MARRAKECH — Just before Thanksgiving, because the world relapsed into the second, third, and fourth waves of COVID-19, I took my first transatlantic trip in nine months.
I decided to require this trip for several reasons. Selfishly, I longed to return to 1 of my favorite countries. (I longed to travel, period.) Journalistically, I wanted to work out how the pandemic was being handled outside the U.S.
In early September, Morocco officially reopened its borders that were closed since March to the international tourists. When I looked at it first, I didn’t find Marrakech near its usual babel of chaotic vigor. On the highway, the traffic from Casablanca was even lighter than usual, and I could hear a few motorcycle horns that were blaring their way through the medina, and there were even fewer donkeys that were clattering their carts in tow along the cobblestones. I witness a transformation of the medina from a bustling hub of energy and color into a shuttered and vacant expanse that mirrored the landscape of the country.
Checking into La Mamounia, on the other hand, was a whirlwind of energy, excitement, and entertainment. The reopening of the historic, opulent hotel would have been thrilling in and of itself, as it would have marked the return to work of 600 residents. The hotel, on the other hand, had used the seven months of lockdown to complete a series of upgrades and was more than ready for the international visitors and journalists who had begun to return to Morocco’s Red City.
The improvements were completed, according to general manager Pierre Jochem, to ensure that the iconic resort continues to appeal to the voracious glitterati it has drawn since 1923. “You have to adapt to new trends and adjust your concepts to give a refined palette of experiences to a younger and more cosmopolitan customer,” Jochem said during a press briefing during my visit.
This entailed rethinking new places throughout the hotel for the La Mamounia team. And engaging the help of designers Patrick Jouin and Sanjit Manku to realize this idea and update the dining and social rooms. “A surprising new place is the nicest gift to give a guest who has been coming here for years,” Jouin and Manku agreed.
A reimagined Le Churchill champagne and caviar bar, a new pool bar, Le Bar de La Piscine (the hotel prefers obvious names for its spaces), new Asian and Italian restaurants, the swanky and suave lounges Le Bar Italien and Le Bar Marocain, and an underground wine cellar for private dining are among the newly refurbished spaces. Because the renovations prioritized quiet and semi-private spaces, visitors will find even more intimate nooks throughout the property than previously.
Like Le Salon de Thé par Pierre Hermé, which is open all day and serves breakfast, afternoon tea, and pastries. Or the two quiet pavilions separated from the main hotel by lush flora, which were once vacant spaces but are now enlivened with tent-like buildings that may be reserved for private meals or beverages. To better meet Jochem’s vision of a caviar and champagne bar, Le Churchill, a long-standing staple of the hotel, was transformed from red and leopard outfittings to a sophisticated jade and gold alcove with recessed lighting. It is here that you may sample Kaviari’s caviar, which was developed particularly for the hotel. Another option for private parties or screenings has been added to Le Churchill: a new cinema.
While the traditional restaurant Le Marocain survived, with a menu of regional favorite tagines and Moroccan salads, globetrotting chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten extensively refurbished and redesigned the two other Asian and Italian restaurants. L’Italien par Jean-Georges has a wood-fired oven for optimal pizza-making and pizza-watching and serves a balance of carbs and crustaceans (black truffle pizza with lobster, shrimp ravioli). From Thai spiciness to Japanese sushi, L’Asiatique par Jean-Georges offers a wide range of Asian cuisines.
More delectable delicacies from French superchefs: At turndown, Pierre Hermè’s famous pastries are given. It was a delightful way to close the day. Surprisingly, I’d cheerfully fly back across the pond for a burger at the Salon de Thé. Really. Hermè tried 300 times before settling on his final truffle, cheese, bacon burger on the fluffiest bread (hello, pastry chef). This is a unique take on a classic meal that you wouldn’t expect to find in Northern Africa.
Guests will eventually leave the lovely public areas and retire to their accommodations. The three detached riads, which can house six people in spaces up to 7,000 square feet, were renovated by Jouin and Manku. With its balcony and pool, they provide complete seclusion. The ornate craftwork and artistry found in traditional Marrakech riads — hand-carved and hand-painted doors, hand-laid tiles — can be found not only in the private villas but also in all of the guest rooms and suites, which are undoubtedly among the most beautiful accommodations I’ve ever seen.
My suite had a view that stretched to the Atlas Mountains in the distance, as well as a huge pool and gardens of citrus and olive trees. The regal furniture in crimson and mahogany was complimented by a palette of emerald tiles. In that characteristic Moroccan glow, the elaborate lamps perfectly shifted from night to day.
When it comes to fame, La Mamounia’s spa is one of the most well-known in the world. It’s a must, from the heated pool and tiled jacuzzi to the lavish treatment menu and renowned hammam. The tranquility here is unrivaled. I craved the sensory experience of the souk, despite how tempting it was to isolate myself to the spa and the 37 acres within the gates of La Mamounia.
In all of my travels to the city, the souk was the beating heart. But what I saw at the main plaza, Jemaa el-Fna, was a cacophony of merchants and snake charmers, donkey carts and sizzling street delicacies, and hordes of visitors impeding traffic and posing for pictures with monkeys and birds, was far from what I was used to.
The road to rehabilitation that we all have ahead of us is the same. Morocco, like many other tourism-dependent countries, is waiting for travel to return for the sake of the local economy and countless livelihoods – much like the restaurants, boutiques, and bars in my home area of Boston.
However, even if stores, venues, towns, and countries reopen, there are still challenges to conquer. Seeing the pandemic’s consequences outside of my home city, across the seas, was stark evidence that the pandemic’s reach and impact are genuinely worldwide. We’re all on the same team.