Finding a place to stay in a strange city or country is always a tricky business. But for me, travelling to Morocco held none of that uncertainty.
Giving ourselves over to an itinerary devised and planned by Sydney-based Morocco specialists By Prior Arrangement meant that all the legwork was taken out of the trip, and instead every place that we stayed at was a surprise. Here are some of the best places – in no particular order – that we stayed at as we travelled around Morocco. Some – but not all – of them were riads, traditional houses built around a central courtyard.
Villa des Orangers, Marrakech
Arriving at our hotel in Marrakech just before midnight, I was glad that it was all pre-planned (my preferred method of travel these days, which takes all the potential drama out of finding a place to stay on arrival). But I admit that when the car drew up at the entrance to an alleyway and we were ushered into the dark, I had a moment of misgiving. What was in store?
But my reaction was soon relief and delight. At the end of the short alley was the elegant and exotic Villa des Orangers. We were soon seated in a plushly decorated alcove off a courtyard, with refreshing mint tea being poured from a silver teapot. The courtyard is planted with orange trees and dotted with fountains, creating a lovely cool oasis.
Upstairs, our room was off a gallery overlooking the courtyard. In the morning, I discovered stairs from our room onto a rooftop terrace, looking out to a minaret. And this, of course, was the perfect spot for breakfast to be served.
The other great thing about Villa des Orangers was its location, just a short walk to the Djemaa El Fna Square, where the night markets and buskers kept us entertained in the evenings. Villa des Orangers is a traditional riad, built in the 1930s for a judge, and is a member of Relais et Châteaux.
Dar Shaan, Rabat
It’s always fun to be the first guests at a new hotel, as we were at Dar Shaan in the Moroccan capital of Rabat. French owners Antoine and Nathalie have restored a traditional Andalucian house, combining Moroccan and Western elements to great effect.
Each of the 11 rooms is different, with colour and original contemporary artwork (some of it by Nathalie). An unusual feature of this riad is a (tiny) elevator for those who can’t manage the stairs to the upper level. It’s a couple of minutes’ walk to the Kasbah of Oudayas, and then down the hill to the waterfront. Read my longer review here.
Azalai Desert Lodge, Zagora
If you are heading into the Sahara (don’t miss that experience!), you may first stop for a night in Zagora, and this modern lodge is a great place to stay. It’s off the beaten track a bit, just outside the town, surrounded by palm groves beside the Draa River.
One of the most arresting features of Azalai Desert Lodge is the light plane that will greet you next to the pool. It’s certainly a talking point! There are eight stone bungalows, stylishly decorated with Berber rugs on the tile floors and a day bed tucked in an alcove behind velvet curtains. And it’s a great place to prepare for your desert detox: there’s no wifi or phone reception. You can read my longer review here.
Kasbah Bab Ourika, Atlas Mountains
Take me to the Kasbah! At the top of a steep winding road, Kasbah Bab Ourika overlooks the stunning Atlas Mountains and the valley below it, with groves of citrus and olives and a river. The soil is red, as are the mountains and this mud brick building fits in beautifully. The Ourika Valley is about an hour’s drive south-east of Marrakech, but worth the trip if you want to relax and enjoy the countryside.
As we were there in winter, it was wonderful to find that the guest rooms and all the lounges scattered throughout the property had fireplaces.
The hotel has 26 rooms, and is a rather spread out affair. There are 15 rooms in the main Kasbah building, and 12 rooms in the gardens, including two pool suites and a villa. It’s well worth a walk in the extensive gardens, which include the kitchen garden – and you may meet a couple of donkeys called Pepito and Isabella.
Heure Bleue Palais, Essaouira
We were welcomed to our hotel in the coastal fishing port of Essaouira with orange juice, fresh dates, and small sweet biscuits – and the words “we’ve upgraded you to a suite”. Our “palace” was just inside the city gates, beyond which cars are not allowed, and it was fantastic to be able to just walk out the door and wander the alleys crowded with colourful shops and crafts, and down to the working port, with its blue and white fishing boats.
Heure Bleue Palais is another charming riad that belongs to the Relais et Châteaux group (read, luxury). Rooms have wooden shutters to keep out the heat (or light), and one of the highlights is the rooftop swimming pool and bar area, with views over the whitewashed buildings of the city.
Dar Ahlam, Skoura
Dar Ahlam means “house of dreams”. With its four-turret rammed-earth exterior and lantern-lit maze of corridors at night, it conveys a sense of mystery. Set on the Saharan side of the Atlas Mountains, this 200-year-old fortress-like building has only 14 guest rooms and is member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World.
In the gardens, there’s a swimming pool – where breakfast is served – and the facilities also include a hammam and massage room (although I did not try those out). Stay a few days…it will take that long to find your way through the corridors to your room! But there’s lots to see along the way, with reading nooks and small lounges, lots of art work and sculptures around every corner.
Ryad Salama, Fes
Coming down to breakfast was always a joy at Ryad Salama, if only for the vibrant pottery that adorned the table. Along with the croissants, Moroccan pastries and bread, under the lid of each of these gorgeous pots was jam, honey, yoghurt, and fresh fruit (bananas or oranges).
Hidden in the alleyways of the Fes medina, this is a charming place to stay, combining Moroccan hospitality with French style. With only three rooms, it’s quiet and peaceful, but step outside the walls and you’re in the thick of the Medina. The seven rooms, over three levels, are furnished with French antiques, handmade wooden furniture, Moroccan art and wood carvings. There’s a small swimming pool in the leafy central courtyard, but as it was winter, I opted instead for a massage (available by appointment). Read my longer review here.
Hotel Nord Pinus, Tangier
This was our final stop in Morocco, and displayed great hospitality. When we turned up on the doorstep, it appeared the hotel was closed, but before long someone appeared and after some discussion we were let in (thankfully, as it was raining). Yes, the hotel was closed…but we could stay anyway! It was a little eerie to be the only guests, but the (skeleton) staff took great care of us.
Our room at Hotel Nord Pinus was large and airy, with a massive bathtub in which I was soon soaking. It was just the thing to end a long tour with! While the hotel restaurant was closed, we were directed to a local restaurant within walking distance, but in the morning a simple breakfast was ready for us in the dining room – with a stunning view of the Atlantic Ocean and Strait of Gibraltar.
Small, comfortable, elegant and stylish. These riads have it all. If you’re travelling to Morocco, check them out when planning your accommodation. You won’t be disappointed.
A Glass Half Full travelled in Morocco as a guest of By Prior Arrangement, who use these and other riads when booking clients.