El Fenn’s contemporary take on bohemian glamour hits Marrakech.
At a moment when so many Arabic cities are battling destruction in the name of political extremism or insensitive modernization, the historic spirit of Marrakech bubbles through its streets and souks. Morocco gained its international street cred half a century ago as the likes of William Burroughs, Jimi Hendrix and Yves Saint Laurent were drawn to its louche lifestyle. With royal palaces and red-walled houses, glamorous Marrakech became an iconic destination for jet-set bohemians. When Marrakech Biennale founder Vanessa Branson opened El Fenn in 2004, she created a hotel where people could come and dream of those heady days while being immersed in the very center of the authentic old medina.
El Fenn’s interiors are as labyrinthine as the walled streets through which you reach it. Made up of seven traditional riads, there are multiple staircases and leafy courtyards among which guests can lazily lose themselves. Cult hotel site Mr. and Mrs. Smith awarded it the Best Dressed Hotel accolade last year (voted for by 20,000 members of the public) and on top of that they’re now re-designing the restaurant and opening new rooms. This update marks the final stage of the three-year refurbishment being overseen by general manager Willem Smit, and will upgrade an already special destination to a stunning example of a world-class hotel.
El Fenn’s celebrated ambience is a lesson in contemporary Orientalism. Eclectic and colorful, its style appeals to the Western traveller’s idea of Marrakech. Its characterful mix is a world away from the somber glamour of the city’s famous five-star hotels La Mamounia and The Royal Mansour, whose pomp and grandeur is beautiful but can be alienating. Where there every wall is inlaid with mother of pearl or carved intricately in dark wood, at El Fenn such decorative detail comes served with a lighter touch; offset by rustic kilims and contemporary furniture, every room displays the passion that can only be created by a personal touch. Branson says she chose most pieces herself, adding that it was important to her to make the hotel a showcase for local art, for which she has a longstanding passion.
French-Moroccan photographer Leila Alaoui likes to meet friends for dinner or drinks on El Fenn’s roof, and will be exhibiting her work there later this year. Speaking about the role that Branson has played in her hometown, she explains, “Vanessa has created something with a great energy that is also one of the most fashionable places to hang out in Marrakech. A lot of the artworks in the hotel’s collection are by local artists and she really believes in the power of this city as the creative heart of Morocco, which is why she founded the biennial here.” While some of those having drinks on the terrace may be local filmmakers and magazine editors, the majority of visitors are stylish travellers looking for the best side of Marrakech. Through combining local authenticity with international standards, El Fenn delivers just that.
Thanks to the Branson connection, today’s Western jet-set love to stay here, and the hotel makes sure their expectations of luxury are met with a friendly ease and welcoming service. After an intense day shopping in the heaving souks or visiting the city’s beautiful gardens in the scorching heat, guests retreat to El Fenn’s leafy courtyards and luxurious bathtubs, enjoy a bottle of iced rosé or dip into one of the two pools. The traditional breakfast – served on the shaded terrace – is outstanding, as are the espresso martinis, best taken in the emerald-green Jacuzzi. As the sun sets over terracotta rooftops and the call to prayer rings out from Koutoubia Mosque, the sustaining fantasy of exotic Marrakech is seductively fulfilled.
— Jasper Toms
Derb Moullay Abdullah Ben Hezzian, Bab el Ksour, Marrakech, tel. 212.524.44.1210, el-fenn.com