Just Back from Morocco

Where to stay, eat and shop

Morocco, a democratic muslim country, has traditionally been more progressive and Western-leaning than other parts of the Islamic world. Here, women have the same rights as men and hold a solid presence in the country's parliament. Jewish citizens are allowed to hold Israeli passports as well as Moroccan. Still, post-September 11, many Americans have had serious doubts about traveling there, and I, too, debated whether or not to go. But during my recent trip, I experienced no feelings of unease. Neither, stress tourism officials, do most visitors. "Our ties of friendship with America go back to 1776. We have a sizable American community in Morocco," says Abdelhamid Boumediene, director of the Moroccan National Tourist Office in New York. "We always welcome Americans in our country."

CASBAH CHIC IN SKOURA Thierry Teyssier owns an event-planning company in Paris, so it's no surprise that Dar Ahlam, the 14-bedroom hotel (eight rooms plus three two-room cottages) he opened last April in Skoura (about four hours from Marrakech) has fantasy built into the design. Overlooking the Atlas Mountains near Ouarzazate, the hotel is classic casbah, reconstructed over the course of a year and a half by 150 workmen to approximate the 19th-century original. Inside, a rabbit warren of cul-de-sac rooms is mysteriously (or dimly, depending on your point of view) lit. Each bedroom is painted a different color—amethyst, brick-red, and marigold, for example. The decor blends contemporary and antique Moroccan, as well as French, Italian, and Balinese influences. You can imagine a fashion layout in every room, including the bathrooms, which have oversized clay tubs. Attention to detail is considerable: The fragrance room near the hammam (home of the Jacuzzi and Zohra, a talented masseuse) has rose and fig soap. The best room: Saraoui, done in pale greens with a gauzy draped canopy and great views of the Atlas Mountains. Most aspects of the house have a pedigree: Lush gardens were designed by Louis Benech, chef Damien Durand studied under Joël Robuchon, and the staff was trained by Paris' Pierre and Frédérick Hermé. It's meant to impress, and mostly it does, although we were a bit mystified by Durand's meals. They were beautiful but insubstantial (we don't consider a teeny plate of risotto, however beautifully frosted with gold leaf, a satisfying lunch). Still, the presentation almost made up for it: Every meal is served in a different setting—on the terrace overlooking the mountains, alfresco in the garden, by the pool with the table positioned to catch the glimmer of a full moon. The house can be rented in its entirety, and it can comfortably accommodate 16 guests. There are also three cottages offered individually. Rooms, $380; cottages, $505. 33-1-53-63-42-30; www.leverderideau.fr.

MINUTES FROM MARRAKECH Dar Tamsna, Meryanne Loum-Martin's extraordinary villa that rents in its entirety, has been popular for over a decade. Last spring, she opened Jnane Tamsna, a trio of houses on a six-acre estate in the Palmeraie, just 15 minutes from urban Marrakech. The rooms are done mostly in classic Moroccan style—brass lanterns, wooden tables with inlaid mother-of-pearl, lots of pillows—with contemporary furniture by local makers and pieces by Loum-Martin herself, such as the intricate cast-iron bedframe in the Touareg Room. The surrounding gardens and orchards, which supply the kitchen with ingredients for all the meals, were designed by her husband, ethnobotanist Gary Martin. (The couple also offers scientific, culinary, or anthropological tours of the country.) You can rent the 17 rooms individually, rent a house, or take over the entire estate. $ Rooms, $350; houses, $800-$3,600, including staff. At Douar Abiad, Palmeraie; 212-61-24-27-17; www.tamsna.com.

IN THE MEDINA Stylish new riads, or small guesthouses, have been popping up in the labyrinthine streets of Marrakech's inner city. Among the best is Riad 72, which has three rooms and one suite. Owned by a stylist from Milan, it is the antithesis of the ornate tiled and carpeted guesthouses nearby. The decor is minimal—long countertops, sleek wooden furniture—but the carved-wood ceilings and ornate window coverings give it warmth. A rectangular reflecting pool shaded by banana trees runs through the center of the interior courtyard. The riad also has one of the best roof terraces in town, with panoramic views of the city. Rooms, $105-$350; the entire riad can be rented for $800. At 72 Arset Awzel, Bab Doukkala; 212-44-387-629; www.riad72.com.

DINING OUT IN MARRAKECH L'Mimouna, which opened in October, replaces the likes of Le Comptoir Darna and Le Foundouk as the chic new bar-restaurant of the moment. Decorated with silk couches, handblown lanterns, and low carved-wood tables, L'Mimouna also has a spectacular roof terrace. The well-prepared four-course dinner menu changes every three months. Our recent meal included lamb baked in dry heat and marinated chicken with crystallized lemon. Dinner, $100. At 47 Place des Ferblantiers; 212-44-38-6868.

Another smart choice is the new restaurant attached to the classic medina hotel La Maison Arabe (it does not have a name of its own). The setting is traditional and luxe—carpets, mirrors, and ornate fabrics. Call 24 hours in advance for specialties like stuffed fish with prawns, carrots, lemon, and olives. La Maison Arabe also offers poolside cooking classes at its other location in the Palmeraie. Dinner, $90. Cooking class, $150 per session for one or two people. At 1 Derb Assehbe, Bab Doukkala; 212-44-38-7010; www.lamaisonarabe.com.

SHOP OF THE MOMENT Darkoum, which opened in Marrakech in late September, has a Moroccan-style interior—red and ocher with locally handmade bricks on the walls—but it sells singular pieces of furniture and delicious tabletop accessories from West Africa, India, and Morocco. Owners Frédérique and Norbert Birkemeyer canvass the world to give souk-fatigued customers options from all over, from hand-carved wooden bowls to fountains inlaid with mosaics. 1 $50-$10,000. At 5 Rue de la Liberté; 212-44-44-6739.

LOCAL AUTHORITY Marrakech's Ahm Hatim is a knowledgeable, opinionated, and fashionable guide with a sleek ponytail, chiseled features, and a perfect linen outfit. (He also designs and sells them; ask to see his workroom.) In addition to finding the best designers, stores, or stalls in the souk, he explains the city's history, culture, and restaurant scene. $100 for 2 to 3 hours; 212-44-43-5618; 212-61-18-1349 (cellular).

CAR AND DRIVER Aziz Abououafa speaks perfect English and drives a Mercedes S320. For $200 per day, this charming guide will chauffeur you anywhere in Marrakech. Different rates apply for the longer term and for routes outside Marrakech; 212-61-15-9804.

Restaurant prices reflect a three-course dinner for two, excluding beverages and gratuity. Hotel prices show high-season rates from the least expensive double to the most expensive suite.

$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.