Any property that welcomed Winston Churchill as a cherished guest has to appreciate the cigar smoker. La Mamounia in Marrakech, the jewel in the crown of Morocco's many lavish hotels, still treasures its Churchill Suite, a cherrywood-and-chintz patch of old England surrounded by the hotel's arabesque Art Deco fantasy.
It was to these cozy rooms that the former prime minister of England came every winter until 1952. They have been freshened but retain their original style, complete with personal effects like walking sticks, books and signed Churchill oils painted in La Mamounia's gardens.
La Mamounia, just inside the Bab Djedid gate to the old city, was built between 1922 and 1924 on the grounds of a mid-18th-century palace owned by Mohammed III, an Alaouite sultan who made Marrakech his capital. The 32 acres of gardens he laid out are still maintained, giving the hotel a tranquil air despite its inner-city location. It is a conveniently short distance from the fantastically tumultuous Jman El Fna square, with its labyrinth of bustling souks and many of the city's historic landmarks.
The Churchill Suite can be rented for about $1,200 a night. Most of the other luxuriously appointed rooms and suites, which have housed heads of state, movie stars and other notables, were redecorated in Art Deco style during the elaborate expansion and renovation of the hotel in 1986. Some are designed around a theme, like the Orient Express and Tahiti rooms.
A veneer of glitz has been added to the stately property, much to the dismay of some long-time visitors. But the new general manager, Robert Bergé, dismisses such criticism as so much romantic nostalgia. "You should have seen it," he said. "It had become shabby. We have pictures to prove it." Bergé is continuing to redo what he finds necessary to keep the hotel in the front rank in an era when cable television, hair dryers and good showers are as important in cosseting hotel guests as roses on the room-service tray.
All rooms have 15-foot ceilings and balconies, and though the Churchill Suite faces the city and its mosques, the preferred accommodations have a pool and garden view. Upon arrival, guests are greeted at the arched doorway by befezzed porters wearing traditional white baggy trousers and pointed yellow leather babouche slippers. The vast public areas on the ground floor of the hotel alternate marble tile and royal Rabat carpets underfoot, with coffered Art Deco ceilings, massive crystal chandeliers and intricate stucco arches above.
Le Restaurant Marocain, the hotel's traditional Moroccan restaurant, is one of the best in the country. It's a place where feasts of colorful salads, whole tender lamb méchoui, chicken tagines, platters of golden vegetable-studded couscous and desserts sprinkled with rosewater are served to the throbbing beat of Berber music. Main dishes are in the $20 range. Belly dancers are part of the show.
Along one side of the immense swimming pool is the lovely Trois Palmiers, which offers an abundant buffet of salads, tagines, freshly grilled meats and fish, cheeses and Moroccan and French pastries. The garden has tennis courts, squash courts and a gym. A casino adjoins the hotel.
Eclectic tastes can also be satisfied in an informal café-restaurant, La Calèche, plus an Italian restaurant and a comfortable bar, or in L'Impériale, the stunning, thoroughly Art Deco dining room of silver and blue with a glittering ceiling designed by Jacques Majorelle. There, Bernard Guilhaudin, a Michelin one-star chef from Paris brought to Marrakech by Bergé, fashions the elegant likes of sautéed fresh foie gras with quince, rougets with olives, baby lamb with cumin and vegetables and an array of stunning chocolate desserts. A four-course tasting dinner is $75.
The emphasis of the wine list is French, mostly from Bordeaux and rarely prior to the 1980s. Classified growths start at about $100 and climb to $2,500 for the 1970 Petrus. Red and white burgundies are mostly $100 to $250. L'Impériale also features one of the better selections of Moroccan wines, most around $25, including the lovely vin gris Guerrouane. A snifter of 1922 Janneau Armagnac can finish the evening in $100 style.
The hotel's collection of Romeo y Julietas, El Rey del Mundos, Montecristos and Davidoff Dom Perignons--nearly 4,000 cigars in boxes stacked up in the wine cellar--are estimated to be worth $45,000. A Davidoff No. 2 will set the smoker back about $15. But the prices date from 1987 and have not been recalculated. "We have been asleep on a gold mine," Bergé said. "At today's prices they would be double."
Florence Fabricant writes a food and restaurant column for The New York Times.
Avenue Bab Djedid
Phone (011) 212-4-44-89-81
Fax (011) 212-4-44-46-60
Room rates: $250 to $450 in high and mid-season, $200 to $350 in low season (summer); suites are $500 to $1,500