Where Moor Is More: La Mamounia, Marrakech
I’d been meaning to visit this ancient place hewn from the sands of the Sahara, in the shadow of the mighty Atlas Mountains, for years. Besides, journeying to the home of sultans, snake charmers and seething souks from London Stansted to Menara takes just three and a half hours by Boeing 737. That’s less time than it takes to watch Lawrence of Arabia. Or to drive to Stoke.
As we’re catapulted through the Medina in a frenzy of noise, fear and farikah, it simply doesn’t feel as though we’ve earned this level of exoticism. A journey of less than four hours is not enough time to prepare you for the sight of the Jemaa el–Fnaa market square, the world’s biggest melting pot by day and barbecue by night; or for stumbling across a palace encrusted with gold from Timbuktu; or for discovering a trove of earthly treasures buried deep in the souks – labyrinths of leather and cloth. It may not even be enough to prepare for the scorching North African sun and so, desperate for shelter, we make our way towards the mirage of palm trees, looking for shelter and an ointment for our overwhelmed minds.
Those towering fronds, as we were about to find out, belonged to a paen to opulence known and loved the world over; an oasis in the chaos. La Mamounia proves the beauty of this city’s architecture: when the hotel first opened its doors in 1923, the world’s elite flocked here in their droves. Its lavish colonial charms and a fastidious dedication to service would go on to make it the haunt-of-choice for guests including Sir Winston Churchill, Elizabeth Taylor and Princess Caroline of Monaco, with Churchill famously describing it as ‘the most lovely spot in the whole world’, in a letter to FDR.
Maintaining these stratospherically-high standards would inevitably prove a challenge, however, and by the latter part of the century, the package tours from Ohio had descended and it was generally accepted that a makeover was in order. We were here to experience La Mamounia 2.0. Could it recapture the elegance of a bygone era and cater for our pernickety 21st-century demands? Our questions are answered almost immediately as no less than six concierges – resplendent in floor-length velvet capes – lever open the gilded front doors as we arrive. It’s at least five more than the task requires, but the tone is officially set.
Making our way through the sumptuous lobby, past the obligatory Chanel boutique and into a lift that smells of pure leather (because it is made of pure leather), it is clear that we are gravely underdressed. We ascend to the second floor with a selection of minor royalty, ambassadors and French celebrities, and our guest liaison begins to explain how La Mamounia got its mojo back. The low-lit hyper-luxe ambiance is the result of an extraordinary $165m top-to-toe revival, masterminded by French superstar designer Jacques Garcia (of Hotel Costes fame).
Rather than keeping us a safe distance from the rich tapestries adorning every wall, we are actively encouraged to run our fingers over the arabesques and fine calligraphy. Every detail, from an intricately carved Atlas cedar handle to each tiny zellij tile, has been agonised over and created by a veritable army of Moroccan craftsmen. Up to 1,000 people were working here on some days of the renovation. In many ways, it is these ancient arts handed down through generations that have brought La Mamounia bang up to date; they do not date quickly, like multinational brand names or ideas plucked from a trend spotter’s guide. The best is always in fashion, because it doesn’t try to be fashionable.
Our suite is high up in the palm tree canopy with views across the orange groves. In the distance, a vast stretch of azure turns out to be an 8,600 square foot pool heated to 27 degrees all year round. Not a degree either way. In the distance, the drums and pipes of Jemaa el-Fnaa fill the perfumed air with adventure. We sip gin in the colonial Churchill Bar, mint tea on the pool terrace and ice-cold water on the tennis court before our first sunset.
Arising the following day, our plans for an elaborate sightseeing tour are scuppered by one of the finest breakfast spreads in living memory, and we barely manage an outing to the famous Jardin Marjorelle, Yves St Laurent’s horticultural tour de force. Using Marrakech’s most famous symbol, the minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque, as our copper-topped reference point, we made our way back through the melee on foot, but soon end up hopelessly lost in the maze of the Medina. Emerging blinking into the sunlight some hours later, carrying two chess sets, a bottle of hammam oil and what we currently think is probably a poncho, it’s time to retreat to our salubrious sanctuary.
La Mamounia’s endless facilities, including an extraordinary 27,000 square foot spa, put pay to further forays. Leaving the confines of our 8 acre Eden just seemed criminal, despite the riches we knew were on the other side of those sandstone walls. Before long, a blacked-out limousine whisks us back through the streets to the glistening tarmac of Menara. We had barely scratched the surface of Marrakech, but we had travelled to another world in the space of a weekend – and it’s good to know that Stoke now has some competition.
La Mamounia hotel, Avenue Bab Jdid – 40 040 Marrakech. Visit www.mamounia.com or call +212 524 388 600 to book your room. You can also email email@example.com.