The King of Morocco is serving mint juleps in the bar of his new hotel in Marrakech.
How much King Mohammed VI’s crushed Evian ice and Maker’s Mark bourbon cocktail costs remains a mystery, along with the price of almost every opulent indulgence at his 1,500- to 35,000-euro ($1,840-$42,920)-a-night Royal Mansour paradise palace in the 11th-century Berber town on the old beatnik trail.
The only number to be found on any Royal Mansour menu is “blue lobster in 2 services.”
“Being owned by the king makes all the difference,” Royal Mansour sales director Karim Fehry Fassy says, swirling a swizzle straw as the two French mixologists who prepared the tall drink with a dash of Agostino bitters sweat out a verdict.
“The slightest bad experience here and the king will hear about it,” the 38-year-old Moroccan hotelier says. “This is his home. There was no limit on the budget and nobody has any idea how much the king spent.”
Fassy sips. He nods approval. “I can tell you the king spent a lot,” Fassy adds. “An awful lot.”
The age of excess is undergoing a rebirth in Marrakech. Fassy says the king intends to spare no expense to guarantee Royal Mansour outshines the elegant private dwellings owned by the likes of International Monetary Fund Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn, designer Paloma Picasso and investment banker Dietrich Becker, a partner at Perella Weinberg Partners LP in London.
Fassy says that prestige hotel chains during the two-year- old global economic crisis have devalued the concept of luxury by marketing bargains to meet delinquent mortgage payments and relieve financial distress.
“There will never be any pay five-day, stay-seven-day deals at Royal Mansour,” Fassy promises. “When you open the doors to people who can’t afford a hotel you lose the quality. The rich don’t mix with the non-rich and we will never allow a bus to enter these grounds.”
Finally, a hotel that really understands the difference between millionaires and billionaires.
“Though it would be to a degree incorrect to call Royal Mansour a hotel,” Fassy says of the extravagant fortress sealed behind 10-foot-high burnt-orange walls and two 2.5 ton entry doors awled from wood and finished in sculpted bronze. “For me, luxury is polishing shoes with Champagne and having your butler know how to properly fold a silk shirt in silk paper before placing it in the drawer or suitcase.”
Royal Mansour has 55 butlers who can do that. There’s one for each of the 55 imperial “riads” (traditional Moroccan open-courtyard residences) that comprise a 3.5 hectare comfort village of individual rooftop pools, marbled spas and three restaurants overseen by Michelin three-star chef Yannick Alleno. The hotel staff operates underground, driving golf carts along a maze of passageways, entering the three- and four-story riads through hidden portals.
“Each riad is serviced -- quietly -- by at least 10 people,” Fassy says through the rich perfume of fresh jasmine that grows throughout the estate. “It must be this way. Royal Mansour is the only entirely hand-built hotel in the world.”
Here’s how that happened.
King Mohammed VI five years ago decided that he wanted to attract 10 million tourists to his country in 2010. So he summoned Morocco’s finest carpenters, masons, cabinetmakers and artisans to build a manor he could share with his guests atop the remains of a municipal swimming pool inside the Medina wall.
Some 5,000 of the king’s subjects heeded the call, commanded to ensure that every accoutrement -- from the multicolored mosaic tiles and carpets on the floor to the precious metal and cedar ceilings -- was made from scratch.
“There’s no grand opening,” Fassy says. “Word of mouth is our philosophy.”
“And no advertising,” adds Royal Mansour marketing director Kenza Zizi. “Marrakech was a hippie destination and it’s time for a change. The king intends to rebrand Marrakech as a luxury destination.”
If only the olive trees could talk. The youngest one inside Royal Mansour is 300 years old, the oldest almost a millennium. Push a button in the library and the hand-carved cedar roof retracts, turning the room and its computerized telescope into an astral observatory. At 35,000 euro-a-night, the 2,000 square-meter Riad d’Honneur is bigger than the 2 million euro villas on sale and encircle the new Jack Nicklaus golf course at the nearby Samanah Country Club.
“We considered having a fleet of Rolls-Royces and Maybachs, and the king said ‘I can buy you a dozen,’” is how Fassy tells the tale. “But we reconsidered and went with elegant simplicity, Mercedes-Benz E-600s with a V-12 engine. If a guest wishes, I can also pick him up on a 1600cc Harley- Davidson Road King Classic.”
In English, Mansour means “winner” and Marrakech means “leave quickly.” Moroccan luxury-adventure operator Richard Lawson says that putting the two together adds up to more cash for everyone.
“King Mohammed’s name gives Royal Mansour incredible cachet,” says the 63-year-old Lawson, who moved here from London 12 years ago to start Yallah Morocco. “This is the king’s hotel and that’s a big attraction for my high-end clients.”
Every king has someone behind the throne. At Royal Mansour, that would be general manager Jean-Pierre Chaumard, who began his career at the age of 14 as a bellboy at the Ritz Hotel in Paris and now, 56 years later, is widely regarded as one of the world’s prestige innkeepers. Indeed, French President Jacques Chirac elevated Chaumard to the rank of officier in the Legion of Honor for “representing French savoir-faire worldwide.”
Chaumard has helped build and manage hotels for the rich and renowned in Switzerland, Monaco, St. Tropez and the Far East. Years ago he worked in Marrakech’s other prestige property, La Mamounia, a favorite foreign-getaway destination for U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill. In 1978, the Shah of Iran tapped Chaumard to open a private hotel on Kish Island.
“The shah only wanted French staff, 450 of them,” Chaumard recalls. “There were 180 rooms, nobody paid for anything and he made money off the casino. Everyone was the shah’s personal friend and he’d send the Concorde to New York to pick up women for his guests.”
By 1981, Chaumard needed a break, so he rented two camels and went alone into the Syrian desert for 14 months with a satchel of books. “It was a difficult but necessary sabbatical,” he says.
As for exceeding the expectations of his new royal client, Chaumard says the quality of a hotel is not found in the marble.
“Guests define a hotel’s luxury,” Chaumard says before rushing off to greet a Russian real-estate mogul and his family. “People ask, what is luxury, what is elegance? I will tell you: While working at the Ritz as a teenager I crashed a Rolls-Royce Phantom into a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost owned by the Aga Khan. The following day, the Aga Khan told me not to worry because he had plenty more of them.”
“There’s no recession in my parking lot,” Chaumard says.
Royal Mansour, Rue Abou Abbas el Sebti, 4000 Marrakech, Morocco. Information: http://www.royalmansour.ma or +212-529-80-8080.