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Finally - a revamp that improves on the original

Published 13 June 2010
News Review
882nd article

Didier Picquot and his wife Karin with Michael at La Mamounia in Marrakesh (Gerladine Lynton-Edwards)

They closed La Mamounia in Marrakesh, Morocco, for over three years to spend £180m-plus tarting it up. The old manager, short Robert BergĂ©, was like a minor French consul in the tropics. He'd walk round the pool with his chubby Jewish wife greeting guests. They were warm and wonderful. The new general manager, Didier Picquot, is tall and rather terrifying. His wife is Karin, Baroness von Stempel. A new order indeed.

My suite used to be small with a bathroom so tiny you risked injury every time you entered. The rooms are much the same size now, with the most beautiful architraves, dado rails, furnishings. Exquisite. But lumbered with a pathetic, complicated electrical system. The bathroom is large with a harsh marble step down they don't warn you of and another step down to the balcony.

Picquot serves white sugar cubes, each wrapped in see-through rubbish, which is tricky to get off and then litters the classically perfect breakfast table. When I objected, Picquot explained, as if to a recalcitrant child, that health and safety had hotels wrapping sugar to stop dirty finger contamination. Hasn't Mr P heard of sugar tongs? I've known people die from tripping on hidden-trap steps, not from eating sugar. No hotel or restaurant I could find served wrapped cube sugar, including the Plaza New York, the Dorchester, the Ritz, Chewton Glen, Scott's and dozens of other top-class places.

La Mamounia was designed by Jacques Garcia. King of gloom. Windows in the corridor outside my suite used to reveal delightful vistas of Marrakesh. Now they're all curtained.

"This is creating mood," explained Picquot. "It's the way Garcia sees it." Obviously Garcia prefers material to views.

In the French restaurant - a superb offshoot of L'Apicius, a two-Michelin-starred place in Paris - there was piped music.

"Do you know of any major restaurant that has piped music?" I asked Picquot. "It's revolting."

"That's an opinion," he replied, as if dealing with a retard.

"Does Jean-Pierre Vigato have piped music in his Paris L'Apicius?" I asked.

"I don't know," said Mr P. I've got news for him: he doesn't.

When I suggested we lunch at the pool, Mr P said, "But that's a buffet," as if it was beneath him.

"But it's your buffet," I responded.

"You'll have to get up all the time to fetch food," said Mr P. "Better than relying on waiters," I said.

Mamounia's Moroccan pool lunch is the best buffet I've ever seen. Fantastic quality, amazing selection and a lovely setting. The hotel also has an Italian restaurant, an offspring of the two-Michelin-starred Don Alfonso near Naples. This is staggeringly good. I ate some of the best Italian food imaginable.

The Moroccan restaurant was always brilliant. The food still is. But it's now housed in a newly built riad away from the hotel. It rains quite a bit in Morocco. Not great for an exterior walk to dinner.

"We provide umbrellas," explained Mr P. The old restaurant used to be bright: you could see the whole room. The new one is nice but low-key. You sit in little alcoves. All you see clearly is the other table in the same alcove. Nevertheless a hotel with four fantastic-quality restaurants is rare.

Oddities include a new spa where Geraldine, treadmill expert, was glad to see TVs on the machines. The TVs didn't work. The hotel had a marvellous horse-drawn carriage. Gone. "Horses died," explained Picquot. Why not replace them? One day I was told they had no strawberries or raspberries for breakfast. Morocco produces both, and very good they are. I mentioned this to the excellent executive chef, Fabrice Lasnon. "I heard you'd ordered," he said. "I told them to send you strawberries, we had them. Didn't they ring and offer them?"

"No," I said.

"But I told them," said Lasnon. "Do you ever get the feeling people aren't listening to you, Fabrice?" I asked.

"All the time," he replied.

Garcia re-designed the pool, beautifully. When I was there it was closed for five days to re-grout the tiles. The operations manager, Gerard Madani, explained the builder used salty sand from the beach in his cement, so it cracked. I asked if resort guests, minus pool and pool restaurant, got a discount.

"No," he said. "But we told them."

So why did a reader, Howard Winston, email me that he was shocked to find the pool closed when he'd not been warned?

Also, the pool, finished only six months ago, was tiled in marble mosaic. Marble is porous. So it all has to be re-tiled in August. Garcia may be a famous designer but he obviously hasn't heard of quantity surveyors.

There are other funnies I could list about La Mamounia. But that wouldn't be fair. I liked Picquot: he's very professional, elegant and a great host in a senior way. The baroness is a total delight who knows all about local shopping. This pleased Geraldine.

The hotel in general is a terrific, refined, successful reconstruction. Unlike most hotels, which mess it up. The Moroccan staff are charming, cheerful, fantastic. The chefs and restaurant managers exemplary. It's a definite recommendation. Go there.

Michael's missives

Seeing you standing, last week, head and shoulders below John Cleese and Jennifer Wade reminded me that Alan Ladd used to stand on a box when being filmed. When you're being photographed why don't you stand on a box? Or preferably inside one.
Julian Cope, Suffolk

What a photo! The gang of three and their cat. The Addams family on a day out from the asylum.
Stuart Matthews, Nottinghamshire

You mentioned the asparagus at Ston Easton was more al dente than you like. You might find it more palatable if you took your teeth with you next time.
Peter Grundy, Newcastle upon Tyne

However much I like to read about your luxurious lifestyle, I'm more interested in your 15 teddy bears. What sort of bears are they? What are their names? Do they have teddy bear picnics and if so who does the catering?
Jane Goldsmith, Canterbury

You said the concierge at the Cipriani hotel, Venice, told a reader a restaurant was closed when it wasn't because from there he got no commission. Recently I asked the Cipriani to book I Figli Delle Stelle nearby. The concierge said it was closed. I rang myself and booked a table for two. When I told them it was open they said it must have been closed because no one answered the phone! They need to think up better excuses.
Simon Goode, London

Please write to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or email michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk