Luxury Explorer Review

5-Star Hotel Review

El Fenn


A cornucopia of creativity

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El Fenn


Within the walls of the bustling Medina

Travel Information

15 minutes from RAK international airport

Top Tips

The boutique contains many one-offs and commissioned pieces - don't miss out

5-Star X-Factors

The roof terrace is the sexiest around

Authentic Marrakech magic

El Fenn is on the lips of most of my Marrakech-loving friends and family. So, while this review may be preaching to the converted, we are hoping it will capture the imagination of those who are not yet familiar with this enchanting and captivating luxury Riad in the heart of the Medina.

Boho-chic charm

Since Vanessa Branson and James Howell purchased, what was then a run-down family residence, El Fenn has gone through a colourful metamorphosis, but has always maintained its Boho-chic charm. In 2003, while looking for a family home in Africa’s most exotic city, they fell upon this Riad and knew immediately that it would become more than just their home… it would be shared by other converts of Marrakech, who would also come to see it as their home-away-from-home.

During the initial two-year renovation, the attention to local detail, design, and decoration was paramount: original tiling was uncovered, carved cedar ceilings were exposed, the walls were returned to polished lime plaster, while rainbow-coloured fabrics draped local flee-market and fine vintage furniture alike.

In 2012, a second makeover further enhanced the allure but, as ever, maintained its relaxed, supremely sensual essence. This is a grand riad with a funky spirit, a living history with contemporary gratification. There are no airs and graces; it’s informal but Conran-stylish, it’s relaxed but the service is excellent, creating a vibe that is as chilled as a perfect dry martini or iced-up mojito. There are several courtyards, dripping in jewel-green foliage and scented orange trees with trickling fountains and comfy seating in cozy nooks beneath hanging rattan lamps. Deep soft sofas upholstered in burnt orange, desert yellow and scarlet velvet nestle in nooks and along hallways. At dusk, hundreds of candles are lit, while refracted light from filigreed lanterns, the glow from the pools and subtle wall lighting all combine to romantically illuminate this sumptuous home; with help from the starry constellations above.

A cornucopia of creativity

El Fenn is also renowned for its prestigious art collection, including; works by Pollock and Kentridge, a glorious lighting feature by Francis Upritchard as well as an inspiring Arabic collection. Everywhere you explore, there’s clear evidence of a creative touch. However, for some, this aesthetic glory is upstaged by the resident tortoises who hangout in the courtyards, slowly, but very surely.

El Fenn boutique and spa

The spa is small, simple and perfect. Using local ingredients to enrich the Moroccan Argan oil and by the light of candle or open log fire – give yourself over to expert hands, followed by mint tea beside the spa pool. You can also enjoy a black soap scrub and ghassoul clay body mask in the hammam.

Once you have sipped on a lip-smacking mojito in El Fenn’s bar, conjured by the best barmen in the Medina, it’s hard not to do a little shopping: here the two are entwined. El Fenn’s new concept store has lines from top designers such as Thierry Colson as well as locally commissioned pieces, ranging from djellabas to kaftans and ornate bags. Everything in here is an original, feels like a one-off, and even if you don’t purchase, it’s a showcase of the finest on offer from Marrakech and a little beyond.

On the roof

Perhaps the most celebrated feature is the super-sexy roof terrace, which wraps its cool and groovy essence in a kaleidoscope of authentic pleasures. There are covered places, which feel Bedouin, open spaces under sun and stars and stunning views of the Koutoubia mosque. There’s a small olive-green pool with sun-loungers, as well as an open-style restaurant that turns up the heat at lunch and dinner and serves up a buffet spread at breakfast. The music is Zen-Buddha Bar-Ibiza-Moroccan, while the plethora of birds sing along until the ‘call to prayer’, or ‘adhan’, carries its decibels across the airwaves, powerfully punctuating your other-worldly experience. It’s a spellbinding affair.

The Sultanesque Suites

There are 28 rooms, including small ones, large ones (two of these have plunge pools) and very large ones comprising of two to three bedroom apartments, so they feel more like a private riad. It’s a treasure trove of suite delight and each room is individually designed and decorated in such sensational style that none would disappoint.

Our Imperial Suite (number 26)

This suite is known as the ‘golden room’ by devoted returners: 22 carat gold leafing covers the wall behind the sultan-styled canopied bed. The walls are matt-almost-black polished plaster, and the floor is a smooth slide of original white and black marble tiling. There’s a large fireplace for crisp nights beside a wall stacked with perfectly stacked logs.

The large L-shaped sofa, covered in divine ochre velvet, with brilliantly vibrant Aztec cushions, became perfect for slumping after our souk spree. The bathroom felt like a private spa, a vision of loveliness in majorelle blue handmade tiles, and large enough to be one too. It’s a head-spinning blend of all that glitters and glows in these suites and I can’t wait to experience many (even most) of the others.

Around and about El Fenn

Perfectly positioned, as it is, in the heart of the Medina, El Fenn is a great base to explore the old city of Marrakech. Here are some of our favourite pit stops:

Maison du Caftan, 65 Rue Sidi El Yamani Mouassine tel 212(0)524441051 – insert website link. Not always on the ‘elite’ list and I’m not sure why, as you can choose from rails and rails of beautifully crafted kaftans and jackets and the prices are incredible. They range from the exquisitely detailed with gold braiding and Swarovski crystals to a more relaxed beach vibe. There is also a children’s range that looks very St Tropez. The friendly owners will also obligingly offer their in-house tailor to lift a hem or alter the sides or adjust the sleeves. My glorious bejeweled emerald green velvet kaftan was adjusted in two hours and delivered to El Fenn in time for the wedding ceremony that afternoon.

Eating out

We had a great lunch on the roof terrace of Café Arabe – tel 0524429728. It’s an easy walk from El Fenn and the atmosphere is buzzing. Enjoy a mojito with chicken kebabs and fabulous couscous while taking in a great view over the Medina. There is a fabulous little boutique on the floor below which sells, at a very good price, well made local jewelry clothing, artwork and Islamic antiquities.

Nomad is the current favourite place to eat and the food is excellent, but do note they have no licence to serve alcohol at the moment.

The world famous souks are a maze of alleyways, filled with local tradesmen and craftsmen. There are metal workers, weavers, the famous Berber rugs, spices and olives, silver jewellery, leather goods and so it continues. However, this can be a daunting prospect for many visitors so El Fenn can help you with a reliable guide. Alternatively, I came across a company known as ‘Insiders’ : run by expats with a sincere knowledge and deep passion for Marrakech and the surrounding areas. They will take you on a journey of exploration, both in and outside the Medina, in a vintage styled motorbike with side-car, plus, they can tailor your journey according to your wishes.

For a country club retreat outside the bustle of the city, but only 20-minutes from the airport, head for Beldi Country Club. Set in a sea of scented roses, vegetables gardens and olive groves, this club is a perfect go-to before a late flight. Sit beside the long pool under dappled shade and choose something from the menu of the day, scribbled on a movable blackboard. We had oysters, tagine and pomegranate sorbet washed down with a good Moroccan rosé. It was the end of October and 25ºC.

We strongly recommend combining a stay at El Fenn with a few days at Vanessa Branson's brother's mountain hideaway in the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains. Kasbah Tamadot is literally related, and equally ravishing.

Sophie Marchant
Sophie Marchant

Luxury Explorer
Luxury Explorer
Luxury Explorer
Luxury Explorer