Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Where to Stay in Marrakech: Ksar Char-Bagh

Away from the hustle and bustle of the old town, a short distance from the caramel-colored walls of the Medina, and smack dab in the middle of an endless grove of palm trees, is Ksar Char-Bagh - a Relais & Chateaux hotel in the Palmeraie district of Marrakech.

We chose it as our base for the two days we were spending in Marrakech for its Alhambra-inspired architecture: marble columns, a fountain in a reflective pool at the entrance, and pretty purple wildflowers leading to the reception made it look serene and still in a city known for its chaotic nature.

On our arrival, we were handed a chilled flute of almond milk infused with orange blossom - a drink that instantly refreshed and lifted my spirits, after a rather punishing (early morning) flight from London that saw us delayed for over an hour because the plane door wouldn't close properly.

Still, we were finally here, and as we were shown to our suite, I couldn't help doing a little jubilant dance on our private roof terrace once the hotel manager had disappeared from sight. Offering a sweeping view of the hotel's pretty fountain and the palm tree forest as far as the eye could see (and the Atlas mountains beyond that), the terrace was dressed with a low Bedouin-style tent, with white gauze curtains that flapped gently in the breeze and lived-in Kilim rugs and cushions.

In the room, a large fireplace stood in the corner of the entryway, which we used one evening to keep off the chill - it was a treat to watch a movie by the fire!

The hotel's grounds are beautiful - from the palm-tree lined pool to the "hidden" reading room and the floor-to-ceiling glass windows of the main dining room (which sparkles at night when lit with candles), it's picturesque at every turn. And with only 15 suites, we seldom ran into other guests, so it felt wonderfully secluded and private.

We sat down with the concierge, Youssef, the evening after we arrived, to create a bespoke itinerary for a half-day tour with a guide. I felt intimidated by the souks in the Medina, but wanted to have a go at bartering for rugs (naturally), so having a guide seemed to make sense (1,200 dhs, including transport, for a half-day tour). Our guide, Latif, was fantastic, and stepped in to help us bargain when he saw us struggling, and I left with a couple pairs of buttery leather slippers, a pouffe, and a Berber rug.

It felt downright luxurious to be able to collapse in a heap by the pool on our return from the dusty souks and a day of exploring other sights of Marrakech (including the Secret Garden and the Ben Youssef Madrasa), but upon closer inspection (i.e. an actual dip in the pool) revealed a severely neglected pool bottom, with large areas of cracked tiles (which were not only unslightly, but also dangerous). The poor maintenance of the pool put a bit of a damper on our stay, as swimming is one of the things John looks forward to the most on our holidays. We mentioned this on our departure, and were told that inclement weather had delayed repairs to the pool. I hope it gets fixed soon, because it's a shame not to be able to swim in it - the shimmering water looks so inviting from afar.

One thing noticeably absent from our room (which must be customary in Morocco, as it wasn't in our riad in Essaouira either), was a kettle and coffee/tea making accessories, which would have been gratefully received in the evening as, well, it's nice to have a cup of tea before bed (or first thing in the morning)! I did love the fresh roses, smoothie, and strawberries placed in our room on our arrival though, which were lovely touches and made us feel "at home".

Dinner at Ksar Char-Bagh, though delicious, and gorgeously laid out in the candle-lit dining room (with a thick Berber rug underfoot, of course), was quite meagerly portioned: I had a tender, plump fillet of fish (sea bass, I think it was) that was finished in five, or six mouthfuls. Had I known, I would have ordered a starter. Instead, I never said "no" to extra helpings of bread. By 9 pm or so, having bedded down for the evening, my stomach began to grumble and I found myself reaching for the biscuits I'd stashed in my bag from the flight over.

Despite this, and despite the neglected state of the pool, I was ultimately won over by the regal beauty of Ksar Char-Bagh and the helpfulness of its staff. Would I return? Only if the pool was restored to a sparkling gleam and the chef reconsidered the menu.

If you're heading to Marrakech this year, I'd recommend taking a peek at Ksar Char-Bagh's pretty, self-contained suites for a long weekend of lounging and relaxing.

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