11.29.09

A Starry Night in Morocco

Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Aniston, Orlando Bloom, and other A-listers spent Thanksgiving in Marrakech for the re-opening of the legendary La Mamounia hotel. VIEW OUR GALLERY

This weekend, a galaxy of international stars—including two of Brad Pitt’s exes—feted the rebirth of Marrakech's La Mamounia Hotel, the legendary North African grande dame that was already seriously grand back when Winston Churchill called it "the most lovely spot in the whole world."

They were there to celebrate La Mamounia's return after a three-year, $165 million makeover by French architect and interior designer Jacques Garcia. As a phalanx of security stood guard, Garcia led La Mamounia's red-carpet march, flanked by his outlandishly coiffed muse, Tess, and quickly followed by a succession of Arabian/American/Iberian/Anglo/Gallic celebrities. "I've had a longtime love affair with Morocco," explained a radiant-in-red Juliette Binoche. "My father spent much of his childhood here, my grandfather is buried here—so the country is like a heart beating inside of me."

Click Image to View Our Photos of La Mamounia's Re-opening

Along with Orlando Bloom—who filmed a pair of Ridley Scott movies in Morocco—Binoche was one of the few true A-listers with any real ties to the country. A Grecian-gowned Gwyneth Paltrow had literally just landed from London, Salma Hayek, in Gucci, had simply hopped down from Paris, and Adrien Brody arrived the day before for a spot of furniture shopping. As for Jennifer Aniston—nearly knocked over in her Celine dress by a wayward lamp during an intense paparazzi pounce—she'd toured Morocco back when she was still Mrs. Brad Pitt, but her handlers made it clear that any personal questions might result in deportation.

The après-red-carpet scene quickly commenced after the last Gwyneth photo-op. Under a cloudless sky, more than 1,000 guests—served by what seemed like an equal number of La Mamounia staffers—inhaled Gauloises and sipped Champagne as Spanish tenor Jose Carreras performed a few opera classics. They were beautiful and haunting, but felt like a mournful misstep amid La Mamounia's palatial pomp—overshadowed by the towering palms and shimmering surface of the hotel's massive pool and gardens.

Both venues served as backdrops for Cirque du Soleil, which performed a brief version of its acrobatic revue complete with fire dancers, illuminated wall climbers, and costumed contortionists, as the crowd grew hungry. Well after 10, the party descended on La Mamounia's four new restaurants—including two by Michelin masters Alfonso Iaccarino and Jean-Pierre Vigato. The fashion crowd, however, clearly preferred to go local, as designer Cynthia Rowley and Harper's Bazaar Editor in Chief Glenda Bailey cozied up in the resort's riad-like restaurant. Meanwhile, back by the pool, chef Michel Roux served a buffet of roasted meats, poached seafood, and fresh pastries.

Things have always skewed regal at La Mamounia—which takes its name from the 200-year-old gardens presented as a wedding gift to Prince Moulay Mamoun by his father, King Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdellah, namesake of Morrocco's current monarch. Filled with 400-year-old olive trees, those gardens now sprawl for 20 well-manicured acres, setting the scale for the hotel itself, which opened back in 1923. Equally favored by both noble families and Hollywood royalty, La Mamounia has long served as a formal counterpoint to the hippie-chic vibe espoused by the likes of Yves Saint Laurent in Marrakech's ancient Medina, a short stroll away.

Over the past 80 years, La Mamounia has had many celebrity closeups: Hitchcock shot The Man Who Knew Too Much in its lobby; famously tall Charles De Gaulle slept in a specially built hotel bed; Winston Churchill hosted Franklin Roosevelt after the nearby Anglo-U.S. Anfa summit in 1943. Everyone from the Rolling Stones to Nelson Mandela, Doris Day to Tom Cruise eventually passed through this Art Deco landmark. "I've been coming since the '70s," said rock legend Bryan Ferry, a veteran of multiple Mamounia makeovers. "This is my third La Mamounia," he added. "I just hope they don't modernize it too much."

Under Garcia's direction, La Mamounia's new mod-Maghrebian aesthetic will likely keep Ferry retuning for another three decades. The hotel has been reappointed with with colonnaded courtyards, mosaic-tiled reflection pools, a massive spa, and a glass cube of a gym. La Mamounia’s room count may have shrunk from 242 to 209, but there is a trio of new ultra-secluded riads with traditional courtyards and private pools. (It was into these palaces of privilege that Jen and Gwyn seemed to disappear barely moments after their red-carpet strolls.)

La Mamounia’s glamorous re-opening was a sharp contrast to the orgy of excess that accompanied the opening of the Atlantis Resort in Dubai last year, a $20 million bar mitzvah, complete with Kylie Minogue concert, sit-down dinner for 2,000, the world's biggest fireworks display, and the kind of celebrity silliness you expect when Lindsay Lohan and Mary-Kate Olsen are the big draws.

A year on, Dubai is now teetering, making La Mamounia's more modest premiere feel all the more recession-appropriate. Still, even amid economic uncertainty, luxury hotels have rooms to fill. With everyone from the Four Seasons and Mandarin Oriental, W Hotels to King Mohammed's own Royal Mansour resort now open (or opening soon) in Marrakech, La Mamounia will clearly face competition.

But unlike the newcomers, this is a hotel with history on its side—a veteran of emperors and kings, princes and prime ministers. "Those beautiful gardens, the attention to detail—La Mamounia has a tremendous sense of the past," mused Adrien Brody. Like Marrakech itself, the actor added, "it's a very exciting, very sensual place."

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David Kaufman is a New York-based journalist who regularly contributes to The New York Times, The Financial Times, Time International and Wallpaper—and is the charming madness behind the blog TRANSRACIAL.