It must be one of the most evocative cities in the world. Say the name Marrakech and it instantly conjures up images of bustling back streets and colourful courtyards, scents of leather and spice, and dusty days followed by cool nights, as the call to prayer rings in your ears and the taste of mint tea lingers on your tongue. For an intrepid family, this historic walled city in the west of Morocco is guaranteed to enchant, as well as offering a manageable flight time (barely more than three hours from London, four from Manchester) and almost year-round perfect weather (visit in August at your peril). But after a day exploring the souks and streets with your wide-eyed offspring, the charm of a quiet, luxurious place to rest your head becomes greater – and thankfully, we’ve found it.
The chaotic traffic in Marrakech would strike fear into the heart of most parents so it was a relief to arrive at our destination a mere 15 minutes after leaving the airport. Sitting within in the Medina walls, next to the famous Kasbah Mosque that dates back to 1190, the five-star La Sultana couldn’t be better placed to explore the city. But while the street on which it sits is a hive of activity, the hotel is anything but.
Our love for the place was almost instant, as a bellboy in red fez and jacket led us from our taxi along a discreet alleyway to the entrance, where we were guided into a grand side room of plush sofa and golden tables, for a welcome treat of mint tea and pastries. We knew right away that La Sultana was probably the most beautiful hotel we’d ever had the pleasure to visit, as we took in the detailed stucco and tiling, ornate light fittings, fresh flowers and vibrant plants, and antique furniture sourced from across North Africa. Every little thing has been curated with utmost care. It’s a riot of colour, and words could never do it justice.
With just 28 rooms spread around five interconnected riad (courtyard) houses of different shapes and sizes, La Sultana is both spacious and peaceful. It feels like the weekend hideaway of an A-lister, with its enormous roof terrace looking out over the Atlas Mountains and Kasbah Mosque, secret seating areas and attentive staff. There’s an animal theme to all the rooms with those in Riad Saadia, for example, dedicated to birds. Each one is unique in its decoration and they come in all shapes and sizes, although expect detailed high ceilings, marble bathrooms, a fireplace and paintings from its private collection of Moroccan artists, with thoughtful touches like a free soft drinks minibar and straw sunhats to make you feel at home.
As is traditional in Moroccan architecture, the rooms all open into, and have windows looking into, the riads, although you can book a deluxe suite with a private balcony if you prefer more natural light. The smallest Prestige rooms cannot accommodate an extra bed for children older than two years, and some of the larger rooms will only hold one, so make sure you check when booking. Cots for babies are provided at no extra cost.
It might not be big but our family thought the pool at La Sultana was a showstopper. Set in the largest of the riads, the shimmering turquoise tiles make it seem like the bluest water ever. It’s even stylishly accessorised by white loungers with turquoise cushions and towels. Best of all, the small number of guests means it is never busy. There are plenty of communal areas to relax in the sunshine or with a drink around the building, from a hot tub at the centre of one riad to the Jacuzzi on the enormous palm-filled roof terrace, which offers 360 degree views across the city, and into the Saadian tombs next door. You will also find an al fresco bar, small gym and billiards room up there, while the hotel offers a library, DVDs and games.
For mums and dads in need of deep and speedy relaxation, take advantage of the babysitting service and escape down the jade green corridor to the La Sultana’s small but spectacular spa. The main room of pink marble with plunge pool and loungers feels like an exclusive hidden vault where the likes of James Bond would hang out. A whole range of standard and classic Moroccan treatments can be booked, all using local Marokissime and Nectarome products made from organic plants and essential oils. I tried the traditional Royal Hamman and experienced a slightly strange but not unpleasant hour of being scrubbed and washed by the therapist with black soap, eucalyptus, different clays and a pumice stone, and lying on wet stone benches in the steam of the gorgeous hamman rooms in between. Afterwards she led me to a lounger and placed an fragrant cool towel over my face, and my tired skin tingled with freshness.
Dining at La Sultana is as much about the surroundings as the food itself. Breakfast is taken by either the pool or on the roof terrace, weather dependent, and includes a buffet of fresh fruits, juices and pastries, plus a choice of hot dishes such as Berber omelette. There is an open air grill at lunchtime, and Moroccan green tea and pastries served throughout the day. But we’d strongly recommend leaving space for dinner, which we were able to enjoy in the magical open-air rooftop restaurant that the staff set up with care each evening. It was an utterly romantic setting (this was definitely an occasion for babysitters), from drinks and canapés as we watched white herons nesting on the mosque minaret to the individual lamps at each table and traditional guitarist who serenaded us.
As well as a standard dinner menu, the chefs offer French-inspired and Moroccan tasting menus – we opted for the latter, which was delicious but extremely hearty. Highlights included the Harira soup with dates, and the cinnamon-scented pigeon bastille and carrots with marinated olives starters. You will also enjoy a selection of fish dishes including a tagine of Oualidia mussels, and both beef and chicken tagines with the country’s classic coucous. Not to mention desserts, pastries and mint tea afterwards.
If you want to know how to recreate these dishes at home, the hotel chef offers cookery classes each morning at 10.30am in a special rooftop kitchen, which I’d highly recommend. We opted to make a Berber lamb tagine with zaalouk eggplant and enjoyed the tasty fruits of our labour for lunch.
It’s tempting to stay holed up in the serene confines of the hotel but that would be a mistake. La Sultana can organise guides and taxis if you are nervous about being ripped off but we decided to brave the streets solo. It was a little bit of a culture shock to start and can seem a bit overwhelming with children in tow, but it felt like an essential part of the experience, especially with the hotel within easy walking distance of the main sights.
A must-do is the beautiful Jardin Majorelle with its exotic plant collection and blue Art Deco studio where Yves St Laurent used to live (buy queue jumper tickets from the hotel to save time). It also houses a small but fascinating museum about the culture of the Berbers, the oldest people of North Africa. Afterwards we strolled through the souks (beware of the motorbikes!) and tried a spot of bartering. Thanks to my husband’s efforts and reasonable French, I acquired a burgundy leather handbag and a silver teapot and tray with glasses at brilliant prices. There is so much more to find if you are in the mood for serious shopping, from clothes and shoes, to spices and Argan oil, rugs and baskets.
Hot and dusty, we arrived at Jemaa al Fna, the main square and heart of Marrakech, just as evening descended and it started to come alive. We watched the gorgeous sunset from the roof of Café De Paris with mint tea, the call to prayer providing the soundtrack, then we walked among the snake charmers and food stalls, enjoying fresh orange juice before a bargain meal of sausages and couscous at stall 32, aka Chez Hassan, as recommended by friends. You do have to keep your wits about you (and avoid people offering to take photos) but the atmosphere is like nothing else.
Also take some time to get a closer at the main Koutoubia mosque (although only Muslims can go inside) and the gardens beside it, and stop off at the Saadian tombs on your way back to the hotel. It’s a peaceful spot where children will have a fantastic game of hide and seek.
La Sultana is a beautiful, tranquil hideaway at the heart of a buzzing, exotic city that has to be visited at least once. It was just the right mix of adventure and indulgence for our family and while very grown up in style, it offers a warm welcome for young guests. We only wished we’d tagged on a beach leg at its sister hotel in Oualidia for the ultimate holiday.
Rooms from 3100MADpn (approx. £220), children up to age two stay for free, 600MADpn (£42) supplement for children up to 18 years. Royal Hamman treatment from 400MAD (£28), dinner tasting menus 620MADpp (£44), cookery lesson 650MADpp (£46). lasultanahotels.com