Marrakech is one of those mystical places long beloved by eccentric socialites, writers and rock stars – a city of “heat and madness” infused with the soothing aromas of rose water and orange blossoms and the sweet flavors of mint tea and almond milk. And for culturally curious couples, it is deliciously, deliriously romantic – just seven hours by air (with a connection in Casablanca) from New York or an easy add-on from a European city such as Paris or Madrid.
The most indulgent way to experience this quixotic, pink-hued city is to stay at La Mamounia (shown above), the circa-1923 luxury hotel on the edge of Marrakech’s throbbing medina that re-opened last September after a three-year, multi-million-dollar facelift by celebrated interior designer Jacques Garcia. The result – a lavish kaleidoscope of Moroccan-meets-Deco décor – is an inspired, French-infused playground for anyone with 1,001 Nights fantasies.
From its Moorish façade to its color-saturated suites, La Mamounia’s new style is intricate and exquisite (during the renovation as many as 1,500 Moroccan craftsmen a day worked on elaborate carvings, marble work and tile mosaics). Even after several days of wandering the dreamily lit hallways, savoring the four decadent restaurants and five sensuous bars, floating in the palm- and chaise-lined pool (shown at left; photo by Anson Smart for La Mamounia) and having the last vestiges of my western prudishness scrubbed away with traditional “black soap” in Le Spa’s steam-filled hammam, I felt as if there were still hidden nooks, transformed hourly by light and shadow, to discover. Here’s how to spurge in style by checking your body into La Mamounia and simultaneously letting maddening, magical Marrakech grab hold of your soul.
Twenty acres and 210 rooms of awesome: La Mamounia’s serene 18th-century gardens, lined with irises, roses and periwinkle, delight the senses as much as the vibrant interior décor, in evocative tones of red, green, ivory and gold. While even Classic rooms (from $466 through mid-September, then $699 through mid-November) do not skimp on design, Deluxe Room Koutoubia Views (from $559, then $816 – shown at right; photo by Anson Smart for La Mamounia) add a terrace and a vista of the Koutoubia mosque’s minaret, while Executive Suites (from $886, then $1,108), add a sitting area and half bath.
My four favorite La Mamounia oases: the al fresco second-floor Le Bar Marocain, with its arch-framed views of the Koutoubia minaret at sunset, and adjoining Le Marocain restaurant (the tajines – traditional Moroccan dishes prepared in conical clay pots – are delicious); the labyrinth-like Le Spa (shown at left; photo by Anson Smart for La Mamounia), where couples can try a traditional Hammam Ritual (separate for men and women and not for the shy as it involves a rigorous full-body wash, scrub, and mask by an intense and tireless attendant), followed by a more soothing aromatherapy massage together in a couple’s suite; the fresh and expansive buffet breakfast and lunch poolside at La Pavillion de la Piscine (note: both it and the pool will be closed for maintenance from July 26 to August 31); and cocktails at the Bar Italien in the decadently designed Majorelle Gallery (shown below at right; photo by Anson Smart for La Mamounia).
Dining-wise, both Le Francais and L’Italien restaurants serve contemporary gourmet cuisine by Michelin-star chefs Jean-Pierre Vigato and Don Alfonso. I enjoyed select dishes in both but actually preferred the earthy, sensuous, lemon- and saffron-infused pastillas and tajines of Le Marocain. But by far the biggest delight of my visit was discovering Moroccan wines. La Mamounia’s chief sommelier Chrystel Barnier has gathered 25 local wines – about 20 percent of the list – ranging from a soft and refreshing S de Siroua chardonnay to a light but complex Eclipse red to a warm and spicy Tandem syrah.
The mysteries of the medina: As tempting as it was to laze by the pool all day, I braved the 100+ degree July heat on an easy walk to the walled medina (old city) to see 11th-century Jamaa El Fna square, presided over by the 12th-century Koutoubia mosque, whose minaret was used as inspiration for the Giralda mosque in Seville, Spain. But the intrigue truly began when I entered Marrakech’s legendary souks, the dark and daunting maze of markets (shown at left) selling everything from silver lanterns to colorful, curled-toe leather slippers – not to mention mountains of aromatic spices, piles of fly-laden sweets and an assortment of dangling animal carcasses. Name your price and be prepared to bargain. It is a sense-stimulating head trip not to be missed, as is Jamaa El Fna after dark, when food vendors, soothsayers and snake charmers invade the square in a crescendo of commerce as the smoky aroma of grilled lamb and the haunting call of Berber flutes waft skyward.
Worthy excursions: All that culture is just steps from La Mamounia, but other memorable experiences require a taxi or tour. Three I recommend: Gueliz, the modern French quarter (the name is a mispronunciation of eglise, the French word for church, since the city’s only church was built here), where you’ll find interesting home décor shops on Rue de la Liberté as well as Grand Café de la Poste, a circa-1925 bistro that is the perfect spot to cool off over a bottle of local rosé. A visit to Jardin Majorelle, intriguing gardens of bamboo, cacti, and lily pads punctuated by bursts of cobalt blue and other primary hues, created in the 1940s by French artist Jacques Majorelle and restored in the 1980s by fashion designer Yves St. Laurent. And finally, a day trip to the Berber villages of the Atlas Mountains, with a stop for lunch at either Kasbah Tamadot, Sir Richard Branson’s upscale villa hotel, or Kasbah du Toubkal, a more modest, trek-centric inn (shown at right) reached by a vigorous 15-minute hike up a dirt path shared by donkeys and villagers. That said, the lunch served was authentic and fantastic: crispy bread and refreshing salads followed by a lamb tajine and chicken couscous, all enjoyed with a fabulous view of Jbel Toubkal, North Africa’s highest peak.