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Staying Power: La Mamounia, Marrakech

This Moroccan gem - subject of the latest entry in our series profiling world-famous hotels - offers a masterclass in how to refresh an icon.

Alan Keohane alan@still-images.net

Winston Churchill told Franklin D. Roosevelt it was “the most lovely spot in the whole world”, and called the views from its terraces “paintaceous”. When The Stones were exiled from the UK by drug-related press hounding in the late 1960s, it was to here they repaired each evening to kick back and – possibly having stuffed some mind-bending buds into the clay bowls of their foot-long ‘Sebsi’ pipes – watch sundown blush the peaks of the Atlas Mountains.

Alfred Hitchcock shot The Man Who Knew Too Much here, and its exotic gardens inspired Oliver Stone to do the same with his epic historical drama Alexander. Charlie Chaplin, Omar Sharif, Joan Collins, Martin Scorsese, Marlene Dietrich, Nelson Mandela, Yves Saint-Laurent and Kirk Douglas have all signed its guestbook, as has Paul McCartney, who wrote “Mamunia” – a paean to the word’s Arabic meaning, “safe haven” – here in 1973.

 

Alan Keohane alan@still-images.net

Set on a former royal estate dating from the 12th century, La Mamounia is found in the centre of gravity of a city Churchill Christened “Paris of the Sahara”. Its 17 acres of gardens – in which olive trees, orange and lemon trees jacarandas and palms compete for attention with jasmine flowers, rose bushes, manicured lawns and 1,200 plant species – is a botanical moat separating guests from the medina, the famous Koutoubia minaret and Jemaa El-Fnaa Square.

A hotel since 1923, La Mamounia’s blend of fauvist-hued Art Deco and Orientalist décor characterised it from the start, as dictated by urban planner Henri Prost, who was tasked with redesigning the entire Hivernage neighbourhood as a winter refuge for French diplomats. Many observers felt that the hotel’s rustic authenticity was undermined by a 2009 refit (involving LED advertising screens, alarmingly): but another five-month renovation last year saw Parisian designers Patrick Jouin and Sanjit Manku turbo-charge La Mamounia’s inherent, but latent, architectural charm.

Alan Keohane alan@still-images.net

This refit was no exercise in nostalgia: “If you don’t change a venue, it becomes a museum,” Manku has stated, and he and Jouin were inspired by the line “everything must change so that everything can stay the same,” from the novel The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. As such, this is a refit that has simultaneously reinvented La Mamounia while revitalising its soul.

Visitors of yore coming to La Mamounia today will be pleasantly surprised not only by custom designed pieces of furniture, lamps and carpets (not to mention audacious statement pieces such as the curved bar in enamelled lava stone above which hangs a fabric-and-brass chandelier in the pool pavilion) but a cinema, as well as a subterranean ‘Oenothèque’ beneath the swimming pool, where 12 guests can dine surrounding an elongated table flanked by more than 2000 rare wines. The rooftop of one restaurant, meanwhile, has been converted into the kind of hip lounge zone whose evening ambience is forecasted by the decks which serve as its focal point.

New restaurants include L’Asiatique by Jean-Georges (Asian fusion), L’Italien (a luxury trattoria reinvented by Jean-Georges Vongerichten) and Salon de Thé par Pierre Hermé, a tea room serving French toast, cakes, club sandwiches, croque-monsieur and lobster roll. Another new culinary concept sees caviar made specifically for the hotel by the oldest specialists in Paris, Kaviari, offered to guests in the hushed, secluded 20-seat Churchill Bar (now “Le Churchill”).

In the 135 rooms, 71 suites  and three-bedroom riads, exquisite Moroccan craftsmanship – zouac ceilings, mashrabiya entrances, marble and zellige intertwined with artisanal precision – is executed with a refreshing, contemporary flourish (consider The Al Mamoun Suite, in which the collection of paintings and artworks see the Orient and the Baroque period sing in unlikely harmony).

The congenial warmth of the service, meanwhile, continues from the moment you receive your glass of almond-and-date flavoured milk on arrival to what will inevitably be a truly reluctant exit. Unlike when The Stones, Churchill et al visited, Marrakech these days has close to 30 five-star hospitality offerings: La Mamounia, resoundingly, remains the most – excuse the accidental homophone – moreish.

The Al Mamoun Suite starts from around £4,500 per night. mamounia.com/en

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