Hotel review: A week at the marvellous Mandarin Oriental, Marrakech
Marrakech or Marrakesh depending on the spelling in your part of the world was never over my bucket list until I heard about this new uber-luxury hotel by Mandarin Oriental.
Rather than the traditional two-week summer vacation, a few years ago we tried breaking up our summer with two shorter holidays, one in July and one in August, and it worked well, so we did it again this year.
With a flight time of 6.30am on this July morning, this was the earliest start we've ever had for a family holiday. The kids were super excited, and we had everything ready by the front door, so it didn't take us long to get on our way for the 75-minute journey to London Gatwick.
By now we should have driven past Heathrow and been well on our way around the M25, but then a flurry of police lights could be seen ahead.
The motorway had been closed.
I still don't know the cause, but we were stuck, stationary for an hour. Sat Nav showed an alternative route using country lanes but was conditional on us getting off at the next junction, which was impossible due to lane closures.
I was now starting to panic, realising the check-in desks close 60 minutes before departure and we unsuccessfully tried calling British Airways to move on to a later flight.
The police opened the hard should and we managed to get on our way and eventually back onto the M25 further around.
Pulling into Gatwick, I imagined myself in a go-kart and whizzed up the ramps into valet parking, threw over the car keys and we all ran to the terminal with luggage in tow.
As a BA Gold cardholder, we could use the First Class check-in desk even for short-haul flights, but there was a queue of three other families. They kindly let us through, and by 5.30am, we had just made it in time.
Lesson learnt: always allow an extra hour to get to the airport!
Skipping through duty-free without time to shop (a bonus), we managed to rush into the BA Galleries lounge, grab a croissant and toilet run before heading to the gate for boarding.
Flying in Club Europe, the short-haul business class offering by British Airways, I had a cheese and chive omelette, slightly jealous of the kids' full English breakfast.
Arriving at Marrakesh airport, the hotel had sent somebody to meet us at the aircraft and fast track through the lengthy immigration queues. Remember, this is a Muslim country so, like Dubai, baggage is x-rayed for alcohol and other contraband before you can leave the airport and enter the city.
After a short 15 minute trip by Mercedes Viana with some cold flannels and water, we pulled up to the hotel entrance. It was stunning, elegant and hot (40 C).
Exiting the car, we were greeted by the hotel manager, some refreshments and introduced to our butler Ahmed who whisked us away by buggy for a quick tour of our resort and then onto our suite.
We have stayed in properties before with butlers, but the nice twist at this Mandarin Oriental was that Ahmed gave us a business card and said to message him if we wanted anything. Much easier than getting off the sunbed to walk to the hotel phone.
There are simply no standard rooms here, the hotel comprises of 20 hectares of olive groves and landscaped gardens that house:
Atlas and Panoramic suites - 192 sq m (one bedroom suite with terrace and plunge pool)
Mandarin Pool Villa - 228 sq m (king bedroom, living room, private pool and jacuzzi)
Royal Suite - 218 sq m (two bedrooms, two bathrooms and two plunge pools)
Oriental Pool Villa - 423 sq m (two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a private swimming pool)
Infinity Pool Suite - 290 sq m (two bedrooms, two bathrooms, hammam, private lap pool)
Penthouse (eight bedrooms, eight bathrooms, eight plunge pools)
We had booked the Infinity Pool Suite which comprised of two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living room, a lobby, a private 10-metre lap pool and direct access to the hotel Spa.
Each of the bathrooms was nearly as big as the bedrooms with twin sinks, an oversized bath, walk-in wardrobes and a Hammam (steam shower) that could easily fit eight people.
The hotel has three restaurants, and we tried them all. I had booked a half board package which included dinner in Mes'Lalla, the Moroccan restaurant.
One night, it was my wife's birthday, so we treated ourselves to Ling Ling restaurant by Hakkasan. It was pricey, coming in around £600 for the five of us but...
...it was one of the best meals we have ever had, anywhere in the world.
The third restaurant was the more casual Poolside Café next to the hotel's main pool where we enjoyed some gazpacho, wagyu burgers and club sandwiches.
Before booking, we were a little anxious that this would be a luxury hotel aimed at adults, but it was great for families. The little kids club had ample activities, a herb and vegetable garden and a small petting zoo with some goats and chickens.
One evening we decided to leave our oasis of luxury and see what Marrakesh was all about. We decided to go to the Medina, or Old City.
Arriving on the outskirts, you walk into a vast square with maybe fifty acts trying to get your attention. My son is a bit like Bear Grills and was desperate to hold a snake. It's a little stereotypical, but we went to see snakes being charmed by a middle eastern gentleman playing the recorder.
After a small panic attacked by my wife, we moved onto the markets. The "salespeople" were well trained in the art of enticing British tourists.
"Come inside... Gucci, Prada, Balenciaga, free for you to look, cheaper than Primark" one shouted.
Walking along one of the narrow streets, I was very conscious of keeping one hand on my wallet, having read about rampant pickpocketing.
This man appeared out of nowhere alongside me. He said, "Hi, it's me. I work in the kitchen at your hotel and live just through the market" before walking off.
A few minutes later he appeared again "I'm walking past a carpet auction on my way home, would you like to see it?".
That was enough to prompt us to leave the market and head back through the square to the waiting hotel car.
On our walk, we saw monkeys chained up wearing nappies, forced to do tricks for the locals' entertainment. I'm not one to judge other cultures, but this did sadden us and realise that animal rights were way behind the West.
The spa was also elegant with a small indoor pool, gym, exercise studio and yoga area.
As a family, we do like spas and treated ourselves to some massages and facials to combat the dehydrating intensity of the sun.
The spa rooms were more like suites with a shower room, en-suite toilet, private garden and double treatment beds.
As a Friend of Mandarin Oriental, their frequent traveller programme, we got a late check-out so had a full last day, leaving the hotel around 5 pm.
The airports' VIP business class lounge was much more pleasant and modern that I expected where we got a delicious pizza for dinner.
One perk of being a BA Gold Executive Club member is that you often get the golden welcome, where the Cabin Services Manager (CSM) comes and personally welcomes you onboard and has a little chit chat.
The girls are all silver, but my son is also Gold because we took an extra trip together to Moscow for the FIFA World Cup Semi-Finals. Therefore he got the gold welcome, most to the amusement of the BA crew member who had never given one to a child before.
Would I do it again?
Yes, although I'm considering Greece for July 2020 instead.
We thought the hotel was one of the best we had stayed in and would revisit for a lovely relaxing family break, although next time, we will go to the new city instead of the Medina.
What did it cost?
The Mandarin Oriental chain of hotels are at the top of the spectrum, but Marrakech in July and August are considered shoulder season and have some excellent deals.
We paid around £1,500 for five business class flights (using some air miles as part payment) and £4,600 for four nights in the Infinity Pool Suite.
While £6,000 may sound a lot for a few nights away, remember this was a five-star deluxe hotel suite with private pool and because of the flight times you gain two nearly full days either side.
Anywhere else in the world and you'd expect to pay £2,000-£3,000 per night for this sort of luxury accommodation.