We got back yesterday from our short Marrakech trip; here is my report.
We flew with GB Air under a code share with British Airways. Flights outward and return each left on time and arrived 15/20 minutes early. Seats were the now fashionable leather style, comfortable, and with better than average legroom. Food served in flight was GRIM, but there was a complementary bar service.
We had booked at La Maison Arabe, http://www.lamaisonarabe.com/ it was a very good choice. We were met at the airport as arranged, and from that moment everything was perfect. Our room was their smallest, the next size up were all booked and the suites were out of my price range, but by European standards it was still spacious, measuring 24 by 10 with very high ceilings. There was a large display of beautifully arranged flowers and a bowl of fruit to greet us. And the marble lined bathroom was well stocked with fluffy towels and bathrobes. The room opened on to our own private courtyard, which soon became a favourite place to enjoy sundowners. We could have had breakfast served there as well, but preferred to socialise with other guests in the breakfast room, which had inside and outside areas. All of the public rooms in the hotel were exceptional; tastefully and interestingly decorated, immaculately clean, above all enticingly relaxing. There is a private Hammam (Moroccan version of a Turkish Bath) two helpful attendants offer massages and beauty treatments. The pool is located in a private walled garden, a little way off site. We are not really pool people so we didnt go, but others spoke well of it.
All the staff were wonderful, cheerful and helpful. The desk staff spoke good English and were full of local knowledge, and helpful suggestions. The overall atmosphere was like staying with a particularly sophisticated and charming friend as a houseguest.
We dined in the hotel restaurant on the night of our arrival and again later in the week. Food was above average, but not spectacular. The restaurant ambience was particularly good, and discrete live music was provided by a pleasant duo. Service was impeccable, although those used to American ideals of service might find it a little slow at times.
Next morning we got a petit taxi out to the airport to pick up our hire car. I had pre-booked a deal with Europcar through an Internet broker/consolidator http://www.onairportcarhire.com/
I have used these guys a couple of time now, including hiring in the United States, and they are VERY good on price, plus efficient service. I dont know whether they will deal with clients from outside the UK, cant see why not, but insurance issues become very complex with car rental.
Marrakech itself was a great town with a real sense of aliveness about it. We loved the architecture, the mosques and gardens, and the labyrinthine streets of the Medina. The people were friendly and seemed genuinely welcoming; sure they were looking to do some business, but arent we all. Certainly we never felt threatened or unsafe, nor did we feel the need for a guide. People offering to act as guide approached us, but a smile and a firm refusal was all that was needed.
Wandering the Souks, getting lost, haggling with the merchants, sitting sipping coffee or mint tea, we loved all of it. Add the Place Djemaa el-Fna, with throbbing gnaouan music, the smell of food cooking on charcoal braziers, the snake charmers, and the cries of the street vendors. This is where the Arab world meets Africa head on.
Cut to the chase, food and drink. Marrakech has many good restaurants and it is possible to eat well without spending a fortune. While there are virtually no bars except those within hotels most restaurants are licensed. However the price of drinks in restaurants is quite high and those who enjoy alcohol with their evening meal will see the check quickly going up. Prices quoted below are total for two including cocktails, three courses, one bottle of wine, tax and tip. We visited the following restaurants;
Le Pavillion serves impeccably executed French cuisine, which would stand comparison in any capital city of the world. We were so impressed on our first visit that we returned for dinner on our last night. The main room is in fact a courtyard with a high ceiling constructed from white tenting. There are four side rooms opening off from this, which form dining alcoves for six to ten. The overall effect is simple but attractive. Tables are not tightly packed in. The Maitre De is a gem, charming and sophisticated, he really adds to the evening.
On our first visit we started with Pate de Foie Gras, continued with medallions of beef in a red wine and shallot reduction for Mrs P and cutlets of spring lamb with a rosemary jus for me, and finished with profiteroles and a Grand Marnier soufflé respectively. 1,725 Dirhams.
On our return visit, Mrs P enjoyed a warm tomato tarte drizzled with balsamic vinegar, lobster ravioli in a crab sauce, and chocolate soufflé. While I managed a salad of artichokes with a tomato concasse, confit of duck with pureed potatoes, and a trio of chocolate surrounding a coffee ice cream. Because I knew the quality of the food was so high I decided to splurge on a bottle of French wine, 1,925 Dirhams.
On midweek evenings chef selects a three course set menu from that nights a la carte, which they offer for 350 dirhams. This is staggeringly good value.
Villa Rosa is the citys oldest established Italian restaurant. We ate good Italian standards in a pleasant cosy room. Service was good and I enjoyed the cheapest and best bottle of wine that I found in Morocco. Price including two extra rounds of cocktails and wine. 1,090 Dirhams.
Le Yacout and Dar Marjana are both so called Palace Restaurants; there are several others around the city. They are as much about the theatrical side of an evening at a restaurant as about the food, though the food is by no means poor. The aim is to provide a sort of 1001 Nights experience. The diner is met by a cloaked and turbaned figure carrying a lantern and led through a maze of dark alleyways to a massive brass bound portal in a blank wall. One is admitted to a series of courtyards and vaulted rooms decorated in the most opulent style. Floors are marble mosaics, with fountains and potted palm trees. Berber rugs and brocade cushions are scattered everywhere. Costumed musicians playing quietly set the scene, and all is lit by chandeliers and gleaming brass candle lamps. There is a fixed menu of several courses, served as a sumptuous Moroccan feast, which is an opportunity to taste a variety of Moroccan dishes. All alcoholic drinks are included in the price. Overall I would recommend a visit to one of these restaurants to anyone visiting Marrakech, though the deal is far less attractive price-wise if you dont drink alcohol.
Le Yacout is more formal, the setting is tastefully ultra opulent and tables are spread wide apart. The service is super impeccable and the elegant waiters take pleasure from the showmanship of their art. The food is good, but not outstanding. The music is discrete and restrained. 700 Dirhams per person.
Dar Marjana has a slightly more authentic feel, bowls and towels are produced for hand washing, hot towels at the end for face washing. The setting is chaotically busy~busy opulence and tables are set close together. The service is excellent, but economical in execution. The food is actually significantly better. Later in the evening the music becomes a floorshow, with a belly dancer and impromptu musical acts from the waiters. 550 Dirhams per person.
From Marrakech we took several day trips, the one of most interest to Chowhounds is the coast run to Essaouira; a fairly easy drive through gently undulating countryside. The drive itself is not that attractive, but the road is good and you can easily maintain 120Kph.
Essaouira is gorgeous, originally a walled city and fishing port it is a great place to stroll around. There is a thriving ex-pat art scene with lots of interesting galleries to view. The ancient Souk is also worth a visit, and for those who find the Souk in Marrakech a bit daunting the traders are a lot more laid back.
The high spot is LUNCH. This was the finest meal of our trip; eaten at one of the stalls on the quay. Pick out your fish or shellfish live; have it cooked over charcoal in front of you; eat it with a fabulous simple salad of super ripe plum tomatoes and onion rings. Tear off chunks of fresh baguette from the local boulangerie dunk them in the olive oil the salad is dressed with; wash it down with water, or take your own wine. Mrs Pirate and I were greedy; we had a huge platter of crab and shrimp followed by the finest grilled sardines I have ever eaten. Total, including tip to the grill cook 100 dirham each. ($10)
Afterwards sit on the harbour ramparts watching the sea for a while, then stroll into the Medina for espresso and tiny pastries made with almond paste and honey.