Culture / Travel

A Stunningly Original Hotel in Marrakech — the Hidden Wonders of El Fenn

The Coolest Place in Town Brings Plenty of Moroccan Swagger

BY Diane Dorrans Saeks // 07.11.19

In Marrakech, it’s exciting to be at the center of the energy and creativity swirling through the old town and its mysterious bazaars. El Fenn hotel — chic, relaxed, and authentically Moroccan — is perfectly sited on the edge of the medina, in the middle of the ancient souks and shops and artisans and crafts galleries. It was created by Vanessa Branson (sister of Richard Branson) and her team. Textile genius Madeline Weinrib was recently anointed a partner.

El Fenn offers theatrical and ultra-cool lodging in the heart of Marrakech. This series of courtyard riads (traditional houses) is sparked with vivid and bold Moroccan colors. Each suite and room has its own style, its own signature colors, and its own quirky architecture and amenities. Handcrafted plaster walls are tinted in signature Moroccan colors, ranging from deepest turquoise to shocking pink, terra-cotta, blush pink, off-white, rose red, charcoal, mint green and Yves Klein blue.

Many have freestanding old-fashioned tubs, and several have wood-burning fireplaces — perfect for chilly Moroccan winter mornings. Some are modern; others are antique. All feel like home. All have Marrakech swagger and style.

El Fenn Marrakech
A sunny spot in the ultra-cool El Fenn hotel in the heart of Marrakech. (Photo by Joanna Vestey)

Enclosed courtyards, swimming pools, palm trees, hidden stairways and romantic balconies give the hotel a special intimacy. The accommodations include two-bedroom and three-bedroom suites and a newly furbished five-bedroom annex. Three main courtyards are filled with bougainvillea, tall bamboo and birdsong.

Guests sunbathe or rest with a book in one of the many hidden nooks throughout the hotel. The hammam and spa are popular spots for relaxing. Groups of friends gather at the casual rooftop terrace. El Fenn’s location beside the Bab El Ksour gate also allows instant access to both ancient and modern Marrakech.

The drama and crowds of Djemaa El Fna square and the winding alleys and souks are a vivid walk a few minutes away. Further afield beyond the old city are the newer shops, bars, and restaurants of Gueliz and Hivernage, all accessible via a quick taxi ride.


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An Insider Look at El Fenn

I chatted with El Fenn partner Madeline Weinrib, the New York artist and designer who founded the highly acclaimed textiles and rug company Madeline Weinrib. She’s credited with introducing luxurious authentic ikat fabrics in modern colors into the design vocabulary and popularizing and developing Moroccan and Indian rugs into American decor.

PaperCity: What do you love about El Fenn?

MW: I’ve been staying there since it was created in 2004 by my partners, Howell James and Vanessa Branson. The design is beautiful, and I resonated with the colors, wit, and originality right away. Many of the rooms feel like private apartments, which gives its a very homey feeling. I love having meals on the roof, where you can see the ancient Koutoubia Mosque and the distant Atlas Mountains range.

Your favorite suite.

Right now my favorite rooms are upstairs off the courtyard. You can hear the birds singing in the orange trees at certain times of the day. It’s quite a lovely choir.

The hotel front entrance is hidden. I love that you arrive there, and it feels small and intimate.

Yes, it is small, and we are expanding. The riad next door to El Fenn became available, and we are adding a new courtyard and more rooms. The medina location is ideal because it’s closed to traffic. I love the old world of the medina, which was built in the 11th century.

Across the way, there is a Sufi mosque, and sometimes you can hear mystical singing. Some of my favorites spots in the medina are the spice market and, next to that, the carpet dealers with stalls and stalls of textiles.

How does El Fenn differ from other riads?

It’s very relaxed. There is also a wonderful mix of contemporary influences. We love color. It’s very Moroccan, and very, very Marrakech with bright colors and a jolt of contemporary art and modern furniture. Art is exhibited throughout the hotel, primarily by Moroccan artists collected by Vanessa Branson.

Does the boutique sell your creations?

I have two collections in the shop. One is fun Moroccan caftans designed with fresh colors. I sell my collections of antique Touareg and Berber jewels. I also have a line that’s almost couture, with very small editions of clothing made in Marrakesh by artisans. We also sell books, baskets, leather goods, Fes ceramics, and many Moroccan fine crafts.

I imagine guests go home and want to redo their bedroom or house Moroccan style.

Guests want to recreate the El Fenn rooms which are light-hearted — not pure Moroccan and not aiming for authenticity. But the architecture and courtyards and balconies are very authentic. We worked with many Moroccan craftsmen on custom metal lanterns, tables, fixtures, and lighting.

Coffered ceilings are hand-painted. We found vintage Italian-design lighting and furniture. We injected contemporary art and photography. There are new rugs, Moroccan in inspiration, but with unexpected colors. So it’s really the mix that makes it so special. We love freeform and livable.

PaperCity design contributor Diane Dorrans Saeks is the author of 21 iconic design books — a jet-set traveler nonpareil, and the author of the elegant, witty and sublime blog The Style Saloniste.

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