Mixing old and new, El Fenn in Marrakech, Morocco, is a private palace hotel that delivers an enriching cultural and historical experience like no other.
From the Moroccan desert rises Marrakech, an oasis of beauty and serenity that’s sure to reward those in search of adventure, rejuvenation and the experience of a lifetime. Behind the ancient city walls of its medina lies a sensational labyrinth of bustling souks, ornate fountains, magnificent palaces and graceful mosques. The fast-paced medina is the beating pulse of Marrakech and it’s bound to enthrall, hypnotize and enchant your senses in ways you never imagined.
Just a few steps away from the world-famous Djemaa el Fna, the medina’s vast main square, stands the majestic El Fenn hotel. The plush jewel-toned entrance perfectly foreshadows the tranquillity that lies on the other side of the doors, a welcome change from the chaotic pace of the medina.
El Fenn, the brainchild of Vanessa Branson (sister to Sir Richard Branson), combines the grandeur of historic architecture with hideaway nooks, terraces and gardens. The ornate boutique hotel is housed within a traditional Moroccan riad, estates centred around an open-air courtyard that once housed Marrakech’s wealthiest citizens. By their very nature, riads are extremely intimate and lavish, almost like a private palace for its guests. Staying within a converted riad within the old medina of Marrakech is a once-in-a-lifetime experience steeped in history, tradition and culture – and one that was previously off-limits.
“I first visited Marrakech many years ago and everything about the city captivated my imagination,” Branson begins. “The light, the colour, the architecture were a feast for the eyes and the fresh fragrant food a feast for the body. I loved the inquisitive locals enthusiastically engaging in conversations of philosophy, customs and ideas in general. The gentle pace of living is a beautiful contrast to the lunacy of contemporary life in the West.”
Branson adored Marrakech so much so that she decided to search for a holiday home alongside her business partner Howell James, where they stumbled upon the ruins of one of the medina’s formerly great private estates. “We had seen a number of properties that day that were all interesting in their own right, but none having the magic we were hoping for,” recalls Branson. “But El Fenn was oh so different. The walls were crumbling, the roofs gaping to the stars, but the elegance and sheer majestic of the beauty literally took our breath away.”
The walled riad dates back to around 1815 and once upon a time belonged to a wealthy local merchant. Although the home was in poor condition when discovered by Branson, it retained many original features, including the doors, windows and colonnades opening onto secret courtyard gardens.
El Fenn started with a two-year-long restoration that produced six suites and they’ve been slowly adding to it ever since. Local craftsmen used traditional techniques to breathe a new life into the property. Polished lime plastering was used in a rainbow of colours to create walls, baths and bed frames, while original tiling was renovated and carved cedar ceilings restored. Retro furniture sourced from local flea markets were combined with one-off pieces to create a magnificent interior.
After purchasing the neighbouring riads, El Fenn is now up to twenty-eight individually-styled suites and bedrooms, focused around five courtyard gardens studded with palm and citrus trees and hosting flitting birds and languid tortoises. There’s also a nearby 6-bedroom private house that can be booked exclusively for up to 12 guests. Three swimming pools, a library, restaurant, bar and spa have all been added with the expertise of renowned Moroccan architect Amine Kabbaj.
While the property has been restored and decorated in full, it’s always going to be an ongoing process at El Fenn. Nowadays it’s Manager Partner Willem Smit, who also has an eye for design, that’s responsible for keeping the boutique hotel fresh and current. He began with small work, such as restoring and reupholstering furniture, before he began adding more complex layers that include statement rugs, hand-stitched camel leather floors, fes tiling and vintage Capiz Chandeliers. “The vision has always been, and always will be as if you walk into someone’s home, who’s been a collector of beautiful things,” says Smit.
The suites are complete with high ceilings, lounging areas and even open-plan bathrooms, as well as a striking mix of oriental and refurbished pieces from the 30s to 70s. Carved wooden doors, antique mirrors and traditional Moroccan rugs create an ambiance that’s cozy, intimate and comfortable. Branson, who formerly owned an art gallery in London and also founded the Marrakech Biennale, naturally had an itch to decorate the bare walls, and today classic and contemporary artwork from her personal collection adorns the walls of El Fenn. There aren’t any phones or televisions in the rooms, reinforcing the hotel’s purpose as a tranquil home base that provides respite after action-packed days exploring the markets and palaces of Marrakech.
El Fenn masterfully combines the spirit of the building’s past with a contemporary decorative twist. Through its mosaic of colours, one-off pieces and calming atmosphere, the enriching artisan heritage of Marrakech can be seen and felt throughout the hotel. “The spirit of El Fenn is independent free-thinking and hand-crafted, one-off cool,” exclaims Branson. “We mix old with new, block colour with print, painting with photography. At El Fenn, there are no rules.”
Their property contains an emerald-tiled courtyard that hosts a private splash pool and indoor-outdoor lounge. The verdant gardens of each courtyard offer privacy in abundance, where you’ll find travellers enjoying each other’s company or simply cozying up and reading a book. The rooftop has plush areas to relax, plunge pools and a locally-inspired restaurant, where you can dine over some of the best views in town – a panorama of the Atlas mountains and the Koutoubia mosque.
Traditional beauty rituals are given a luxurious twist at the indulgent El Fenn Spa. The expert therapists offer an elegant list of body massages, as well as facials that use produces based on Argan oil. Native to Morocco, this oil is harvested exclusively by women in small co-operatives. It’s rich in Vitamin E and linoleic acid and renowned for its anti-inflammatory and healing properties. The products in the El Fenn spa have all been created by Les Sens de Marrakech and contain natural ingredients ranging from rose water to ghassoul clay. There’s also a choice of Argan-based massage oils including the essences of rose, amber, jasmine and verveine.
Through all of its evolution and renovations, the spirit of El Fenn remains the same. It’s a serene place to kick back and enjoy an abundance of hidden spaces, beautiful artwork and royal architecture before stepping back outside to soak up the dazzling atmosphere of Marrakech. Culture, history and art manifest here and allow you to feel at home with all the adventure and splendour of North Africa.
“The atmosphere is either very calm with guests chilling around the property or absolutely vibrant with the most unexpected people turning up, ending in a wonderful night around a dinner table on the roof, with the call for prayers in the background,” says Smit. “That’s still very much what Marrakech is about, the most unexpected people brought together behind an anonymous front door surrounded by utter beauty.”