Those familiar with my feature on 'comfort travel' will know that revisiting loved hotels or destinations and enjoying that feeling of excitement and reassurance of the ‘known’ is an important one for me this year.
With Iceland ticked off the list and Mauritius imminent, it seemed sensible to crowbar a girls’ trip to Marrakech into my burgeoning travel calendar.
Fay and I have visited this chaotically beautiful city many times, lodging ourselves at a range of establishments which have become increasingly luxurious over the years. As this trip was to celebrate our 50th birthdays, we upped the ante further, setting our sights on a private pool villa which could also offer access to hotel facilities.
During a comprehensive investigation, my interest was piqued by the Atlas Widan and its founding general manager, Mustapha Amalik, both receiving effusive reviews which spoke of great service, generous accommodation, and a highly rated chef. It proved to be as promising as it sounded.
Atlas Widan is a boutique hotel and spa located 10km outside of the city centre, thus providing a 4-hectare oasis of tranquillity, views of the Atlas Mountains and just 15 minutes by taxi into the mayhem should we feel the need for some nightlife.
There are just 19 rooms in total, including beautifully appointed suites of varying sizes, which are situated around the main pool. In addition, there are two private pool villas sleeping 13 and 10 respectively, perfect for a wedding buy-out or similar group or family celebration.
GM Mustapha’s responsiveness and enthusiasm for our birthday plans made for an easy decision, and we quickly secured ourselves the two-bedroom villa for 4 nights in May.
On arrival, Fay and I were greeted by the management team and treated like celebrities!
Tradition dictates that mint tea and Moroccan pastries are served on arrival and we were seated in the shade of the riad’s central courtyard whilst the tea pouring ceremony took place. Mustapha and his right-hand man, Marwane, escorted us to the villa, where a bottle of chilled Champagne awaited, along with more pastries, dried fruit and nuts. It’s difficult to convey the wow factor levels in writing, so here is my little video showing the splendour of the accommodation...
With temperatures rising into the late 30s, we settled into a hard day’s sunbathing and swimming, and were grateful for the sunhats provided. The ability to contact reception at any time by WhatsApp and order anything directly to the villa is a lovely touch.
And here's a top twit tip: if you’re going to prostrate yourself in 35 degrees of heat for six hours, do NOT follow it with an hour and a half’s hammam and jacuzzi as I did! Heat-stroke is an inevitable consequence.
That said, Bahija scrubbed us to within an inch of our lives, and it was comfortably my best hammam experience to date. As one of the spa attendants was off sick, Mustapha called upon housekeeping staff to assist, which we naturally found hilarious - what service!
Speaking of great service, the wonderfully funny and charming Simo quickly befriended us and made sure we were always looked after. He was passionate about his country, fascinating us with tales of his upbringing and life journey. A note too for beautiful Chaima, whose first day of work coincided with our residency – a real baptism of fire.
I talked with Mustapha over a breakfast to gain a better understanding of his vision for the hotel’s development. With 22 years' industry experience, he joined Atlas Widan shortly before the pandemic hit, making the refurbishment project significantly tougher, and decided to successfully open the hotel to the local market, with overseas guests now returning in increasing numbers.
He is also Secretary General of the Moroccan Association of Hospitality and President of Sustainable Tourism, a role that we witnessed his commitment to in the form of a water-drilling project, which will enable them to irrigate the large gardens without additional burden on limited local resources. 70% of the staff here have been recruited from surrounding villages and daily training time is spent with them to ensure they are well supported.
The hotel’s restaurant centres on Moroccan cuisine which we sampled daily. Chef Amine not only presented us with fabulous homemade breads, sauces and salads but was also able to cater for a more westernised palate, if required.
We did venture into central Marrakech for one special night to visit La Mamounia, Morocco’s most prestigious hotel, famed for hosting the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Nelson Mandela and Winston Churchill, who called it ‘the most lovely spot in the world’ and duly had an entire suite and bar named after him!
We availed ourselves of Champagne cocktails and ate at Jean-George’s L’Asiatique, where we were unwittingly encouraged to order the most expensive thing on the menu - you’re only 50 once (or three times if during a pandemic).
Our foodie experience during this trip merits its own review, which Fay has kindly provided...
Fay’s Culinary Review
“Food glorious food, smoked aubergine salad; while we're in the mood, mechoui of lamb shoulder…
This song of fabulous Moroccan food is exactly what we received from the Atlas Widan. A comprehensive collection of the best local dishes in a small but perfectly formed menu with the hidden delight of being able to ask for additional things, which they will gladly try to oblige.
The couscous with its side sauce is delightful, especially with a dollop of home-made harissa perfumed with rose and flavoured with lemon zest and a heat that packs a punch. So good that we found a way of taking some home.
The mechoui of lamb was introduced to us as épaule d’agneau which we misheard as ‘Paul Daniels’ and so it shall forever be known. The tagine steamed veg, mounds of couscous, local breads, and the main event pretty much a whole shoulder of lamb. A stunning feast!
It sounds so English, but nothing beats a cheeky portion of chips but with the smoked aubergine salad and a couple of merguez sausages it all comes together deliciously.
What about breakfast? The delicate buffet is perfect. The homemade msemmen (like a flat bread) was tempting, and it was recommended to spread the jben (soft local white cheese) all over before drizzling with local honey and rolling it up. What pleasure!
The shakshouka came with the fried egg like eyes being cuddled in a spicy smoked soft tomato sauce - all I could say was can I have some more please?
These are just a selection of the highlights, with pancakes, breads, pastries, yoghurts, dried and fresh fruits, boiled eggs, the classic north African combo of orange and carrot juice along with coffee and a selection of teas all readily available.
Celebrating our 50th birthdays, we treated ourselves to a night of sublime cocktails and fine dining at the awe-inspiring property that is La Mamounia.
What a place to people spot. I am told there were famous ones everywhere, but I didn’t recognise any, though the calvados and champagne concoction and the Le Jardin Secret may not have helped.
We decided to go “east” to La Mamounia’s L’Asiatique for our fine dining 50th birthday supper and started with a very different kind of ‘sushi’, delightful bite size portions of tempura rice topped with wafer thin slices of avocado and hand placed black beads of caviar - a recommendation from our waiter, Jamal.
We treated ourselves to three additional starters of curried octopus, crab croquettes and aubergine strips with feta cheese and a light drowning of honey - simply divine.
For mains, Jo had John Dory and I had a fillet steak on a bed of umami mushrooms, and as we may have mentioned to Jamal a couple of times that it was our 50th birthdays, they kindly organised a chocolate mousse truffle cake which so lightly coated your mouth with decadence before disappearing and perfectly finishing off our amazing meal.
Oh yes, we did accompany said celebratory meal with a light and fresh Moroccan white wine.
A remarkable five-day culinary experience, the memory of which I will treasure forever.
Meanwhile, back to Jo...
It wouldn’t be a Shayler holiday without a small challenge to get the pulse racing. We had booked a private airport transfer from the hotel at 7am. The driver arrived promptly and waited for us to finish breakfast. Our bags were loaded, farewell hugs with the team exchanged, and off we set for the airport. Except we didn’t because the battery had gone flat!
A heroic attempt was made by Simo and the driver to push start the vehicle and I couldn’t suppress a small snigger at the scene before me, even as the possibility of missing a flight flickered through my mind.
Within minutes, the ever-reliable Mustapha screeched to a halt in front of us in his own car which he duly loaned to the taxi driver. We, and our bags, were decanted into the new vehicle and off we set. However what we hadn’t realised was that this vehicle didn’t have the correct permit to enter the airport and so 15 minutes later we pulled up in the city centre and were bundled into yet another vehicle in a scene reminiscent of the CIA escaping a crime scene in Homeland.
Fortunately, we made the flight with plenty of time and thanked our lucky stars.
It’s so gratifying when expectations are not only met but exceeded and this was solely down to the hard work of Mustapha and his brilliant team.
It goes without saying that Fay and I have already booked for next May.