Take an insiders' tour of the historic Es Saadi Marrakech Resort, where The Rolling Stones, Pierre Balmain and Princess Margaret have all hung out under the palms...
If you’re planning the ultimate girls’ mini-break, Marrakech is surely top of the list. The North African city is pretty much the perfect destination for a getaway. A hop, skip and a 3.5-hour plane ride away, and you’re in a magical world of bright colours, palm trees, souks…and that’s not to mention the recently-opened Yves Saint Laurent Museum. When it comes to Marrakech hotels, staying inside the old city walls is an experience. But if you fancy some serious luxury that allows you to dip in and out of the hustle and bustle, then there’s basically only one place to stay: Es Saadi Marrakech Resort, situated about 10 minutes’ taxi ride from the city centre in the posh part of town known as L’Hivernage.
What’s so great about Es Saadi?
A resort that offers pure unadulterated luxury, set in 20 acres of tropical gardens. You could spend an entire holiday in this king of Marrakech hotels without setting foot outside the entrance (although that would be a shame – those souks won’t shop themselves…) The lush grounds are filled with orange, banana and palm trees as well as cacti – not to mention the odd tiny tortoise, pootling around in the undergrowth. There are stunning views of the Atlas Mountains and facilities are extensive: three outdoor pools (including the 2400m lagoon pool, the largest in the city), indoor hydrotherapy pool, casino, nightclub, kids’ club, six restaurants and three spas, including one of only three Dior Instituts in the world.
Es Saadi Marrakech Resort was the first casino to open in Africa, in 1952, and has played host to everyone from Princess Margaret to the Rolling Stones. It’s blossomed into a full-blown garden resort – the 150-room Hotel was built in 1966, and the sumptuous Palace was added in 2008. In terms of Marrakech hotels, L’Hotel is a comfortable but unremarkable Sixties building which houses double rooms (plus some suites) and a complex that includes a pool and the resort’s kids’ club.
But Le Palace is the truly spectacular bit – a separate compound with its own entrance, main building and accommodation. Built on a seriously grand scale, a line of fountains and a pair of enormous bronze horses lead you into the lobby. Acres of white marble, adult-height vases filled with towering arrangements of roses and a 12-metre cupola, it’s enough to make you feel like Alice in Wonderland.
It’s a luxurious place to pass some time – there’s the plush blue bar complete with roaring fire, or you can lounge in a tiled alcove on red velvet sofas and enjoy the Moroccan version of a cream tea (fresh mint and pastries) while listening to the haunting sounds of an oud-strumming live musician.
Owners the Bauchet-Bouhlal family are serious art patrons and their collection of 400-plus pieces by modern Moroccan artists – from painting to sculpture and ceramic art – are dotted throughout.
Accomodation in Le Palace consists of 84 suites, 10 private villas and 8 ksars, all with butler service. Palace guests have the ultimate treat: Marrakech’s largest pool (below), a 2400m lagoon surrounded by palms, with a swim-up sunken bar in the centre.
What on earth is a ksar?
A private mini-villa that looks a bit like a small castle (view of the cluster of ksars below) built in traditional Berber style, with daubed and crenellated walls. We say mini, but that’s mini in Es Saadi land – ie each one is still bigger than your average London flat.
They’re laid out over two floors, with two palatial bedrooms, a bathroom on each floor and a luxurious sitting room opening out into a private area of garden, plus a roof terrace equipped with sun loungers. You can dial butler service and have whatever you need brought to your door within minutes – our requests ranged from more Moroccan pastries (a delicious basket of sticky honeyed treats are left each day) to extra towels, a doctor (yes, it was sunstroke…) and spa bookings. The other delight? The 24/7 ‘car’ service – you can summon a golf buggy to your door to ferry you round the resort. Walking those winding cacti-lined paths up to the pool is so exhausting…
Insider tip: you’ll find a small packet of black soap left by your bath. It might look unappealing – but it’s a traditional beauty secret that leaves skin baby-soft when used to cleanse face and body.
What are the Es Saadi villas like?
The full-scale villas – designed for couples – are another level of luxury and are the perfect choice for a honeymoon or a blow-the-budget romantic trip. Each is built and decorated in a different style, with its own garden and private pool. There’s the blue Persane, (below) the Art-Deco style Casablanca and the Berbere, all full of hand-woven carpets and specially-commissioned artisan pieces sourced from all over the world. The ultimate romantic honeymoon option is the Villa Favori, which has a heart-shaped pool. Whether you’re a celebrity on the run from the paps or a couple on the trip of a lifetime, they’re designed for total privacy. Want to throw a BBQ, cocktail party or extra special dinner a deux in your garden? No problem! The team will take care of everything.
What’s the food at Es Saadi like?
The resort uses organic produce including sheeps’ cheese and yoghurt from its own farm in the Ourika Valley, and the sumptuous breakfast buffet gets top marks – fresh juices of every variety (including mountains of perfect Moroccan oranges), cooked-to-order eggs and omelettes and a huge array of bread and patisserie baked locally.
If you’re hanging out by the pool, light lunches of the club sandwich and salad kind are available from Autour de la Piscine (at L’Hotel) and Lagon & Jardin (by the lagoon pool at Le Palace). If you want a cordon bleu take on traditional Moroccan cuisine, there’s fine dining at La Cour de Lion – a restaurant at the top of the Palace, looking out over the city and the mountains. Feast on gourmet versions of traditional dishes: beef tagine with aubergine confit, oven-roasted shoulder of lamb with saffron and ‘bride’s fingers’, a melt-in-the-mouth pastry dish stuffed with spiced king prawns from Essaouira. Finish off with almond milk pastillas delicately laced with rosewater and a fresh mint tea or a cinammon and orange blossom coffee. It’s not cheap, compared to the price of a quick bite at a cafe or street food stall in the Djemaa (main courses are around £20), but offers a five-star experience and a wine list – great for a special evening, after the chaos of the eateries round the Djemaa el F’na.
The Es Saadi spa – what’s on offer?
You’re spoilt for choice – there’s enough here to try out over several visits if you’re keen to really treat yourself. The luxurious three-floor Palace spa boasts the Oriental Thermae (below), private hammams, a UV-heated indoor hydrotherapy pool, weights and cardio training room, outdoor jacuzzi and an organic restaurant.
To try: delicious hammam experiences (choose from Moroccan, Indian or Japanese) using La Sultane de Saba products; a good choice of signature massages including lymphatic drainage, reflexology, hot stones and sports; aromatherapy treatments using Micheline Arcier oils, or go for the full blow-out with a package. The Day Spa (£275 approx) includes hammam, lunch, rose and argan facial, signature massage, manicure and full use of all the facilities.
The Dior Institut within the spa offers face and body treatments, products and make-up services. There’s also a beautiful blue indoor pool (below) that looks out onto greenery and trees – perfect for a soothing post-treatment dip.
Meanwhile, the Oriental Spa at L’Hotel (the entrance is just by the pool area) offers a more low-key Moroccan experience – a hammam and sauna, argan oil massages and scrub treatments using the famous black soap. Plus they do a nice mani/pedi – perfect for a quick glam-over before heading off for dinner.
While it’s possible to lounge and luxuriate an entire holiday away at Es Saadi, once you drag yourself outside the resort there are two things that need to be on every fashionista agenda…
The YSL Museum Marrakech
A fashion lovers’ dream. That’s all. Before Yves Saint Laurent started visiting the country, his designs were dark and severe. Once he’d caught the Marrakech bug, his collections changed dramatically – the country ‘taught him colour’, he later said. Saint Laurent bought the cobalt-blue villa that sits in the divine Jardin Majorelle and shut himself away here to sketch his collections. The Jardin and villa now house the recently redone Musee Berbere which is also well worth a visit – done up to represent the interior of a Berber tent under a twinkling night sky, it’s crammed with traditional costumes, craft and jewellery.
The softer, romantic silhouettes and bold colour combinations of Saint Laurent’s most famous creations were a direct result of his Marrakech adventures and it’s inspiring to see them displayed in this setting. The YSL Museum’s stunning modernist terracotta building is right next door to the Jardin – and the collection of over 1,000 pieces stars all the greatest hits: Mondrian dress, Le Smoking, safari jacket… There’s also photography (including iconic photographs and intimate snapshots of the man himself), displays of his sketches, a projection theatre showing films of his work and a shop packed with must-buy YSL-related books and gifts. A total must-visit.
After all that fashion inspiration, there’s only one place to go – it’s time to hit the souks.
What to buy in the souk?
Cut straight through the overpriced tourist chaos around the entrances to the main souk in Djamaa el Fna and head straight to source – get right inside the rabbit warren of the medina and hunt out the specialist souk for whatever you’re after. We found an entire courtyard full of basket-weavers selling beautiful plain woven palm baskets in every style and shape imaginable. We asked them to customise several pieces (choosing from stacks of pom poms, sequins and coloured thread) and returned the next day to collect the bounty. So SS18…
How do I book?
Visit www.essaadi.com. Junior suites start from £270 per night. Ksars start from £550 per night. Villas start at £800 a night. Buffet breakfast, Wi-Fi and Airport transfers included.