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The Great Marrakech Makeover

Jack Smith

For memorabilia hunters, the auction on May 24, 2009, at Marrakech’s Palais des Congrès was a bonanza. The 5,000 items on the block—chandeliers, carpets, bathroom fixtures, monogrammed tableware—had until then graced one of the world’s most celebrated hotels, and speculation abounded over which head of state might have splashed in this bathtub, which famous artist may have sipped from this martini glass, or which pair of movie stars might have tousled this king-size bed. Some wondered, too, what the auction, which brought in $4.2 million, bade for the future of Morocco’s legendary La Mamounia.

Interested parties found out last September, when, following a three-year, $180 million renovation, La Mamounia reopened to reveal its long-awaited new look. For some devotees of the Marrakech landmark, the change came as a shock. This was not simply a makeover; it was an entirely new hotel.

In La Mamounia’s lobby, nary a trace remained of the Art Deco ambience for which the hotel was known. Suites and rooms, too, had been stripped of the marquetry reminiscent of transatlantic liners of the 1930s. Fanciful themed accommodations, such as the Orient Express suite—once replete with souvenirs from the fabled Istanbul-to-Paris train line—were a thing of the past. Even the uniformed page boys, who formerly moved through the lobby and called guests to private intrigues, were nowhere to be found.

"Nobody needs them any more," says Didier Picquot, general manager of La Mamounia, over lunch by the hotel’s newly expanded swimming pool. "Today everybody has cell phones."

So much for nostalgia.

"Every 20 years or so a luxury hotel has to renew itself," continues Picquot, who joined the hotel in time to orchestrate the makeover. "After all, times and tastes change, and hotels must too."

Change, however, can be painful, especially when the place in question is laden with history and memories. Nonetheless, says Picquot—who managed such historic properties as the Ritz in Paris and the Pierre in New York before coming to Marrakech—old hotels must remain fresh, dynamic, and relevant. "Otherwise, instead of offering a luxury experience, you’re just wallowing in the past."

Considering its history, La Mamounia could hardly be faulted for a bit of wallowing. Part palace and part oasis, the original hotel owed much of its magic to Marrakech. For nearly a millennium, the Red City—so called for its walls that turned a fiery hue in the setting sun—was the juncture of trade routes between Africa, Europe, and Asia. Its main square, the Jamaa el-Fna, or Place of the Dead, remains today a riot of snake charmers, storytellers, holy men, and witch doctors, a marketplace where craftsmen and customers haggle over everything from pots and rugs to honey and hammered jewelry.

Within Marrakech’s bustling and labyrinthine inner city, or medina, wealthy Moroccans of the 17th through 19th centuries constructed private and mysterious retreats known as riads. Hidden behind crude mud walls, these pleasure palaces revolved around courtyards and gardens colored by bougainvillea, roses, and lemon and orange trees. The grandest example of all was the riad 18th-century Moroccan Sultan Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah built for his son, Prince Mamoun, amid 20 acres of gardens on the edge of the medina. History knows the prince best for the soirees he hosted on the lushly landscaped grounds.

Perhaps inspired by the original owner’s sense of hospitality, the occupying French transformed Mamoun’s riad into a hotel, La Mamounia, in 1923. Here, scented by flowers, the romance of the West fused with the mysticism of the East. At night the hotel corridors resonated with the gentle jingling of belly dancers’ cymbals and the sonorous call to prayer from the neighboring Koutoubia Mosque. The hotel’s guests included Orson Welles, Édith Piaf, Charlie Chaplin, and Marlene Dietrich. Winston Churchill persuaded Franklin D. Roosevelt to join him at La Mamounia for strategic talks during World War II, describing the orange gardens as " . . . the most lovely spot in the whole world." Post war, Churchill wintered at the hotel, moving his canvas and easel from balcony to balcony to catch the gardens in their best light.

For Churchill and his ilk, La Mamounia was not just the best place to stay in Morocco, it was the only place to stay. "It was the only luxury hotel from Cairo to Timbuktu," says Jerry Sorkin, of Radnor, Pa., who taught courses on North African rugs at the University of Pennsylvania and now organizes tours throughout the Arab world. "It was where you met everybody moving through North Africa. It was like a club; just the mention of La Mamounia said that you were sophisticated, a person of taste, and a world traveler."

Morocco gained its independence from the French in 1956, and with the departure of the bourgeoisie from the more modern European quarter, the old social order turned on its head. Affluent Moroccans began purchasing swanky, modern apartments from the French and abandoned the old family riads in the medina.

In the late 1960s, American oil heir Jean Paul Getty Jr. took a shine to one of these deserted riads while visiting Marrakech. He bought the old palace—one of hundreds in the medina—for $26,000 and asked his friend Bill Willis, an architect and interior decorator from Memphis, Tenn., to restore it.

Willis not only completed Getty’s property but also acquired one of his own, the former harem quarters of a larger 18th-century riad. By the early 1970s, Willis had transformed his ramshackle property into an Arabian Nights fantasy that oozed seduction and intrigue from every tapestry, jabot, and swag. The home appeared in high-profile magazines, and the once-clandestine palace soon became an international must-see: Britain’s Prince Charles, a noted art and architecture buff, stopped by for cocktails; Mick Jagger came over for dinner, as did Catherine Deneuve, Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Bergé, and Jean-Paul Gaultier.

Thanks in part to Willis’ wonderland, it eventually became de rigueur in French fashion circles to own a palace in Marrakech. Riads that were once ghostly shells were transformed into private vacation homes or exclusive "hobby hotels," run by and for the international crème de la crème. Staying at La Mamounia, it seemed, no longer possessed the cachet it once did. "You could tell just by sitting in the lobby," says Sorkin. "The parade was passing La Mamounia by."

"In the 1980s an American tourist might come to Marrakech and spend five or six nights at La Mamounia," says local guide and antiques dealer Mohamed Bouskri, whose own 11-?room Riad Kniza includes such amenities as a hammam, an ozone-purified pool with a swimming current, and a bar on its top terrace where musicians play the haunting Gnawa music. "But in the 1990s they were spending two or three nights there and two or three nights in a restored riad. It’s a more authentic experience, and what visitors to Morocco want more than anything is authenticity."

The medina’s riad renaissance has continued in more recent times—Angsana Hotels and Resorts, a subsidiary of Singapore’s Banyan Tree group, has opened six such retreats in Marrakech in the past four years alone—while boutique hotels and golf resorts have sprouted in the Palmeraie, the suburban oasis known to expatriates as the Moroccan Beverly Hills. Foremost among the Palmeraie properties is Amanjena, which opened in 2000 as Singapore-based Amanresorts’ first hotel on the African continent.

But the most serious threat to the old La Mamounia became clear later in the decade, with the first ripples of a new wave of luxury hotels in Marrakech. In 2006, construction commenced on the Royal Mansour Marrakech, a hotel in the medina owned by none other than King Mohammed VI. In 2008, Four Seasons began building a 140-room hotel adjacent to the city’s Menara Gardens. By the end of the decade, Mandarin Oriental had broken ground on a resort outside of town, and W Hotels, Raffles, Rocco Forte, Baglioni Hotels, and Park Hyatt had announced plans for properties of their own in Marrakech.

Scheduled to open by the end of this year, the Mandarin Oriental Jnan Rahma is a stunner, even in its current state of construction. The property is located within the Palmeraie, about 25 minutes outside the medina, and much of its 125 acres have already been elaborately landscaped. None of the Mandarin’s 161 guest rooms will be alike, but each will include a full-size terrace, all the better for overlooking the gardens and the resort’s vast green-marble pool. A spa will incorporate 13 treatment rooms, a yoga temple, and two Moroccan hammams.

Closer to the heart of town—just five minutes from the medina—the Four Seasons Hotel Marrakech will open in 2011 with a hammam-equipped spa of its own, along with 203 guest rooms and multibedroom riads and villas. But the most immediate challenger to La Mamounia’s eminence is the Royal Mansour, which is scheduled to open just down the block from the refurbished legend this July. Tucked behind a bronze gate, the resort will re-create a historic medina, replete with Andalusian courtyards, winding alleyways, and rooftop terraces with sweeping views of the city and the Atlas Mountains. Its 53 riads will range in size from 1,400 square feet to a palatial 21,520 square feet, and will be complemented by a 26,900-square-foot spa and a pool pavilion surrounded by a moat.

In the face of this mounting competition, La Mamounia had little choice but to change. It had been some 20 years since the hotel had last undergone a renovation, a $50 million update that morphed the property into what The New York Times called "an Art Deco fantasy." Picquot was determined not to repeat this mistake. "I wanted to restore the glamour of the ’20s and ’30s, to make La Mamounia an international destination once more," he says. "But we couldn’t do it with Art Deco. After all, Morocco is not an Art Deco country."

On the contrary, it is a country whose design traditions are rich in symbolism and conventions often unfamiliar to Western audiences. But not to French decorator Jacques Garcia, who had earned acclaim for his work in such spaces as the Hôtel Costes and Hôtel des Beaux Arts in Paris. Garcia had a gift, his devotees said, for creating atmospheres that took the viewer to places where they had never been before. That is one way of describing the Arabic-Andalusian ambience he created for the all-new La Mamounia.

La Mamounia’s Art Deco past seems tame in comparison with the property’s new design. Under Garcia’s direction, the hotel has become Pharaonic, with corridors sculpted from black marble leading past colonnades and fountains, and plump burgundy-colored settees veiled mysteriously behind beaded curtains. Zillij, hand-carved terra-cotta tile work covered with enamel and set into plaster to form geometric mosaics, is everywhere—in fountains; on ceilings, floors, and tables; and in stylized "tree of life" symbols on the walls. Flowers abound in pots and urns, while ornate fountains drip over rose petals.

La Mamounia’s guest rooms—once said to be better suited to an Agatha Christie play than a five-star hotel—have been enlarged and remade with hand-carved ceilings and cedar paneling, hand-sewn carpets from the High Atlas Mountains, and richly upholstered chairs. "People ask why the renovation took three years," says Picquot. "It is because the hotel is 95 percent new and almost completely handcrafted. Morocco is one of the few places in the world where you can find artisans for a project of this magnitude. No detail was overlooked."

Nor were any of the senses ignored. La Mamounia commissioned famed perfumer Olivia Giacobetti to produce signature scents for the hotel, where hints of fresh dates now waft from candles that flicker and glow throughout the property. Essences du Maroc created a skin-care line of exfoliants, cleansers, and regenerating oils exclusively for the hotel’s guests. And where once there was what Picquot dismisses as "two small cabins," there is now the 27,000-square-foot Mamounia Spa, which offers everything from a traditional Moroccan hammam to beauty services by Japanese cosmetic conglomerate Shiseido.

La Mamounia also has four new restaurants, including one each from Michelin-starred chefs Don Alfonso Iaccarino and Jean-Pierre Vigato. Especially memorable for seafood lovers is the heaping array of shrimp, prawns, scallops, sushi, and raw oysters served at Le Pavillon de la Piscine, adjacent to La Mamounia’s pool area.

Not to be ignored were La Mamounia’s staff members, who now don uniforms by the French fashion team Terre & Ciel Conseil. The designers created different looks for more than 170 positions, including bellmen, waiters, concierges, airport greeters, and gardeners.

The staff and other Marrakech residents appear to be pleased with the changes to La Mamounia, which has long been a source of pride in the city. "I’m 46 now, but I’ve known all about La Mamounia since I was six," says Gerard Madani, the hotel’s director of operations. "I’m happy to see the hotel go back to the Moroccan style instead of the Art Deco look. And I think our guests are, too. This is the way it always should have been."

Riad-keeper and guide Bouskri agrees: "My guests have been enchanted by the fabulous changes at La Mamounia," he says. "Our grande dame has become more beautiful and elegant in her new designer caftan."

She has also become darker. A guest moving through the dimly lit lobby over the black marble floor may be excused if he feels a momentary sensation of zero gravity. Hallways to the rooms are also much murkier than those in American or European hotels, and elevators are hidden away in alcoves. This, says Picquot, was all part of the grand scheme. "The hotel is designed to deliver a hands-on level of service," he explains. "We have personnel everywhere; if you can’t find something, people will see you and take you where you want to go."

This personal touch can sometimes be misinterpreted. The charming young lady who approaches you by Le Bar Italien to ask "Would you like some company?" is, in reality, asking if you need directions, not if you want company.

 

Four Seasons Hotel Marrakech, www.fourseasons.com; La Mamounia, +212.524.38.86.00, www.mamounia.com; Mandarin Oriental Jnan Rahma, +212.524.32.77.77, www.mandarinoriental.com; Royal Mansour Marrakech, +212.529.80.80.80, www.royalmansour.com

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