At the Royal Mansour Marrakech, the sprawling spa complex is the jewel in the crown.
I’ve always been a bit resistant to the idea of a wellness retreat. As someone who is deeply attached to their creature comforts, the notion seemed a little too austere for my liking: conjuring images of too-pale wisp-thin women shuffling around some gloomy Alpine resort in white robes and shower slides, IV vitamin drips dangling from their arms. Basically, not my idea of fun. Still, take that concept somewhere warmer, somewhere rich with culture—somewhere like Morocco, say—and you just might be able to convince me otherwise.
The recently launched wellness retreat at the Royal Mansour in Marrakech ticks all those boxes. It’s the first of its kind in North Africa and, as such, does a good job of shaking up Eurocentric wellness cliches. If you’ve ever been to a hammam, then you’ll know that self-care has a centuries-old history in Arabic culture. Originally conceived as a preparation for prayer, the bathing tradition became popular across the region in the 1400s and remains something of a weekly ritual for many Moroccan families to this day. Part of the hotel’s newly renovated 27,000-square-foot palatial spa, the hammam at the Royal Mansour is pretty much fit for a 15th-century Moroccan princess. Or at least that’s how I felt when I visit this past spring.
To be clear, the resort itself is basically a palace, built with all the kind of regal North African trimmings you would expect: marble floors, lace-embedded plaster, intricate wooden ceilings carved by hand (I was not surprised to discover that it took 1,200 local artists to bring to life). The property is like a very luxurious medina all of its own, with individual riads in place of the traditional hotel suite. But the spa is essentially the jewel in the crown here, tucked away in a citrus grove with a lofty, birdcage-style atrium.
There are three types of wellness retreats on offer, ranging from three days to a full 14-day immersion, and all with suitably seductive if nebulous names: rebalance, rejuvenation, and immunity boost. I opt for the three-day “immunity boost.” After all those months of self-isolating, my system is crying out for a tune-up like just about everyone else’s. I start off day one at the spa with the hotel’s in-house nutritionist. We take a full inventory of my daily eating habits. It doesn’t take her long to figure out that, in addition to being mostly pescatarian, I have a wicked sweet tooth. She assures me that between the four restaurants on the property and two Michelin-star chefs, they’re able to cook up a custom healthy meal plan to suit the needs of each guest in the program. In other words, I’ll still get to enjoy dessert. (Later that afternoon, I breathe an audible sigh of relief when my seafood and watercress salad lunch is served with a delicious portion of chocolate banana mousse.)
The highlight of day one, however, is undoubtedly the hammam. I’m signed up for a session before the “restorative” dinner, which seems like perfect timing. Before we get started, I’m treated to what’s known as a takhlita, a traditional deep-conditioning hair wrap that’s custom-mixed with tons of gorgeous local ingredients—argan oil and prickly pear seed—and a good dollop of Leonor Greyl conditioner. When I arrive at the hammam in my robe and hair wrap, I’m greeted with a list of possible body mask options. I go with the Taliouine, so named after a town in southwest Morocco that’s famous for its saffron. I’m told this particular combo of ingredients—honey, safran, argan shell powder—is used in Moroccan bridal rituals.
Typically, hammams are a communal experience, so being alone in the marble-lined bathing rooms feels especially luxurious—not least because I’ve now stripped down to teeny tiny disposable undies. To prepare for the body mask, I’m lathered with black soap, a natural exfoliant, then gently scrubbed from head to toe with what’s known as a kessa or exfoliating glove. I should mention that by now, I’m at peak relaxation, laying on a heated marble surface and being bathed with pails of warm water. (It takes everything in my power not to fall asleep.) The body mask is then applied at the same time as an exfoliating face treatment, a combination of argan oil and sesame paste. When I emerge from the cold bath plunge, it’s as if a layer of stress has been sloughed off my body along with the dead skin.
It goes without saying that, in addition to the hammam, the spa at the Royal Mansour has an extensive list of services to rival just about any in the world. On day two, I’m introduced to watsu, a form of aquatic bodywork that involves stretches, massages, and acupressure in water, which is a particularly soothing experience in the spa’s pool with its atrium windows onto the gardens. That same afternoon I also experience my first chi nei tsang massage, a centuries-old abdominal massage technique that bills itself as deeply detoxifying, but is also surprisingly calming even for someone with a delicate tummy like me. By the time I make it to the Tibetan singing bowl session, I’m completely blissed out.
That said, it’s undoubtedly the quintessentially Moroccan aspects of the retreat that set it apart. On day three, I’m scheduled for an art therapy session with two local artisans who specialize in pottery at the Atelier d’Artiste, a glass-paneled greenhouse on the property. The distinctive terracotta ceramics are everywhere in Marrakech. (I highly recommend factoring in a shopping day at the city’s famous souks. Though as I learn in class, the best Moroccan ceramics are from Fez in the north of the country; apparently the local clay there is particularly fine.) Much to my delight, there is a clay wheel set up in the studio, something I’ve wanted to try my hand at ever since I saw Ghost.
Sadly, I’m a much less skilled ceramicist than I had imagined. The first lumps of clay I try to turn on the wheel don’t get much further than the lump phase, collapsing pathetically between my fingers. With the help of the very patient teachers, I do manage to form a small (if slightly lopsided) bowl in my hands by the end of the session, a souvenir I’m proud to say is currently sitting on my kitchen counter cradling a bottle of olive oil.
Speaking of olive oil, you might be surprised to hear that cooking lessons are part of the program here too; I for sure was. Much like pottery, cooking is not my strong suit (frankly I’m just better at eating). So I sign up for this culinary experience with some trepidation. Setting a toaster on fire in my one-bedroom apartment is one thing, blowing up the kitchen of a luxury resort in Marrakech is another. As it turns out, the cooking lesson is extra special—and entirely safe. For starters, it’s at the hotel’s Moroccan restaurant, La Grande Table Marocaine, easily my favorite place to eat at the resort. Plus, one of my favorite Moroccan dishes—chicken tagine—is on the menu today. Zahira Lasri, the sous chef at the restaurant, leads the one-on-one sessions and, lucky for me, is possibly the most patient chef ever. She sends me off with an arsenal of delicious and perfectly packaged herbs and spices that I will probably never use but do end up looking chic on my kitchen countertop.
By the end of the three days, I’m feeling completely pampered, well-rested, and well-fed. But more than that I realize I’ve barely had any time to check social media, the Internet, or even my emails. Frankly? The best kind of retreat I could wish for.