It’s not often that the postcard-perfect images of a destination live up to the reality, yet arrive in Marrakesh, the imperial city of southern Morocco, and stay at La Sultana Marrakech (a Small Luxury Hotels of the World property) and your experience will exceed all expectations; writes Andrew Forbes @andrewaforbes
Pass under the impressively ornate 12th century ‘Bab Agnaou’ royal archway, through the orange-red and salmon-pink adobe ramparts of the historic old town and one enters the magical world of the medina and its Kasbah.
Riads, traditional Moroccan palatial homes with open interior courtyard patios, are the fashionable accommodation for visitors.
Yet why stay in a single Riad when you could stay in five?
What to Expect
Found set back from a busy street in the Kasbah is La Sultana Marrakech, an exquisitely presented property made up of five adjoining Riads, sympathetically and immaculately restored to create a unique hotel (a Small Luxury Hotels of the World Property).
The Kasbah is the historical fortified part of the old town, once the home to the Sultans of Morocco, and today one can still find the Royal Palace here. For me this is the most authentic part of the medina, as well as being safe and clean. Here, expect to find tasty street food and some cool, arty cafes. Ten minutes’ walk away is the colourful and intoxicating Djemma-el-Fna square and the adjacent Berber style souks, where you can barter for spices, jewelry, pottery and a whole lot more.
Each of La Sultana’s evocatively named Riad houses retains their own identity, but share an attention to outstanding craftsmanship that is a celebration of Moroccan artisan creativity. Think intricately carved cedar wood ceilings and beams, ornamental plasterwork, striking tiles and extravagant lamps – but without the pastiche or cliché of themed interiors.
Check In and Welcome
Stepping out of the taxi, after the short drive from the nearby Marrakech Menara Airport, I am greeted by a uniformed doorman of La Sultana Hotel (a Small Luxury Hotels of the World property), dressed in pristine cream Moorish trousers, scarlet embroidered waistcoat and a hat bearing the hotel’s name. I am escorted through the passageway laid with elegant Moroccan carpets and bordered with North African lamps, up to the brilliantly polished brass doors. Yes, this is the Morocco of ancient dynasties and exotic splendour.
The reception area is intimate. Upon arrival I was invited into a small drawing room in the extravagantly decorated Riad Sheherazade. No standing at reception for guests here; instead check in is a moment to adjust to the tranquillity of the hotel, sip a warm, sweet mint tea and enjoy some complimentary Moroccan pastries.
My room was in the light-filled Riad Bahia, a part of the hotel with an open courtyard where light flooded in, illuminating the brilliant white carved stucco walls. This is the Riad with the deluxe suites and apartments. My guest suite was actually an apartment, called ‘Lion’ (the guest rooms are named after African animals and birds).
This spacious apartment (one of 28 guest rooms, of 6 different categories, including three different types of suite) featured a large salon, with a fireplace flanked by stone lions, a bathroom with marble spa bath, a separate shower room, two W.C.s, and the master bedroom which opened out onto an equally large shaded, furnished terrace.
The salon had a small minibar with complimentary soft drinks and waters and a la carte snacks and alcohol. Nothing especially tempting in the mini bar and no local treats, in fact a surprisingly ordinary mini bar for such a swish hotel – but it was good to have free refreshments and water; and of course since this is a genuine 5 star establishment, there’s 24 hour room service too.
The décor was extravagant yet not over-the-top, since it was a case of ‘less is more’. Yes, there were crystal chandeliers and carved wooden furniture, but the style was cohesive and uncluttered.
There was a flat screen TV in the salon as well as the master bedroom, and also an iPod speaker with USB and Bluetooth. There was free Wi-Fi throughout the suite apartment and the hotel.
In the double wardrobes was the room safe, beach bag, beach towels and his-and-hers straw hats for sunbathing – an attention to detail that was typical of the hotel.
The turn-down service included fresh towels in the bathroom, tidying of the room, a cotton embroidered floor mat placed by the bed with Moroccan slippers, a treat of juicy stuffed dates left on the bed, and details of the breakfast options for in-suite dining.
Bathrooms are each decorated with a single fresh rose together with a few rose petals on the towels. The bathrooms were immaculately presented with engraved silver dishes and trays for the amenities. Both bathrooms were well equipped with large mirrors, illuminated vanity mirrors, hairdryer, cotton slippers, leather Moroccan slippers, cotton robes, and plenty of soaps, shampoos and even bath salts for the spa. The shower room had a double walk-in marble shower with innovative twin shower system, whilst the other bathroom had a spa bath that really made you feel like an indulgent Sultan!
Everything was thoughtfully presented, even down to the carved metal waste paper bins and the lavender sachet bags that fragranced the W.C.s.
Presented as a tied scroll on the bed, was a personalised welcome letter detailing the services of the hotel; whilst on the salon table was a cake stand laden with dried fruits, nuts and Moroccan cakes, together with a bottle of mineral water – a very elegant and Moroccan themed welcome.
The Rest of the Hotel
It was a real pleasure to explore the hotel. The combination of the five different Riads gives the property a very interesting ambiance of various architectural styles and moods. The main Riad Sheherazade has a rich and decadent African feel, with its verdant courtyard and stunning columns and arches. Riad Saadia brings a flavour of imperial Fez to the hotel, with plenty of cedar wood panelling, and detailed ceilings. The ochre bricks of Riad Almohade lend simplicity to one of the largest courtyards that is home to the swimming pool and a sub-tropical garden. It is here that breakfast and dinner is served in winter. Riad Sabaa is the final Riad; and above all of the houses is one expansive roof terrace, said to be one of the largest in the medina.
It offers 360 views of the medina and Atlas mountains – and the space is home to the bar (the basement bar was closed when I stayed); an al fresco restaurant for lunch (and dinner in summer) as well as a solarium with sun beds, a plunge pool and massage gazebo. There is also a cooking school, with upscale, fully equipped stations for guests that want to enjoy the programme of activities. The games room and gym are also on the terrace, housed in classic Moroccan style tented rooms.
Views from the roof terrace are totally postcard-perfect. Small roof domes of neighbouring riads, tall palms and exotic minaret towers stand against the Atlas Mountains in the distance. This is an extraordinary perspective on Marrakech and all the more enjoyable viewed from the seclusion of the hotel’s terrace. Adjacent are the 16th century Saadian Tombs and gardens. This is the timeless Marrakesh; despite the speed of change in this fashionably chic city, the Kasbah is an authentic corner that continues to convey the spirit of this magical city.
I should say a few words about the spa. I was invited to enjoy a massage, so had the chance to check out the facilities. The aesthetic of the relaxation area, pool and circuit is calming and elegant in jade green, oxidised copper and terracotta. The treatment rooms are soundproofed and warm and I loved that fact that the massage beds were extra wide – no arms falling over the edge when relaxing!
Dinner & Breakfast
March is just the beginning of the spring season, so I had dinner inside, around the pool. There was live music, by a Berber musician with guitar. Sometimes I can find that sort of thing a little distracting, but he was talented and it was subtle, so it really didn’t dominate the ambiance, just added a pleasant background mood. La Sultana has two acclaimed tasting menus, one Moroccan and the other classic French, as well as an a la carte choice of local’s and international dishes. I opted for the Moroccan salad selection to start, followed by a traditional lamb tagine. It was a really memorable meal – fresh uncomplicated ingredients delivering true flavours. I also tried a Moroccan Cabernet Sauvignon which went down rather well. Pudding was an indulgent chocolate cake, in the shape of a Tarboosh – well, it would be rude not to, wouldn’t it?!
Breakfast is a work of art. Traditional Berber dishes are the inspiration for the Moroccan morning meal, served on blue and white china – it looked so attractive and appetising. There were European and international options too, but I enjoyed the local pancakes and polenta breads with rich Atlas honey.
What made it Special?
Without a doubt La Sultana is special as it manages to combine the intimacy and authenticity of a medina Riad mansion house with all the plush facilities and services of an upscale 5 star property. The team quickly learn guests’ names, and appear to communicate in a genuinely friendly way. I found the service to be top notch yet natural. From an informal, friendly chat with a barman, to a conversation about Moroccan wine with the head waiter, I felt welcome and comfortable – that’s true hospitality.
If you want to feel like you really are in the medina, walking distance to the museums, palaces and gardens of this remarkable city, then a stay in a typical Riad is a must. Yet if you also want the security, service and panache of a 5 star hotel too, then La Sultana might just be the right place for you, combining the best of both worlds.
I’m quite picky, and I consider myself exceptionally observant, yet it was hard for me to find fault with La Sultana. The indoor bar with an underwater view of the swimming pool was closed during my stay (for renovations), and during winter the roof terrace is a little fresh for a night cap; so the only slight negative was that I missed a livelier bar scene in the hotel where one can meet other guests. Yet from spring time onwards the roof terrace, I am told by the team, becomes a lively hub for the hotel.
Rates start from 3100MAD (approx £209) per night in a ‘prestige room’ or 5800MAD per person (Approx £391) based on a half-board basis.
Would I Recommend It?
From the moment I arrived and was offered fresh mint tea in the courtyard I knew I was going to enjoy the hotel. My stay was one of the most relaxing for a long time, where things just worked as they should. Yes, I would recommend this property without a doubt, if only for that 5 star view from the roof terrace.
We have included this hotel in our guide to the best luxury hotels in Marrakech
Address: La Sultana, 403 Rue de la Kasbah, 40000 Marrakech, Morocco
Phone: (+212) 5 24 38 80 08
Review carried out by Andrew Forbes