Philippe Starck's design hotel makes a great base in Marseille

Marseille's having a moment in the spotlight as 2013's Capital of Culture so now's the time to go. Jane Duru enjoys a memorable stay at the latest outpost of designer Philippe Starck's hotel empire - the oh-so-hip Mama Shelter.

First impressions
Is it a club? Is it a bar? No, it’s a hotel! But on a balmy Sunday night, with the addictive hook of Daft Punk’s Get Lucky pulsating through the air, and a dense crowd of louche smokers hanging about outside, it takes me a good five minutes to figure that out. I thought I was standing outside the Marseille equivalent of Pacha; turns out there’s just a very raucous private party on. Something tells me this isn't unusual. Jostling my way through the crowd into the small but slick lobby I’m greeted by a receptionist, whose immediate friendliness wipes away fears of any anticipated snootiness. Check-in is amiable and quick.

Mama shelter lobbyChoose between an iMac concierge or a human one
Mama Shelter

Ideal for…
Trendy types will love the quirky modern design, and anyone looking for a good time within the confines of their hotel will meet their match here. Marseille veterans wanting to try something different may also be pleasantly surprised.

The room
My room is caught somewhere between the acetic minimalism of a nun’s cell (albeit a specced out version, complete with wall-mounted iMac) and a showgirl’s dressing room. Bare concrete walls may feel too severe for some, but the room is saved from dinginess by the window running the entire length of the room, overlooking the inner courtyard. The various mirrors around the room are framed in bright white lights, casting the flattering glare reminiscent of a vanity mirror, and quirky touches come in the form of an acid yellow wardrobe, a log stool, and multicoloured handwoven baskets. Scrawled linoleum flooring tops it off.

Mama Shelter roomQuirky features lend a cheeky humour
Mama Shelter

I’m pleasantly surprised by the iMac, which as well as serving as television, city guide and room service menu, has a selection of free films, and can also be used as a personal computer if you ask reception for a keyboard. The deluxe room I'm staying in also has a sofa bed, which feels comfortable enough to compete with most mattresses. I could easily sleep on it – were it not for the large double bed opposite. All I want to do is dive into its soft doughy folds but I resist temptation and check out the rest of the room. The bathroom is all glossy white surfaces, but it’s rather a tighter squeeze than I’d expected, with the toilet almost fitted under the basin. The rainhead shower is great, but in a deluxe room I’d have hoped for the option to take a bath.

Best room?
There’s only one suite, but if you can’t nab that, the deluxes are comfortably sized. Choose a room on one of the higher floors and facing the inner courtyard, for a view out over the surrounding buildings.

Mama shelter restaurantFollow breakfast with a full sized game of table football
Mama Shelter

Eating and drinking
The hotel restaurant and bar serves as its social hub, acting as chill-out space during the day before transforming into an buzzing restaurant come evening, and on the weekends, the place for a good old knees up. Breakfast is a self-service affair with a decent selection of pastries, fruit, cold meats and cooked breakfast on offer, along with comics and newspapers as reading material. It’s not overly lavish but despite this, queues don’t seem to be a problem. For lunch and dinner, the menu, designed by Alain Senderens, sticks to unfussy casual classics done well, with burgers and steak frites, that will keep most diners happy.

With hip DJs invited in on weekends, playing everything from electronica to hip hop, the bar is a busy mixture of locals and hotel guests – handy for those who want Marseille’s nightlife right on their doorstep. Another guest perk is that during the summer, there's no need to worry about getting to the beach early to bag a sunlounger, as staff can reserve a spot on Mama beach, a private local beach, 15 minutes’ walk away.

Room for improvement
The trade-off for having a vibrant social life in the hotel is the noise that comes with it. On weekends, light sleepers should avoid rooms facing over the entrance or else prepare to be disturbed by the sounds of the bar.

Mama beach Le PanierAfter the private beach explore Le Panier district
Mama Shelter; Jane Duru

Out and about
When it comes to exploring Marseille, the staff couldn’t be more willing to help out so take advantage of their expertise. A map guide to the city is given out upon check-in, bursting with curated restaurant, shopping, and gallery recommendations, making a good starting point for would-be explorers. Being located in Cours Julien – a grittier end of town than more central Vieux Port to be sure – guests may encounter parts of Marseille not usually seen, but there’s nothing like seeing the ensemble cast of a city to get a sense of what makes it tick. It’s still fairly accessible, with two metro stops only five minutes away, and the port just a 15 minute walk away.

Marseille is Capital of Culture for 2013 and with the new MuCEM and Villa Méditerranée museums now open, a visit to these is obligatory. Afterwards, wander the meandering streets of Le Panier neighbourhood for Marseille soap shops, galleries and wonderful bric a brac shops selling old furniture and objet d’art.

64 Rue de la Loubière,
Tel: +33 (0)82 500 6262.
Prices start from €69 a night for a double room

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