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MARRAKESH, Morocco (Reuters Life!) - Marrakesh's Mamounia hotel opened its doors on Tuesday after a three-year facelift aimed at fending off rival establishments trying to lure its free-spending guests.
None of them competes with the Mamounia on history. Since it opened in 1923, the world's top stars and leading politicians have passed through its tranquil gardens laid out by 18th century Sultan Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah for his son, Mamoun.
"This is a wonderful place, and the hotel one of the best I have ever used," Winston Churchill said in a 1935 letter to his wife Clementine about the palatial pink stucco hotel on the fringes of the medina in Marrakesh.
The British wartime leader would escape there to paint in the gardens and invited along U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt to admire the vista from his hotel balcony of tall, elegant palm trees backed by the snow-capped High Atlas mountains.
La Mamounia's fame has grown as other celebrities passed through including Charlie Chaplin, Kirk Douglas, Omar Sharif, Joan Collins, Martin Scorsese, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Nelson Mandela, Helmut Kohl, Zinedine Zidane and Nicole Kidman.
The hotel's director had to provide a made-to-measure bed for France's lanky General Charles de Gaulle.
De Gaulle's successor as French President Nicolas Sarkozy has jogged through its gardens and Morocco's kings have been regular visitors.
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were inspired to write their song Marrakech Express and the Mamounia featured in many scenes of the 1956 Alfred Hitchcock thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much.
The hotel's art-deco-inspired interior was starting to look tired before it closed for upgrades in 2006, depriving Marrakesh's wealthier residents of a favorite meeting place.
"Luckily we closed just as the global economic crisis was starting and we hope that's now starting to tail off," said Jalila El Ofir, the hotel's head of communication.
"The Mamounia is still a destination in itself -- our guests don't come to Marrakesh, they come to the Mamounia."
The state-owned hotel was once the only choice for well-heeled, adventurous European travelers wintering in the deep south who would bring along armies of domestics and refashion the rooms according to whim.
Now Marrakech has several luxury hotels, some more expensive than the Mamounia, and trendy riad town houses with minimalist features, ambient lounge music and rooftop pools.
Morocco called upon French designer Jacques Garcia, the man behind the Royal Monceau and Costes hotels in Paris, to give the the state-owned Mamounia a 120 million euro ($175 million) upgrade.
Art deco has been downplayed and Morocco's most skilled traditional craftsmen were drafted in to decorate the walls and ceilings, the backdrop to furnishings that hark back to the grandest European hotels of the late 19th century.
Visitors need a few seconds to adjust to the sober interior after the dazzling light of Marrakech but the low lighting draws the eye to corners where light plays against intricate zellij tile motifs symbolizing the tree of life.
Much of the layout has changed and the number of rooms reduced to give more space. Prices have risen -- rooms that cost at least 4,500 dirhams ($577) now start at around 6,000 dirhams.
There are four restaurants, two run by Michelin-starred chefs, a spa and a new ozone-heated outdoor pool.
Managers say the Mamounia has kept its soul despite the facelift. Some visitors find the new interior hard to recognize.
"The place has changed so much in style and substance that even we who knew it so well would struggle to recognize it," wrote local journalist Mohamed Jhioui in L'Opinion newspaper.
Churchill would find the gardens with their century-old olive trees similar to how he painted them, but he might not approve of all the changes.
Most of the interior now has a no smoking policy and the portly statesman, who consumed between six and 10 cigars a day, would be politely asked to stub out.
Editing by Paul Casciato