing and consumed in an instant! The patio has a central water feature of azure tiles and a flower-filled marble bowl providing a subtle gurgle and splash of water. Cushioned sofas and chairs for guests’ leisure furnish each corner, and is where afternoon tea is enjoyed while a musician plucks a gimbri (a lute-like instrument also known as a sintir or hajhuj).
Before being shown to our room, we were given a tour of the riad by Hakim, whose calm demeanour and ability to pre-empt our needs would become a valued and familiar component of our stay. Due to the nature of the creation of this property (with additional rooms being added through the purchase of neighbouring buildings), there is a blend of intimacy and grandeur that I’d not experienced before in a hotel.
Downstairs is a hammam and spa offering a full range of traditional and contemporary treatments, and a small but well-equipped gym. Via the reception and another flight of stairs there is Le Restaurant (one of the best in the city) and a pool that is part of the courtyard that houses the restaurant (at the time of visit, Trois Saveurs was undergoing renovation). There is also a piano jazz bar that has live music from 7pm each evening and excellent cocktails and Asian inspired tapas. I particularly like the ‘morojito,’ unique to the hotel – choice of gin or vodka or rum (I went with rum), with mint, ginger, lime and pineapple juice.
Hakim’s tour culminated in the opening of the door to our junior suite with patio view, a serendipitous upgrade. The small but fine entry hall flowed into the living area, a long room with a wall of panelled glass and double doors onto the private balcony that looked down into the central patio area. There was an historical tiled fireplace in the corner, but it was hard to imagine it being used when visiting in summer! Our king sized bed stood in the wood and leather panelled room, on thick red woollen rugs covering the Mudejar brick floors. The green and white marble ensuite contained a full bath and shower, twin basins and bidet and toilet. Voluminous, heavy red and white tapestry-like drapes gathered into folds held in place by gigantic silky white tassels that blocked out the morning light for those wishing to sleep in. Both rooms had airconditioning, which is much needed in a Moroccan summer (although the temperatures were pleasant during our stay in June). The king bed was super comfortable and the soft white bedding was embroidered in gold with the logo of the hotel – ‘La Maison Arabe’ written in balletic, beautiful Arabic.
Fresh roses adorned the room, deep, velvety red, just beginning to open, thickly bunched in a bulbous, black vase; their scent was intoxicating. The floral theme of the classic rose was evident throughout the hotel; graceful, generous, long-stemmed white bunches in tall vases in the hallway, perfectly lit as though they were priceless works of art, with the warm carved wood behind them, a shadowed and textured backdrop for their beauty.
The Food of La Maison Arabe
Our first meal in Marrakech was in the hotel’s famous Le Restaurant – the first establishment catering to tourists when it opened in 1946. Salima showed us to our table and welcomed us with easy conversation and warm smiles. After such a long journey a large meal was not on our radar, but we wanted something traditional, so we shared an entrée of an assortment of fresh Moroccan salads and briouates followed by a Berber vegetable tagine as a main. A glass of crisp French white wine accompanied this aromatic and authentic meal, which set a high standard to beat when eating away from the hotel!
A sumptuous buffet breakfast was provided each morning. The extensive display included many vegetable and salad offerings for the vegetarians, as well as the usual array of hot food, soups, cheeses, meats, pastries and cereals. There were two stations set up on the terrace by the pool – one for traditional Moroccan crepes and another for any egg dish you could want. The staff at these stations cheerfully touted their tasty offerings, enthusing guests and making a decision difficult. Luckily we were staying for three breakfasts and would be able to sample it all!
The culinary journey continued with the cooking class at La Maison Arabe, open to both hotel guests and external visitors. This was such a wonderful experience all round, in terms of the fun had and the knowledge gained. Hasna ran the class, and Fatiha was the chef doing all of the demonstrations. The class began with us all being shown how to make Moroccan mint tea, followed by learning about the spices and cooking implements. We then headed upstairs to the kitchen, which was the most professionally equipped ‘classroom’ for cooking lessons we had experienced on our travels. There were even closed circuit televisions mounted above our benches to closely watch what the chef was doing at her station, while we attempted to follow her lead. We were given a special assistant because we are vegetarians and the assembling of our tagine dish was quite different to the others. But we were very happy to have eaten the restaurant versions of our dish the day before, so we knew how it was supposed to be done!
At the end of the lesson, the class sat down together to eat what we had prepared. John and I shared the dish I had cooked, and left his to be donated to charity, which is very common here – people cook extra meals and give them to the mosques for those in need. Hasna was surprised and happy we chose to do that. Going halves in one of the full meals we prepared was plenty for us. When leaving, each pupil was presented with the gift of a small tagine for us to attempt these culinary delights at home, all we needed was a visit to the souk for fresh spices.
After days filled with sightseeing, we relished going back to our haven in the city for pampering and relaxation. Our first full day was completed with a hammam package for the evening. Even though we have visited other Arabic countries, our appointment in the hotel’s Espace Bien-etre was our first hammam experience. This is clearly a high-end facility, located in the basement (as apparently all hammams are), deliberately sparingly lit and of exact temperatures in each space for the specific treatment being provided. We chose a couple’s Marhaba Session – hammam, black soap body scrub, ghassoul body mask and relaxing 30 min massage.
The entire process was explained when we first arrived so that there would be no surprises. From what I have heard of traditional hammams, this one was more gentle than the way they would treat locals, for which I was grateful! The heat of the sluicing room slowly increased as we acclimated, which prevented that slightly suffocating effect you get when you first walk into a steam room. The scrubbing was vigorous, but not as rough as what I had expected. The body mask was quickly and thoroughly applied (just keep mouth and eyes shut – which goes for all moments when being completely drenched with water).
After the robustness of the hammam the relaxation massage was gentle, and provided a drowsy segue to a night of slumber. Our slick, pleasantly oily and burnished red bodies, were wrapped in fresh robes, and we dreamily headed back to our suite.
There was no way that we were venturing forth again after our treatment, so we ordered from room service a parmesan, mushroom and herb omelette, some olives that we had indulged in at the piano bar, and a nice rosé. We sat in the sundrenched lounge area of our suite listening to the birds chatting in the tree next to our balcony as the sun set, nature’s underscoring for our meal.
After a short three nights it was time for us to leave. During our stay, we also visited the legendary and very distinguished La Mamounia and Royal Mansour hotels, and I would unequivocally choose to stay at La Maison Arabe over these two grand dames. Why? It is authentic, providing a singular, luxurious and memorable experience for all guests, but it was the delightful staff that fulfilled all of our needs with charm and care that made us feel at home. I loved observing their moments of connection with each other, a clear sign of people happy in the workplace – the chat at the breakfast omelette and crepe stations, the giggles between girls cleaning the stairs. Such joy is infectious, and a tonic to travellers in search of rejuvenation! It was surprisingly difficult to farewell Hakim, a prince of a concierge who had taken care of us from the moment we arrived, ensuring each day that we had all that we desired and providing excellent suggestions for how to spend our time, including arranging an outstanding guide for a tour of the city. Hakim even filled out our airport departure cards for us, and presented us with a copy of the glossy recipe book for sale in the hotel’s homewares store. Blessed with gifts, experiences of a lifetime and basking in Moroccan hospitality we reluctantly left our riad for the next leg of our journey, determined to return to Marrakech to continue our love affair with one of the most charismatic cities of our travels.
Our adventures in Marrakech continue…
Accommodation: La Maison Arabe