There’s excitement in the conference hall as I take my socially distanced seat. Sixty journalists are gathered here from the UK, USA, France, Spain and Japan (only the Brazilians couldn’t make it). Local TV crews flank the stage. Lights dim, and we don our translation headsets like UN delegates. The big news? La Mamounia has reopened.
General manager Pierre Jochem, who has been at the helm of Morocco’s most famous heritage hotel since 2013, fields the first question, “Can La Mamounia and Marrakech survive Covid-19?” It is an urgent local concern, as tourism contributes seven per cent to Morocco’s GDP and Marrakech is the country’s most popular destination.
It might also explain the heartfelt welcome I received the previous night. Silk-jacketed Fayle Medoune – who started at La Mamounia just 15 days before lockdown – greeted me in the Salon of Honour like a long-lost friend. As we walked to my suite down the Caravaggesque corridors, he told me how he moved here from the Burj Al Arab, because La Mamounia is “the best, most authentic palace hotel in Africa”.
Back in the conference room, Jochem responds, “It was important for us to reopen, not just because it was time for our 600 staff to get back to work, but because we wanted to show that Morocco is back in business.”
It’s a brave step given the hotel’s vast size (136 rooms, 71 suites and three three-bedroom riads) and the reality of international arrivals currently depressed by 70 per cent. But La Mamounia are eager to show-off the multi-million-dollar renovation of their culinary spaces. It was undertaken by Jouin Manku, an architectural duo that have made their name injecting modernity into mythical venues such as Alain Ducasse’s restaurants at The Dorchester and L’Hôtel de Paris in Monaco.
Sanjit Manku, one half of the duo, talks of a “baseline of wonder”, which is certainly evident in L’Asiatique, the new South-East Asian-inspired restaurant. It merges seamlessly with Jacques Garcia’s celebrated Majorelle Gallery, nodding to its adjacent Art Deco style with Majorelle blue, Ming dynasty-style chairs, black lacquer work and brass-and-paper pendant lights to achieve a gorgeous retro-futuristic feel.
Newly appointed, award-winning chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s menu has the same timeless, cross-cultural vibe. It offers innovative Chinese, Japanese and Thai dishes, such as green mango salad with cashews, crystallised tamarind and lime vinaigrette, charred foie gras dumplings, lobster e-fu noodles and a tongue-tingling “Infinite Yuzu” dessert consisting of a yuzu cream, pulp, gelée, ice cream, meringue and sablé cookie. It’s extravagant.
“Everything must change so that everything can stay the same” was the canny guiding concept for the refurbishments. This ironic historical maxim from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel, The Leopard, speaks to La Mamounia’s struggle between preserving history and keeping up with inevitable social change (and increasing competition).
A case in point is the adaptation of the famous Churchill Bar. Tala Hadid, a local filmmaker, regrets its passing. “It was old school, dark and classy. I had a blast there on festival nights with the likes of Gael Garcia Bernal, Guillermo del Toro and others,” he reminisces. That said, outside the festival, the bar felt forlorn, a historical relic journalists waxed lyrical over but few frequented.
“We are like doctors trying to find the right incision,” explains Patrick Jouin. “We needed to suggest a future for La Mamounia that didn’t clash with its past to speak to a new generation,” which includes increasing numbers of guests from America, Brazil, Asia and India, as well as newly minted Moroccans.
Thus, the transformation of the Churchill Bar into an intimate champagne-and-caviar bar and the addition of a plush 20-seat cinema seek to support the hotel’s cultural programme, while surfacing other hotel histories. The smoked, oak-panelled caviar bar, fashioned in the style of a Pullman carriage, recalls the hotel’s origins as a grand railway hotel, inaugurated in 1923 alongside Marrakech’s train station.
That past grandeur is at odds with the exclusivity and privacy now expected in luxury establishments, and the most successful changes subtly address that problem. I ordered some divine Ispahan macaroons with rose-petal cream in the Moroccan courtyard, which had previously been lost at the end of the hallway. Now, a bespoke glass light sculpture glitters in the central void drawing the eye up to the beautiful plasterwork, while sapphire-coloured Cassina sofas enhance the pearly white marble patio.
Other evolutions include a revamp of the oversized Pool Pavilion with Corian islands around which diners circulate, agonising over mountains of breakfast treats, a couple of new towering poolside cabanas where small groups can gather in discreet shade, and an exquisite new “Temple of Sugar”, clad in hand-beaten copper where Pierre Hermé’s patisserie sit like jewels on a peach-coloured, Fior di Pesco counter.
La Mamounia’s traditional boundaries are being pushed, too. A glass extension stretches the limits of the new Italian restaurant where, come evening, bi-fold doors open on to the bird-filled gardens. Below ground, the hotel’s fine wines now rest in the penumbral glow of a terracotta-coloured wine cellar lit by a single shaft of light. And, above the Moroccan restaurant, overlooking Prince Al Mamoun’s historic 18th-century gardens, a new “tented” bar is coming to fruition with a central dance floor open to the stars.
The changes, such as they are so far (the bedrooms, halls, shops and spa remain the same), are daring and thoughtful. But only time will tell if La Mamounia’s nearly 20,000 annual guests and local patrons will approve. As we picnic on salmon flavoured with orange zest and rose sorbet beneath the citrus trees in the orchard, the garden is suddenly full of life: the clinking of glasses, gossip, laughter and bird song.
Improbable as it seems in such constrained times, this is the one constant at La Mamounia: the 18th-century arsat (productive garden) and the people who tend and populate it. What makes La Mamounia special, after all, are the myriad lives lived within these historic walls, whether that be princes, prime ministers, movie stars or Fayle Medoune, the newly appointed Senegalese-Martiniquais guest relations signor who greeted me that first night.
As I say my farewells, I ask Mohammed Ennassiri, the long-serving director of reception, his thoughts on the changes. “La Mamounia is like a big family. Guests come here for a unique experience,” he says. “Of course, we must also innovate to meet their expectations. No one really wants to stay in the Mamounia of 1923.”
He has a point. Early railway travellers used to bring their own furniture.
Hivernage Classic rooms cost from 5,500 MAD (£450) per night based on two people sharing. For the latest guidelines details on travel to Morocco, see: gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/morocco
Six more hotel refurbishments we’re excited about
From London and Hong Kong to the mountains of India and the wilds of Africa, hotels have been taking advantage of the coronavirus hiatus to add new rooms, restyle existing spaces, implant new art, revamp spas and zhoosh up restaurants. Here are six of the best.
The Opposite House, Beijing
Like a butterfly from its chrysalis, the most stylish address in the Chinese capital emerged from its renovation in November looking resplendent. Always an ambassador for contemporary Chinese art, guests will now check in facing a spectacular translucent origami wall, created by Japanese architect Kenzo Kuma, who designed the hotel. Elsewhere, there are two new restaurants – a futuristic-looking Sichuanese and a leafy indoor-outdoor Italian – and a new bar, Union, which serves Silk Road cocktails made with French gin, Mongolian milk wine, dry vermouth, elderflower and coconut milk.
Singita Sabora Tented Camp, Tanzania
Set in 350,000 acres of Serengeti, this swish safari camp reopened this month after a full redesign. Now, each of its nine suites – think stripped-back woods, cinnamon tones, smooth leathers – have been lowered, and the windows widened, making it easier to catch eyefuls of passing rhino, wildebeest and warthogs. The rest of the camp has been swizzled around too, ensuring that there are always epic views across one of two watering holes. Other additions include private meditation decks and a deli, where guests can pick up wicker baskets of wine and nibbles.
Hyatt Regency London – The Churchill
This five-star hotel was always planning a multimillion-pound renovation to mark its 50th anniversary in 2020, but as the downturn in international business travel became more apparent, the designers pivoted to add a collection of family rooms, which the hotel previously didn’t offer. Reopened in September, all 440 rooms have been remodelled in sable and mink tones, and there’s a swanky new residential suite with a grand piano, dual terraces and artwork by Sir Winston Churchill adorning the wall.
Lux* Le Morne, Mauritius
It’s new year, new you for the Lux* Le Morne, which is due to reopen on Jan 2. The beachside resort’s top-to-toe nip and tuck was scheduled for 2022, but the pandemic brought those plans forward, with many team members kept in work by helping out as painters, carpenters and stonemasons. Having caught a glimpse of the redesign, it’s out with the dowdy brown silks and tired dark woods and in with a Miami-esque sea of white on white, caramel marbles and pretty murals (we love the pink octopus twirling up the dressing room walls).
Four Seasons Hong Kong
Victoria Beckham’s Hong Kong hotel of choice is throwing millions of dollars into revamping all of its guest rooms and suites. The design details are being kept under wraps until the big unveiling in spring 2021, but the designer, Remedios Studios (whose previous credits include the Four Seasons New York and Morpheus Macau), is known for sleek styling that incorporates the local area. Other updates include warming up the previously rather cold harbour-view lobby (look out for the café hidden behind crystal screens), and a new bar, sure to be Hong Kong’s next hotspot.
Indian safari pioneer Sujan continues to thrill with a multimillion-pound reboot of its three luxury tented camps: Sher Bagh, The Serai and Jawai. They are due to reopen in time for the Easter holidays, and guests can expect a fresh new look in all the accommodation, blending natural tones and textures with Indian artefacts, vintage black and white photographs, and bespoke teak and rosewood furniture. Wellness has been woven into each property, too, with more quiet corners for contemplation, yoga and meditation salas, luxed-up spas and a “healing with horses” programme at Sujan Jawai.