Why Marrakech is now the fashionable place to relax

Timothy Barber
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WANDER into Marrakech’s famous souk and you can find all manner of unctions, ointments and powders intended to cure ills, sooth skin, clear airways and put a spring in your step.

Among alley after alley of cloth and leather merchants, pottery shops, brass vendors, blacksmiths, and hawkers of every kind of tat, are spice stalls and apothecaries, shelves stacked with coloured powders, strange-smelling oils and herbs that will make your eyes water. You’ll be offered a shoulder massage, have oil rubbed into your arm, be given jars and pouches to sniff, and generally told how everything from cancer to under-seasoned fish can be solved with a spot of this and a dab of that.

That’s one way to way to aim for improved wellbeing in the Moroccan capital, and it’s a pretty enjoyable one, in a noisy, crowded, it’s-probably-snake-oil kind of way.

Another option is to clamber onto a bed in a minimalist, white-padded cell of a treatment room – 2001 A Space Odyssey-chic – and let the House of Dior ease your troubles, iron out your wrinkles and restore you to youth and wellness. Ladies, they’ll do your make-up as well (I declined, lipstick doesn’t go with a beard unless you’re Kenny Everett).

This is the Dior Institute, which might sound like high school for fashionistas but actually amounts to a series of treatment rooms within the impressive new spa at the Es Saadi Gardens & Resort, a rather lovely, family-run complex incorporating a luxury hotel, villas, gardens, pools and restaurants. Oh, and a casino.

There’s one other Dior Institute in the world – the idea is that the fashion empire provides its lavish beauty products and dedicated therapists, with a particular focus on anti-ageing – at the famous Plaza Athenee hotel in Paris, so for Es Saadi to land the second is something of a coup. The spa does it justice, however. The airy, three-storey complex is built around a century-old eucalyptus tree that it encircles completely, wrapping it in floor-to-ceiling windows. At ground level you can do laps of the tree in the beguiling hydrotherapy pool, though you’ll probably be more inclined simply to wallow. Climb out and you can hop between a series of highly aromatic steam rooms, or go for a traditional hammam scrub down.

Besides the dedicated Dior areas there are opulent treatment rooms designed with a more traditionally Middle Eastern character. For the ultimate dizzyingly soothing treatment, try the signature four-handed massage, in which large rubber bags full of warm water are rolled over your body, and a pair of therapists slather you in fragrant oils before their hands perform a virtual ballet over your skin for 70 minutes.

The spa is part of Es Saadi Palace, the resort’s stunning, 90-suite focal point. It includes a fine organic restaurant, bar and mesmerising lobby. Outside is a network of interlinked pools – one with a bar at its center, surrounded by Doric columns – and plenty of sun-lounging space.

It’s a joy of a place to stroll around, and so it should be – the words Es Saadi mean “the happy one”, and they remain appropriate almost 60 years after the resort first opened.

The French-Moroccan Bauchet-Bouhlal family have been running it since 1952, and the place retains the pride in detail and entrepreneurial spirit of Jean Bauchet, its founder who started out as the impresario behind the Moulin Rouge in Paris. Private villas, secreted between the vegetation that spreads out from the poolside lawns, are full of personalised design tips that raise things from mere corporate luxury to the truly exceptional.

Still, it’s one thing to gaze out from the tranquillity of the spa’s roof terrace (you can sit in the shade of that great eucalyptus tree’s branches) at the commotion of the medina beyond, but it’s worth venturing out to experience it. However transporting such a hotel haven can be, I’m not sure it can top the colour, sound and character of this thriving, exciting city (current political situation notwithstanding). Or you can head to the botanical Majorelle Garden, former home of Yves Saint Laurent who, let’s not forget, saved the House of Dior from near ruin in the Fifties.

Nevertheless, if you want to keep your excitement nearer at hand, there’s Es Saadi’s glitzy casino, where highstakes poker and a full-on subterranean nightclub keep the adrenalin pumping. You’ll need a massage and a steam to recover – lucky that.

The Unfolding of the Spa package (five days, four nights), starts at £550 plus tax per suite per night, until March 25 and from June 5 to September 1. www.essaadi.com