Over the Top in Marrakech

This glitzy palace has a curious history

Words: Lee Tulloch, Photography: Tony Amos
riad, entrance
Atlas mountains from suite
Jade Room, Murano chandelier
wings in the style of Taj Mumbai
Royal Suite
Royal Suite
Royal Suite
Jiva Spa
dishes at Rumi
pool with riad in background
cocktails by the pool
Stuart Church
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Those of us

who admit to having seen Sex and the City 2  (OK, I saw the first half of it on a plane) will probably wish they had forgotten the scenes in Abu Dhabi, when Carrie and her friends went on a culturally insensitive retail rampage through the United Arab Emirates.

The vast and vulgar hotel where they stayed in ‘Abu Dhabi’ was in fact the empty Mandarin Oriental in Marrakech, then yet to be opened, which was decorated for the film in high oriental camp style, populated with extras and placed on the Arabian gulf a thousand miles away from Marrakech with the help of computer generated imagery.

Fast track forward a few years and the Marrakech hotel finally opened. Mandarin Oriental withdrew from the project, leaving the Taj Hotel Group, famous for its truly splendid palace hotels in India, to take over and rebrand the hotel, Taj Palace Marrakech. (Update October 2014:  it has once again been rebranded, as the Sahara Palace Marrakech.)

If you have seen SATC2, it’s best to clear your mind of memories of the faux hotel. The existing hotel is architecturally the same structure, with enormous white domes looming at the end of a 600 metre long driveway. Thankfully, though, the interiors are free of the set dresser’s hyperactive imagination. The hotel is extravagant, as befits a marriage between India and Morocco, but its Tangiers-based architect, Stuart Church, also a well-respected Orientalist painter, has filled the interiors with a bold, sensual and altogether more tasteful décor.

American-born Church came to Tangiers in 1960 after a stint in the US army medical corps during the Korea War. (He was a conscientious objector.) He rarely went back to America afterwards. These days, he’s very frail, and visits Marrakech infrequently to check on the progress of the hotel, shuffling around the corridors in his red fleece jacket, pink shirt, fuchsia pants and saffron yellow slippers, as if he were intentionally colour-coordinated to his work, which relies heavily on pinks, lacquer reds, jade greens and gold. A sensitive and charming man, the inspiration behind his interiors is to get ‘something fantastic’ from blending the two cultures together.

We visit Marrakech the week the Taj Palace opens, so we have it almost to ourselves. The hotel aims to be a little piece of India just three hours away from London, targeting the extravagant weddings and celebrations of the Indian diaspora. Marrakech is a short flight from the United Arab Emirates, so the hotel has also been planned with a wealthy Arab clientele in mind. Aside from the main building, the 54-hectare property contains four separate riads, traditional houses built around a central garden, each with 36 rooms and suites and their own manager, concierge and private access, perfect for large groups and families.

The hotel is extravagant, as befits a marriage between India and Morocco

The hotel is situated in the Palmeraie, a suburb of Marrakech about twenty minutes out of town that once was a scrappy landscape of palm trees and dusty villages, but now has become the neighbourhood of choice for the conspicuously wealthy. (The owner of the house next door had it on the market for about 100 million euros, I am told.) From the front of the hotel you see the Jabilat mountains and from the rear, looking across the 40 metre by 40 metre swimming pool (nothing is small here) and the golden domes of the Jiva Grand Spa, there’s a wonderful view of the Atlas Mountains, which are less than a two hour drive away (an activity we really recommend.) The mountains reflect colours of rose, charcoal and lavendar and we can see them from both the bath and the large terrace of our entry-level room, which at a wopping 80 square metres, is larger than a grand suite in most other hotels.

Stuart Church’s way with colour enlivens all the public spaces. We particularly loved the Jade Room, the hotel’s lobby lounge, an enormous space with three-level-high ceilings and a colour scheme of rich jewel hues, predominantly jade green and garnet pink. The walls are hung with Stuart’s opulent paintings and sketches of horsemen and odalisques. In each of the two galleries that form the wings of the main building (those who are familiar with the Taj Palace in Mumbai will recognise the style) the carpets are pink and burgundy with pink walls, giving the impression that a Pasha’s harem may have once slept here.

The walls throughout the hotel are covered in traditional tadelakt lime, using several layers of colours, the surfaces polished and burnished to a rich glow. The effect is luscious and elegant. There’s no shortage of flash elsewhere, though. A 19-metre long Murano glass chandelier hangs from a jewelled cupola through a central light well over the lobby. There are three kilometres of gold leaf paint across all the ceilings. The SATC girls shared the Royal Suite, which occupies the whole top floor of the palace. It boasts, among many extravagances, silk curtains heavily embroidered by Lesage with Swarovski crystals and worth $US10,000 each. The Jiva Grand Spa sprawls over 1800 square metres, with 14 treatment rooms, two beautiful tiled hammams and a heated relaxation pool.

The blending of cultures continues into the dining experience. The hotel’s Moroccan restaurant, Rumi, has a distinctly modern bent. In Mantra, Indian curries are prepared alongside Japanese sashimi. The Bombay Club harks back to the Raj with its snooker table and deep leather club chairs. Poolside, the food at Menza is casual international (with sheesha, hookah smoking pipes, optional). At breakfast you can have Moroccan pancakes served with a paste of argan oil and almonds. Sticky Arab-style pastries and dates are on hand whenever you need a sugar rush.

It is all rather overwhelming, a hotel designed for a grand celebration or a grand vacation, with entourage. Those seeking a more intimate experience would do better in one of the many traditional riads behind the walls of the old town, but if you want to throw a party for 500 people, or shout your girlfriends to a glamorous holiday in a 500 sq metre suite with butlers on tap, then it might just be for you.

You’ll want to use the hotel as a springboard to discover Marrakech and the Atlas mountains. We recommend putting yourself in the experienced hands of Carol Prior, an Australian luxury travel specialist based in Marrakech, who knows the country intimately and has been arranging customised tours of Morocco for thirty years.



Mr and Mrs Amos were guests of the Taj Palace Marrakech.

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