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.