Until halfway though our transfer to Ksar Char-Bagh, we were wondering if the black London cabs the hotel uses for its guests aren’t slightly incongruous. It takes a while to get used to the staring – a black cab attracts much more attention here than a motorbike laden with a family of five, trailing chickens and frying pans. But eventually, the tarmac gave way to a dusty, potholed track, and the doughty vehicle suddenly made sense: the bumps and scree was presumably a doddle for a cab put out to pasture after a lifetime of roadworks and angry honking.
We knew the mighty Atlas Mountains were somewhere around, but we couldn’t see them in the dark, and hadn’t the first clue where the hotel was. In the pitch black, every light seemed to herald our bed for the night. Eventually, we drew up to a wooden gate the height of two elephants, which slowly opened to let the cab trundle through.
The proprietors aren’t exaggerating when they describe Ksar Char-Bagh as a ‘Guest Palace’ – it looks far too big to contain just 13 rooms. A small door cut into a much larger one silently opened, and we were led into reception. What I first took for a painting was a beautifully lit winding stone staircase, leading to a galleried library and some of the guest rooms. We were greeted by the handsome general manager, Pierre, who showed us to our enormous room, and said the words every hotel guest loves to hear, ‘Your wish is my command. Just dial 20’.
Bathroom at one end, bedroom at the other, our suite was divided in the middle by a large sitting area with open fire (essential in winter months). In the bedroom, through an arch from the sitting room, our wide bed was all wonderful white linen and a white mohair throw. The dressing room looked simple, but a clothes-rail, hand-carved with a floral motif betrayed incredible attention to detail.
Ksar Char Bagh was purpose-built three years ago. The silver door keys (intricate, weighty and satisfying to use), the own-blend toiletries in glass and silver bottles, the scented candles with hand-inked labels, the tadelakt wall finish in the bathrooms – it all took months to get exactly right. Even a humble biro sitting by the phone was wrapped in a silken cord and finished with a tassel. The styling is the opposite of souk-fabulous, though still recognisably Moroccan.
We breakfasted in the main dining room: a glorious vaulted space with huge glass doors to the garden and pool outside. (The 15-foot doors cleverly slide into the brickwork – very impressive, since they look like normal windows, then when it’s a nice day they disappear out of sight entirely). We were at Ksar Char-Bagh to chill, so instead of exploring the four-hectare grounds, we camped on extremely comfortable wooden sunloungers by the pool, stopping for a lunch created with ‘whatever inspired the chef in the market that morning’: delicious fish ceviche dressed with grapefruit, homemade bread and a pear tarte tatin.
However, this isn’t a city to keep your distance from, even when staying in a palace. That night, we ventured out to Crystal at Pacha, after asking Pierre to recommend a tajine-free zone (we knew we’d get our fill over lunch in the Djemaa el Fna during the rest of our stay). On the 25-minute drive there in the black cab we talked about how Marrakech has really hit the international circuit. By day, you can be in the Middle Ages shopping in the souk, by night eating food devised by star chef Alain Ducasse in a superclub. Crystal, self-styled ‘lounge restaurant’ is a slick operation, run by fabulous-looking staff, probably not chosen for their plate-ferrying abilities alone. After a quick drink after dinner in the chill-out room, a gorgeously lit, opulent red-and-gold bar, we called it a day. It was midnight, but Pacha – with the biggest soundsystem in Africa – would boom out for a good four hours more.
The next morning we were glad of the earlyish night, because staff called at 8.30am to see what time we wanted breakfast. OK, it was hardly dawn, but we’d been blissfully asleep (Perhaps arrange a time before you go to bed – or take the phone off the hook…). Now awake, we decided to eat in our room. Today’s offering was a stack of Moroccan pancakes and breads with a selection of home-made jam. It was fresh, hot and tasty, but I still prefer being given a choice – you don’t know till you wake up if you’re having an eggs Benedict or yoghurt and fruit kind of day.
We spent the morning haggling round the souk, before buying a massive haul at Mustapha Blaoui’s Tresor des Nomades. It’s an excellent one-stop shop with piles of rugs, silk throws and bedspreads, and unusual goodies we didn’t see anywhere else, such as silver-rimmed glass serving plates, plus the latest Marrakech must-have, blood-red glazed china. (142 rue Bab Doukkala; +212 44 38 52 40). After a couscous lunch on the roof terrace at Café de France on the Djemaa El Fna, we returned to Ksar Char-Bagh, passing a group of quad-bikers as we neared the hotel.
To explore the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, as they were about to, was a tempting thought. However, the hotel’s pool was even more appealing, especially as we were returning to a grey England that night. In the distance, the mighty Atlas cast an almost surreal backdrop. Liberally sprinkled with snow, beneath a sky the same deep blue as the pool, it could have been styled by Pierre himself. He is the hotel’s genie in a bottle: when he discovered me sitting on the grass in the garden, a rug and cushions materialised; when I mentioned shopping, he printed off his recommendations, eight sides detailing everything from the best kaftans to where to find Tod’s-style shoes. Every Mrs Smith needs a Pierre.
It was a little chilly to swim, even in a heated pool as glorious as this one. If only we’d thought to book a hammam session with the renowned therapist Zora (apparently, her singing is as impressive as her massage strokes). Instead, we warmed up for an hour in the billiards room, before running a last, indulgent bath in our sunken tub. Possibly not the most obvious way to say goodbye to Marrakech, but very in keeping with the ethos of this palace hotel, where it’s almost impossible to do anything but relax. After all, even the black cabs have an easy life here.