Vanessa Branson’s El Fenn: Uncovering Marrakech’s Hidden Gem Of A Hotel

[Photo: El Fenn/Saad Alami] 

There’s been a lot of buzz around El Fenn, one of Marrakech’s foremost boutique hotels, for years now. The brainchild of Vanessa Branson, sister to the Virgin tycoon himself, and her friend Howell James, the Moroccan retreat has housed celebrity guests and attracted guests from around the globe since it was transformed from a crumbling majestic ruin in 2002. 

But is it worth it’s more-than-average room rates and rave reviews? We set out to find out.

[Photo: El Fenn/Joanna Vestry] 

[Photo: El Fenn/David Loftus]

[Photo: El Fenn/David Loftus]

Tucked away down an a small meandering cobbled street, off another meandering cobbled street, El Fenn is something of an unassuming retreat - from the exterior, anyway. Step inside and you’ll probably feel a little like you’ve stepped into a swanky bar. The entrance hall walls are coated in hot pink, red and yellow paint and paired with kooky art works. But the welcoming staff will instantly show you just what a treat Branson and James’ “home from home” is. 

The multiple courtyards, dotted between the seven riads that make up the hotel, are filled with birds, sky-high palms, Arabic lanterns, fountains, plunge pools, day beds and even a tortoise or two. If you think it sounds idyllic, you’d be right. 

El Fenn is eclectic, artistic and soaked in subtle luxury. You won’t find any 50-inch TVs or an expansive dining menu and because it’s an old building with traditional wooden doorways noise does travel - but, trust us, you won’t care. 

[Photo: El Fenn/David Loftus]

[Photo: El Fenn/Joanna Vestry] 

[Photo: El Fenn/David Loftus]

There are 29 rooms, each designed in a different way to further add to the overall aesthetic. They, and the hotel’s abundance of private areas, are all furnished with ancient Moorish style, using local craftsmen and the best of modern interiors.

“Despite maintaining its traditional feel, El Fenn’s showers have power, the baths are deep, the heating/air-con is effective and discreet, the mattresses firm, the pillows plentiful, the linen fine, the beds huge, the bath oils delicious, and the candles scented,” says Vanessa. 

“Most of the lights were sourced from Youssef, the local junk and antique dealer, although a number came over in my hand luggage from London. The curtains are all made from local fabrics and many are embellished with local tapestry motifs. All the rugs and kilims are from the Atlas mountains.”

It’s definitely not your average hotel - but it’s not trying to be. It’s bathed in a subtle type of luxury - and a haven for anyone with a remote interest in art. 

As well as all of the Moroccan wares, you’re invited to drink in works of art at every turn and anyone’s welcome to stop by for one of the hotel’s legendary mojitos on the roof terrace, an appointment in the spa (the couples hamman is a must-try) or a browse around the concept shop - the newest addition to El Fenn. 

[Photo: El Fenn/Saad Alami]

[Photo: El Fenn/Cecile Perrinet-Lhermitte] 

The store, which doubles as a restaurant and bar, stocks - from new designers - a wonderful range of vintage-style clothes, many with a Moroccan vibe and an urban twist. Also on offer are vintage bags, accessories, beautiful jewellery, coffee table books, perfumes, and home accessories from the finest bed linens to the best of Fez pottery.

The initiative was the brainchild of El Fenn general manager, Willem Smit and it was he who invited both Paul Rowland and Alessandra Lippini, formerly of Italian Vogue, to join him in curating the collection.

“So many of our guests want to replicate the El Fenn style that Vanessa Branson, our co-owner and Marrakech Biennale founder, has created here with her business partner Howell James,” said Willem Smit. “And it made sense for us to provide our guests with a fun way of doing that. So we’ve mixed the store up with a bar and a small 35-seater restaurant, along with a DJ on Saturday and a pianist over Sunday brunch, to make it an experience in itself.”  

While verging on the expensive side, shopping the concept store is a welcome change from haggling in the city’s bustling souq and shows just how well-rounded El Fenn is.

You quite literally can eat, sleep, shop, swim, rejuvenate and holiday at the hotel: It’s one resort that provides an escape from the world, while offering the delights of Marrakech and the surrounding Atlas Mountains to guests that can bear to tear themselves away from the riad.

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