Previously a bedrock for backpackers and beatniks seduced by snake charmers and cheap couscous, Marrakesh has been transformed into the hottest luxury spa scene on the African continent by a fresh bouquet of upscale hammams. In stark contrast to the lily-white aesthetic of most Western spas, black-soap rituals executed in complete silence at La Mamounia, Amanjena and Maison MK are prime examples of the dark aesthetic uniting this new take on Berber bathing. Increasingly affordable non-stop flights from style capitals such as London and Paris bring rubdown-seeking weekenders to the city in droves. Despite visible poverty, Marrakesh has emerged as the Hamptons of North Africa.
A hotel of beguiling extremes, La Mamounia takes you from luxuriously sublime to ludicrously simple pleasures in mere minutes. From the sybaritic splendour of the lobby to perfectly executed turndown service, this is where Dionysus himself would do date night.
The unveiling of this Arab-Andalusian masterpiece last year after a $170-million renovation drew the attendance of thread-count aficionados Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Aniston, Orlando Bloom, Salma Hayek and Adrien Brody. Upon arrival, I'm greeted with the most succulent dates imaginable and creamy almond milk - the traditional arrival elixir of the desert Tuareg tribes. Arctic Toronto evaporates as I peel off cashmere layers in the 24-degree sunshine. Inside, soaring arches fit for a pharaoh fan into the distance like a mirage. Imagine Mosque Koutoubia on steroids and you're halfway there.
Navigating a glamorous series of palatial courtyard pools edged by ornamental lantern towers, I surrender to this altar of crepuscular rebirth as I slip onto the heated marble slab of the spa's heat-therapy suite. The dark aesthetic ushers in an embryonic, deep-space spa odyssey. The Moorish intricacy of this 27,000-square-foot meditative landmark features fine Moroccan craft - arabesque screens, horseshoe arches and dramatic zellij, the intricate mosaic tile seen throughout the country. Rich ruby, claret and aubergine hues cast a sedative spell.
Rousing from an indulgent spa coma, I linger over langoustines with Didier Picquot, general manager of the hotel's Le Français restaurant, which is led by Michelin master chef Jean-Pierre Vigato. Picquot is a man of passion, conviction and infinite connections, all of which make him the consummate steward for iconic properties like The Peninsula Hong Kong, The Ritz Paris and The Pierre New York. "Here, our independence gives us great latitude and momentum in moving forward," he observes with a Cheshire grin, as if La Mamounia were a sovereign state unto itself. "We can initiate extraordinary measures to deliver the most refined guest experience without having to fit under a corporate umbrella." To Picquot, it's all about expressing the hotel's core values to the fullest. He puts the ultimate premium on creating a spa retreat where guests disappear for hours on end, escaping to what he calls "a destination within a destination."
With La Mamounia making its debut as the lavishly buxom Brigitte Bardot of Marrakesh, Amanjena endures as the more discreet Catherine Deneuve. Greeting me with considerably more demure, yet still divine, assets, it's love at first sight. Utterly relaxed, my visit feels like a sprawling, movable feast through the home of a well-travelled sophisticate - rare books stacked hip high, carved monoliths, saffron spiced air and swirling veils. I'm barely three steps into the foyer when a smiling attendant pours me a classic Moroccan mint tea and welcomes me with a dish of honeyed sweet cakes.
A sun-baked, coral pink palace framed by the vast Atlas Mountains shimmering in the distance, Amanjena is an exercise in subtle beauty. With only 39 pavilions, each accommodation sprawls over quite a bit of real estate - the ensuite bathrooms alone are the size of a Paris apartment. Sensual and brimming with the simple joys of a slow day, the spa here is a hushed, bespoke affair of just a handful of gorgeous treatment suites and a courtyard thermal bath. A site of steamy intrigue, the hammam is full of shadowy movement and unreliable light, the perfect prelude to a nap-inducing massage. Spa breaks like this are fast becoming whole holidays in their own right. And with "reset button" relaxation as comprehensive as this, why not? Many guests who choose Amanjena relish the idea of never having to go "off property." All the experiences they crave are flawlessly executed by discreet staff, a sort of peerless Arabian Nights fantasy by way of Town and Country.
At Amanjena, dusk is even more alive and richly coloured than the day. Here, nightfall is a ritual: Outdoor cauldrons are lit with crackling fires, amber lanterns the size of ottomans are hoisted, reflective pools illuminate into otherworldly spheres. The dark feels interesting; you've become part of a more vivid, clandestine world. After a soul-stirring spa day, dinner pushes me further over the edge - the divine signature lamb tagine, it has to be said, redefines the term "to die for." A freshly caught, lightly seared sea bream perches on a bed of something way too savoury to be mere root vegetable; here, even the humble potato gets the royal treatment. Russian oligarchs and Euro scions sit by the fire sipping Cognac with a sticker price resembling that of a compact car, while lithe women lounge in caftans that cost an average schoolteacher's monthly wages.
As the weekend rolls round, I check into the hottest little riad in the heart of old Marrakesh. The beauty of Maison MK is that it's completely unexpected, tucked in the tail of the medina's busiest, dirtiest labyrinth. Eventually, I arrive at the door in confusion as it's far too nondescript, looking as if it might be a youth hostel of some sort. Inside, though, Maison MK is chic, fresh and entirely peaceful, with even the call to prayer muffled by fortress thick walls. Owner Paul Hopkins greets me with a warm, easy smile. The British hotelier exhibits a bottomless passion for contemporary design, as evidenced by Maison MK's stunning interiors.
Six spacious suites are sweetly finished with ivory walls, heaps of little kilim cushions and intricate iron lamps. Bathrooms are superb in their sober good taste. My favourite aspect of Maison MK is by far the black tadelakt hammam. A Moroccan specialty, tadelakt is a buttery coating of lime plaster polished with a flat river stone until water resistant. Perfect for wet rooms, the silky smooth surface is to riad building what fondant icing is to cake construction. An antidote to the teeming "Red City," the light and airy house breathes simple gaiety and the staff's calm, youthful presence converts even the most souk-shocked traveller. This is the real trophy of a Sahara-hot riad scene: A thoughtful, creative, committed owner carves out a vertical poem in plaster and stone.
In a desert where direct sunlight bleaches everything from stone to stable, seeking protection in the shade signals not only refuge but survival. Slipping into a dark cocoon for the better part of a day is a true luxury, one unique to the reigning spa philosophy in Marrakesh. The leading trendsetters here deliver an antidote to the hygienic hysteria of pharmaceutical, whitewashed spas of Western persuasion. How illuminating then, that after an MK signature gommage with soap the colour of a bucket of live eels, I slough off a handful of dead skin and feel cleaner than ever.
Special to The Globe and Mail