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Gala Opening of La Mamounia, Marrakech

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Gala Opening of La Mamounia, Marrakech
The legendary Park of La Mamounia is more than a mere green oasis in the heart of city
By: Mary Gostelow

The ‘new’ La Mamounia, Marrakech, was only five weeks old – but the 209-room icon was full, with a guest list that included Secretary of State Hillary Clinton...

Sex and the City star Sarah Jessica Parker, and a couple of Middle East Prime Ministers, all with appropriate retinues. Everyone is coming to see the new La Mamounia after its three-year hibernation. At the gala opening, November 26th, 2009, the 1,000-plus guests were treated to a special event by Cirque de Soleil, and many were able to spy Jennifer Aniston, Jose Carreras and Gwyneth Paltrow among the bejewelled crowd. There are more celebrities around right now, and not only for the annual Morocco Film Festival, which takes place December 4-12, 2009, Marrakech, and La Mamounia, together attract big names and big spenders from around the world, at all times. At the airport we were met personally by head concierge Taoufiq Ait El Haddad, and on the 15-minute drive to the 209-room hotel a clever and thoughtful destination video, specially made for La Mamounia, was showing on the personal screens of the burgundy Daimler (La Mamounia has four of these, plus a couple of Range Rovers). At Bab Jdid circle, you enter an exotic garden, about two tennis court sized, seven-tiered, with ancient gnarled olive trees and tall palms, and a tinkling fountain supported by the tiled mosaic that is so-Morocco. Around this is a turning area, with conference entrance to your left, and casino to the right. Ahead is the main entrance, with three steps, and Moroccan columns rising to a frieze that spells La Mamounia in pale green, on top of more tiles. Below are dates, on left, 1922, 1986 and 2009, and on the right, 1343, 1407, 1430, namely the opening, first redo and recent redo, years in western and Islamic calendars. The steps are manned by men of military bearing in an assortment of haute couture work attire (instead of uniforms, hotel boss Didier Picquot has had his entire 770-strong work force custom-clad in no fewer than 170 different fashion garments designed by the Paris-based duo of Marie France Croyeau and Patricia Castre). Before La Mamounia re-opened, there was night months of thoughtful staff training by ACTIFH: this means, for instance, that ask anyone anything, and, in my experience, I found faultless English and a genuine willingness to help. Anyway, back to the arrival. You go through tall glass doors that are bordered in kaleidoscope-colored panels, brightest blue, red, yellow and green (very Morocco, this). Inside you are in the main lobby, with concierge desk to the left, and reception to the right, both desks decorated with standing scarlet ‘flowers’ that are glass lamps. The floor here is polished white marble, with black inset diagonals. Overhead, two giant Italian crystal chandeliers, with bobbling electric-‘flame’ candles, hang from a recessed maroon-painted wood ceiling. You go up four more steps, covered in the burgundy-edged saffron carpet that is used in

I am escorted down 22 stairs – dark blue walls, this time the carpet is tomato, with beige edging. The charming reception women, in black, work at a desk in front of a wall that looks like a moving Hermès scarf, royal blue with gold patterns on it, with the patterns moving, as an electronic kaleidoscope – oh the marvels of modern technology. In the locker room (orange leather lockers!) I am shown how to work the punch-it-yourself lock system. I put on a lovely just-above-the-knees white cotton Porthault robe with a hood, with tassel on it, and the new, brown Havaianas provided, and Miriam introduces herself, and takes me to a soft green room with orange leather cupboards and a shower in one corner. I listen to electronic music for the next hour, in between muchneeded snoozing, as she does a marvellous facial (I love the way she moves my arms, in big big circles-from-the-shoulder-sockets, before and after the Shiseido part). The facial was fabulous, and I felt fabulous. Husband, meanwhile, is getting himself into an exhausted state – I know this as we arrive back home, at Number 310, simultaneously. He has spent three hours walking the talk of tourism. His guide was Mohamed Bouskri, a 62-year old with the speed and alertness of a teenager, and the wisdom and experience of Job. Apparently, Mohamed discreetly said, after a couple of hours’ visiting everything on husband’s list, that he has guided President Carter, President Reagan, Nicole Kidman and Brad Pitt, and, what is more, he has the photos to prove it (thank you, concierges of La Mamounia, for putting us in touch with the best guide in Marrakech!). Husband and his new friend, Mohamed Bouskri, stopped off in Riad Kniza, which the Bouskris own, for glasses and glasses of refreshing mint tea: Riad Kniza is in Hotel Street (Derb L’Hotel), where the French built the first European-style hotel in town, before La Mamounia was conceived. They also made a lightning visit to Mrs Bouskri’s Al Badi Craft Export, store, which has genuine Moroccan antiques and collectibles – after going there, said husband, the stuff in the souvenir shops looked like cheap tat. We both head through the gardens. There are two well-patronised clay tennis courts, overseen by French ace and wit Henri Leconte no less. Opposite, there is a separate villa for the gentian-walled LifeFitness gym, which has no fewer than eight running machines and lots else, too: apparently this villa was formerly a pair of adjacent squash courts, though could they too look out into the gardens when playing? We proceeded to ten lengths of the 40 by 40-yard heated outdoor pool, which has trees on a square island in one corner. We are to dine in the three-floor Le Marocain restaurant, a conversion of an old villa. This is built for big business as in all 90 diners can be accommodated in semiprivate pouffe-and-sofa booths on the first two floors. The rooftop has a big white tent, rather like a Middle Eastern majlis, and an outdoor bar,

most public areas of the hotel. This takes you to the centrum of the building, a giant hall dominated by a deep eggplant oval banquette, atop which is a lifesize white sculpture of a man on a downed camel under attack by a lion, with another of the chandeliers overhead. From this center hall, you can go left, to the Salon d’Honneur, a sitting area restored to look like the original 1922 entrance, when the hotel, named for Prince Moulay Mamoun’s nearby gardens, was designed by architects A Marchiso and Henri Post. Today, designer Jacques Garcia, a 40-year friend of La Mamounia who was asked by HM King Mohammed VI to 'restore its glory', has put back matting on its walls, and overhead there are six wrought iron chandeliers each bearing eight parchment lampshades, and on to a new Alhambra-like black and white columned courtyard leading to the conference and meetings area. From the main hall, you can, alternatively, go right, along the Gallerie, a typical-Garcia walkway flanked, each side, by three seating sets that can be curtained off, for privacy, and past a few stores - Dior, Chopard, Fendi and Gucci - to a six foot-tall anthropomorphic figure, Morocco, one of Les Enfants du Monde ( 21 ) produced by French artist-sculptor Rachid Khimoune, born 1953, to celebrate the entry into the 21 Century (Continue past this and you get to the spa). If from the main central hall you go straight, you first reach the Majorelle Gallery, formerly the Imperiale restaurant. Now it rises 30 feet to a recessed ceiling painted as if with an octagonal green and gold oriental carpet, signed J Majorelle 1947 (Jacques Majorelle, 1886-1962, one of many French artists who fell so in love with Morocco). From here, continue out into the main garden, all 13 acres of it, planted with olive trees that are at least 300 years old, a variety of palms, some even taller than the fivestory hotel, and well over a hundred highly fertile Navelle orange and clementine trees – their best perfume is February to March, I am told – and gravel walkways that are raked and cleared from sunrise on by a 64strong army of gardeners. Didier Picquot, in charge of all this, is like a little boy whose senses have just been reawakened. Guests can gaze at design, sculptures and art, and read to their hearts’ content in the library adjacent to a business center bursting with latest Macs and PCs. Music throughout the hotel is devised by Alexandre Sauty de Chalon and Jerôme Maitre of time4play.fr (songs include Blank & Jones’ Chilled Cream, and Karunesh’s fahd-type Mount Kailash). In-house aromas have been produced by Olivia Giacobetti, whose clients also include Galliano, Guerlain, Artisan Parfumeur and Putnam: here she has a date-aroma for public areas, and wood-cedar for the spa. He is also bringing in Serge Lutens perfumes, from the Shisheido stable. The son of a Dior model, Didier Picquot is not surprisingly not only into haute couture but designer brands generally – and Jacques Garcia suitably fits the bill. In fact he found Jacques Garcia already at work when he arrived in April 2008. The previous ‘botox’, says Garcia, tried to make La Mamounia Art Deco rather than keeping faith with its oriental roots. He was determined to bring back that oriental beauty, to make it more in harmony with its surroundings and, inside, to allow better use of space. This led to his creation of the Majorelle Gallery, to allow transition from the main lobby to the garden. The project has been a major challenge for this designer but that is what he relishes. In 1993 he started redoing the interior of the beautiful Chateau du Champs de Bataille, and completely restoring its garden to its 17th century original – and among current commissions, he is redoing the 17th century buildings around the Louvre, in Paris. For La Mamounia, he knew he had to import furniture, from France and Italy, as Moroccans have no history of furniture making (they do not use it in their homes, where they sit on pouffes or on the ground). Other than that, however, everything would be made in Morocco, which has arguably the finest and widest collection of skilled hand craftsmen anywhere. Find a sample of historic wood carving, says Jacques Garcia, and they can copy it. This hotel – if one dare use that word – is the pinnacle of 21st century craftsmanship. During the closure (June 2006 to September 2009) up to 1,500 artisans worked, sometimes day-and-night. You gasp in

which is most romantic with lots of electric lights in scarlet sleeves, but if the wind blows your Faretra coiffure and the light on your table candle may get blown away. We retreated, that night, 45 stairs down to the ground floor terrace, our glasses of Mogador 2008 Sarial white wine and Casablanca (‘the queen of beer, sir’) carried down without being asked. We all decided to eat in the brick-lined outdoor courtyard, cleverly lit as if for a futuristic play. A waiter in a cream brocade Nehru jacket offered waters, and brought little china pots of olive oil and the argan oil that the New York Times deemed a couple of years ago to be the ‘latest cult’. A basket held absolutely addictive just-made two-bite sized, round flat breads or healthy brown rolls. We started with an assortment of Moroccan salads, including sweet and spicy eggplant, kahrmus eggplant purée, zucchini salad, sautéed green bean, and fabulous tomato jam. We had tagines as main courses, named for the cooking pots. A circular dish with inch-high surround is topped by a concave ‘bell’ that sends interior moisture back down to the ingredients – at serving, the top becomes a removable cloche, the base is the eating plate. Knowing that La Mamounia has its own Potager, working vegetable garden, I went for the Garden vegetable tagine, with whole vegetables from that allotment, and we shared a central couscous, made of steamed semolina granules. Le Marocain offers these traditional dishes – it also offers order-ahead specials, and a ‘contemporary Moroccan’ menu, which includes seared scallops with lemon confit, and lobster-vegetable tagine with chickpeas. There are three other places to dine, too – you never need to leave this complex of paradise! I must admit I would return first to Le Français, where Jean-Pierre Vigato, who has two Michelin stars for his Paris restaurant Apicius, is consultant. This 58-seat restaurant is another Jacques Garcia masterpiece. The long indoor room is divided, by six pairs of ceiling-hung veil-curtains protruding from the side walls, into what can be more-private, or more-open areas. You enter, looking down a central line of palest salmon chandeliers, to the far end, which has a big wood tasting-family table, and a small wine cellar. Oh these Garcia chandeliers: he was inspired by the traditional red and white horizontally-striped glass Moroccan lanterns that sit and hang, by their hundreds, around the hotel. Each is about 30 inches tall, basically octagonal but at each vertical juncture a narrow octagonal shape is fixed (five facets of each of these towers ‘shows’ so, if you must be pedantic, there are 48 sides going around each lantern). Yes, around the hotel, by daylight, you see dozens of these, and you barely notice them, but, at night, when they are turned on, they miraculously spring to life. Jacques Garcia has taken that shape, and used it for the salmoncolored lampshades here (‘I had not done this before’, he says. ‘It was like Christian Dior, creating the New Look of the 1950s, a time that influences me terrifically, and now John Galliano, the current Dior designer, is bringing it back.’) What was especially memorable about dining here? I will dream for a long time about that the lemon butter-poached Oualidia oysters in a light tapioca custard – and, something that will be a surprise to those who know this non-dessert diner, our shared dessert, a clear glass twothirds filled with crushed ice, on which were fresh raspberries topped by tomato purée. What can I say, except… orgasmic. There is also L’Italien, the 62-seat restaurant overseen by Alfonso Iaccarino, who runs the Michelin two-star Don Alfonso restaurant at Sant’Agata, between Positano and Sorrento on the Amalfi Coast: begin with the irresistible focaccia bits and Don Alfonso’s own bright green olive oil, served in tiny china pots with silver tasting spoons. We ate magnificently throughout our stay, thanks to the 104-strong culinary brigade led by Executive Chef Fabrice Lasnon, son of a Deauville baker – he moved here from the Adlon Kempinski, Berlin. Not only has he set up the vegetable garden, but he has sourced suppliers throughout Morocco, and initiated the country’s first hotel-importation, directly from Rungis. All the restaurants have fairly simple tabletop decoration, with Bernardaud arabesque patterned show and bread plates, unadorned JL Coquet main plates, Robbe & Berking cutlery, Schott Zwiesel stemware and concavesided Deshoulieres water glasses, and local or Porthault linens. After dinner, or before, join the cognoscenti for a glass or two in the intimate

amazement, even en route to your room. There are three compact elevators, lined with brown leather (how on earth does Otis expect seven others to get in with me?). At the third floor, I exit, and turn left into the main corridor, where I can look left and right to its entire length, about 210 yards of burgundy-edged cream carpeting, and fairlylow painted-burgundy wood ceilings, with electric flare-lights, supported by wrought-iron rods, along the gardens-side wall, like a guard of honor. Each floor is themed for a modern photographer: the third floor is dedicated to black and whites of Morocco by Saad Tazi. By each bedroom door (dark wood, with a big iron knocker) is a back-lit metal fret panel with the room number. You use your sensor keycard, held in a brown leather wallet that you can later keep as souvenir, to push the door open. Executive suite 310 is entered via narrow grey marble-floored corridor, with a half-bath and then a bijou walk-in closet, with safe, on your left. The corridor opens into a five by five-yard salon: here, turn right through a painted wood, heavy Moroccan-style door to a five-by-five yard bedroom, turn right again to the main bathroom. In salon and bedroom the floors are fine local tilework, with big burgundy-edged cream carpets. Walls are tiled in a local-patchwork style, gray, terracotta and deep sage, to a yard high, above that you have a foot of white stone fretwork, then cream tadelact (an oil-based wall-covering, similar in effect to Venetian ragging), right up to the ceiling, which has a 20-inch white plaster fretwork frieze. The connecting space between salon and bedroom is, from bedroom side, a massive arch, its inner wall completely covered, from height five feet up, with a foot-deep finest white stone fretwork (so delicate it looks like lace). The ceiling in the bedroom is white plaster, the ceiling in the salon is formed of elaborately-painted sage-colored wood beams, with a hanging fretwork copper light. Curtains in both rooms are subtle burgundy and brown silk with narrow gold horizontal strips, plus sheers, plus solid buttonoperated blinds. Both main rooms extend, by the way, to a connecting pair of six-foot deep terraces, with Dedon furniture, looking straight out into palm tree trunks and the beautiful gardens beyond. The interior furniture, which we now know was specially made in France and Italy, is deep burgundy plus, with the characteristic Garcia chair arms (an outer area appears to have been ‘shaved off’ the ends of the arms) On the low coffee table is a three-tier china stand, with different fresh fruits and dates, changed daily, and mineral water is in a silver holder. The minibar has a selection of waters, plus bottles of local wine and halves of Ruinart, and Taittinger Rosé, Champagne. There are wall-set LG plasma screens in both rooms. The desk, in the bedroom, has a convenient socket for European-style plugs, and hotel-wide there is free, no-password wireless internet. I have a mobile phone, and several landline instruments, by the side of which are Hermès-look note pads, with clear covers and orange backers – I quickly switch to calling this Mamounia orange, as all collateral, plus television zapper holders, are in the same white saddle-stitched bright orange leather used for the fronts of the drawers in the closets, and for trays to hold laundry bags, and room service and guide to services directories. The king-size bed has a six foot tall ogee-shaped deep-brown leather headboard, with button decoration, and a deep burgundy throw on the clouds of white Porthault linen. As I sit at the desk, there is to my immediate left a window into the bathroom: it is discreetly covered with moucharabieh, wood fretwork. The main bathroom is gray-flecked white marble, for floors, walls to height of four feet, and the two hemispherical washbasins on a matching table. There is a separate toilet/bidet stall, and a shower (rainforest and hand-held) alcove. There are wall set electric towel rails that are in the same burnished-steel as the shower fittings, and those on the white oval tub, freestanding with claw feet. 100ml bottles of toiletries were specially composed for the hotel by Olivia Giacobetti, and both towel and cotton white robes are labelled Porthault ‘for La Mamounia’.

Churchill’s Bar: its low wood ceiling, buttoned scarlet leather walls and overall feel is like a royal railway carriage, into which jazz singer Margaret Bell has miraculously appeared – though you can also enjoy a trio from Madagascar in the more spacious environs of the Gallerie Majorelle or Le Bar Italien, leading off it. One more idea for connoisseurs. Try to fit in a Moroccan wine-tasting with Sommelier Chrystel Barnier, in her magnificent wine cellar. For us, she first introduced us to Medaillon Blanc – Domaine des Ouled Thaleb, a Sauvignon blanc from Rommani (‘dry, crispy and fruity’). Next came Aït Souala – Domaine des Ouled Thaleb, a Vionier, also from Rommani (‘generous aromas, round and mineral’), followed by two reds, a 2007 CB – Initiales – Domaine des Ouled Thaleb (Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from Benslimane, ‘fruity and toasted aromas, structured’) and a 2007 Tandem – Alain Graillot and Domaine des Ouled Thaleb (Shiraz from Rommani, ‘aromas pepper, spicy, well balanced and elegant’). Back up in our room, night turndown included a logo-chart to tomorrow’s weather. In what seemed a few minutes, though it was still dark, the cacophony of the nocturnal muezzin calls, but was it all a dream? We actually awoke, properly, to the pre-dawn birds’ chorus, as thousands of little cheepers sing in unison, from the palms and the olive trees. When you are lucky enough to stay here, do not, under any circumstances, miss this unique aural revelation – especially when, as in our case, a discreet knock on the door heralded the arrival of breakfast tea, with the lovely white JL Coquet china, extra hot water, and a rose in a silver stem-vase. Both gyms open at seven, and walking down to the main one was a quick lesson in olive management. First take a batch of rakers, both sexes. Dress them in fabulous dark green designer-gear, including conical straw hats for the women. Newer rakers get rakes about 15 inches across. Rake well and you can work up to the most superior rake, more than a yard across. The idea is to rake the miles of gravelled walkways here, flanked by those centuries-old olive trees, to a geometrically prefect pristine state. As you rake you need, every now and again, to pick up fallen olives, valuable for their oil – there is also one man, rakeless, who picks them up by hand. Most autumn days, nets are strung up around and between olive trees, which are then shaken vigorously to collect the valuable haul. Breakfast, and lunch, are served poolside, in Le Pavillon de la Piscine. What a joy to finish, at least the culinary away-night of La Mamounia, on these buffet experiences. You sit overlooking the pool, at glasstopped Dedon tables set with local-linen mats, cream with brown borders, big white Porthault-for-Mamounia napkins, and the standard hotel tabletop, with Peugeot wood and silver salt and pepper grinders. A dedicated serving room in the adjacent villa is a squash court-sized treasure trove of goodies. In the middle is a table purely for the most superb selection of breads (oh that loaf with big bits of apricot in it, and another studded with walnuts, and you cut your own butter, from 250g slabs of Beurre Echiré’s salted and unsalted). Around the room’s walls you have dairy, with glasses of home-made yogurt topped by unsweetened mango or other purées. You have three mueslis, fruits galore, cheeses, smoked fish, cold cuts sliced to order on a Noir Légende Swiss machine, and anything hot you can imagine. Lunch, by the way, was a similarly memorable occasion: 30% is more or less the same daily, says the chef, with 70% rotating on a weekly basis, and some seemed addicted to the fries, others to the scoop-your-own home-made ice creams. But all good things have to come to an end. Our car, this time a Range Roger, awaited. A posse of management, in discreet striped business suits (their own, or another haute couture special, for La Mamounia that is so special throughout?) stood on the steps, as did some of their colleagues, in arrays of white outfits, some with plus fours and/or Mamounia orange capes. Memories abound, from beginning to end, here, at this beautiful Leading Hotel of the World.

As I said earlier, this is all about the best – I am sorry there is no time to visit the hair salon, overseen by Jean-Michel Faretra, whose main salon is on Paris’ avenue Georges V, or the nail salon, by La Ric. I am however heading for the spa, all 25,000 sq ft of it, with nine treatment rooms and two hammams, and an intimate, one-piece-of-each, gym. The entrance takes you past what was formerly the Moroccan restaurant, now a 20 by 15-yard indoor pool. Not only is this breathtaking for its tile-mosaic walls, but the far end of the pool has what looks like a 3 yard-high four-post bed protruding into it, a gold-columned marble sala that has incongruously found its way inside. Beyond, the former restaurant terrace is now for lounging, or outdoor massages, and its one-time private dining cabin has an indoor Jacuzzi.

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