t’s a cloudless April afternoon when Meryanne Loum-Martin greets me at the entrance of her boutique hotel, Jnane Tamsna, in Marrakech, Morocco. She’s wearing a navy-blue dress, an ivory headband, and a statement necklace made of several strands of pearls.
“Would you like something to drink?” she asks. “We have fresh grapefruit juice from the garden.”
Little luxuries like this are what you can expect at Jnane Tamsna, a sanctuary that has 24 rooms spread across bright-yellow villas spread across nine acres of gardens containing date palms, olive trees, and an abundance of organic fruits and vegetables. It lies in the Palmeraie district, about a 20-minute drive north from the bustling Medina, amid thousands of palm trees and feels a world away from the rest of the city.
Loum-Martin sensed the distinction immediately when she arrived in Marrakech in 1985 to search for a place for her parents to build a vacation home.
“Thirty-five years ago, it was all alfalfa fields and palm trees. Camels, donkeys, sheep. It looked biblical,” she recalls. “If there had been a big river, you would have expected to see Moses floating by in a basket.”
The calm appealed instantly to Loum-Martin, a French-Senagalese lawyer-turned-hotelier who was born in Côte d’Ivoire to a Senegalese diplomat father and West Indian lawyer mother, and grew up in cities including London and Moscow before establishing roots in Paris. Following her first visit to Marrakech, she began monthly trips from Paris to the city and now runs one of the lushest retreats in the Palmeraie.
“I grew up in big cities. I didn’t come abroad to live in another big city,” she says. “I wanted a garden. I wanted a garden before I even met a botanist.” Loum-Martin’s husband is Dr. Gary Martin, an American ethnobotanist and the founder of the Global Diversity Foundation.
The couple lives on the grounds of Jnane Tasmna, which gives it an intimate feel. More than a hotel, it comes across as a bohemian-chic hideaway for creatives and travelers. Its library holds hundreds of books and magazines, as well as furniture and paintings that each have a unique story of origin. No one room in the hotel is the same, and each contains rich colors and treasures from Loum-Martin’s travels.
“There are places that are 10 times more luxurious than ours, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have soul,” Loum-Martin says. “When you come to Jnane Tamsna, you stay at the Martins’. There isn’t going to be a new manager in three years. This is our home.”
But home isn’t necessarily a straightforward concept for some people. Loum-Martin is the first and only Black woman to own a hotel in Morocco. She thinks her nomadic upbringing is in part what attracted her to Marrakech.
“A lot of people don’t want to live away from home and they have a stronger sense of belonging to a place than I did,” she says. “I had such a cosmopolitan and nomadic life. I feel at home everywhere. I don’t feel at all obliged or bound to be anywhere.”
She continues, “I chose Marrakech out of freedom. I wasn’t obliged to be in France. I wasn’t obliged to be in Senegal. Most people don’t have this freedom.”
Loum-Martin believes Marrakech is a place that many foreigners, particularly those without an identity tied to one place, can establish themselves.
Noting the influence of Jewish, Muslim, African, Berber, and French influence on the city, she says, “Where else in the world can you bring your own cultural heritage with its aesthetics and choices and slide it into the local style, which has such a strong personality in itself? … And yet the mix ends up feeling just as much like you as it does Marrakech.”
For a design-conscious creative and hotelier like Loum-Martin, the city is a constant muse.
“What I love here is the daily inspiration. Everything is an inspiration,” she says. “I’m still not blasé about the place. After a while, even if you love a place, you often stop paying attention to it. You take it for granted like an old relationship. That’s never happened to me in Marrakech. I was in the medina recently and it still felt magical.”
Loum-Martin admits she “had a sense” that Marrakech was for her before she ever stepped foot in Morocco.
“It attracted creative people that I liked and admired,” she explains. “I remember thinking if Yves Saint-Laurent loves it, there must be a lot of things to love about it.”
Saint-Laurent, the late fashion designer who adored Marrakech so much that his ashes are now scattered and buried in the city, famously credited it for breathing fresh air into his work. “Marrakech taught me color. Before Marrakech, everything was black,” he once said.
The transformation in Loum-Martin’s career is arguably even more dramatic, given that before Marrakech, she was a lawyer in Paris. Since becoming a hotelier, her clients have included Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, and Nicole Kidman. Hugh Jackman has visited Jnane Tamsna many times and Naomi Watts celebrated her 50th birthday there.
“If someone had told me when I was a teenager, ‘You will be in the hotel business one day,’ I would have laughed,” she says. “But I love doing this precisely because I didn’t go to school for this. I do it on my own terms. I do it because it’s an opportunity to meet fantastic people and experience other cultures and share the beauty of Morocco.”
Loum-Martin and her husband are most passionate about sharing their love of their adopted country and the experience of living in the Palmeraie. She says the importance of authentic travel is something she’s been passionate about since booking a solo trip to India in 1984. There, she met the uncle of the Maharaja of Jodhpur and–well, that, of course, is an adventure worthy of its own story.
“I need to start writing these things down,” Loum-Martin muses.
I shake my head in disbelief. “I feel like you have lived many lives,” I reply.
Loum-Martin’s eyes sparkle mischievously as she laughs.
“Oh, if only you knew.”