BOUTIQUE HOTELS

From Marrakech to Beirut : A look at the growing trend of small boutique hotels as a luxury and atmospheric getaway.

Where luxury combines with exclusivity and attention to detail

In a fast-moving and frequently impersonal world, there is a growing trend to get back to small exclusive hotels that provide havens of peace and tranquility away from the stresses of modern life; this is where boutique hotels with their ultimate attention to detail and quality service are winning the hearts
of many travellers.

Boutique hotels frequently occupy older properties that have been restored with loving care to maintain a traditional local atmosphere whilst offering the highest specifications in terms of comfort and amenities.

From Marrakech to Beirut, there are a now a multitude of small but perfectly formed hotels cropping up. Before the term was coined, Jerusalem was home to one of the first Middle Eastern hotels that could be described as ’boutique’.

Hidden within Jerusalem’s twisted cobblestone streets lies one of the Middle East’s most luxurious and fabled hotels, The American Colony. It has been voted the Best Hotel in the Middle East by Condé Nast Traveler and is a rarity in the region for being a member of the elite Relais & Châteaux association. Its guest book reads like a who’s who of the last century: Sir Winston Churchill, Lauren Bacall, Peter O’Toole, Marc Chagall and Richard Gere are just a few of its famous guests.

The American Colony is housed in the former palace of a pasha. Built out of honey-hued Jerusalem stone and boasting sumptuous interiors that have changed little in the Colony’s 122 year’s of existence, it is a reminder of the forgotten palaces of Palestine. One of the hotel’s earliest and most famous guests was T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, who regularly dined at the hotel’s restaurant, as well as playing goalkeeper in the soccer matches that took place
where the swimming pool is today.

Morocco is fast becoming known for its riads, many of which have
been transformed into bijou hideaways. In Marrakech the riads are cool, tranquil retreats from the chaotic city and are perfect boutique hotel material. Dar Les Cigognes is named after the storks that build their sprawling nests on the ramparts of the Royal Palace opposite.

The magic of boutique hotels is that they are frequently unidentifiable as opulent hideaways: the entrance to the typical riad is frequently no more than a simple carved door in an ordinary-looking wall and the Dar Les Cigognes is no exception, but once inside, the architecture and interior design are stunning.

The central courtyard is a deep well of light and air. The sound of the fountain, the smell of the citrus trees and the cool mosaic floor make it the perfect place for an al fresco meal, lit by lanterns and the stars. Morocco has been described by some of the world’s most celebrated designers as being ‘a world of interiors’ and the riad boutique hotels of Marrakech offer some of the most enchanting.

Country revival
Before the Arab Spring, Syria’s tourism was on the up and Damascus has, over the last few years, seen the refurbishment of old town houses being transformed into boutique hotels. Boasting a mere six bedrooms, the Beit Rumman is located in the heart of the Old City. This old town house has been has been carefully restored to capture the lifestyle of the ancient city of Damascus, while providing its guests with a comfortable ambience.

The traditional architecture of the 17th century has been preserved, with each room retaining its own private terrace. The décor includes original arches, handmade ceramics (Kishani), carved stone (Ablaq), intricate hand-painted ceilings, shell-designed doors and moucharabieh woodwork. There is a traditional courtyard with a water fountain rich with extraordinarily artistic details, an oasis scented with jasmine and gardenia.

Egypt has always been popular and for decades, well-heeled visitors to Luxor, Egypt, have checked into the Winter Palace, a grand hotel built on the east bank of the Nile in 1886. But there is now another prized destination, the Al Moudira on the West bank of the Nile.

Many of its architectural features have been salvaged from abandoned 18th and 19th century town houses in Cairo and villages along the Nile Delta and the owner describes it as “a mixture of Lebanese, Syrian and Turkish influences, whereas the colours have an Italian touch”.

Al Moudira’s 54 rooms are grouped into units of four or more, which then open onto private courtyards lush with greenery and fountains, as well as shaded seating areas. The suites are no less luxurious, with columned archways, domed ceilings, private fountains and hand-painted frescoes executed by local artisans.

The bathrooms resemble mini-hammams with vaulted ceilings sporting tiny skylights, from which morning light pours multicoloured reflections onto a sunken bathtub in the middle of the room. The pool, with its adjoining pavilion, is a work of art, so much so that French Vogue recently used it as a backdrop for a fashion shoot.

“With globalisation, high streets all over the world have attained a certain similarity. The logos of Dior and Louis Vuitton that shine out on the Champs Elysées in Paris also gleam out of the windows famous Moscow store GUM over Red Square. To a great extent this had also been happening with hotels,” explained Lilia Akbulatova of the Kempinski hotel chain. “But now there is a move to make hotels less uniform. People appreciate the efforts to make each hotel different with its own stamp or personality.” In this move to ‘personalise’ individual hotels, the boutique concept is streets ahead, with every indication it will stay that way for some time.