Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Rocking the Casbah: Discovering the Ultra-Stylish El Fenn Private Hotel in Marrakech


My recent trip to Morocco was full of discovery, new friends, days of adventure. I went deeper into the mysteries of the Medina, finding new places, fantastic interiors, a new museum, and dramatic Moroccan décor. 

My long-time friend Madeline Weinrib recently became a partner with Vanessa Branson in the trend-setting El Fenn hotel in Marrakech, and she invited me to come there for a visit.

El Fenn is perfectly sited right on the edge of the Medina, and in the middle of all the exciting souks and shops and artisan and crafts galleries. El Fenn is a fantasy, a labyrinth of several historic riads joined together. It’s all very hidden, tranquil, ultra private, elegant and witty and brilliant.

Vanessa Branson and her team created theatrical and ultra-cool lodging in the heart of Marrakech. This series of courtyard riads is vivid with bold Moroccan colors, and all rooms have swagger and style.

I invite you to sip mint tea with me and Madeline for a chat about the hotel. We talked about what it was that drew her to El Fenn, and what she loves about Marrakech, and the many inspirations of this beautiful and alluring city. Come with me.

El Fenn is exceptional and rare. Each suite and room at El Fenn has its own style, its own signature colors, and its own quirky architecture and amenities. Hand-crafted 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 deep blue. Many rooms 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’.

With its enclosed courtyards, swimming pools, hidden stairways, gardens, trees and balconies, the hotel retains a special intimacy yet the hotel is now able to cater for 65 guests across the main building (23 bedrooms/suites, which includes a two bedroom and a three bedroom suite) and a newly-refurbished five-bedroom annex. 

The three main courtyards are filled with bougainvillea, bamboo and birdsong, and I saw guests sunbathing, and resting with a book in one of the many hidden nooks found throughout the hotel. The hammam and spa are popular spots for relaxing. Groups of friends were gathered 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 Djemma El Fna square and the winding alleys and souks are a vivid few-minute walk away. Further afield beyond the old city are the newer shops, bars and restaurants of Gueliz and Hivernage all accessible from a quick taxi ride.

An Insider Look at El Fenn

I chatted with Madeline Weinrib about El Fenn. Join us for an insider look.

DDS: What do you love about El Fenn?
MW: I have been staying there since it was first created in 2004 by my now partners; Howell James and Vanessa Branson. The design is beautiful and the colors and wit and originality I resonated with right away. Many of the rooms feel like private apartments, which gives its a very homey feeling. It always has farm to table food and many hidden places where you can just relax. I love having meals on the roof where you can see the Koutoubia (an ancient mosque) and distant Atlas Mountain range. 

DDS: Which is your favorite suite? 
MW: My favorite rooms change all the time and I enjoy switching suites and trying new ones. They are all so different. Right now my favorite rooms are off the courtyard. In these rooms, you can hear the birds singing in the orange trees at certain times of the day. It is quite a lovely choir. 

DDS: The hotel front entrance is almost hidden. I love that you arrive there and it seems small...and beyond is a series of courtyards and rooms and pools and gardens.
MW: Yes, the riad next door to El Fenn became available and we bought it. We are going to add a new courtyard and more new rooms. This, of course, is very exciting. 

DDS: I love the setting in the Medina. You can walk to many of your favorite shops.
The Medina location is kind of ideal because it is 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 are the carpet dealers with stalls and stalls of textiles.

DDS: How is El Fenn different from other riads?
El Fenn is a little different because it feels like home as opposed to a hotel. It is a very relaxed place. There is also a wonderful mix of contemporary influences and this gives El Fenn a personality all its own. We love color. It’s very Moroccan, and very very Marrakech with a jolt of contemporary art and modern furniture. There are art exhibitions throughout the hotel. They are primarily Moroccan artists curated by Vanessa Branson.

DDS: The shop offers your apparel?
I have two collections in the shop. One is fun Moroccan caftans. We design with fresh colors. The other is more couture, and very small editions of clothing made in Marrakesh with artisans. We sell books, baskets, leathergoods, Fes ceramics, kilim throws, jewelry, and many Moroccan fine crafts.

DDS: All rooms are very inspiring.I imagine that guests go home and want their bedroom or house ‘Moroccan style’.
Yes, they do like the Moroccan style but what’s so inspiring about El Fenn is that it’s light-hearted, not pure Moroccan and not aiming for ‘authenticity’. Colors are daring. Citron, shocking pink, a splash of aquamarine. We worked with many Moroccan craftsmen for custom metal lanterns, tables, fixtures, 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’s makes it so special. I think that is the freeform and very liveable look that inspires our guests.

DDS: At night the bar and roof terrace?
Relaxing on the roof is quite special in the evenings. There is a wonderful buzz around and in the background, you can hear the call to prayer. It is all very exotic. 

DDS: The cuisine is lovely, very light, lots of salads, and casual and Moroccan flavors. Dishes to share. Tajine.
There is no place I would rather have lunch than the roof at El Fenn. It’s a casual spot, guests only, all very international, and the food is exquisite. It's all farm-to-table and every day the menu changes. In the evening, they also have the tajine of the day, homemade and absolutely delicious. I absolutely look forward to it.

DDS: Thank you, Madi. I can’t wait to return.


Basic Info: There are 23 rooms in El Fenn main, plus a 5-bedroom annex. Facilities include a substantial roof terrace, bar, restaurant, boutique, library, spa, family suites, two swimming pools and a plunge pool.


Vanessa Branson was born in Surrey 1959. She is the sister of Richard Branson and owns Eilean Shona, a private island on the west coast of Scotland, and El Fenn in Marrakech with a group of business partners. She is also a founder of the Marrakech Biennale.
Co-owner Vanessa Branson has built up an extensive private collection of works by contemporary artists over the years. Much of it now hangs in El Fenn where it is considered to be one of the most important collections of contemporary art in Morocco. With art works seen throughout the public spaces and bedrooms, guests may find themselves dining under a stunning chandelier created by Francis Upritchard or sleeping beside a series of ink studies by Antony Gormley.

Artist, designer and arts philanthropist Madeline Weinrib, based in New York, was the founder of the highly acclaimed textiles and rug company, Madeline Weinrib. She is credited with introducing luxurious authentic ikat fabrics in modern colors into the design vocabulary, and popularizing and developing Moroccan and Indian rugs into American décor.

Graham Head, Madeline’s husband, is the President of ABC Carpet and Home in New York.

From the roof terrace, which has several outdoor restaurants and a bar there are views of the minaret of Koutoubia mosque and in winter and spring the snow-capped Atlas Mountains range.


Photography courtesy El Fenn.

El Fenn
2 Derb Moulay Abdellah, Ben Hezzian, Bab el Ksour, Marrakech, Morocco.


Monday, March 4, 2019

Travels with The Style Saloniste: Amanzoe

I lived in Athens some years ago, and every weekend we would take ferries and small planes and head to the Aegean islands and remote coasts. One region we loved, for its wild and craggy beauty, its deep coves, its archaeology, and its remoteness…is the Peloponnese peninsula, south west of Athens.

This week come with me to AMANZOE, the glamorous new Aman resort on the eastern Peloponnese peninsula overlooking the Aegean. Its design was inspired by ancient Greek temples—and it’s a wonderfully private, pure, elegant escape with a fantastic sense of place. Come with me for a visit.

Remote, luxurious and superbly designed by American architect, Ed Tuttle, the new Amanzoe resort near exclusive Porto Heli offers an entirely new experience of luxury in Greece.

This discreet and tranquil Aman resort, which includes 38 suites, has panoramic views, dramatic landscapes and gardens, along with personal plunge pools and expansive terraces for sunset viewing.

Amanzoe commands 360-degree views of the Peloponnese countryside and rocky coves and distant islands. The property lies within easy reach of a wealth of archaeological sites. The cosmopolitan islands of Spetses and Hydra are enticing day trips.

Lulled by the views, tranquil pools, and the lavender- and cypress-scented air, many guests never leave the Amanzoe property. For those interested in Greek history, this region is rich in historic chapels, and significant archaeological sites. Amanzoe is a 50-minute drive from the ancient city of Epidaurus, a UNESCO World Heritage site, with a dramatic outdoor theatre still used for performances in summer. And a one-hour drive takes guests to the UNESCO-protected archaeological site of Mycenae, prehistoric kingdom of the mythical Agamemnon.

Most travelers in Greece head for islands like Mykonos and Santorini. This new Aman resort entices with views of the Aegean and its ‘wine-dark sea’, lauded by Homer as his setting for ‘The Odyssey’. It is located on a hillside formerly a hideaway for European royalty on the 'Greek Riviera'. The resort is a three-hour car ride from Athens, or 25 minutes by helicopter.

Family-style villas are discreetly secluded among olive and cypress trees and fragrant gardens of lavender. There is ranquil relaxation with views of pine-forest hillsides and citrus groves and sunlight flickering on the sea.

Rooms open onto private terraces for quiet sunbathing and an occasional dip in a private plunge pool. 

Amanzoe draws its name from the Sanskrit-derived word for 'peace' and zoe, the Greek word for 'life'.

Los Angeles interior designer, Jeffrey Alan Marks, one of the popular stars of the hit TV show ‘Million Dollar Decorator, recently traveled to Amanzoe for his honeymoon.

"I loved the soothing influence the overall grey and white design palette had over me,” said Marks. “The organic transition of the interiors leading to the exteriors was executed perfectly. The repetition of using the same furniture frames, upholstery shapes and fabrics was subconsciously calming. The same campaign style side chair was used in the villas, as it was used in the spa, and again in the main exterior dining terrace. Because your eye sees this repetition, the furniture and decor almost ‘disappeared’ and you're aware only of the natural beauty of Greece.”

Marks admired Tuttle’s classical Greek-inspired architecture and the simplicity of the materials palette of pale grey marble and pale local stone.

“Pure and natural materials and the clean lines of columns and stone walls forced you to see the landscape and the sea beyond,’ noted Marks. “I appreciated undeveloped wild hills that surround the resort. Amanzoe requires a long drive from Athens, and it is most certainly worth it.”

Guests dine on sheltered terraces as well as in many restaurants and bars. Suites include lap pools with magnificent views. The Restaurant is open for breakfast and dinner, and serves Greek and international breakfast choices and Mediterranean dinner menus.

Fireplaces are lit during the cooler months. There are also an informal pool restaurant, the casual Beach Club, and a popular poolside Japanese restaurant. Views are always superbly framed. Summer in Greece can offer intensely hot days, and the hotel’s design includes reflecting pools and open pavilions, as well as shaded places for repose and scenic pleasure.

Local stone and marble were quarried and crafted using traditional methods to create walls, columns, and decorative accents throughout the resort. There’s a strong sense of place and Greek classical style. 

Olive and cypress trees were planted when construction began, and the property is textured with handsome mature trees that give the impression that the resort has stood on this regal site for many years. There is also a spa with double treatment rooms and steam rooms, a hammam, Thai massage room, watsu pool, a hair salon. The extensive spa menu combined ancient Greek beauty rituals with Asian techniques.

Perhaps most fascinating for Californians is that Ed Tuttle, the architect/ interior designer, grew up in the Bay Area. After studying architecture, he apprenticed with the Gump's design studio in San Francisco.

In recent decades Tuttle, based in Paris, has made his mark designing Aman resorts in India and Bali and throughout Asia, always working in the design and architecture vernacular of the region.

At Amanzoe, Tuttle controlled all aspects of the architecture, interiors, and the furniture design. His Greek temple-inspired architecture reflects the cultural flavor of the Peloponnese region,

Tuttle worked closely with local crafts specialists and artisans, and used local materials such as stone and timber, and techniques and styles that are particular to historic and contemporary architecture of the region.

Families and groups of friends enjoy the serviced 4-6 bedroom villas with spacious terraces and a very residential relaxed feeling. Each villa comes with a private chef.

Although it is a discreetly small resort, it offers a private beach club, speedboats for island-hopping excursions, two swimming pools, a gym, a spa and yoga studio, tennis courts, a boutique, a library.

The eastern Peloponnese constellation of inlets means the water is calm and less wind-swept than other island groups.

This is Greece’s largest wine and olive producing region and also home to UNESCO World Heritage sites including the wondrous amphitheatre at Epidaurus and Olympia, birthplace of the Olympic Games.

Porto Heli is surrounded by a rich agricultural region of Argolida, and it’s a locavore's dream. Resort restaurant vegetables, seasonal fruit, local wine and retsina, farm cheeses, fish, olives, and olive oil and even the famous Greek honey, all come from the surrounding region.


Photography courtesy of Aman Resorts.