Read our writer's views on this property below
The grand dame of Marrakech has had a makeover. Belinda Jackson basks in her beauty.
When a lady gets some "work" done, it's impolite to ask how much it cost, isn't it? Yet that's the first question on one's lips the minute you step into Morocco's – and arguably North Africa's – finest hotel, La Mamounia, which reopened in September after a three-year renovation. Built in 1923, the hotel is right beside Marrakech's main square, Djamma el Fna, but sheltered from the craziness of its snake charmers, fortune-tellers and chained monkeys by 3.2 hectares of elegant, 200-year-old gardens.
It was announced in 2006 that the grand dame would close for a year for a quick spruce-up. That became two, then three years, with unfounded rumours that the King of Morocco had come to the financial party. So we weren't expecting an answer to the pert question. But the lady's not holding back.
"It cost €180 million," the hotel's staff say smoothly. That's a whole lot of euros. It's even more Australian dollars – just over 300 million, in fact.
This is no discreet nip and tuck with a slap of paint and new deckchairs. Under the guidance of uber hotel designer Jacques Garcia, whose resume includes the Sultan of Brunei's Paris pied-a-terre and the chic Hotel Costes, also in Paris, La Mamounia has shed its 1980s modernity (in hindsight, never a great decade in which to renovate), doubled its rooms and been deliciously rolled in moody dreams of One Thousand and One Nights, oriental palaces and Moorish whimsy.
It's a revelation in Moroccan-art deco fusion: rich, sumptuous and lavish but never garish. The halls reek of old money, even in the new wings, with their saffron carpets and splashes of what the staff have dubbed "Garcia red".
Under the guidance of general manager Didier Picquot – formerly of the Ritz in Paris, New York's The Pierre and the Island Shangri-La in Hong Kong – guests are steered through the hotel by beautiful, savvy, trilingual (at least) staff. Which is just as well, as you won't find signs screaming "This way to the pool", even in French, the hotel's main language. It's all very low-key and unobtrusive.
"We want guests to think of it not as a hotel but as a friend's rather comfortable mansion," Picquot says. I want more friends like this.
Even before its renovation, the smart set was battering at the doors – from the Rolling Stones to Marrakech aficionado Yves Saint Laurent – but it was the considerably more sober figure of Winston Churchill, who frequently wintered at the hotel and painted its gardens, who put it firmly on the list of iconic hotels of the world.
The Churchill Bar is still a staple in the hotel. Since its remodelling, the entrance now leads past a cosy fireplace and into little salons that can be curtained off for champagne and romantic discretion, where arriving guests are offered perfectly plump dates and a glass of sweet almond-scented milk, in the traditional Moroccan style.
The hotel's signature scent wafts through the halls and is ensnared in the lush toiletries. Created by famed French "nose" Olivia Giacobetti, it blends the wood of the date palm with cedar and rosewood. The dress code is "elegant" and for the ladies this means white linen trousers – La Mamounia's exotic palm gardens and poolside lunch tables absolutely demand them.
The hotel has almost doubled to 136 rooms, 71 suites and three self-contained three-bedroom riads – traditional Moroccan-style houses centred on a courtyard and fountain, with pools galore.
The three main restaurants are simply called L'Italien, Le Francais and Le Marocain, with the two European options rating two Michelin stars each and featuring chefs Don Alfonso Iaccarino and Jean-Pierre Vigato, respectively. I'm predicting, however, that Le Marocain will become the place to sample high-class Moroccan food in Marrakech. The detail in each restaurant is incredible, starting at the plates (French-designed for the hotel) to the cutlery and glassware (both German) and the salt and pepper shakers (by Peugeot, of course). The wine list features some exciting Moroccan offerings, the bar staff play with cinnamon, cloves and dates for a series of cocktails and orange-blossom water is sprinkled liberally through the food and drinks – and even in the spa and on cool towels.
In a test-drive of the hotel during its soft opening, I attempt death by petits fours. Macaroons, apricots stuffed with orange-blossom cream and oriental sweets are discovered beside my bed, hanging out with my laptop, dancing around the champagne bucket.
The champagne is always on ice, the guest relations people appear to need no sleep and the pool boys are constantly combing the 28-metre by 28-metre pool at dawn and dusk, waiting for me to swan down for a swim to work up an appetite.
The rooms overlook either the pool and palm gardens or out to the 12th-century Koutoubia Mosque; the desk and walk-in robes are upholstered in sensational orange Hermes leather. The entire hotel features Moroccan handicraft techniques such as timber arabesque screens, horseshoe arches and zellij, the intricate mosaic tile work seen throughout the country.
Messieurs Gucci, Dior, Fendi and Chopard are unpacking their bags in the shopping gallery and I was personally devastated to have arrived before the spa. However, the hotel promises a lavish extravaganza of Shiseido as well as traditional Moroccan treatments featuring the country's mineral clay, ghassoul, famed argan oil, rose and orange waters and the elixir of youth, black soap.
This is not a hotel for everyone; to wit the €600 price tag for a standard room and up to €8000 a night in a riad.
So the eternal question is, of course: can you go in for a look? Hotel staff answer delicately – they have guests paying a lot of money to stay here, so they want them to be happy. Which could be interpreted as drinks at the hotel's discretion (so dress up), while the three beautiful restaurants are open to the public.
In all, it's a detailed and sensitive renovation, which should nail Marrakech even more firmly on the map of the beautiful travellers.
WHERE La Mamounia, Avenue Bab Jdid, 40040, Marrakech. Phone +212 524 388 600 or (02) 9377 8400, see mamounia.com.
HOW MUCH From €600 ($977) a night.
TOP MARKS Even standard rooms have delightful city or garden views.
BLACK MARK The hotel has no environmental policy.
DON'T MISS The Moroccan salad entree at Le Marocain, a 12-dish affair.