Published September 29, 2009
MARRAKECH, Morocco – Winston Churchill invited Franklin Roosevelt here to relax following strategic talks during World War II, and Alfred Hitchcock shot some of "The Man Who Knew Too Much " in the hotel's lobby - which has also been a haunt of the Rolling Stones, Charlie Chaplin, Sharon Stone and many other Hollywood stars for nearly a century.
Now, after a three-year, $176 million makeover, the Mamounia is opening again for business in the oasis gardens of Marrakech in southern Morocco.
A top interior designer has refurbished its rooms in Art Deco and Arabo-Andalusian styles, star-studded chefs have opened restaurants, and a sprawling spa has been added to the 20-acre gardens of palm and olive trees to lure once again the rich and the famous to this legendary hotel set inside the Medieval ramparts of a world heritage site.
"There is only three golden rules about a palace of this standing," says Jacques Garcia, the star French decorator who led restoration efforts: "Elegance, elegance, and elegance."
Built in 1923 when Morocco was a French protectorate, the Mamounia merges the sober lines of Art Deco architecture with the intricacies of traditional arabesque decorations. The hotel has long been considered the masterpiece of this fusion of styles, unique to a handful of Moroccan buildings.
Its great marble hall leads to shaded courtyards where the trickle of small fountains echoes amid multicolored tiling of rare refinement. The pool house copies a 17th-century princely pavilion. Here sculptures in the Moroccan Zellige mosaic style are carved all over the plaster walls, overlooking a 7,500-square-foot swimming pool filtered with ozone. Colonnades and corridors reminiscent of the Alhambra palace in Spain lead to the Churchill bar, complete with black and white photos of jazzmen, a panther-dotted carpet and red leather seating.
"It's a very rare balance," Garcia said as he toured the hotel ahead of its reopening to the public on Tuesday, Sept. 29. Restoring such a place is like touching a myth, he said. "The goal is to come back to the sources of that myth," he said, "and give the impression that every thing here is a masterpiece."
To help him do so, Garcia relied on old photographs from the original buildings, and leaned heavily on Marrakech craftsmen, who have largely kept alive age-old painting, woodcarving and decoration techniques.
"Morocco is probably the only place in the world where artisans can still paint a ceiling exactly like the original 16th-century one," said Garcia.
The Mamounia is so emblematic of Morocco that many people in the North African country and beyond consider the hotel a national heritage - one of the very finest examples of Arabic craftsmanship and an embodiment of Moroccan art.
Before the renovation, many tourists flocking to Marrakech would try to pop in for a cup of mint tea and a chance glimpse at the building, even if they couldn't afford to rent a room. Now the hotel will be more tightly sealed, but Didier Piquot, the manager, says outsiders can still visit if they make a booking at the restaurants.
"The Mamounia is to Marrakech what the Louvres is to Paris, everybody comes to see it," also Garcia said. "Only here, some can stay. It's like spending a night at the museum."
Yet Prince Mamoun, the son of an 18th-century Moroccan king who received the oasis from his father and gave his name to the Mamounia gardens, would probably be astonished at the level of modern luxury brought to this museum-like setting.
At the 27,000-square-foot spa, patrons can lie on white couches on a platform propped by gilded columns over the indoor pool. Deeper underground, the marbled hammam, or Turkish bath, comes with a high-tech power gym, set amid red leather sofas and black ceramic walls that lead to whirlpool baths, saunas, a beauty parlor run by the Shiseido cosmetics brand and a high-end Paris coiffeur.
"I don't think many European spas could rival, and in the U.S. there are probably less than a dozen of this quality," said Marianne Nielsen, the Danish spa manager. The difference is that the Mamounia has also incorporated traditional techniques, like orange-flower lotions or massage creams based on Morocco's unique Argan oil, she said.
In the garden of olive trees, palm groves and jasmine bushes, a man on a vintage tricycle distributes ice cream cones. Alleys of finely groomed sand lead to the clay-court tennis grounds, while the pathway to the Moroccan restaurant has been paved, so that women in stiletto shoes don't damage their heels when they walk to the dining room. Inside the main building, the hotel also offers cuisine created by two chefs each with Michelin two-star restaurants in France and in Italy.
Most of the 136 rooms and 71 suits, meanwhile, overlook the gardens and 12th-century ochre walls circling Marrakech, an international tourism magnet listed as a world heritage site by the United Nations' UNESCO agency for learning and culture.
And beyond the southern Moroccan desert town, the view stretches to the snowcapped peaks of the Atlas mountain range, a sight Churchill found so soothing he returned time and again to the Mamounia to paint from his room's balcony. One such view painted in 1935, "Sunset Over the Atlas Mountains," was auctioned in New York for $350,000 last year. Another painting he made of Marrakech in 1948 and later offered to President Harry Truman fetched $950,000.
With a staff of 770, or four per room on average, the Mamounia's luxury comes at a price: $776 to $10,350, depending on the size of the suite and the season - spring and autumn are the most sought after, though it is usually sunny all year round in Marrakech.
Despite the steep fees, and the long plane rides required to get here, the Mamounia is so renowned that Piquot, its French manager, is confident the hotel will fill up fast - especially with longtime patrons curious to see what happened with the three-year makeover.
"Even among the most mythical hotels, this one is exceptional," said Piquot, who in the past oversaw places as illustrious as the Ritz in Paris and the Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong.
He said people come here for a type of luxury that can't be duplicated. Because of its setting and because it is owned locally rather than by an international chain, the Mamounia doesn't compete with other five-, six-, or seven-star hotels, Piquot said.
In fact, it hasn't even sought any star. "In all humility, we're not in the competition," he said.