Room service: A retreat with equal style and substance
Fellah Hotel, Marrakech
Every afternoon at Fellah Hotel, at about 4pm, a man sits under a sunshade by the pool and plays a kora, a 21-string instrument that resembles a lute but sounds like a harp. The guests are encouraged to gather around him. Mint tea and sweets are served.
"He plays the story of his life," Shaden El Badaoui, the general manager explains. I couldn't tell you what the story was about (my Arabic isn't too hot) but the tune was tranquil, as though his life's journey had been a smooth one. As it turns out, this can't be said for most of the staff at Fellah. El Badaoui is keen to emphasise the hotel's philanthropic credentials, and explains many of the employees had no job nor even a home before they were employed here.
The founder of the hotel, Redha Moali, is a former stockbroker. He was raised by a single mother who had emigrated to Paris from Algeria. They weren't wealthy and Moali received support from the French government to go to university. On his return to North Africa, he was keen to "give something back" and in 2010 he set up an artistic centre around 20 minutes' drive outside Marrakech in the village of Tassoultante. This has since bloomed into Fellah Hotel, which opened in September.
The name translates as "peasant"; a slightly uneasy acknowledgment of the hotel's reliance on local staff and produce. However, Moali has taken time to find out if his staff had any special skills and then worked them into the concept. There's a cooking area by the pool called Touko Place, named after the first person that Moali employed and who now cooks grilled food here.
The hotel is part of – and supports – a larger not-for-profit cultural centre, Dar al-Ma'mun. Yoga teachers, artists and academics stay free of charge in return for hosting classes for the guests, translating library books and offering lectures. It was set up with the intention of fostering international contemporary art and culture, as well as supporting local education.
A stay at Fellah hotel is quite a different prospect to the bijou riads in Marrakech and opulent palace hotels that surround the city – you interact with locals and if you have a skill, you are encouraged to share it with the other guests. Plus there's the added glow that comes from knowing your money is going towards something worthwhile, which staff will be certain to impress on you.
There's also a small farm of rabbits, chickens and donkeys as well as a kitchen-garden bursting with mint, verbena, tomatoes and other edible plants. All the food in the restaurant is either grown or reared on the site, or bought from local farmers. The dining room is the hotel's main hub, with outdoor and indoor seating, a large wooden dining table at the centre surrounded by a random assortment of patterned comfy chairs. Food is a less-inspiring mix of tagines, burgers and Italian dishes, but the cocktails are rather more imaginative. The signature verbena cocktail, made with foliage from the garden, tasted far too healthy to be alcoholic.
The hotel is still in its infancy, but is already attracting a distinctive crowd of bohemian solo travellers and well-heeled families looking for something a bit different. The kids' club has an emphasis on art and education, with the opportunity to milk cows, make sweets, help with the gardening or even indulge in a spot of yoga.
The layout is designed to foster a sense of community, so there are several areas where guests can socialise: by the pool, within the modern villas; even at the large, welcoming reception area where a grand dining table, ready for tea to be laid out for weary arrivals, is your first sight upon entering. Beyond this are views of the Atlas Mountains and the well-kept gardens which surround the property. Narrow stone pathways wind through the villas, with dry, grassy areas of palm trees in between.
At night, when the air smells of dust, smoke and farm animals, the paths are lit atmospherically with huge fires in modernist steel drums.
The Fellah sits between the Atlas Mountains and Marrakech, by the Ourika Valley. It's well placed for excursions into Marrakech. The hotel has a driver, Abdou, who's on hand for excursions. He's a polyglot who'll happily banter in several languages. I opted for a four-hour wander to a Berber village, followed by a trip to a cooperative herbalist in the mountains to buy some argan oil, followed by lunch and a short hike up to a waterfall (€70).
Horse-riding in the desert and hot-air ballooning over Marrakech are also available.
The 65 rooms are spread across 10 villas, with four to eight rooms in each, arranged around communal areas including kitchens, living rooms and a pool. You can either book them individually or take over the whole house for larger parties. All the rooms are different, but there's a well-defined modern Moroccan style running throughout: metal sheets cut through with Moroccan zellige tile designs and quirky accessories such as old wireless radios and wooden rocking horses. The bath tub in the zellige-tiled bathroom deserves a special mention – capacious and round with high sides, it took an age to fill but was also large enough for three of us to get in and soak our sun-sore skin.
A choice of massages is available at the hammam, which also operates as a training school for Thai Wat Po massage techniques. Guests can choose from either a rather brutal Thai massage, or a relaxing one, both good in their own way. Otherwise there's an elderly woman who strips you down and scrubs you with a scouring pad glove until you shed several layers like a snake.
Km13 route de l'Ourika, Tassoultante, Marrakech, Morocco (00 212 5 25 06 5000; fellah-hotel.com).
Doubles start at €170, including breakfast
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