From exploring the bustling metropolis of Marrakech to escaping to the idyllic Oualidia, Absolutely experiences two very different sides of Morocco.
Words by Pendle Harte
Arriving in Marrakech is exciting. The new town feels almost like it could be anywhere – apart from the characteristic Moroccan red stone – with its wide streets, traffic and international hotel chains, but entering the Unesco World Heritage site that is the kasbah, you’re immediately struck by an intensity of small, narrow streets and lots of people. We’re staying at La Sultana, just inside the Medina, and it’s a haven of calm compared to the bustle on its doorstep.
Doormen in red capes and fez hats usher us from the taxi down a sidestreet and into the hotel, making us feel like we’re in a movie. Despite its small entrance, La Sultana is a sprawling hotel made up of five riads knocked together, each with their own character and different look. It’s a beautiful space, elaborately decorated in beautiful Moroccan style – think patterned tiles and mosaics, wood carvings, inlaid furniture, palms, colourful lanterns and lots of stylish arches and marble columns creating beautiful tableaux.
Our rooms are spacious and decorative, with balconies overlooking a cacti-filled courtyard with a water feature. Despite only having 28 rooms, it’s a confusing, labyrinthine space anchored by the restaurant at the centre, which is an indoor/outdoor space laid out around a pool. On the roof, there’s another restaurant, and a bar, which is a dreamy, plant-filled place to sit and take in the views over the rooftops.
Food at La Sultana is excellent and very elegantly served – for breakfast there are strawberries and pineapple served with rosewater alongside delicious Moroccan pastries and – our favourite – Moroccan eggs benedict with olives. La Sultana’s philosophy of “Terroir Cuisine” showcases Moroccan produce with local and ethically-sourced meat and fish. The cuisine prides itself on heritage Moroccan products like Saffron from Taliouine, some salt from Zerradoune, cumin from Alnif and Argan from Souss.
We’re only in Marrakech for three days, and it’s not enough. We spend our time wandering around the souks, shopping and browsing, and marvelling at the snake charmers in Jemaa el-Fnaa Square. A visit to the Jardin du Marjorelle with its amazing cactus garden is a highlight with its vast cacti set against an intensely blue-painted studio building, and the neighbouring Yves Saint Laurent museum offers a fascinating insight into the designer and his glamorous life in the city.
From Marrakech it’s a three-hour drive to La Sultana’s sister property on the Atlantic coast in Oualidia. This is a town known for its oysters and its surf, popular with holidaying Moroccans but not so well known for international tourism, so it feels quite remote. Approaching La Sultana via a winding road, we don’t know what to expect, but when the building appears it has a fairytale quality, a beautiful stone fortress with domed, thatched rooftops overlooking the lagoon. Lush gardens, beautifully designed with palms, cacti and colourful flowers surround a beautiful pool with luxurious loungers, while a restaurant on a wooden deck overlooking the seafront is a dreamy spot.
Inside the building are only 12 rooms, and ours is vast, with its own terrace and hot tub. We spend three happy days lounging by the pool, eating seafood, bird watching – the lagoon is an exceptional site, home to flamingoes, storks and herons among other species – and kayaking around the lagoon without ever venturing into the town. This is a quiet spot, but lots of excursions are offered for anyone more restless than us, and surfers can cross the lagoon to get to the main beach. At night, the building and gardens are lit with countless colourful lanterns, creating a magical feel and a memorable vision. As a contrast to busy Marrakech, Oualidia’s La Sultana is an excellent spot.