As flight routes to Morocco expand and the country continues to invest in travel infrastructure, it is becoming easier than ever to explore – but is the opening of a Fairmont in Rabat enough to tease travellers away from Marrakech to uncover the forgotten capital? Olivia Palamountain reports
Perennially popular Morocco is having a(nother) moment. Featured as one of the world’s top travel destinations for this year by The Washington Post, not only is the country planning to launch 35 new air routes across ten airlines, connecting eight Moroccan cities to overseas destinations this summer, but it is also home to a growing high-speed rail line that will connect travellers to places that have so-far been overlooked. Capital Rabat is an excellent case in point.
Too long overshadowed by the likes of sultry Marrakech, with its picture-perfect mountains, bohemian surf haven of Essaouira and “blue pearl” Chefchaouen, is this Rabat’s turn in the spotlight?
It’s not just transport links proving the tipping point. Zaha Hadid’s monumental Grand Théâtre de Rabat coupled with the opening of the Fairmont La Marina Rabat-Salé, the first in a new wave of luxury hotel brands to call the city home is also having an effect (a Four Seasons is also under construction). Straddling the banks of the Bouregreg river and the Atlantic ocean, the Fairmont urban resort enjoys a commanding position from an easily accessible location, just ten-minutes’ drive from the airport and city centre.
The 186-room hotel comprises 27 suites, including four Ocean suites, four Heritage suites and an Ambassador suite that pays homage to first female ambassador of Morocco. Complete with a mini hammam and a glorious terrace with views of the ancient Kasbah, it rings in at a cool €6k a night.
Venture to the basement and you’ll find a surprisingly large and accomplished spa, centred on products and treatments by Natura Bissé, a Spanish brand that echoes Fairmont La Marina Rabat-Salé’s commitment to sustainability.
An additional complex of 88 residences and a conference centre offering nine meeting rooms including a VIP majliss (Islamic gathering place), a massive ballroom as well as seven boardrooms means you never need leave.
A five-star tribute to Morocco’s majestic past and progressive future, the hotel aims to showcase “the Rabat-Salé area through a new perspective, capturing the life and soul of modern Morocco while highlighting its ancestral traditions”. In terms of design, this has been cleverly expressed. Buoying the standard trappings of a luxurious international brand is a design narrative rich in symbolism and allegory, as is Islamic tradition.
From frieze and relief work that replicates details from nearby landmark, the Hasan Tower (a 12th-century minaret) to a central fountain representative of the Bouregreg river connecting Rabat and Salé, there’s a story at every turn, if you care to interpret the signs.Even the shape of the Foster & Partners-designed building has meaning (an aerial view of the structure reveals an “H” that stands for hospitality).
Inside, a riff on the mash up of ancient/modern and local/international continues. Adorning the sides of lobby lounge and tearoom, La Verrière, are cabinets displaying Moroccan fine jewellery and heritage fashions alongside leather goods from Mont Blanc; artworks reimagine old masters with an African accent – think colourful headdresses and tribal textiles.The hotel’s most impressive piece work also hangs here – 340 crystal albatross wings, shaped by hand, and suspended from the ceiling above the elegant, elongated central bar.
Here and throughout the hotel, you’ll be well looked after. A predominantly local staff has been selected not necessarily for experience, but for passion – and it shows. Each team member I encountered was a true ambassador for the brand, striking a perfect balance between professionalism and charm. A wander upstairs, scented by wafts of the hotel’s bespoke “Black Iconic” fragrance, reveals further artistry – Morocco’s craftspeople are renowned the world over and their skill is showcased to glorious effect in the suites.Each bedroom features exquisite hand-made tiles and a contemporary take on traditional stonework, a riot of clashing prints and authentic Moroccan styles all brought together in restrained monochrome. Elsewhere, tech is intuitively embedded; tea and coffee facilities are provided and there’s a generous bathroom with a tub and shower.
What about food? Morocco’s French connection is celebrated at L’Ecume, a farm and ocean to table brasserie that spotlights local ingredients executed with classic cookery techniques. The turbot with silky mashed potatoes transports me to Paris in an instant, while a perfectly prepared sole meunière is the epitome of chic cuisine. Dessert triumphs too; check out the patisserie case for something indulgent – éclair, tarte meringuée – or go for the refreshing pineapple gazpacho and coconut sorbet. Feasting and feeding from the heart is central to Moroccan culture, and I challenge you to find a better representation in this area than Le Dahlia. More than a hotel restaurant, this space has been envisioned as a destination dining experience, offering a variety of north African dishes offset by Mediterranean influences, modern dressings and cooking techniques. Order all the mezzes and share mains – braised lamb with date purée, giant cous cous emblazoned with fillets of red mullet and chicken served with traditional flavours of olive and preserved lemon – you won’t be disappointed.
This fabulous fusion is echoed at Le Deck, where a rooftop pool, bar and restaurant serving Nikkei–influenced Asian awaits. From the generous terrace you can take in the estuary as well a mosque, a cathedral and a synagogue in one panorama, a snapshot that illustrates the unique beauty of this location as a gateway between countries and cultures. It’s a seductive spot for moody late-night cocktails that nails a glamorous, relaxed vibe.
While the Fairmont La Marina Rabat Salé is still working on a menu of experience-led initiatives – DIY workshops with the artisans of the Oulja, fishing trips aboard a luxury yacht and pedestrian tours through the maze of the old Medina – it can arrange guided souk tours, museum visits, authentic dining experiences in local riads and nights on the town in one of the city’s myriad, hidden lounge bars.
There’s so much more to enjoy about Rabat, from its tranquil attitude (by Moroccan standards at least) fabulous weather and dramatic coastline to its lush, green spaces and crisp-white architecture, so visit while the Fairmont is still fresh and make the most of having the city to yourself.