It's the ultimate girls' night out. Contributing editor Stephanie March and her girlfriends eat, shop, and spa their way through Marrakech.
MARRAKECH – Last May, I planned a seven-day, three-girl trip to Marrakech, so my friend Becca and I could celebrate the birthday of our dear friend Liz Symon. Marrakech, it turns out, is the ultimate GNO (girls' night out). It takes the museum/shopping/spa cliché and turns it nicely on its head. I find a spa day truly boring, but in a hamam it becomes a whole new animal. Same for shopping: I can't traipse around a mall killing a Saturday, but a historic souk is another thing. Marrakech is easier to get to than people think (a six-hour flight to Casablanca from NYC, followed by a two-hour drive to Marrakech), and the scene is killer.
We booked Riad Vanessa, the private riad named for the owner within Riad el Fenn. It is a four-room, boho chic Moroccan house, and we had it all to ourselves. It was perfection. We hit the lower courtyard, with its rose petal-strewn fountain, during the day for shade, the fully stocked fridge for wine, and the roof terrace for sunset. Every morning, our breakfast arrived beautifully laid out on Moroccan ceramics. Every night, we returned to a candle-filled courtyard and the haunting call to prayer. The riad is tucked away on a teeny street smack in the medina, but since many of these old streets are not passable by car, there is virtually no noise. Not traffic noise at least. Birds are another story.
On the first day, we were squired around town by our friends Carl and Jose, who pointed out the best stalls in the souks and the best artisans in the newer establishments. Jose is the co-owner of Maison Arabe, another charming riad in the medina; Carl is his dear friend who teaches English to the staff four months every year. Our haul was large: studded leather totes, candy-colored babouche slippers in child and adult sizes, kaftans, tea glasses, embroidered tunics, hand-sewn linen napkins, perfume bottles, and ceramics.
As if that was not enough, we spent a lovely lunch at the pool and garden compound maintained by Maison Arabe just ten minutes out of town. Under the olive trees, noshing on saffron roasted chicken, we agreed it was impossible to believe how close we could be to the city and still feel so utterly removed and relaxed.
We took a terrific cooking class at Maison Arabe, overlooking their garden. It's somewhat relevant to note that Liz and I are both married to chefs and Becca is married to a restaurateur. We're all used to the boys doing the cooking. Our dada (lady chef) teased us mercilessly and put us to work making tagines and eggplant salads. We were pretty bad in the kitchen actually. To be fair, the knives supplied in class were awful, but I managed to hack up an awful lot of delicate vegetables. It was like a crime scene. After I turned a tomato skin into a perfect rose garnish (on my second try), she whooped and laughed and hugged me hard. I adored her. Lots of mint tea and a visit to the spice market and the communal bread oven were part of the three-hour class, and we three non-cooks were glad to have challenged our interests. There are fewer more illuminating ways to discover a culture than through the preparation and consumption of its food.
Another day was spent with our terrific driver, Hussaine, exploring the remains of palaces and medersas around town, and Yves Saint Laurent's, Jardin Majorelle. The gardens, purchased by Saint Laurent and partner Pierre Berger in 1980, cover twelve beautiful acres and include an unmissable museum of Berber clothing and jewelry. And it's probably not surprising that the boutique at Majorelle is one of the most beautifully curated stores in Marrakech. Takeaway: a necklace from Loulou de la Falasie's last collection for YSL and Majorelle's original eau du parfume, only available in the boutique.
But our most memorable day was spent poolside at Hotel Fellah engaged in a passionate, wine-fueled discussion about art and politics with Fellah's owner, Houria Afoufou, and director of programming, Caroleen Hamon. Fellah is an absolutely remarkable establishment, the chicest demonstration of bucolic minimalism that includes an artists' residency, a library, a nightclub, a community outreach center, and an herb garden. Only a woman could come up with a business model that sponsors artists, teaches kids, supports the community AND is impossibly chic. Fellahs' presence on the art scene is legit: She has stalls at Basel and the Venice Biennale. If the working 1960s turntable does not impress you, then the cocktails and chef will. Houria is the ultimate fusion goddess, and her hotel embodies the next generation of global travel: See something cool, drink something nice, give something back. It's pure genius.
So what else did we do in our week-long GNO?
We spent an eye-popping first night stumbling through the night market at Jemaa el Fna watching snake charmers, musicians, shop keepers hawking their wares, fire eaters, and about 1000 fresh-squeezed orange juice carts. Keep your purse close and your eyes wide open. And don't drink the juice.
We drank Champagne in the gardens at the impressive La Mamounia and managed to cocerce our server into bringing us an appetizer from one of the fancier in-house establishments as a bar snack. Moroccans don't have a snacking, small-plates culture. You either eat with your family at home or you are seriously "out." Being out is an occasion, and the meal lasts about five hours. We fought long and hard during our trip to get snacks with drinks.
We ate a delightful dinner at Dar Moha.
We relaxed in spectacular private spa suite and hamam at Royal Mansour, a place where million-dollar skin happens.
As for our visit to Mustapha Blaoui, the ABC Carpet of Marrakech, well, let's just say there's a shipping container of nailhead-trimmed, olive leather stools headed my way.
We never made it to the top of the Café du France in Jemaa el Fna for a sunset view of the Katoubia mosque and its intoxicating call to prayer, but that will give me something new to do on my next trip. Those leather stools need friends.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
Fly: Menara International Airport (RAK) has direct flights from many European cities and is served by Royal Air Maroc, Swissair, Air France, and British Airways, among other, but there are no direct flights between the United States and Marrakech. The connection-free option from the United States: Fly Royal Air Maroc from New York (JFK) to Mohamed V Airport in Casablanca (CMN) and hire a car for the two-hour drive along the speedy highway to Marrakech.
Getting around: You'll can walk to most places you'll want to go, and taxis are cheap and plentiful when you need a ride.
IF YOU ONLY DO THREE THINGS
1. Walk the souks.
2. Visit Jardin Majorelle.
3. Have drinks on the roof of Riad el Fenn.
AVOID AT ALL COSTS
1. Bargaining like an American asshole.
2. Wearing revealing clothing. No, you will not be sold into white slavery. Yes, it's rude and tacky.
3. Traveling here in July and August. I am from Texas, and I would not do it.
WHERE TO STAY
Remember the episode "Jet Setters" from Mad Men? When Don Draper finds himself in a mysterious, sun-drenched villa full of sexy bohemian weirdos? Fellah is that place, with a community outreach program, cocktails, and the Atlas Mountains in a background. It's located just outside Marrakech but is well worth the effort.
Riad el Fenn
A boutique hotel tucked into the heart of the medina. Bring a designer maxi dress and a Paul Bowles novel. Leave the golf clubs at home. This is not a place for Starwood points.
La Maison Arabe
An absolutely charming riad in a terrific location. Gorgeous courtyards and delightful cooking school. Do not miss the pool club just outside town: It's the best of both worlds.
You can't afford to stay here. I'm not kidding. You can't. But you really, really should see this place. It is mind-blowingly designed, and the restaurants are white tablecloth and then some. I spent a day in one of their private hamam suites with my girlfriends, and it was one of the most transporting experiences I've ever had.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
Morocco is an Islamic country and there are specific places one can imbibe. Hotel bars are always a good bet as are a few supper clubs that turn into a dance clubs like Le Comptoir. These are the places we loved.
WHERE TO SHOP
God, it's so good. Not cheap, mind you, but the workmanship is beautiful and the shopping is so much fun. I received excellent advice about how to bargain in Middle Eastern markets: “Offer what you would be excited to get it for in the United States, not what you think you can beat out of them in Morocco.” It's fun to get a deal, but it is in extremely poor taste to try a hatchet job. You just look like an ugly American.
Souks in the Medina
Highlights include Moro, Akbar Delights, oh, and about 1000 teeny perfume stalls.
The best ones are in the Hotel Fellah, Riad el Fenn, Jardin Majorelle, and Royal Mansour.
Yahya, Antika, and Mustapha Bloui are great picks for housewares.
Susan Simon's book, Shopping in Marrakech has great suggestions for other places.
WHAT TO SEE
Dar al Ma-mun
The community outreach/artists' residency part of Fellah. See the library, art installations, listen to a reading, and support the local school.
WHAT TO BRING
1. Gauzy, chic clothing that reaches your knees.
3. A hat.
4. An extra suitcase.
Leave at Home
2. High, high heels. (There are so few perfectly paved surfaces.)
3. Exfoliants. Get thee to a hamam instead. It's amazing.
4. Your prejudice. This is a 21st-century Islamic country. There is wine, there is fun, and there are rules. Get to know all aspects.