The Royal Mansour Treatment was designed to accommodate guests of state for King Mohamed VI, and it is indeed fit for a queen—as this journo knows firsthand.
Like Carrie Bradshaw jet setting to Abu Dhabi, I hitched a magic carpet ride to Marrakech for a spa weekend at The Royal Mansour. Originally commissioned by King Mohamed VI to accommodate guests of state, this lavish palatial enclave of 53 luxe riads designed by Le Meurice architect Nicolas Papamiltiades is beyond fancy.
I landed at the chill of dawn in Casablanca. A man short as Bogey stood by a car on the tarmac holding a sign: “MR. ZARCO.” Sorry to disappoint.
“Here’s lookin’ at you, kid!” I had to say it, but the man didn’t speak English or French, only Arabic and Spanish. After a few hand signals, he whisked my papers through Customs while I sipped Moroccan mint tea in the VIP lounge. I was getting the royal treatment—The Royal Mansour treatment. I felt special, but there was no one to impress. Someone in the back room was praying. It was a sound I’d soon become familiar with.
This was my first visit to a Muslim country. It was also my first time in Morocco, and Africa. Once out of Customs, I met a tall, dark stranger from the hotel ready to drive me to Marrakech. His name was Ahmed. “Everyone calls me Medo,” he said. For two hours, we drove through lush green countryside as the Sahara sun shone over the snow-tipped Atlas Mountains.
In Marrakech, we hit rush-hour traffic, an Old-World-meets-New-World swarm of harried commuters in pointy-hooded caftans on scooters, donkey carts and horse buggies. I kept thinking Harry Potter. Medo explained the absence of high-rises in Marrakech: By King’s decree, houses must be no taller than three stories so as not to obstruct the horizon of the Atlas Mountains.
Once the medieval bronze gates opened to The Royal Mansour, I found myself in a blissful surround amid beautiful gurgling fountains, olive trees and desert palms, protected from the ordinary world by the ancient walls of Marrakech. I had arrived. Welcomed by a reception line (think Downton Abbey), I was escorted to my new home, Riad No. 9—a three-tiered Moroccan pied-à-terre with a plunge pool on top.
There are no hotel rooms at the manse, only 53 private riads crafted in classic Moorish style and controlled by a computerized dashboard in each room—a mix of the old and new. I ordered my complimentary breakfast before my massage at the Royal Mansour Spa, then walked up the winding marble staircase to my boudoir on the second floor. My bags preceded me, transported discreetly via underground service tunnels and elevators in the basement. There are 500 employees here; 10 white-gloved attendants per riad, but you won’t see them, only the Berber women in native garb gardening on the grounds. I liked that magical Beauty and The Beast aspect, that is, until my day of departure when my unfinished breakfast prematurely disappeared from the ground floor while I was dressing on the second.
The decor here is unparalleled. Every inch of the Royal Mansour is hand crafted by local artisans trained in Moroccan decorative arts for generations. Complemented by the finest French art nouveau antiques appointed by Paris-based firm 3BIS, The Royal Mansour is a celebration of all things Maroc. The library boasts an impressive, retractable sky roof of geometrically chiseled cedar for avid stargazers. The center courtyard is a jeweled musée of Zellige ceramic tile work coupled with intricately moulded Tadelakt lime plaster details. Even the door hinges look like jewelry.
The spa is genius, a majestic lace white, wrought-iron bird cage à la Goldfinger staffed by coifed attendants in chic mint uniforms. Still jet-lagged, I opted for the 90-minute Deep Tissue Combination Thai & Traditional Massage (2,900 dirhams). I was repaired by the able hands of Pramuk, a second-generation Thai masseuse with 22 years experience who grew up watching her mother walk on clients’ backs. (No, that treatment is not on Mansour’s menu.)
Must-have at The Mansour Spa: “Evasion” ultra-purifying exfoliation scrub in the hammam (Turkish bath). Warmed on a heated marble floor, a Berber woman applied Maroc Maroc’s body mask “Miel d’Ambre” (Golden Honey) on my entire body and massaged my skin with a fine sandpaper-textured kessa glove. To rinse, she doused me with buckets of water old school, then soaped me down with orange flower water, “Infusion d’Orange,” before leading me to the cold plunge pool.
I emerged renewed, ennervated but still sleepless. Somehow I found my way through the labyrinthine maze of walkways to La Table for lunch al fresco. (Note: The credit-card size map did not aid this dyslexic. Since each terra cotta riad looked the same and there were no emergency phone boxes, I could’ve spun butter circling the grounds.)
The food was amazing. I expected no less from Michelin-starred chef Yannick Alleno, who also helms Cannes’s prestigious Le Meurice. Desserts were works of art—my mousse chocolat was topped with the hotel logo in edible gold leaf. Ate that.
Dinner at La Grande Table Francaise was, well, grand. Graced by a formal setting fit for royals, my Roasted Langoustine from Agadir with Corail Oil was superb. As was the service. Acoustic Moroccan folk music played by a local Berber musician on a lotar (lute guitar) in full fez, djellaba and babouche slippers was romantic and apropos.
I decided to be more daring for my meal at La Grande Table Marocaine. Opting for the most exotic dish on the menu, I chose not pigeon nor snails nor quail but Steamed Lamb Head—Rass M’Fouar (450 dirhams/$155). Served separately, the lamb cheek medallions were tender and good. Braised in a clay tagine, the lamb brain was served whole, as if in a lab, only in a tomato coulis with a sliver of onion on top. I was told brains are a local delicacy often served at breakfast with scrambled eggs. I dug in, to the dismay of my fellow diners. After the initial incision, my first forkful tasted like sweetbreads, only smoother. Later that night, like a woman with two brains, I couldn’t sleep. (No, I did not count sheep.)
No trip to Marrakech is complete without a shopping spree at the souk. Now immortalized by the film Sex and The City, the main marketplace, Djemaa Al-Fna, is a ten-minute walk into the center of town in the old historic medina past the tower in Koutoubia Mosque square. Zigzagging past the bristly gaggle of snake charmers, vendors, cyclists and kamikaze mopeds, I bought a beautiful embroidered straw basket from two polite young chaps who didn’t haggle me to death. Prepped by good friends, Sex’s wardrobe stylists Patricia Field and Molly Rogers, I found their man Aziz sitting by his souvenir photo of Sarah Jessica Parker in the window of his stall—Aziz Bihoux’s Articles Anciennes.
“Molly, yes!” he said, flashing a big toothy grin. He pointed out a long amber necklace similar to the one SJ bought. “Many, many trays,” he said. I settled for three unique, ancient Berber silver bracelets.
Must bring back babouches. Tasseled, embroidered pointy-toe leather slippers in every color lined the walls of hawkers’ stalls like candy. I found a Robert Clergerie-ish pink leather and straw number I loved and a simple supple marigold one for home. I could have shopped all day amid the myriad of glass lamps, carpets, furnishings, djellabas and scarves.
To go: I picked up the traditional curry-like mixture of three Moroccan herbs at one pharmacy, plus bars of Moroccan black soap and bottles of kohl black eyeliner. The better to see you with, my dear Maroc.