Nov 1, 2021
Travel industry super publicist Geoffrey Weill guides us through his trip in Marrakech during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Just when you think it’s possibly coming to an end, there comes a new surge. Three days before my flight from New York to Casablanca, the Kingdom of Morocco instituted a ban on all flights from Germany, Holland, and the United Kingdom. The exponential rise in COVID cases in these countries – and in Austria - had alarmed the Moroccan authorities to such an extent that the bounties of tourism were shifted to the back burner in order the stanch the second wave, or was it the third? Or the fourth? In some countries, they’ve stopped counting the waves. On November 8, America finally opened its doors to vaccinated Britons and Europeans, even though for dozens of countries, like Israel or Egypt or Morocco or Argentina, the doors to America were never actually closed to their nationals if they could show a negative COVID test taken within 72 hours of landing in the U.S.
JFK’s Terminal One is eerily empty on this November 2021 Sunday afternoon. The usual snaking lines at check-in are yet to return for a variety of airlines since those frightening moments in March 2020 when we slammed the doors shut to keep out a virus that was already here and infecting hundreds of thousands of Americans.
Twenty months ago, scientists were telling us there had never been – and might never be – a vaccine for a corona virus. Yet, in a miracle of astonishing speed and genius, at least six different vaccines were developed around the globe to fight COVID-19 – albeit some more successfully than others. In just over a year and half, much of the panic has waned as more and more Americans – especially those in the overseas travel demographic – lined up for their first, then their second shots, and, for the likes of people like me, their third.
Morocco is one of the few countries that currently admits Americans who can show proof of full vaccination against COVID-19, without also requiring a negative PCR test within 48 to 72 hours of departure. Strolling between the banks of deserted counters at JFK, it’s easy to spot the Royal Air Maroc check-in area. It’s one where snaking lines of passengers – mostly Moroccan Americans, whose wives and mothers and aunts and grandmothers are in long robes and headscarves – are patiently pushing epic cartfuls of luggage. There are giant suitcases, and bulging duffels, and piles of those immense plasticky, and indestructible checkered red and blue carry-alls that can somehow accommodate enough garments to clothe a village. I suppose I could somehow call myself a Moroccan American too – although it was more than 160 years ago that my two Moroccan great-grandparents left Tangier and Mogador for London, and almost 50 years ago that I left London for New York.
As I have no longer any great swarms of relatives in Morocco to whom I might be schlepping cartloads of jeans and sneakers, I just roll my modestly sized Rimowa bag along the red carpet to the Business Class check-in. I surrender my CDC card for the most cursory glance, and charge a few hundred dollars on AMEX for Royal Air Maroc’s last-minute discounted upgrade. I waft through security – ignoring the TSA personnel’s customary, barely disguised disdain for the plutocrats who have the temerity to be traveling. I pass the empty Bally, Ferragamo and Hermès stores, their sales clerks busying themselves to relieve the wracking boredom with rearranging belts, and ties, and perfume spritzers– and entered the Prestige Lounge adjacent to Gate 9. I’ve flown from Terminal One many times, and sipped Champagne in the Air France, Lufthansa, Korean and Alitalia lounges – but this lounge is new to me – entered through a small glass door and down one floor in an elevator. In the saran-wrapped Times of Corona, airline lounges rarely offer the sumptuous treats of yore – but there are light snacks and the lady behind the bar punches holes in my boarding house to ensure I don’t consume more than my allotted two drinks.
I like Royal Air Maroc. It has the soigné and gastronomy of Air France, and the hospitality of Emirates. The Business Class section of the Dreamliner is full – and I am handed head-phones, red slippers in a silk bag, and an amenity kit that contains the customary potions and lotions, as well as more novel items such as Q-tips, a shoe horn, and face-mist scented with orange blossom.
By the time we’ve overflown Cape Cod, I’ve downed a delicious dinner and my flat-bed is flattened. The overnight flight to Casablanca, like the red-eye to London, isn’t long enough for a proper sleep, and I am awakened after five hours as we descend over the coast of Africa. Mohammed V Airport is sparkling, vast and empty and I’m fast-tracked through immigration. I’m met by a representative of Travel Link, and ushered into a Mercedes minivan. The drive to Marrakech used to be interminable, but now it’s a tad over two hours on a four-lane expressway with rest-stops so spotless you could confidently perform open-heart surgery in between the displays of Toblerone.
The Moroccan government’s late-20th-century effort to expand Marrakech from a desert oasis to a mega-resort has had it plusses and minuses. Almost every hotel group on earth is now represented here, each new palatial fortress competing for grandeur. At the same time as the construction of more luxury beyond more luxe, the government also encouraged Europe’s low-cost airlines to favor Marrakech – and you’re nowadays as likely to see jetliners of Ryanair, Easy Jet, Wizz Air, Air Arabia and TUI, as you are the courtlier jets of Royal Air Maroc, Emirates, Etihad, Qatar, British Airways, Air France, and now, even El Al. All these full planes transformed a city that was once romantic and quaint into one that was close to choking with tour buses and parades of tour groups. But that all changed in March 2020. For twenty dreadful, wonderful months, Marrakech has reverted to the quiet, quaint, calm and dawdling of the eighties. But it won’t last long.
Several years ago, at a Pure Life Convention, my clients at England’s Heckfield Place hosted a luncheon for travel writers in the leafy garden of the Hotel Dar Rhizlane. Situated just outside Marrakech’s ochre city walls in the elegant quarter of Guéliz, I fell instantly in like with this boutique gem – and vowed one day to stay here - and on this, my umpteenth visit to Marrakech, that’s exactly what I’m doing.
I’ve stayed in a dozen Marrakech hotels over the years – often at stylish riads in the ancient medina. The riads – two- or three-centuries-old restored mansions - are glamorous, and trendy, and straight out of the pages of Elle Décor. But they’re usually a bit wonky: the floors creak, the windows don’t quite fit, the closets are tiny, and you’re likely to trip in the candlelit gloom over the multiple cords of space heaters that are required to ward off winter’s chill. Plus, they’re inevitably located in the darkest depths of the impenetrable old city, and returning to one’s hotel after dinner requires a cell-phone call to the berobed hotel porter who, carrying a lantern, escorts you from your taxi through murky, ominous alleys.
On my first visit to Marrakech in 1980, I stayed in the gloriousness of La Mamounia, and have done so many times since. Almost a century old, made famous by Winston Churchill, and set amid exquisite orchards, it was old-fashioned yet chic. Every decade or so, the Mamounia is barricaded shut for a year or two, and undergoes a monumental zillion-dollar refurbishment: art-deco and chic in 1990; 1930’s moderne in 2000; fabulously Moroccan and chic in 2010; and even more fabulously Moroccan and chic in 2020, with the latest glamorization by Pierre-Yves Rochon. The Mamounia du jour is certainly fabulous and yes, it is just possibly my favorite hotel on earth. But it is also extraordinarily expensive, and as extravagant as I can often be, my wallet is invariably shell-shocked upon check out.
Of course, just a little too far out of town there is the enormousness of Amanjena – with its magnificent Aman grandeur, and the sad feeling of being deserted even on the rare occasions it’s sold out. And there is also the ne plus ultra of Marrakech, the Royal Mansour, owned by His Majesty King Mohammed VI. Set amid gracious grounds near La Mamounia, it’s a tower of multi-level mini-palaces so regal, so butlered, so sumptuous, so gilded that its pretensions of hotel-ness are almost completely negated by its Versailles level of pomp and ostentation.
So, in November 2021, it’s the Dar Rhizlane, which I booked in an exchange of emails with its very courtly general manager, one Madame Gaertner. I had scoured the website and selected what seemed like a glorious two-room suite: the Suite Blanche, which clocked in at around the same rate as one of the broom-closet-sized rooms that overlook the kitchens and garbage-bay at the back of the Mamounia.
The Mercedes minivan pulls up at the Dar Rhizlane’s gracious ochre Moroccan mansion, where I am greeted courteously and escorted around tiled fountains into a plushly upholstered interior. The niceties of check-in are performed by elegant women who then escort me to my room. Between the two buildings that comprise the Dar Rhizlane there is a delicious oblong swimming pool surrounded by day beds, each sporting rolled towels, a straw sun hat, and, here and there, a sunbathing wannabe model. The outdoor bar has wooden chairs and tables in Yves Saint Laurent’s striking “Majorelle blue.” I’m led up a tiled staircase to the Suite Blanche which, true to its name, is indeed both a suite and white. The bedroom is immense, with enough closets for three families for three seasons. The bathroom is a pavilion of frosted glass, spacious enough for a ballet troupe to practice pliés, then wash, bathe in a claw-foot tub and take a group shower. The suite’s living room leads out to a massive blue-, green- and white-tiled terrace, with a dining table and chairs, a couch, armchairs and coffee table, and a massive day-bed with pillows, atop which a ginger cat is snoozing and exhibiting absolutely no intention of departing. Did I mention that everything is white? Including the artwork, the carpet, the bricked surround of the living room fireplace, and the Nespresso machine?
It is now noon. I am hungry and I’ve slept insufficiently. I sit myself down at an outdoor table covered with starched linen and shaded by bougainvillea, and I order cooled squash soup, a salad of tomatoes and tuna laced with argan oil, and a glass of rosé. The service is expert, smiley and not stiff. I suddenly realize I’ve found the perfect Marrakech hotel for which I’d always been in search – glamorous, chic, gracious, Moroccan-yet-French…and not requiring a second mortgage.
My Parisian second cousin, Raymond (the d is silent), is joining me here this evening, as we’re to set about indulging in a nostalgic revisiting of our family roots. We drink Hendricks and tonics in the mahogany walled-bar, with its deep mahogany leather armchairs and roaring fireplace. Dinner of fragrant shellfish and lamb tagine is served in the adjacent dining room. The service is somehow formal yet casual – no bows nor scrapes, just smiles and courtesy. We are both exhausted. I retire to my white suite, and Raymond retires to his entry-level-rate room, which turns out to be spacious, with a vast bed, a couch, tables and chairs, a furnished patio that overlooks the pool, and a large bathroom with vibrantly colored tiles. The Dar Rhizlane is a find.
Instead of the Sistine-Chapel-sized crowd usually massing outside the Majorelle Gardens, COVID seems to have reduced the number to four or six couples the following morning. Apart from the ancient medina and the souks, the Majorelle Gardens are Marrakech’s must-see site. Founded in 1923 by a French army officer named Jacques Majorelle, this is a manicured two-and-a-half-acre botanical garden boasting palms, giant cacti and succulents, roses, and walkways. At its center is a cubist house that was home to the Majorelles prior to their divorce and is now the Berber Museum. Its exterior is painted a striking violet-blue that is unique to Morocco, to Marrakech, to this garden. It is a shade that is brilliant, striking, and virtually impossible to fake. In 1980, Yves Saint Laurent and his partner in life and business, Pierre Bergé, bought the garden, made it even more glamorous, and next to it, built their exquisite home. Their graves are set in the leafiest part of the garden – and the adjacent post-modern Yves Saint-Laurent Museum completes the site’s beauty.
That evening, I take Raymond to my favorite non-hotel restaurant in Marrakech. Le Comptoir Darna, with its polished brown walls and Lalique swirls, resides within a French Art Deco villa, not far from our hotel. To enter, we’re required to show our COVID vaccination cards. Comptoir Darna is famous for its buzz, its glamorous clientele, its cocktails, its Moroccan cuisine. But what sets it apart happens at 10:30PM when the disco beat of the Sahara gets churned up to ear-splitting, and a dozen zaftig, and not-in-the-bloom-of-youth belly-dancers appear through mirrored doorways and descend the art deco staircase, their tummies shimmying, their heads sporting giant bronze candelabras, all their candles alit. The crowd goes wild. The ladies circle the room rotating their hips, their bellies, their behinds, shimmying their bosoms – and somehow the candelabras never fall, wax never drips on diners. The beat, the thump, the dance goes on for fifteen or twenty minutes with changes of music, ladies climbing atop tables, always shimmying, always gyrating. It’s sexy yet somehow not flagrantly sexual. More than anything it’s camp.
However, this is November 16, 2021, and there is only one tiny problem. Belly-dancing, shimmying, hip rotating and candelabra headgear is not permitted during the pandemic of the third decade of the twentieth century. Deflated, Raymond and I finish our mint tea, pay our bill, and stroll through quiet streets back to the lovely Dar Rhizlane.