Monday, February 27, 2012

Ooh La La: La Mamounia in Marrakech

Hotel I Adore:  On a recent visit to Morocco I discovered and stayed at the divine and utterly romantic La Mamounia hotel in the medina in Marrakech. Swoon!

Recently reopened after a multi-year renovation, this most luxurious and romantic hotel was brilliantly re-imagined by the masterly Paris-based designer, Jacques Garcia.

“It’s the myth about the myth, the refuge of the traveler to the Orient,” said the great Garcia.

Imagine glass-faceted lanterns glimmering on rose-scented terraces, sculpted arched doorways, lavish plasterwork, silken curtains, crimson velvet chairs reminiscent of Ingres, gold silk pillows with a Directoire feeling, hand-crafted incised bronze torcheres casting mysterious shadows. It’s a Delacroix painting, a smoky Paul Bowles dream.

I could stay there forever. 

La Mamounia is an ultra-private escape, where the finest Moroccan craftsmanship and traditional style and materials have been used to dramatic and thrilling effect. And the suites have a luxurious tranquility, calm and elegance seldom seen.

In the morning my butler (in a traditional gold-braided jacket and neat white shirt, white gloves) arrives with the ‘spa breakfast’ of fresh cut mango, plum, apple, pear and papaya. It’s a vivid Matisse painting on the plate.

He opens the silken curtains and I emerge from the enveloping darkness of my suite onto the terrace and the full force of the Moroccan day, the sun exploding from flickering palm trees. In the distance, a light dusting of snow is visible along the peaks of the Atlas Mountains. 

Come with me for an inspiring visit. 

In 1922, the French architects Henri Prost and Antoine Marchisio created a hotel that would combine traditional Moroccan themes with a light touch of Art Deco.

Their concept reflected the sense of disorientation that the foreign traveler, with an imagination already filled with Moroccan literature and exotic dreams hoped to find in this place, commented writer Khireddine Mourad.

And today, still, La Mamounia has a mysterious, glamorous and highly seductive air, the ideal sense of ‘otherness’ that I want when I travel. 

"There is a hushed feeling in the air in Morocco, as if the quiet were a conscious force, which, resenting the intrusion of sound minimizes and disperses sound straightaway. Then there is the sky, compared to which all other skies seem fainthearted efforts. Solid and luminous, it is always the focal point of the landscape. At sunset, the precise, curved shadow of the earth rises into it swiftly from the horizon, cutting into light section and dark section. When all daylight is gone, and the space is thick with stars, it is still of an intense and burning blue, darkest directly overhead and paling toward the earth, so that the night never really goes dark."—Paul Bowles ‘Their Heads are Green and Their Faces are Blue.’

Morocco: it is the next great place to visit. In particular Marrakech.

I’ve always wanted to return, after an all-too brief visit to Casablanca some time ago.

This visit I circled through Essaouira on the coast and the divine L’Heure Bleue Palais hotel—and then arrived in captivating Marrakech. There I was fortunate indeed to set down my bags at La Mamounia. 

Imagine suites with double terraces high above a twenty-acre palm garden, with views of historic mosques silhouetted against the legendary Atlas Mountains.

Here, I retire to a luscious sitting room and suite with hand-painted cedar doors, honed white marble bathrooms, exclusive perfumes and soaps and lotions by Olivia Giacobetti (one of my favorite modern perfumers, based in Paris), lavish Moroccan tiles patterning the wainscot, and flickering lights from Moroccan lanterns.

All is calm, private, ethereal, fragrant and truly luxurious.

Interesting: Jacques Garcia’s concept in his recent remodel/update was to take it back in time to a more romantic era, the mysterious Moroccan past, idealized, French influenced, and entirely captivating. 

“It was aboard an Air France Caravelle that we arrived in Marrakech in February 1966, Yves and I. Of course, we stayed at La Mamounia, which was at the time full of an almost old-fashion atmosphere of the past. We were welcomed to this palace by Camille, the concierge. In 1966, memories at La Mamounia were vibrant, the rooms and suites simple, comfortable, and not trying to impress. That for us has always been true luxury.”
— Pierre Berge, in his privately published ‘Yves Saint Laurent, A Moroccan Passion’ November 2010. Translated from the French.

A Little History of La Mamounia 

The hotel was built in the Moroccan style—stucco walls, tiled roof, terraces and 20-acres of garden—in 1923.

From the beginning of its story, La Mamounia has never been large enough to satisfy all the guests who wanted to be accommodated. Until the end of thirties, the hotel had only fifty rooms. But it was expanded in 1946 to include 100 rooms, then refurbished successively in 1950, 1953, 1986 and finally a reopening with 210 keys in 2010. 

Many famous people have visited La Mamounia. Winston Churchill stayed through many winters. He liked to wander along the balcony, following the sun on its daily route in order to render the color of his paintings as realistic as possible. Several of his paintings of La Mamounia’s gardens hang in the Churchill museum in England.

“It is the most lovely spot in the whole world”, said Winston Churchill to Franklin D. Roosevelt about Marrakech in 1943. Churchill made his remark while he gazed at one of the beautiful sunsets for which the city is famous. Another anecdote from La Mamounia’s rich archive (I found it in the hotel library) involves General Charles de Gaulle who also spent a night in the hotel during the same period. The director of the hotel was obliged to have a special bed made to accommodate the statesman’s full height. 

La Mamounia is also the secret hideaway for Sharon Stone, Salma Hayek, Orlando Bloom, Eva Mendes, Miranda Kerr, Jennifer Aniston, Gwyneth Paltrow and Juliette Binoche, along with fashion luminaries and international style-setters.

Over the years La Mamounia has attracted the attention of both French and American filmmakers. Jean Tissier filmed “Alerte au Sud” with Eric Von Stroheim in 1953. Hitchcock’s film, “The man who knew too much” was also filmed there. 

There are so many discreet entrances and exits to the hotel that it is possible to stay there without anyone catching on.

I highly recommend arriving early, then sipping tea in the palm gardens, reading on a private terrace, lunch beside the pool, perhaps making a little excursion to the delightful Majorelle Garden, then returning for a drink of chilled Cox’s Orange apple juice or nectar of peach juice in the bar.

A swim, a spa treatment, and definitely dinner at Les Marocains restaurant at the hotel…to the sound of Andalusian music played on traditional lutes. Dinner to the sound of a lute! Well, four lutes. I cannot think of anything more wonderful. 

I walked to the restaurant for dinner late one evening in the rain. I hear the sounds of Andalusian lute music floating down from Les Marocains.

Raindrops splashed loudly on banana palm leaves high above. The air was fragrant with jasmine, gardenia, damp grass and palm leaves, a drift of smoke, and moist earth. I float into a fugue state, altered consciousness.

Later, I sit for hours on my terrace, listening to the distant sounds of the Medina, watching shadows moving across the garden, thinking of painters like Matisse who have been beguiled by this mysterious ‘otherness’.

I can’t wait to return. 

Matisse in Morocco, 1910
Some of the most beautiful images Matisse painted were his creations during a winter in Morocco at the turn of the century.

Morocco’s vivid colors, exotic costumes and handsome people would inspire him for the rest of his life. Now, over a century later, ghosts of Matisse would appear—as I was walking through the souk in Marrakech or exploring the Medina. Today, still, Moroccans still dress in the traditional costumes Matisse so loved. 

Books on Morocco and La Mamounia
My dear friend Jean Larette gave me ‘La Mamounia’ a lavishly illustrated book on the hotel (published by Assouline), with an introduction by Laure Verchere. Highly recommended.

A travel book and research source that is highly detailed and rich with beautiful writing is ‘Morocco, An Inspired Anthology and Travel Source’. It is part of The Collected Traveler series by the great Barry Kerper (a former book editor of mine).

She offers in-depth information on Moroccan culture, food, history, travel, people, collecting, antiques, art, and handcrafts. Highly recommended. 

Photography courtesy La Mamounia hotel, published here with express permission.

For more information and bookings:


  1. The best photo essay I've seen on this amazing remodel, I can't wait to go, if I could only find the time—there are direct flights from Pisa and I'd be there in 2 1/2 hours. Garcia is a genius and I really think they picked the right man for the job!

  2. As I always think of Morocco as being so dusty, all that water at the hotel must have been particularly welcome. From all the photos, the decor of the hotel is exceptional.

  3. honeybeeandmeonline.netFebruary 27, 2012 at 8:31 PM

    To loose oneself in a place so different from our youth or even our current life, revives us and gives our every day life a richness and depth that would be missing if we stayed as if like a statue in an abandon garden...


  4. Paul-Gervais--ADORED hearing from you. You are so very lucky to have a fast and direct flight to Marrakech from Pisa. It is so difficult to get there from San Francisco...nothing is direct and you have to go through Casablanca! But, Marrakech is worth it. I adored it, love the people and love speaking French there. Had forgotten it is so prevalent.

    John--Gervase Jackson-Stops (not often I have two Gervais/Gervase on one comment page...) a great favorite of mine. That was such a wonderful blog post you did. You would love love love La Mamounia. I was there in it is cool and fresh and sunny. I have friends who were there in July/August and it was 105 def F...they could not go out in the sun. I think it is never dusty...the desert is far away. It is v v discreet, people and lovely, and it is very elegant. Lots of style.

    Melissa-I so love your message. Thank you so much. You are right--Marrakech is a step away, a life separate. I adored it. I loved the cuisine, loved the mint tea, loved the music, loved the history and traditions. Highly recommended.
    Watch for next week...more Morocco coming up.
    very best DIANE

  5. Diane,
    You are a wonderful writer! I loved reading the story about the Mamounia.It is on my wishlist!
    Thank you for all the information!

  6. Lovely! We are on our way to Marrakesh to take classes in Tadelakt, so your posts are timely!

  7. Diane, Thank you so much for this lovely post. My husband and I adore Morocco and are anxious to get back on a plane and continue exploring. We live in New Orleans (but prior to that, SF & Bay Area for many years) and find that flying through Madrid or Barcelona with a few days in either before continuing on to Morocco, and doing the other on the return makes for a wonderful trip. Morocco, its culture, its people and its food are magical. It is right up there with Turkey on our list of favorites (we have yet to travel to India, but I'm sure that will be coming up soon!) I would also like to thank you for your feature and interview with Phoebe Howard, whose work has really put Southern decor, as well as Southern design/decorating talent, on the map. Her stores are incredible. The highest compliment I can extend to both Phoebe and Jim, is that when we are in a city graced by their stores, my husband adds them to our "must see" list! Again, many thanks for your wonderful posts!

  8. Good Morning, dear friends-

    Greet-Morocco would be the most wonderful antidote to Belgian winters. You would love it and find it so inspiring. In particular--traditional Moroccan style is a jolt to the detailed and rich in craftsmanship. I hope you can visit soon. best DIANE

    Kevin and Molto Bene Wife! Loved your message and adored hearing from you. Please be sure to go and visit la you will see such a range of craftsmanship, plaster, carving, painting and so many inspiring crafts. Let me know about your visit. Would love to hear your reaction to Morocco. I adore it.
    BETH-You are correct--Marrakech is rich in inspiration for design people. It is such a great step away from the Western world--and people there are lovely, friendly, happy and interesting to learn about. I adored La Mamounia, of course...and I know you will find it rich in inspiration and delight. Joy and delight!! very best, DIANE

  9. Oh we stayed there too, what an enchanting hotel and the service was excellent.