Once, decades ago, it was the desire for a quick fix that tempted foreigners to Marrakech; but the giddy highs and freewheeling ethos have since given way to the sort of five-star hospitality and super-deluxe attractions that identify this desert redoubt as a capital on the global jetsetters’ map. Now, an influx of blue-chip residences is drawing international attention from second-home seekers, wooed by villas offering a heady mix of opulent décor and palatial dimensions to compare with the most sought-after European villas.
Morocco’s year-round sunshine, exoticism and proximity to Europe started attracting overseas buyers in large numbers in the early 1990s. The 10-month tourist season, which garners high rental yields for property owners in their absence, was another draw. The first wave – mostly French – renovated run-down riads in the crowded ancient medina of Marrakech, the ochre-tinted Red City. Next came Britons, who preferred the lush Palmeraie district north of the town, where there was space for larger houses with swimming pools.
Both markets still exist, but alongside these there is a new class of buyer from across Europe seeking secluded family villas set within the secure grounds of a five-star hotel, so that they can benefit from the hotel’s services and have the option of placing their property into its rental pool. Partly this is because the scale of villas and their plots around Marrakech is more generous than in Europe; partly because crammed beaches, packed restaurants and eternal traffic jams have lowered the stock of key areas in southern France and Spain.
The latter is one reason why Morocco’s property market withstood the recent economic downturn; the continued growth in high-end tourism means prices have generally remained high. For example, a typical villa in the Palmeraie area costs between €2,500 and €3,000 per square metre, comparable to southern Spain.
“People love that this is a completely foreign world yet right on the doorstep of Europe,” explains Charl Ackerman, international sales and marketing manager for property agent Aylesford International. “On first glance, the area around Marrakech looks like a desert with nothing going on, but delve a bit deeper, investigate what’s happening behind closed doors, and you’ll find more stunning homes and sophisticated cosmopolitan people than you’d have thought possible.”
This new international interest has drawn several top hoteliers into the residential realm. For instance, The Baglioni Marrakech, a five-star venture by the Italian Baglioni Hotel Group, is due to open this December as part of a lavish boutique resort created by developer Ajensa. It will include 15 four- and five-bedroom residences designed by Jade Jagger For Yoo, plus a 1,500sq m spa from the Asian-inspired Six Senses Spa group. Set in 34 acres of landscaped parkland, each residence will have between 675sq m and 840sq m of interior space, plus terraces, pool and gardens. They’ve been designed so that during their owners’ absence, every bedroom can be individually rented through the hotel (to purchase from €1.95m).
“Morocco is a place I’ve been to for many years,” says Jagger. “For me, it’s the new Ibiza: incredibly vibrant and a great place to have a house.” Her marriage of European luxury styles with trad Moroccan themes – tasselled lanterns, lush curtains, filigree brass lamps and Berber rugs so deep you could lose a sheep in them – is nearly eclipsed by the sheer scale of The Baglioni’s residences.
However, even larger properties can be found at nearby Assoufid, a five-star Rocco Forte hotel, villa and 18-hole golf course development on 222 hectares of palm groves, set against the spectacular backdrop of the Atlas Mountains. There are hectare-plus plots for up to 80 villas built on a majestic scale. Available in four different architectural styles (Moorish, Moroccan, contemporary and art deco), the villa designs have up to 900sq m of interior space. And that is before you add the covered terraces, pool houses, hammams, saunas and 200sq m guest pavilions a comfortable distance from the main house (from €2.3m).
“The philosophy of this project is elitist,” says Assoufid’s founder and developer Paul-Eric Jarry. “Our goal is to attract to Morocco those who cannot find this kind of luxury anywhere else.” Indeed, the shift to luxury is a national strategy, with King Mohammed VI personally encouraging upscale tourism. The bedrock of the plan is the King’s own Royal Mansour, an opulent hotel of 53 riads inside Marrakech’s old city, which opened in July. A Relais & Châteux hotel also launched in the region last year, with a Four Seasons and a Mandarin Oriental to follow this autumn.
Within a few minutes’ drive of Marrakech’s medina is Domaine Royal Palm, a residential and hotel resort collaboration between Beachcomber Hotels and local developer Robert Azoulay. With some 250 capacious villas set in 230 hectares, together with two hotels, a spa and an 18-hole golf course, this is another fully serviced and managed, lock-up-and-leave ownership option.
The single-storey villas (from €800,000), couched inside landscaped adobe walls and reflected by their own swimming pools, are stunning exponents of the indoor-outdoor lifestyle enjoyed in this gorgeous climate. Part of each garden has been specifically tiled and landscaped for alfresco dining, with separate kitchens and a sprawling side area filled with additional tables and cushions to slump on after eating.
Among the discerning Britons who have moved to Morocco is property developer Lynn Guinness. When she came to live here eight years ago, she intended to “keep a few chickens”, but later decided to build six houses in the Ourika Valley, 20 minutes’ drive from Marrakech. In a secluded olive grove, Saladin Farm is a walled estate of five-bedroom homes, each about 500sq m, on 1.2-acre plots. They were designed in a traditional but pared-down Moroccan style, in keeping with European ideas of light and space (from €1.5m; just two still available).
Many expats find that they can enjoy a pampered life in Morocco even without five-star hotel services. According to Philip Arnott, Savills International’s preferred agent in Marrakech, there’s a simple reason for this: “Full-time staff here cost around Dh100-120 [about £8-£9] a day, a fraction of those in Spain or France.”
The tranquil Palmeraie area near Marrakech is where some of the most delightful examples of vernacular riad-style homes and lavish Aladdin’s cave villas can be found – albeit much larger than their traditional counterparts. Most are hidden behind high adobe walls whose ornate doors have the tantalising allure of a belly dancer’s veil.
Illustrating this perfectly is Dar Sabra, a somewhat avant-garde, Mexican-hacienda-inspired modernist home. With 15 suites, a private villa, four swimming pools, manicured gardens, a clay tennis court and a spa, Dar Sabra is so big its current owner, François Chapoutot, runs it as a hotel. His striking modern art collection, coupled with water features and flourishing succulents set against ochre-coloured walls, is as stylishly displayed as exhibits in a vast outdoor gallery (£11,908,400).
A stunning example of a high-specification property wedded to unique Moroccan artisanship can be found down an inauspicious dirt road in another part of the Palmeraie. Dar Maghza, a villa of about 1,200sq m set in over two acres of parkland, was built on a truly grand scale. The developer, Marc Leon, designed it as a mixture of Moroccan tradition and modernism, while Gil Dez, who was also behind the Baglioni hotel Villa Gallici in Aix-en-Provence, created the interior. The walls are mostly covered with polished tadelakt plaster or lacquered with mother-of-pearl powder, while local artisans made the filigreed brass lamps, hand-woven draperies and embroidered linens (€5m).
“You can’t pay for that kind of workmanship anywhere in Europe,” says Leon, explaining that even if the skills existed, the cost would be prohibitive. His next project will be on an even more ambitious scale, which he feels will reflect the growing international demand for palatially impressive homes: “During the past two years, many new investors have been coming into Marrakech from Kazakhstan, the Emirates, Holland and Switzerland.”
Further afield, some 40 miles from Marrakech, lies L’Amandier, a development of 15 houses atop a dramatic plateau in the heart of the fiery red Atlas Mountains. The panoramas are awe-inspiring. On this site, young British developer Anwar Harland-Khan, his brother Riaz and architect Nick Gowing are creating a scheme that combines high-tech amenities and modern luxuries with contemporary riad-style exteriors whose geometry has a Zen-like simplicity. A small boutique hotel, through which owners can rent out their properties, is scheduled for completion by autumn 2012 – and being less than 10 minutes’ drive from Sir Richard Branson’s breathtaking Kasbah Tamadot Hotel, it’s no surprise that seven of the 15 houses at L’Amandier have already sold (£319,000 for a two-bedroom property).
L’Amandier is sympathetically incorporated into the surrounding landscape, creating the sense that you have stumbled upon a true sanctuary. To sit on one of its vast roof terraces, contemplating so beautiful a view while the sound of a distant muezzin’s call to prayer hovers in the air is beyond words, let alone a price tag.