Somehow the outside comes inside with you upon entering the hotel’s revolving door: five 10-metre palm trees in pots dominate the large lobby, water flows in two ornamental pools and birds flutter and chirp in three large white cages.
One bird has escaped a cage but remains confined in the lobby. It clings to the outside of the cage, keeping company with its mate inside. Plants in small ornamental gardens covered with smooth white and grey rocks, and decorative flower displays complete the “outdoor” effect. Palm trees? Welcome to the Sheraton Casablanca Hotel, a five-star on the North African Atlantic coast.
Casablanca is the biggest city in Morocco, the commercial centre though not the capital, which is Rabat, 86 kilometres up the coast. The Sheraton Casablanca Hotel is a huge block of concrete, 16 storeys high, with one of the bottom corners cut away, which is where you find the revolving door and the indoor/outdoor lobby. The building looks like a giant chunk of cheese, nibbled by a mouse.
The hotel is part of Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, which calls itself the most global high-end hotel company in the world, with more than 1270 properties across 11 brands in 100 countries. Just one of these is in Hungary, and not in Budapest. It is the Four Points by Sheraton Kecskemét Hotel and Conference Centre (all pictures), a handy location, then, for a weekend away from the capital, perhaps exploring the Puszta.
Here can be found 130 guest rooms, each with one king-size or two twin beds, or five 45-square-metre suites and the 82-square-metre luxury suites. Facilities are a Comfort Bed, desk, high-speed internet access, 100-centimetre flat-screen TV with cable channels, tea and coffee maker, mini bar, bathrobes, hairdryer and safe.
Kecskemét is the home of a Mercedes-Benz factory and is known as the capital of Hungarian Art Nouveau architecture, including the Town Hall, the Ornamented Palace, the Youth Centre and a rather impressive Town Hall. The main square, Szabadság tér, has a variety of churches of different denominations.
While Starwood may not be over-represented in Hungary, its 11 brands are present in surrounding countries. Austria has eight, mostly in Vienna and Salzburg, Croatia has four in Zagreb, Split and Mlini, Romania has only the Sheraton Bucharest Hotel, Serbia has the Metropol Palace in Belgrade, Slovakia has two in Bratislava, and Slovenia one in Ljubljana.
The Aloft Kiev is due to open in January 2017 and Belgrade should have a second Starwood hotel in September 2019. Expansion is ongoing, therefore, and Starwood closed 2015 with 220 new signed hotel management and franchise agreements, a 26% increase over 2014 and marking the sixth consecutive year of increased signings and the most incremental signings in its history.
The company also opened a record of 105 hotels in 2015, representing about 22,500 rooms in 30 countries, also the highest number of openings in its history. This allowed Starwood to reach a number of milestones in 2015, including 700th hotel in the Americas, 250th hotel in Europe, Africa and the Middle East, 300th hotel in Asia-Pacific, 150th hotel in greater China, 300th mid-market hotel, 200th Four Points by Sheraton hotel, 100th Aloft hotel and 100th The Luxury Collection hotel.
Those 11 brands, by the way, that Starwood owns, operates or franchises are St. Regis, The Luxury Collection, W Hotels, Design Hotels, Sheraton, Westin, Le Méridien, Tribute Portfolio, Four Points by Sheraton, Aloft Hotels and Element. (Budapest’s Le Méridien closed in November for “a total transformation and re-imagination” that will see it re-open as The Ritz-Carlton in early spring).
These include hotels, resorts and residences, and Starwood has more than 180,000 employees at its 1270 owned and managed properties. If you stick to Starwood, so to speak, on your travels, the company has its Starwood Preferred Guest program, with stays earning redeemable Starpoints, which are earned per eligible US dollar spent.
Free nights start at 2000 Starpoints and the company says that if a standard room is available, it’s yours, in other words with no blackout dates or restrictions. Also award flights are available on over 350 major airlines, again without blackout dates. Their claim is “More access to more luxury than any other hotel loyalty program”. Membership is complimentary.
Our Starwood stay is for three nights in Casablanca. The hotel is on central Avenue des FAR, a 45-minute taxi ride from the airport. The taxi driver who latches on to us in the terminal is apparently a rogue, because when we emerge outside he is chased off by other taxi drivers. We get into an “official” taxi, worn and with an ominous noise coming from the back axle.
About 6am next morning, from our 12th-floor Sheraton Casablanca Hotel room we hear the distant sound of a muezzin atop his minaret calling the followers to prayer. These days it is probably not a real man but a tape.
The 12th floor is one of the privileged floors that gives free access to the Towers Lounge, where nibbles and drinks are available throughout the day while you catch the news on TV or peer down on the busy city. A smaller breakfast can be taken here but it is better down in the Dafra Restaurant and soon becomes a well-ordered and tasty daily routine of dates, figs, hummus, apricots and other fruits, and almonds and walnuts, plus much more.
Then off to explore the medina, the old quarter, less than 10 minutes walk and we hope this is some of the “real” Morocco that we came to see…