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Summer is upon us and that old wanderlust is setting in, so for today’s Destination of the Week, we head to the exotic locale of North Africa to visit a city that has ruled empires, fostered one of the world’s great cultures, and attracted luminaries to its sunny streets for centuries. We’re off on the road to Morocco to rock the Kasbah in Marrakech.
What To Do
An exotic outpost on the old North African trade routes at the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, Marrakech is known as the “Ochre City” and has long been an A-list oasis for the jetsetting glitterati, and luminaries including Winston Churchill, the Beatles, and more recently, stars like Madonna, Brad Pitt and the Beckhams.
The city’s origins date back nearly 1,000 years when it was built as the capital of the Almoravid empire and flourished as a center of Moorish civilization, culture and commerce, attracting scholars, merchants and tradesmen for centuries. Several landmarks from this period still remain including the soaring Koutoubia Minaret, which was built in the 11th century and is over 200 feet tall.
The city went into decline in the Middle Ages due to changing political forces and a spate of conquerors, but it gained prominence again in the 16th century, its great period of revival and many of the old city’s spectacular buildings date from this epoque.
These days, the city is divided into two distinct zones. The old city of the Medina with twisting lanes, old buildings and bustling markets which you can pretty much explore on foot and where most of the tourist sights are; and the more cosmopolitan, Westernized modern area called Gueliz, which is larger and more spread out.
One of the main attractions of Marrakech for both amateur and professional shoppers alike are the various souks, many of which specialize in particular goods and where all kinds of wares are on display from carpets and lamps to spices and fabrics. Nearby, most visitors also spend an evening around Djemaa el-Fna, a huge central square where food stalls pop up at night and street performers work the crowd.
The Koutoubia Mosque (where you’ll also find the famous minaret) is adjacent to Djemaa el-Fna and makes an easy visit, though tourists are not allowed inside the mosque itself.
Most people also visit the extravagant 19th-century El Bahia Palace built by the Sultan’s Grand Vizier and its gardens as well as the impressive 16th-century El Badi Palace, considered the Alhambra of Morocco and one of the Arabic world’s most stunning architectural works. Though the palace is in ruins now, it still makes for an interesting visit and the views of the city from the terraces are worth it alone. Also dating from this period are the Saadian Tombs which were hidden for centuries and only rediscovered at the beginning of the 1900s. Finally, fans of tilework should make time to see the artistry of the Ben Youssef Madrassa, an enormous scholarly complex built in the 14th and 16th centuries, and in use well into the mid-20th century.
The Dar Si Said Museum is located in an old palace near Djemaa el-Fna and contains a collection of artifacts from throughout Morocco from the various cultures that have called this land home.
Of course, you can’t come to Marrakech and not see the famous Kasbah, or fortress, and then when you’re tired out from sightseeing, stop by a hammam and get the cares and stresses of your day scrubbed and massaged (some might say pummeled!) out of you. We hear the Palais Rhoul is a great place to go.
Another good place to relax is the Jardin Majorelle & Museum of Islamic Art, a famous botanical garden designed by French painter Jacques Majorelle, and a museum containing a world-class collection of Moroccan art.
You’ll probably also want to relax with some time by the pool, especially if you rent your own private riad, so don’t pack your schedule too tightly.
Destination of the Week pieces are not meant to be comprehensive guides to destinations since we don’t have the time or funds to visit all these places in person and report back to you. Nor are they endorsements of all the hotels we mention. They are simply roundups of top destinations that we have specifically pinpointed for the opportunity they present to use your miles and points to get to and stay there. As always, we welcome your comments to help enrich the content here, provide opinions and first-hand experiences of these destinations.
The main airport in Marrakech is the Marrakech-Menara Airport. Using miles to book flights here may be more challenging due to the limited amount of airlines in alliances that actually service Marrakech. Air France only serves Marrakech from Marseille and Toulouse, however British Airways flies to both London-Heathrow and London-Gatwick.
Since British Airways awards are distance based, it would require 10,000 Avios to fly from London here (as opposed to over $400 for those flights each way). This could be a feasible option to fly your preferred carrier to London and then connect using British Airways.
Ryanair and easyJet, two low-cost carriers, fly here as well, so again using miles to redeem award tickets to a larger city in Europe then connecting on of these is something I’d consider. TPG went to Marrakech on a side trip a couple years ago while he was in Madrid and flew Easyjet with no issues. It’s a relatively short flight and check-in was painless – just be mindful of baggage and other assorted fees.
Lastly, Royal Air Maroc flies to several African cities from Marrakech, including Casablanca, which would allow for an easy connection to their JFK-Casablanca flight. Royal Air Maroc is a codeshare partner with Delta, though it gets all around atrocious reviews.
Sofitel Marrakech Palais Imperial: A-Club members have a great option in the Sofitel, which makes its home in a former Moorish palace surrounded by beautiful gardens. Rooms start at over 300 square feet and have marble bathrooms stocked with L’Occitaine products, WiFi and satellite TV. The hotel has three restaurants serving a variety of cuisine from French and Moroccan to Mediterranean, and there is also a spa and hammam on the property. A-Club members earn two points per euro spent on stays at Accor hotels and can redeem their points for hotel vouchers or transfer them to miles with the program’s airline partners in increments of 4,000 points, usually at a favorable 2:1 ratio.
Radisson Blu Marrakech: Soon-to-open in the Gueliz district, the modern commercial and residential area, the hotel will be located within Carre Eden, a development with has apartments, shopping and entertainment options. When completed, it will boast 204 guest rooms, two restaurants and bar, swimming pools and a destination spa with a Moroccan hammam. This property is scheduled to open in late 2012 and will require 50,000 Gold Points for free night redemptions.
Park Hyatt Marrakech: Located 15 minutes from the Medina, this hotel will have 131 rooms and suites and 44 deluxe villas with private pools, all set within gardens in the private gated grounds. There will be a main pool as well as an infinity-edge pool. There will also be a luxury spa, specialties restaurants and an 18-hole golf course designed by Kyle Phillips. This property is expected to open by the end of 2013. No word yet on which Gold Passport category it will be in.
Holiday Inn Marrakech: Located in the middle of the Palmeraie of Marrakech, this property has 315 guest rooms and suites. The rooms are modern yet feature traditional Moroccan doors, private terraces, flat screen TV’s and complimentary WiFi. There are ten dining options on the property. The hotel offer 27 holes of golf, an indoor and outdoor pool, L’Olivier Kids Club, a full-service spa and fitness center. Rates in June start at 650 MAD ($75 USD) per night or 5,000 Priority Club points since this is on the Priority Club PointsBreaks list. Otherwise, it usually costs 15,000 points for a free night.
Le Méridien N’Fis: Overlooking Andalusian gardens, this 277-room hotel is laid out on over 10 acres of land. The rooms are in traditional Moroccan style. The hotel has three restaurants serving typical Moroccan cuisine. The hotel also has a large swimming pool, lighted tennis courts and a fitness center plus a full-service spa with sauna and hammam. The hotel also offers cooking classes, where guests can learn how to prepare traditional Moroccan dishes. Rates in June start at 980 MAD ($110 USD) per night or 3,000 SPG points as this is a SPG category 2 property. Also, this property participates in Starwood’s Earn Your Dreams Promotion where you can earn double or triple Starpoints, or even 3,000 SPG points if you book a suite, which lasts until December 31, 2012. TPG stayed here and got upgraded to a nice suite. It’s outside of the medina, but a quick walk and the hotel has a nice spa and pool area.
La Mamounia: This legendary property (a favorite of Winston Churchill) re-opened its doors in 2009 after an extensive restoration. The property boasts 228 rooms with private terraces and marble bathrooms as well as offering modern amenities such as plasma televisions and high-speed WiFi. There are multiple swimming pools, tennis courts, and even a bowling field in addition to the fitness pavilion. The hotel has a luxury spa with traditional Hammams. The dining options here include Le Francais, serving contemporary French cuisine, Le Marocain which offers more traditional Moroccan dishes, as well as L’Italien, which is the hotel’s Italian restaurant.
Rates in June start at 4,500 MAD ($500 USD) a night. While there are no point-redeeming options here, this hotel is part of the Fine Hotels and Resorts exclusive for American Express Platinum Card members, where cardholders are eligible for a room upgrade, inclusive continental breakfast, 4pm late check out and a complimentary 50 minute massage for two people.
Other Fine Hotels and Resorts in Marrakech include The Four Seasons Hotel Marrakech, The Royal Mansour Marrakech, and Amanjena-Aman Resort. All can be booked through American Express Fine Hotels and Resorts as well as through the hotel websites directly.
Marrakech definitely has a lot of new hotels opening in the next few years and Mandarin Oriental also plans to open a luxury resort here in 2014.
Another popular option is to stay in a Moroccan riad, which is a traditional villa or palace with an interior garden (riad is actually the Arabic word for garden) that usually offer a high level of service as well as privacy. Many of these are old homes, so they are situated within the Medina and near the souks, an added bonus to sightseers who want to stay in one. However, though still boasting traditional Moroccan arts and hospitality, many have been entirely renovated and are quite luxurious. Take a look at this site to browse some of the riad options out there.