Shades of Morocco: Heure Bleue

An iconic retreat renders a colorful experience for guests lucky enough to find sybaritic shelter here in Essaouira.

After bouncing along the road through olive and argan groves, a couple of hours later we arrived at our destination.  The massive Heure Bleue squatted on the southern edge of the medina. Despite its obvious historical credentials, it was not a sight of great architectural beauty. Imposing, certainly. Beautiful, not so much. We were ushered over the threshold by a huge, smiling doorman in a fez. Once inside, we discovered a hidden treasure. The hotel’s central patio extended around us, plant-filled and lined with elaborate blue tiles and ornate motifs woven into the soft sandstone pillars. While this intricacy was used sparingly, and the overall ambiance felt simple rather than overwrought: blue on white; white on dun; splashes of green from the huge palms and yuccas. We sat down, sipped our almond milk, nibbled at the selection of Moroccan sweets, and gazed around at our new intriguing surroundings.

Wonderful Rooms

Our room, a senior suite, was rangy and elegantly attired in dark wood. The extensive bathroom was bedecked in a grand mix of black, fossil-flecked marble, convincingly antique-looking fixtures and ornate fittings. But a stay at a hotel as beautiful as Heure Bleue wasn’t meant to be spent loitering in the bedroom. There were far too many other pleasures to indulge in.

We headed to the bar and restaurant.  That night, ‘cocktail hour’ was announced by the tinkling of a piano, accompanied by a dove cooing from his perch high up in a palm tree. While the prices in the bar might make even a thirsty Rothschild splutter, we sat back and imbibed a knockout mandarin concoction in the rarefied hush of the patio that exuded old-fashioned grandeur.

Dinner unfolded as an equally impressive affair. A starter of crumbling seafood parcels came hot on the heels of a delicious amuse-bouche of delicate vegetable pastilles. The main course, a true wonder, arrived as shoulder of lamb that fell from the bone at the merest prompting of a fork, along with apricots and cous cous, all of which went down splendidly with a toothsome tipple from Meknes.  Unsurprisingly, Berber chef Ahmed Hanadour, one of a vanguard of young Moroccan male chefs, has managed to gain the hotel’s restaurant a reputation as one of the finest in the country.

Heavenly Hammam

The next morning a hammam session was speedily arranged. We went for the traditional black soap scrub and were not disappointed. Shown into a gloomy cocoon of black marble and tadelakt alcoves underneath a glittering constellation of tiny stars, we were rubbed, scrubbed and rinsed before being released an hour later, blinking into the daylight in a state of near-comatose relaxation.

We spent much of the rest of our stay, however, up on the roof terrace where guests reclined on stylish loungers surrounded by an expansive space of white and blue dotted with cacti, aloes and other spiky exotic succulents. We divided our time between taking dips in the gorgeous pool, reading while cooled by the alizee breeze, and snoozing in a state of languor and utter contentment. We shared the roof top with a blend of well-to-do older couples and handsome European socialites.  A French couple gave us a disdainful Gallic glance from under their huge designer shades at our sun-starved London bodies as we passed.

The magnificent terrace managed to somehow to make you feel both separated from the city, and at the same time, very much a part of it. The views, which ranged from the crumbling neighbouring riads to the broad sweep of the bay in the distance, were astonishing. Every once in a while a seagull perched itself on the blue railings and gazed out to sea. Then, having surveyed the scene to its apparent satisfaction, it would rise into the air, hover for a moment–bright white against the unblinking, azure blue of the sky–and wheeled away again across the town.

Colonial Vibe

Despite only having 30 rooms, Heure Bleue felt vast and gloriously palatial. But truth be told, it also felt rather un-Moroccan,  and very un-Essaouira.  The slightly strung-out hippy vibe that pervaded the rest of the city doesn’t even make it past the front door. Instead, a resolutely old-fashioned, British colonial vibe permeated with the rattan chairs and heavy, scented mahogany ceilings and panelling. A stay here called for a game or two of billiards, a boozy game of backgammon or a stiff G&T under the baleful eye of a buffalo’s head. (Just to reiterate the point: you’re also shepherded onto the premises by a doorman in a fez, for goodness sake!) It’s an audacious conceit. And it’s a testament to the utter conviction that’s been brought to bear on the design that it manages to pull it off. I spent most of my stay half-expecting to bump into a bluff old colonel type spluttering into a cigar from beneath his sun-bleached solar topee!

Pursuit of Perfection

Being rather out of kilter with the rest of the city never stopped Heure Bleue from being one very good hotel. In fact, few (if any) luxury hotels in Morocco are as impeccably run. Over coffee one morning, General Manager Francois Laustriat told me, rather revealingly: “It’s important to live like a guest, to see what they see.”  To which end, he always has kept a room free for himself to run the rule over the place.

Day and night his 73 staff members quietly, even a little obsessively, went about their business cleaning windows, polishing surfaces, watering the plants and, of course, seeing to the guests. The concierge, for instance, padded tirelessly around the corridors and communal areas, looking for someone to whisk off to the highly-regarded local vineyard or the nearby Gary Player-designed course.

While it was not absolutely perfect (the pool table had a slant that quite put me off my game…), Heure Bleue truly aspired to be, especially under Francois’ beady eye. And that’s what made it so special. If ultimately, it was a little hard to fall in love with Heure Bleue, it was absolutely impossible not to admire and enjoy the property. It was rather like an aging Victorian society figure–glamorous, ever so slightly aloof and utterly, utterly magnificent.

About the reviewer:
Ben Cooper is Editorial Director of luxury hotels specialists TravelIntelligence.com. On a recent trip to Morocco he had the pleasure of spending a couple of nights at Heure Bleue and counts it amongst the finest places he’s ever stayed in.

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