Almost 10 years ago, Londoners Emma Wilson and Graham Carter moved to Essaouira, Morocco. Owners of a shop that sold “quirky furniture,” they shut it down and loaded up a red transit van they bought for the haul to their new home. They bought this 18th-century house, spent two years fixing it up–and after it landed a gorgeous seven-page spread in Elle Decoration (“A unique mix of bright white with cave-dweller style, and pop-art plastics with weather-worn beachcomber finds.”), it’s been filled regularly with travelling guests. Built around a central courtyard, sandstone columns and thuya wood ceilings, the modern four-story space is outfitted with eclectic furniture mostly from the ’60s, creating a smart, nuanced look that’s a little bit exotic, a little bit retro. And around every rounded corner there’s a hammock, fire place or outdoor lounging area. Consummate hosts, Graham and Emma personally attend to the guests, giving everything from recos (best market stalls) to a pair of babbouche (Moroccan slippers) to wear and take home. “I love looking after clients and being busy,” says Emma. “We have an excellent reputation now due to word of mouth.”
To stay, it’s $420 per person per week (for parties of two, another $420 is added to supplement cost). Kids under 4 years stay for free. Located in town, just off the tourist path, Dar Beida is a 10-minute walk to the beach. They can arrange someone to either prepare traditional Moroccan meals at the house, or bring them to your door. Rent it at castlesinthesand.com.
In Sunday’s T Magazine, there was an interview with Robin Standedfer and Stephen Alesch–the all-star designers behind New York’s Standard and Ace hotels–and they cited their favorite place to stay. Which, of course, drove us straight to the internet to look up the the Kasbah du Toubkal in the Atlas Mountains. it’s perfectly them–understated style, not too slick, plenty of textiles and and a sense of authenticity.”We like quirky, messier places, where the staff is sort of winging it but have so much compassion,” says Stephen. “The experience is very local. It’s the direction design is headed.”
Even with the opening of such elaborate, storied, luxury hotel giants like La Mamounia and Mandarin Oriental opening in Morocco, I’d much rather stay in a riad–a traditional Moroccan house or palace with an interior garden or courtyard, restored and opened up to travelers. More intimate, it’s like a cross between being a house guest and a hotel guest. And even the most ridiculously luxurious riads are less expensive than conventional hotel rooms. The El Fenn, owned by Vanessa Branson and Howell James, is on the upper end of the price spectrum starting at $370 per night (includes airport transfers, Moroccan slippers and bedside mineral water!), but it’s unfathomably exquisite–with the kind of far-flung, exotic-meets-modern interiors you dream about. Plush sitting areas tucked into secret nooks with intricate architectural detail and beautiful Moroccan textiles and carrara marble pools, plus an in-house hammam and spa, organic garden, and a serious, museum-worthy art collection. Oh, and on occasion, the courtyard fountain is filled with petals. Just for effect. And if that seems a little Julian Schnabel of them, well, I think that’s the point.
Winter Discount Alert: During the months of November, January and December, guests get three nights for the price of two. Also offering winter courses in creative writing, photography and drawing to encourage artists to hunker down for longer stays. You can also rent out the nearby four-room Riad Vanessa (sleeps eight) with leather floors, cream tadelakt walls and a rooftop plunge pool.