What’s more, the age-old Red City never has been content to rest on its laurels. Last year, His Majesty King Mohammed VI launched “Marrakech, City of Permanent Renewal,” a four-year program to improve urban mobility, preserve the environment and develop the city’s cultural legacy between 2014 and 2017.
The Marrakech initiative - along with Vision 2020, designed to bring 18 million visitors to Morocco by 2020 - has already brought positive change to the city. Marrakech’s Ménara International Airport, which welcomed 2 million visitors in 2005, served twice as many last year. By late 2016, a new airport will welcome 10 million visitors.
Getting around Marrakech is easier, too. A fleet of sleek new red, black and white trolleybuses (www.alsa.ma/en) should be fully operational now. Running along four dedicated lanes, the buses will link Jemaa El Fna and other key parts of the city.
Expect taxis to be even cheaper and more reliable. To crack down on drivers who pad fares, signs and billboards listing legal fares and phone numbers for complaints have been placed around the city. If fares exceed legal limits, drivers face suspensions of 1-3 months.
A Bouquet of New Luxury Hotels
Some head to the medina’s traditional riads, welcoming oases with courtyard gardens, cool rooftop terraces, plunge pools, and six or eight rooms. But Marrakech, one of the kingdom’s former Imperial cities, is also known for its palatial resorts.
The big news is the six-star Royal Palm Marrakech (www.royalpalm-marrakech.com), seven miles south of the medina. The resort is the latest phase of a sprawling development moored by the Royal Palm Golf & Country Club, with an 18-hole, par-72 course by noted Robert Trent Jones II “alumnus” Cabell B. Robinson. A project of Beachcomber Hotels, with luxury hotels in Mauritius and the Seychelles, the Royal Palm has 134 suites and villas, all with private pools, and hammams opening onto the gardens and golf course. The five restaurants and bars include Le Caravane for international dishes, L’Olivier for light meals and Al Ain for Moroccan fare. There’s a 37,000-square-foot Spa by Clarins, and a sports center with a heated pool, four tennis courts, two racquetball courts and a squash court.
In spring, Marrakech welcomes the Mandarin Oriental, with 54 spacious villas and nine suites on a lush spread surrounded by three golf courses, including the 18-hole, par-72 Al Maaden golf course designed by Kyle Phillips, who also worked with Robert Trent Jones II. The hotel will have two bars, and three restaurants: Mes’lalla for updated Moroccan fare, Le Salon Berbère for international food and traditional Moroccan mint tea, and the Pool Garden for Mediterranean dishes. The resort also will sport a 19,000-square-foot spa, with a yoga and tai chi studio, a gym and an indoor pool, as well as an outdoor pool, Jacuzzi and hammam.
Closer to the city, a five-star Radisson Blu (www.radissonblu.com) opens this fall in the Guéliz district, the “Nouvelle Ville” that the French built west of the medina in the early 1900s. The 198 contemporary rooms and suites are being designed with rich woods, and a gray and caramel color scheme with red accents. Along with a state-of-the-art fitness center and swimming pool, a restaurant, with lounges and a fireplace, as well as traditional seating, will serve tapas, sushi, and charcoal-grilled fish and organic meat. The hotel is in the recently built Carré Eden complex, with trendy bars, restaurants, boutiques, a fresh foods market, and an Xtreme7d cinema for action flicks.
By 2016, the Park Hyatt Marrakech (www.parkhyatt-marrakech.com) opens steps from the Al Maaden golf course. A lavish postmodern palace, the hotel will have 131 rooms and 44 deluxe villas. In 2017, keep an eye peeled for Starwood Hotels’ new 148-room W Marrakech (www.whotels.com) in the chic Hivernage district west of the medina.
Trendy New Restaurants
At sundown, Marrakhis and visitors flock to the sea of food stalls in Jemaa El Fna for specialties like tomato-infused harira soup and snails in saffron broth. Or they search out the medina’s shady courtyard-restaurants like Le Jardin (www.lejardin.ma/en), and dine on lentil salad with pumpkin, or lamb tagine, prepared in a traditional cone-shaped clay pot, while watching black-and-white art-house movies under the stars.
One of the medina’s newest garden-restaurants, Latitude 31 (www.latitude31marrakech.com) serves up traditional and updated Moroccan cuisine like lamb couscous, chicken tagine with olives and scented lemons, and mixed grill marinated in herbs from the Atlas Mountains.
Also new to the medina, Nomad (www.nomadmarrakech.com) shares profits from its Moroccan salads, tagines and side dishes with a local charity. In a chic setting near the Rahba Kedima spice market, it’s just south of the venerable Café des Epices (www.cafedesepices.com).
In the Kasbah, at the medina’s south end, is Café Clock (www.cafeclock.com), the new Marrakech outpost of the popular Fez eatery. Known for camel burgers and date milkshakes, Café Clock also serves quiches, couscous and Moroccan “tapas,” along with mint tea and hot almond milk. There are Sunday-night concerts, and Thursday-night performances of hikayat, traditional Moroccan storytelling. The café even has a cooking school.
For luxurious dining, try Palais M in the Palmeraie district’s lavish Palais Mehdi resort. The restaurant-bar-lounge, where a DJ plays jazz, soul and R&B, recently celebrated its first anniversary offering international, French and Italian cuisine in an over-the-top, gold-and-black Art Deco setting.
Fresh Artistic Visions
At the foot of the Atlas Mountains, the new Al Maaden Sculpture Park features 12 monumental sculptures designed by contemporary artists from Argentina, Canada, China, Egypt, India and Morocco. In 2017, the contemporary art museum, Musée d’Art Contemporain Africain Al Maaden (MACAAL), opens with 500 works.
New museums also have sprung up in the medina. The Maison de la Photographie de Marrakech (www.maisondelaphotographie.ma), with a fabulous rooftop terrace, displays 8,000 images of Moroccan life from 1870 to 1950.
In the spirit of the Musée de L’Art de Vivre (www.museemedina.com), now marking its fifth anniversary, two new museums have opened. The Musée de Douiria de Mouassine (www.douiria.com) is a restored 17th-century apartment with ornate plaster and woodwork. The Musée Boucharouite displays the famous boucharouite carpets, or rag rugs, made by Moroccan women for centuries.
The Marrakech International Film Festival (www.festivalmarrakech.info/en) celebrates its 15th edition this December, but you’ll also find newer cultural events. Look for the fifth edition of the comic festival, Marrakech du Rire (http://marrakechdurire.com), June 10-14. And mark your 2016 calendars, in February and March, for the sixth edition of the Marrakech Biennale (www.marrakechbiennale.org), founded by Vanessa Branson, sister of Virgin Atlantic Airways founder Richard Branson. In addition to visual arts, cinema, literature and the performing arts, MB6 adds a new component-art in public places, or “art for all,” and, for the first time ever, its exhibit period extends to a full 11 weeks.
For information on flights, visit Royal Air Maroc at www.royalairmaroc.com For information on Marrakech, log on to www.visitmorocco.com