Touring El Fenn with Vanessa Branson feels like bounding through her own home. She knows everyone here at the hotel she co-owns in Marrakech with three friends, joking with guests soaking up the sun on poolside recliners, leaping up the stairs excitedly as she shows off the 10 new rooms she’s just added. She describes them as “glorious.” And she’s not wrong.
Twenty years have passed since Branson, sister of Richard, and close friend Howell James bought a dilapidated riad in the Marrakech medina, thinking they were purchasing a small holiday home and not realizing that the sale came with a handful of equally run-down properties attached to it. Keen on an adventure, they opened it in 2004 as a six-room guesthouse. El Fenn’s now instantly recognizable formula of eye-popping colors combined with exquisite Moroccan craftsmanship, midcentury furniture and a dazzling collection of local and international art quickly earned the hotel a cult following. It feels like a place where you’re surrounded by those in the know—and you are. (Case in point: Madonna celebrated her 60th birthday here.)
The new addition, unveiled this month, brings the total to 42 rooms spread across 13 interconnected riads. The rooms are, according to Branson, the final stage of El Fenn’s evolution. But isn’t it tempting to keep going, absorbing even more riads and adding to the mesmerizing world she’s created here?
“Forty-two rooms are the dream,” she says. “The staff can remember each guest by name—we don’t want to lose the home-away-from-home atmosphere.”
While there’s definitely a welcoming ambience, this is a place of dreams. El Fenn’s five tranquil colonnaded courtyards, inhabited by friendly cats and a family of tortoises, are filled with palms, citrus trees and cascading greenery. Come evening, candles bathe the spaces with warm, flickering light. There are swimming pools, oversized sofas and cozy nooks for lounging the days away. Billowing drapes provide shade on the terraces, as do the handmade straw hats that are scattered poolside.
The rooftop is one of the loveliest in Marrakech, home to a lively restaurant and bar with eye-popping views of the medina, surrounding minarets and, on a clear day, the Atlas Mountains. And the El Fenn boutique, with red walls, backgammon-esque black-and-white tiled floor and spiral staircase up to the roof, is filled with kaftans, cushions and other things of beauty that will let guests take a bit of El Fenn design inspiration back home.
But back to the new rooms. El Fenn’s owners worked with architect Sylvain Ragueneau and Moroccan craftsmen and women to give each its own completely individual identity. Expect vintage chandeliers, free-standing bathtubs and stained-glass elements, alongside the exquisite design details that are the result of incorporating generations worth of Moroccan craft heritage into the hotel. Some rooms are flooded with morning light; others receive the warm rays of the setting sun.
“No one room resembles another,” says Branson. “Each has a different hand-crafted stucco ceiling, handmade zellige tiles and polished tadelakt plaster walls.”
Tadelakt is what gives the new rooms their bursts of color, a type of lime plaster combined with pigments sourced in the medina that are mixed and applied by hand to the walls, then rubbed smooth with stones. A final application of olive oil soap adds the characteristic waterproof sheen.
With Branson being a gallerist, curator and founding president of the Marrakech Biennale, it’s no surprise that the contemporary art on display at El Fenn is a major draw in itself. The collection, one of the finest in Morocco, includes works by Sir Antony Gormley, South African artist William Kentridge and Moroccan sculptor Batoul S’Himi, as well as a newly commissioned work by renowned Moroccan visual artist Hassan Hajjaj. It all comes together beautifully to create a hotel that is unlike anything else that exists in the city.
“We’ve been growing oh-so-slowly for nearly 20 years,” says Branson. “Now is the time to consolidate and concentrate on the cultural role we play in Marrakech.”
Rooms at El Fenn start at $450 per night.