Before the proliferation of riad hotels in Marrakech's medina, the go-to address in the city – for those who could afford it – was La Mamounia. This art deco landmark, opened in 1923, was as synonymous with the "red city" as the snake charmers in Djemaa El Fna square. But as the years passed, the wrinkles began to show and when the hotel closed its doors in 2006, the grand old lady of Marrakech was in dire need of cosmetic enhancement.
Today, Marrakech's luxury hotel scene is Sahara-hot with an imminent glut of five-star properties, eager to cash in on the city's exotic allure (Mandarin Oriental, Park Hyatt, Baglioni and Jumeirah are all poised to open this year). Competing with these impressively chic new lodgings, La Mamounia had no choice but to raise its game.
Such a high-profile transformation required an equally celebrated hand. The task fell to the French architect and tastemaker extraordinaire, Jacques Garcia, who is also responsible for the much-admired interiors of Hotel Costes in Paris. It was a wise choice.
La Mamounia reopened in September 2009 and bears all the hallmarks of Garcia's opulent and sophisticated style, a sort of Arabian Nights fantasy by way of Architectural Digest. Despite the building's art deco origins, Garcia injected a stronger Moorish flavour utilising the talents of local craftspeople. There are bold architectural and decorative flourishes, best seen in the soaring public spaces awash with horseshoe arches, enamelled terracotta tiles, oversized Moroccan lanterns, marble floors and delicately carved masharabiyah wood screens.
All of these elements have been married with Garcia's fondness for details, such as velvet upholstery in jewel-like hues, and dramatic use of colour, including the spectacular black-and-white tiled courtyard off the main reception. Although some may find the low lighting of the public spaces oppressive, it is partly style statement and partly practical, offering shady respite from the glare of the Moroccan sun.
Heritage and star designers aside, the asset that really sets La Mamounia apart from the ever-increasing competition is the gardens – "Arset el Mamoun", from which the hotel takes its name. These enchanting eight acres are dotted with towering palm trees, fruit trees and are heavy with the heady scent of roses and orange blossom. Open your well-glazed windows early in the morning and you will be treated to birdsong that competes with the muezzin's call to prayer.
These gardens were also a favoured subject of one of the hotel's most celebrated guests, Winston Churchill, who visited regularly. Well- known for his painting, one of his representations of the gardens hangs in the suite that bears his name.
It's hard to fault the hotel's other facilities. There is a vast, zellige-tiled, ozone-treated pool, and the nearby sun loungers offer a great perch for people-watching. It's here where an extravagant breakfast of Moroccan pancakes and French patisserie is served.
La Mamounia also has four restaurants and five bars – one of the most enchanting is Le Marocain, a series of atmospheric courtyards and pavilions set in the heart of the gardens, offering Moroccan classics such as pigeon pastilla, and more inventive dishes, including veal tagine. The Churchill Bar is still decked out in its original Deco style and leopard print upholstery, with a gentle makeover bringing it up to new glossy standards.
Happily, the hotel has also relaxed its initially disdainful policy towards non-guests. Now you can reserve a table for a drink at the bar and also pay for a day pass to lounge by the pool (500 dirham/£38) – well worth the treat if your budget doesn't extend to spending the night amongst all this opulence.
Set within the walls of Marrakech's old town, you are a short stroll from Djemaa El Fna square with its food stalls, snake charmers and entertainers, while beyond that lies the labyrinthine souks. Despite its proximity to all the action, once you pass the imposing sentries at the main gate, the hotel feels a world away.
There are 137 rooms, 71 suites and three self-contained riads, the majority of which have garden views. There is nothing understated about the décor, best described as refined and tasteful Moroccan maximalism.
Bedrooms are awash with velvet, tiles, Moorish carving and evocative black-and-white vintage photographs of North Africa. No design detail has been left to chance – even the remote control for the TV is clad in a chic tangerine-coloured leather cover.
The spa is a deeply glamorous series of open-air courtyards with pools edged by giant lanterns and home to two traditional hammams and therapy rooms.
La Mamounia, Avenue Bab Jdid, Marrakech, Morocco (00 212 524 388 600; mamounia.com).
Doubles start at 4,599 dirhams (£348), room only.Reuse content