A Moroccan palace fit for a king – and actually built by one

AS we loped across the tarmac, stooping from the weight of hand-luggage only (one in the eye for EasyJet), we shifted our misshapen bags on our shoulders in preparation for the passport queue. We needn’t have bothered. Waiting for us on the tarmac were two emissaries of the Royal Mansour, our home for the weekend. Their purpose was to whisk us to a special Royal Mansour lounge to sip the region’s beautiful orange juice and nibble nuts while we waited for an official to stamp our passports. No doubt, for most guests of the £1,500 and up (per night) Royal Mansour, waiting with the hoi palloi is just not acceptable.

It was a nice thought and perfectly represented the “anything for our guests” attitude of the hotel. But after 20 minutes and four glasses of orange juice each, the promised policeman had not appeared (this was clearly a Moroccan thing, or an airport thing, rather than a RM thing) so we went out and got stamped like normal people since the queues had gone.

And then our dreamlike stay kicked into gear. A leather-seated Range Rover conveyed us through the orange-blossom-scented twilight (mixed with copious exhaust fumes) – dodging the zooming motorbikes and cars. No Priuses here. Just 15 minutes later we turned right onto a long avenue, just inside the walls of the medina (old town), for vehicular use solely by the hotel. Then we stopped and looked up. And looked up further. Enormous, engraved turquoise doors met us. They swung open and we were driven into a courtyard with flowers and palm trees. And then, our first glimpse of the hotel proper – more of a Moorish pleasure palace than hotel.

Before us was an open-air lounge, with chairs, fountains, pools, tables, chandeliers, cupboards, tiles, pillars and doorways all carved and constructed with such exquisite finery that we were struck dumb apart from the odd “wow” and “oh my” and “woah” as we were led to our riad.

The Royal Mansour is the result of King Mohammed VI’s desire to create an emblem of Moroccan splendour – a vanity project with hyper-refined results, unlike similarly ambitious hotels in the Emirates, for example. It is not meant to be just a hotel, either, but a showcase for national decorative arts. One particularly beautiful cupboard (for want of a more sophisticated term) was carved and inlaid in Granada, Spain in high Moorish style. The tessellated mosaics on the walls and floor, the rich upholstery of the chairs and the Islamic-style beauty of the wood carvings all spoke of one thing: a great budget.
“Money wasn’t a problem”, said the charming lady who welcomed us. For now, that is – even though we were staying in high season, the hotel was only half full, which must be some source of concern. It’s expensive but not a patch on London or Paris prices for the space, service and beautiful surroundings – it deserves to thrive.

Indeed, our riad was about the only hotel room I’ve ever seen that made a £1,500 nightly price tag seem good value. As we entered our own fortress-style doors into a courtyard with a fountain and two armchairs, looked at our spacious and richly decorated mahogany and silk-brocaded living room, plushly cushioned anteroom, and climbed the marble stairs first to our bedroom and up more stairs to our roof terrace, I recalled the tiny suites that go at Mayfair hotels for the same price.

We were struck dumb by the majesty and beauty of our riad – one of 53 individually made. Even the loos – there was one on every floor, with the master bathroom sporting a bath the size of a small swimming pool – were full of mother of pearl, tile and fine paintwork.

Our bedroom had a large, open walk-in changing area, a sprawling arm chair, French windows opening onto another courtyard and reams of fine woodwork. It was fairly dark, though, so we scuttled up to the roof straight away, where a private pale green and navy tiled plunge pool sat pretty, alongside two deckchairs with an umbrella and a huge yellow sunbed coated in cushions and protected with curtains you could close all the way. The views were of the Khatoubia mosque, the other rooftops and the sunset. The air smelled of jasmine, orange blossom and other African flowers.

There are two restaurants – a Moroccan and a French one. The former was my favourite, with its nutty breads and honey, lemony chicken, astonishingly piquant olive oil, and its fragrant, almondy petits fours. The French one, however, is meant to be the best in Africa, with a three-Michelin star French chef, from the Meurice in Paris, overseeing it. It was good – very good – but not better than London French food (or Paris French food) – and a good deal more expensive. No matter – if you’re a typical guest of the hotel, the elegance of the white and cream-coloured room alone will soothe and impress you.

Finally, the spa. The place is quite unlike anything you’ll have seen before. The entry is an massive atrium of windows and partitions overlaid by or carved with white Arabic patterns. Everything is light and pastel and silk and spacious. The facilities are endless (there’s even a lift), from a private hairdressing salon to a full-blown hammam and a large indoor pool. I had the hammam treatment and had never experienced the likes of it – lying on a marble slab with a woman scrubbing me down, then disappearing while water bubbled and overflowed from marble sinks spewing forth into buckets, the clang of heaters adding an eerie, dungeon-like feeling. More scrubbing, moisturising, even a hair-washing – this is not for the body-shy. But I did leave looking glowing from head to toe.

It wasn’t just the hammam that made me glow. It was a weekend amid such opulence – but of a beautiful, thoughtful type – that did it. If you want a special treat, this has to be one of the world’s best.

Riads from £1,500 per night. Tel: 00 212 529 80 80 80; royalmansour.com.