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When I told my brother, who lives in Oklahoma, that I was going to Morocco, the first thing out of his mouth was, “Is it safe?” The question was not born of ignorance—my brother is as well-read and well-informed as anyone I know—but rather completely understandable given the current state of affairs. The words North Africa, Muslim, and travel in the same sentence are bound to cause concern.
After nearly a week in Marrakech in late February, I can report that I felt safe, well taken care of, and extremely positive about traveling there. This was my first visit in some 15 years. In fact, the first trip I ever took as editor of DEPARTURES was to Morocco, exactly a year before 9/11 and before the world, not just international travel, would change forever.
Back then, an agency called Heritage Tours Private Travel was just getting started. Founder Joel Zack, who would later become a friend and occasional contributor to the magazine, specialized in excursions to Morocco, Spain, and Turkey. A colleague had suggested we meet. More than a decade later, Joel was again my go-to man. He even arranged for the same guide as the last time, then a cool, young bachelor from Fez, now married with two teenage sons. A more knowledgeable and easy companion would be tough to find; a finer person, unimaginable.
This time, I would be staying four nights at the new Mandarin Oriental, which opened last fall and is a ten-minute drive from the old town and the city center. For years, La Mamounia, right in the middle of the walled city, ruled as the grandest of grand places to stay, but these days, there’s competition—most dramatically the Mandarin, an equally grand but entirely different experience. For one thing, you’re closer to two of Morocco’s best golf courses than you are to anything resembling a souk. There are 54 spectacular villas (and nine suites in the main building) spread out over 50 acres of rose gardens and willow trees, manicured landscapes and jasmine-fringed pools. Each villa has its own courtyard and pool, butler, open-air shower, and Jacuzzi. I took advantage of the gym and a very traditional yet very contemporary-looking hammam and spa. The property was the ideal place to return and collapse after the packed itinerary that Zack and Heritage had put together for me: a private tour with one of the directors of the Majorelle Garden, which is part of the Yves Saint Laurent estate. The gardens have been incredibly juiced up since my last visit and now include a terrific little boutique and Berber museum; a YSL museum is slated to open in 2017. There was also a visit to the medina, where Patrick Manac’h, a sophisticated Oxford-educated collector, opened the Maison de la Photographie, the city’s first photography gallery, dedicated specifically to black-and-white images of North Africa (Rue Ahl Fes, Medina; 21-25/2438-5721; maisondelaphotographie.ma). My favorite new shop was in the El Fenn riad, with a very appealing and well-edited collection of contemporary Moroccan design. (I loved that among the small number of books for sale was The World of DEPARTURES.) And then of course there were the restaurants. My own favorites were the always reliable La Maison Arabe for its tagine (Derb Assehbi; 21-25/2438-7010; lamaisonarabe.com); the new Salt-Marrakech (108 Rue de la Bahia; 21-25/2438-2740; salt-marrakech.com), which brings guest chefs from around the world to cook for a few weeks in a very lovely, otherwise very traditional riad; and Kanoun (BP 67, Asni; 21-25/2436-8200; virginlimitededition.com), in the beautiful 11-year-old Kasbah Tamadot, which is owned by Richard Branson and is an hour’s drive from the center of town.
For those who’ve never been, Marrakech will come as a revelation; for those of us who have, the city remains one of the world’s great destinations—and for me, still full of joy and excitement.
Photos: Courtesy Mandarin Oriental