Sleeping Like a Sheikh in Morocco

While in Morocco, I had two days of duty and two days off, so we took those latter days and headed straight for Marrakech. If there’s one tip I have to give any of you traveling by train in Morocco, it’s: Buy a first-class train ticket. You won’t be sorry. The second-class car was decidedly not smoke-free, 97 thousand degrees inside and standing room only. We paid $16 for a four-hour, first-class seat in an air-conditioned cabin with leather seats. Best $16 I’ve ever spent.

We took a taxi from the Port of Casablanca, where Semester at Sea’s M/V Explorer docks, to the train station and got ripped off by not negotiating a price beforehand. Second tip for Morocco: Cabs don’t have meters; be sure and agree upon a price and write it down before stepping one toe into any vehicle. The cabbie wound up charging us 100 dirham (or $12) to go two miles! Suckers, we are. So when we got to Marrakech, we weren’t going to make the same mistake twice. We got in a taxi, asked him to take us to our riad and told him—not asked—that we’d pay 20 dirhams (around $3). He accepted and dropped us off at the El Ksour gate in the medina, right near where we were staying.

We walked far down the cobblestone pedestrian path, closed off to cars but very much open to motorbikes, and then we walked even further. After 10 minutes of rolling our suitcase through the medina, we still weren’t seeing anything that resembled an entrance for Riad El Fenn. We were seriously feeling lost when a neighborly Moroccan man stopped and asked if he could help us. I usually decline help (as the “help” always demands money for their Good Samaritan deed) but this time, I was just ready to get there. So we let him guide us, and good thing, as we likely would have never found Riad El Fenn. It was on a tucked-away side street with a very unassuming exterior; the only indication that we were in the right place was a discreet placard announcing the riad’s name. Third tip for Morocco: The locals know the area and can take you anywhere you want to go but be prepared with small change.

We knocked, and one of the riad’s employees opened the large iron door to reveal a labyrinth of dimly-lit, red-painted hallways with soaring ceilings. I felt like I’d just entered one swanky club that normally only pulled back the velvet rope if your last name was Hilton or Kardashian. An attractive Dutch couple who had just moved to the city from Holland to become the GMs of the place came to greet us. They let us leave our bag in the courtyard as they gave us a tour of all of the unoccupied rooms.

In all my years of travel writing, in all my hundreds of hotel stays, I have never experienced a place that oozes character in quite the same way El Fenn does. Each of its 21 rooms are totally different, and every last one is massive with its own unique attributes.

My favorite was the turquoise room; SVV’s pick, shockingly, was the pink one.

I should add that the place was carved out of an ancient, dilapidated building that Vanessa Branson—yes, that Branson family—saved from total neglect and opened as one of the most stylish riads in all of Morocco. Not only does Vanessa own the place, but she also happened to arrive the same day we did to prepare for an upcoming conference. I loved how laid back she was, lounging in sweats with her MacBook perched on her lap in the courtyard, and while I only was brave enough to muster a “good morning” or “how do you do?” when I’d see her, she seemed very cool and approachable.

SVV had heard me singing the praises of mint tea since the last time I was in Morocco in 2005 and had wanted to taste this magical elixir for himself. We hadn’t even seen our room yet before we ordered—and subsequently slurped down—our first pot.

We even lounged in one of the courtyards for a couple hours as we sipped our tea and read books on the area.

Morocco is known for its riads, and last time I was there, I stayed in a $5-a-night shoestring option found in Lonely Planet. I’ve always longed to go back and stay in a true riad, and what better time to do so than while we’re living on a ship with 900 others and need a quiet two-night break of uninterrupted peace and quiet? El Fenn offered this in spades.

And then finally it was time to see our room: #14. In my opinion, this is the best room of them all. It even has a tub sunk into the floor in the bedroom. How cool is that?

I’d show you our bathroom, but then you’d really be jealous. Let’s just say it’s probably the size of our (ex-)San Francisco apartment, and the shower is an entire room that could easily fit 15 people. Oh, and did I mention we had a semi-private pool—one of three the riad boasts—right off our porch? Not shabby.

El Fenn thought of everything: They even had hats for guests to wear in rooms and out on the lounge chairs. SVV’s getting ready for our visit to Vietnam next month.

The couch-like beds scattered about the three floors were so inviting, we’d find ourselves staying up until 3am just because we wanted to make the most of every last square inch of this gorgeous property. There were also a couple of uber-swanky lounges on the ground floor, but we had such little time at El Fenn that we tried to spend the majority of it outdoors under the shaded breezeways.

By far, one of my favorite spots on the expansive property was the rooftop. How can you not love a roof that looks like this?

Of course, the roof is also the spot where two imperative things take place…

1) (more) pool time

2) and meals!

The food was delicious, as expected. We had a full breakfast spread each morning and opted to eat dinner there one night, as we noshed on fish and chicken tajine. Dinner was capped off, of course, by a pot three pots of mint tea—we seriously cannot get enough of this stuff—illuminated by the city skyline and guarded over by Marrakech’s iconic Koutoubia Mosque.

Trixie and Violet give the place two enthusiastic paws up. Their human keepers would have to agree.

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Comments ( 71 )

  1. WOW, talk about a hotel with character!! It’s so beautiful! Thanks for sharing photos and the free arm chair travel!

  2. Oh my, what a gorgeous hotel! Makes me want to take off for Marrakech right now!

  3. Wow, I am in love just by looking at the pictures. I would die for some time there right now!

  4. There is nothing better than Moroccan mint tea! I came back with the worst of addictions!!! Thank goodness I was living in NYC though and found an awesome Moroccan restaurant in Soho. The place you stayed is definitely a place I would stay — spectacular!

  5. Oh, wow – majorly jealous. I think I want a bit of this Moroccan vibe after Alaska. I bet it was nice to have a break from the fast pace of the ship.

  6. Wow Kristin – that looks fabulous! I am loving following your adventures – another travel fanatic and chocolate fiend! Morocco has never been on my “to do” list but I think it just might have jumped on. Just to try the mint tea. :) I love tea but have never cared for mint…until I tried some at Petra in Jordan…that changed my mind….where is your next port of call?

    • Thanks, Laurie! I look forward to checking out your adventures when I’m back to unlimited Internet bandwidth =)

      Our next port of call is Ghana (tomorrow), then South Africa (next week)!

  7. Damn. That place looks amazing! It looks like the kind of place that people dream of retiring to. I’m pretty sure I could spend my waning days sitting on the roof, drinking wine and reading.

  8. Wowza, this place looks spectacular. I would LOVE to stay here, gorgeousness! So colorful. Must have been amazing, I hope you were not still feeling like you were rocking from the ship. I had that feeling for a week after I got off a cruise once!

    • Actually, I had no sea legs at all! Though funny enough, I did get really sick the night we got back ON the ship and set sail from Casablanca. The biggest difference on this voyage during my previous bouts of seasickness is that I get really bad headaches and not nauseous at all.

  9. Wow! That place appears to blow away the one I recommended to you, which was none to shabby either. Marrakech is so full of surprises. Great pics. I love the one with SVV pouring the tea.

  10. Even the agreed upon price taxi didn’t get you directly to the riad. What’s up with that.

    Sure would be difficult to decide which room, all are simply amazing.

    Glad you got to live it up, even if only for a short stay. I believe you’ll be back.

    • Well, you can’t enter the medina gate by car–it’s pedestrian (or motorbike) only! And the riad was like five steps from the gate, but we just didn’t see it as it was down an alley!

  11. Beautiful place! Happy travels :)

  12. Marrakesh has been on my list for ages, and thank you–as always–for moving it up in importance. :)


  13. Marrakech is so beautiful. We almost stayed at Riad El Fenn, but opted for the Maison Arabe instead. The photos look very similar. We took a half-day cooking class and it was a blast. The architecture there is amazing. Have a great trip!

    • I now have a mission in life: To return to Marrakech and stay in every high-end riad in town! And furiously take notes as I want to outfit my future, fictitious home just like them =)

  14. Wow, what a gorgeous place! It looks so relaxing and inviting. I really need to make it to Marrakech sometime.

  15. Beautiful! Marrakech has been on my life list for sometime and these pictures have me itching to make the travel plans!

  16. All of your pictures are amazing! Makes me want to book a trip to Morocco right now!!! I really enjoy all your post, but this one especially.

  17. You know, sometimes I think I’m going to have to either 1) stop reading your blog or 2) follow you around the world on a week-delay if I ever hope to cure my sights-seen jealousy.

    Neither of those things are possible, so my envy continues! πŸ˜‰

    Great photos, as usual. Is that a wide-angle or fish eye lens you used for the shot of SVV at the dinner table?

    • Ha! You say that now because I tend to only blog about the good things in our lives! πŸ˜‰

      We have a GoPro, which is nearly a fish eye (172-degree angle) and which is awesome for getting a whole lot of landscape in a shot. It’s the same one we use for skiing/snowboarding footage, as well as diving.

  18. Looks sumptuous! Aren’t the roofdecks just fantastic? I loved taking breakfast there and plotting out the day.

  19. Wow. This place looks AMAAAAAAAAZING. No other word for it. What a place to escape from the crowds of the ship!

    • The funniest part is that it was super quiet, there were only six or seven other guests, and one of them happened to be our big non-profit lecturer from NYC who was boarding the ship in Casablanca the next day! So we didn’t completely escape the SAS community πŸ˜‰

  20. wow. such a beautiful place. it is so inviting!

  21. Oh man, I think I just found my next vacation spot…

  22. Morocco is at the top of my list of places to visit, and to be honest I wouldn’t mind a little 5-star luxury, either :)

  23. Thanks guys for the great review, beautiful pictures but most of all: it was great having you, don’t be strangers! kind regards, rafik & Willem, the new GMs.

  24. LOVE LOVE LOVE! Adding Morocco to my list!

  25. WOW – the charm of that place is amazing – the rooms look absolutely amazing and those pools – oh! What a wonderful place to stay!

  26. Yup. I definitely miss Marrakech! You guys are fancy…Riad el Fenn! We stayed at a nice (affordable) riad near the Bahia Palace Gardens. it’s called Riad Dar One. We loved it there! Highly recommended! The second place we stayed at…was just OK, not as character-laden and charming as Riad Dar One. The service was also excellent :)

    • We had such a hard time deciding where to stay because every riad in that city looks amazing! I’d like to go back for a month and just riad hop the whole time!

  27. Kristin: Amazing. Beautiful. Lush. Bookmarking this for a future trip!

  28. Ah, how I miss Morocco and want to go back! Stayed somewhere rather less salubrious on my last visit, though…

  29. The tones! THE TONES!

    I can’t wait to be there one day!

  30. That looks like a fabulous place to stay! It’s definitely posh but not without its own quirky charms :)

  31. Wow…what a place, full of character indeed!

  32. Funny to finally be catching up on your blog and read about Morocco – just today I found out that Morrocco is one of the few countries that Indonesian passport holders (here’s one!) don’t need a visa for. So it’s definitely on the top of the list of next-to-visit countries…

    • Wow, I didn’t even know you needed visas to go to most places! That’s just plain mean. But if it gets you to Morocco, then more power to you. =)

  33. Holy wow. If I would have stayed in this place while I was in Marrakesh, I would have enjoyed my stay there a whole lot better! What a gorgeous property. Lush. Should I ever return to the city, that is the place I am staying. Luxurious! Gorgeous!

  34. Yikes! That’s a whole lot of fantastic in those there photos. I want to be there. Now. :)

  35. I am so god damn jealous! And your photo skills are awesome!

  36. Cab’s in Casablanca, and everywhere in Morocco, do have meters (matter of fact, they’re in legal trouble if they don’t). I’d go crazy if I had to negotiate my prices with the driver twice a day, every day. I think he just noticed you were tourists and though he’d make an extra buck or two. Little tip for next time: tell him to run the meter, if he says he doesn’t have one, step out of the car and it’ll magically appear πŸ˜€

    Great post though!

    • Really? That’s so weird because we had a few Moroccan interport lecturers on board and a diplomat, as well, and they all told us negotiating cab fare was common and that locals would just pay 10 dirham (I never got a cabbie to go below 20 for us). To my knowledge, out of the 700 in our program, pretty much everybody wound up bargaining each time. Is it maybe just in Casa that they don’t have meters?

  37. Great tips! This place looks fantastic.

  38. What a beautiful property – the perfect place to relax after your busy jobs at sea. Makes me want to go to Marrakech.

  39. Okay- JEALOUS!! The roof top deck is how I picture Morocco and I’ve always wanted to visit and stay in one. I liked the pink room, but I’m with you- the teal one was awesome. You both look so happy!

  40. 97,000 degrees–sounds like this summer in South Texas! Seriously, though, great photos. I would love to go to Morocco and now I know where to stay!

    Thanks for the post!

  41. Love the Riads in Morocco! There’s nothing like lazing in the pool on the rooftop on a hot day! Beautiful photos!

  42. Your pictures are giving me some serious wanderlust. Love reading your SAS posts…I’m still catching up so will try to comment more! xo

  43. That hotel looks totally awesome and unique. I would have a hard time leaving or sleeping.

  44. What a beautiful place! Surely a keeper for Morocco. Thanks for sharing!
    Victoria recently posted..The food of Poland and how much I have to eat!My Profile

  45. Thank you so much for your website….My best friend of 68 years (we are 72 and came from small town in Ca.) & I are going to Morocco this Friday, and this website has been a wealth of information. thank you so much for the photos, and information. it has already helped us prepare for another trip of a lifetime. (about 5 so far) but we “just” retired and are going to catch up somehow.


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