Recently I travelled to Marrakech to stay at the legendary La Mamounia, just reopened after a massive three-year revamp which included a sumptuous overhaul by the French designer Jacques Garcia. A long-standing celebrity favorite – past guests include Sir Winston Churchill and, more recently, Sarah Jessica Parker – this gorgeous enclave oozes style and sophistication. On arriving at the airport we were whisked into an exclusive VIP lounge for mint tea and sticky treats while officials had our passports stamped, after which we were ushered through the airport, past the queues and into a waiting air-conditioned Jaguar.
Entering the hotel, the white heat of the day gave way to a dark, comfortable coolness lit by the hotel’s signature red glass lanterns. The lobby is massive and spectacular, yet also peaceful. Our opulent suite was characterised by an ornately carved doorway between the sitting room and bedroom and two terraces with views overlooking the gardens and across the desert toward the Atlas Mountains. I’m told that back when the hotel was a royal palace, these extraordinary gardens were given to Prince Mamounia by his father the King. (La Mamounia opened as a hotel in 1923.) Regal palms tower over guests as they discover orchards of orange and lemon trees, endless rose bed-lined walkways, cactus gardens, lily ponds with snapping turtles and the glorious sound of birdsong.
The atmosphere of the hotel is pure holiday. On the terrace outside the Italian Bar guests lounge on white cushions, drinking rosé and people-watching – an activity that continues by the pool, where guests are served by men dressed head-to-toe in white and wearing Panama hats. It’s completely gorgeous: the perfect weekend sunshine break.
I visited La Mamounia’s 2,500-square-metre underground spa for a traditional Moroccan hammam (bathhouse) experience. After some time in the steam room, I lay on a heated stone slab while my therapist applied a black soap of olive marmalade and eucalyptus oil; this was followed by a deep exfoliation. Finally, after a rich clay mask from the Atlas Mountains, my skin was covered in a sweet-smelling rose cream. I left feeling properly buffed, nourished and glowing – a big plus when facing the glamorous crowd next to the pool.
We also stayed at the nearby Royal Mansour, a meticulously designed hotel replicating a typical North African medina, right down to its five-metre-high perimeter wall and imperial entrance gate. The King of Morocco commissioned the project, and some 1,300 locals were employed in its construction. I’d been promised the ultimate in exclusive luxury.
Modelled on traditional Moorish architecture, the Royal Mansour buildings are quite plain on the outside; inside, however, they are far more intricate, exemplifying generations of local carving and craftsmanship. We were allocated one of 53 individually designed, three-storey riads (private residences). Each riad is arranged around a central open-air courtyard and contains at least one bedroom as well as a living room, bar, roof terrace with plunge pool, open fire and state-of-the-art technology including a glass roof that automatically closes upon sensing rain. Larger riads also have dining rooms, private hammams and Bedouin tents. To top it off, staff members only access the riads by a series of underground tunnels, guaranteeing the utmost privacy and discretion.
At night, the hotel’s candle-lit courtyards are enchanting enough to silence even the most seasoned of travelers. Other highlights include Le Bar, a stunning pink gold leaf-adorned cocktail bar, and the spectacular spa, where an enormous wrought-iron atrium evokes an elaborate birdcage. The latter truly has to be seen to be believed, and is well worth a visit for a treatment, even if you’re staying elsewhere.
Exemplary standards continue in the kitchen. Under the supervision of the Michelin-starred Parisian chef Yannick Alléno are two gastronomic restaurants: La Grande Table Marocaine, offering traditional Moroccan food, and La Grande Table Française, showcasing French gourmet cuisine. We were told these are the best restaurants in Marrakech, and they certainly lived up to expectation. Days earlier, I could never have predicted that we’d be guzzling pigeon pastilla with a delicious Moroccan chardonnay with such gusto.
Guests are tended to by 450 staff – I counted nine people helping us to the car to return to the airport! Ground-breaking, precious and mysterious, Royal Mansour certainly has an air of regal exclusivity and privacy. It was also more of a foodie experience than sunshine break, which was a surprise, if a pleasant one. But for a hotel that is relying on word-of-mouth to gain its reputation, one feels that it could do with a bit of La Mamounia-style buzz to spread the word. My only worry about this place is that although it is sold for those looking for privacy (security is notably tight), at these prices, don’t even the very wealthy want to be seen or see the other guests?
With direct flights to Marrakech by BMI operating three times per week from London Heathrow, travelling to Marrakech has never been so easy. Here are two options for the perfect weekend break, each offering a very different experience. And if you can’t choose between them, then perhaps you should visit both?