Secret Hotels of Marrakech
With their quiet courtyards and cozy, traditional rooms, the secret hotels of Marrakech offer an Eden-like respite from the vibrant labyrinth of the medina.
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It would be difficult to find a riad with a better pedigree than this: Delphine Mottet and Jean-François Claeys's Tchaikana was renovated with the help of fellow Belgian Quentin Wilbaux, an architect and the author of Marrakech: The Secret of Courtyard Houses. The 1999 book helped fuel the trend of Europeans refurbishing old Moroccan homes, and Tchaikana's 2002 conversion—a three-room, two-suite place in the heart of the medina—was one of the earliest to hit the scene. Wilbaux worked with the couple to create a truly convivial atmosphere accented by hints of home. "We wanted it to feel like a guesthouse, not a hotel," Mottet explains, "So for starters, we chose not to have a lobby." Mottet, a graphic designer, also favored an eclectic and casual approach to decoration, combining totem-pole bedposts with tapestries from Burkina Faso and rough-hewn iron sideboards made by French-trained Moroccan Daniel Oiknine. In one particularly poetic nod to the owners' previous life, the shutters, doors, and arched gallery on the second level are all painted a calming, dusty teal called Belgian Blue. Down in the courtyard, an arched nook is the designated spot for a regular cocktail hour. Each night, as the proprietors pour drinks and dole out recommendations for local restaurants and shops, guests snack on honey-sesame peanuts and swap stories. And if you should get lost en route to the exceptionally hard-to-find riad (it's tucked into a dead-end alley east of the medina's center), the couple will happily send a porter to fetch you right to the door. 25 Derb El Ferrane, Azbest, tchaikana.com, from $118, breakfast included
"I've always been amused by the mythology of 1960s Marrakech—Burroughs, Hendrix, the fashion set mixed with rock and roll," says Norwegian architect Knut Hovland, who opened his four-room P'tit Habibi (the name means "little darling") in 2005. It shows. The whole place resembles a movie set from a bygone era, from the mirrored table in the salon to the cascading, Verner Panton–inspired brass-ring chandelier in the library. Even the dining chairs are upholstered in a mod, orange-and-yellow floral print. The four individually designed guest rooms are similarly varied: A bed with a zellij headboard might be framed by an arched niche or presided over by the mounted antlers of a Swedish moose; a Space Invaders–themed bathroom mirror is as proudly displayed as an elaborately hand-painted dresser. Yet as far out as P'tit Habibi gets, it manages to stay true to its roots; imagine an entire wall of plaster bas-relief and a traditional oval pattern on the floor that echoes throughout the riad's wooden railings and fireplace tiles. Hovland's renovation also expanded upon the courtyard-centered architecture: The floor-to-ceiling sliding-glass doors that he installed create one fluid space between the ground-level common areas and the travertine-paved patio, which doubles as an alfresco movie theater. Guests can choose a DVD from the riad's collection, pull up a beanbag, and watch the film projected on one of the building's solid-white walls. Up on the breezy roof, there's a tiered terrace with a pool, a canopied daybed, and a handful of tables for taking in one of Marrakech's other cinematic moments: the vivid sunset over the northernmost section of the old city. 59 bis Sidi Ghanem, Zaouia Bab Lakhmis, ptithabibi.com, from $118, breakfast included
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Riad Porte Royale
When Philip Brebner was renovating Riad Porte Royale five years ago, many new riad owners were fixated on what he calls "their oriental dream"—all sumptuous furnishings, patterned rugs, and a solicitous staff tending to guests' every whim. To Brebner, who studied Islamic architecture in Algeria and then taught the subject at Portugal's University of Porto, that over-the-top aesthetic sounded more like a nightmare. "I wanted to take everything right back to basics, the way riads used to be, completely white, very simple, with just a few exquisite artifacts," says Brebner, who comes to Marrakech nearly once a month and brings his family here twice a year. It's fitting, then, that he chose the porte royale, an architectural element that symbolizes the angels' gateway to heaven in Islam, to serve as both his riad's namesake and the centerpiece of its otherwise sparsely decorated courtyard. He spent weeks rooting around the medina to find the 12-foot cedar piece, a museum-quality specimen carved and painted with the eightfold division of a circle, a common motif in Islamic design. Having located his conceptual cornerstone, Brebner turned his attention to the rest of the renovation: He installed a colonnade along the door, connecting the roof terrace on all four sides, and added a zellij-tiled plunge pool. And while the five guest rooms kept their original narrow dimensions, which were dictated by the size of the palm trunks used for the ceiling beams, Brebner upgraded the spaces with en-suite baths and dark-wood West African and Berber furnishings. 84 Derb El Maada, Diour Jdad, Zaouia, riadporteroyale.com, from $98, breakfast included