Escape and Immerse in Marrakech at La Mamounia
Writing about Marrakech, the celebrated writer Elias Canetti said this: "in order to feel at home in a strange city, you need to have a secluded room, to which you have a certain title, and in which you can be alone when the tumult of new and incomprehensible voices becomes too great."
La Mamounia, the recently renovated historic luxury hotel of the Red City, makes for an excellent refuge. It achieves sanctuary, from sights and smells and other sensory assaults in a city where everything seems heightened.
But while some hotels in overwhelming destinations achieve this effect by essentially encasing guests in a blank box of international luxury blandness, the redesigned La Mamounia remains firmly planted in its location: you never forget you're in Morocco. You're inside the city walls and quite near to the Koutoubia mosque. You hear the muezzin issuing the call-to-prayer, but the rooms are equipped with sound canceling blinds allow you to more or less skip the 5 a.m. edition.
During the extensive three-year renovation which updated the hotel from what I heard described as "eighties-tastic", as many as 1,500 craftsman labored in a single day to create the intricate plasterwork, hand-tiling, painted ceilings and leather-tooling that tastefully embellish the property. It looks as if the Moorish details had always been there, but that's just a trick of the eye -- it's all brand new. The rather boxy shape of the hotel's exterior is a good reminder of this.
There's terrific people watching here-- the hotel has been and remains celeb magnet, hosting Winston Churchill in the way back when, and Sarah Jessica Parker more recently. (And that is perhaps the only reason those two will ever appear together in a sentence.) Its mostly European guests do tend to be those who think of themselves as celebrities, for instance, one gentleman who looked just a great deal like the guy from the Old Spice commercials, but wasn't, repeatedly doused himself with baby oil and induced the pool staff to take his photo, while a bikini'd woman did push-ups in the shallow end of the pool.
Presumably the real celebrities decamp to the hotels newly opened and totally private three bedroom riads, which have their own private pools.
Gallery: La Mamounia, Marrakech
At all costs avoid the Churchill Bar -- it's the one bit of over-the-top tackiness at the hotel (think red leather and animal prints), along with intrusively loud live peformances of US jazz standards, which are neither a refuge from Marrakech, nor a welcome escape. You're much better off at the bar atop the Moroccan restaurant, which has a commanding view of the Koutoubia mosque. Order a gin and tonic and it will be made strong, and table side. A perfect way to watch the sun set over Marrakech -- and a way to be in the city while achieving sanctuary at the same time.
La Mamounia hosted my visit; views expressed are my own.