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Tangier: Morocco's St.-Tropez

Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin The view from Dar Sultan's roof, in Tangier.

Photo: Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin

"It wasn't like this a year ago," Bahéchar tells me. "But when things start to move in this city, they move quickly." Bahéchar was born and raised in Casablanca but has lived in Tangier for the past 25 years; despite its bad times, she has remained enchanted by its singular East-meets-West allure. "We are, after all, the window of Morocco, the first place most foreigners see when they day-trip here on the ferry from Spain," she says. "This city has always had enormous potential, and now, finally, I see investment, I see change, I see that the King is really behind this. Tangier is finally getting what it deserves."

A walk from the café reveals the King's master plan unfolding all over town—many buildings under scaffolding as workers clean and restore their Beaux-Arts façades for the first time in ages; streets and boulevards getting wider and being edged with trees; fountains and vest-pocket parks springing up. Down along the beach, a palm tree–lined corniche is nearing completion, and swim clubs and discotheques are being rebuilt to comply with a new ordinance that does not permit seaside buildings to rise higher than the promenade they line. Meanwhile, beachfront hotels undergo refurbishing. The landmark mid-century modern Rif hotel has reopened after 12 years behind shutters.

Over in the walled medina and up in the Kasbah quarter, where five years ago the only places to stay were cheap pensions and backpacker hostels, a mini-riad revolution is under way, turning traditional Moroccan residences into sleek little boutique hotels. One of the top places to stay is Dar Nour, two skinny houses with three terraces, sublime ocean views, and seven rustic guest rooms. Equally alluring is Dar Sultan, which has six rooms furnished with a witty mix of Moroccan, Italian, Turkish, and Indian objets, including a delicious blue penthouse.

"Suddenly people are proud of being from Tangier," says Philip Lorin, a French national who retired to Tangier 13 years ago and, in 2001, founded the Tanjazz festival, which welcomes more than 100 international jazz artists and groups for a week every May. "Back when we started, people thought I was crazy—they said that nothing works here," Lorin says. "Now taxi drivers are talking about our festival, our city." Besides Tanjazz, the city hosts Les Nuits de la Méditerranée (three weeks of world music in June and July), a new international short-film festival, and a literary week in February called Le Salon du Livre. There's also a growing number of special exhibitions at the town's art galleries. Lorin's biggest fear is that Tangier will attract too many tourists and too many house hunters—and become another Marrakesh.

Marrakesh, by the way, is closely watching the current upswing of its rival to the north. Moha Fedal, the innovative chef behind the famous Marrakesh restaurant Dar Moha, set in designer Pierre Balmain's former palazzo, is attempting to conquer Tangier with the year-old Riad Tanja, in a restored medina mansion next door to the American Legation Museum. In sleek salons with thick Berber rugs and Marrakesh-style tadelakt (polished plaster) walls, he is serving Tangier his signature nouvelle cuisine marocaine (light vegetable salads, mini fish tagines, mille-feuille desserts with caramelized fruits). The labyrinthine property also has six luxurious mosaic-tiled guest rooms for rent.

Tangier's restaurant scene can be traced back to 2004, when two savvy restaurateurs abandoned a thriving establishment in Marbella to test the waters on the other side of the Strait. Their Relais de Paris, despite an unprepossessing setting in a mini-mall (site of McDonald's, the town's top teen hangout), has been wildly successful. On any given night, many of Tangier's major movers and shakers—government ministers, hoteliers, artists, and architects—can be found dining here.

A few glamorous newer restaurants may be siphoning off a bit of Relais de Paris's business. Villa Joséphine is the place to have lunch on a hydrangea-filled veranda overlooking Malcolm Forbes's former palace. A colonial mansion with 10 romantic guest rooms, it was once a summer residence of the Pasha El Glaoui of Marrakesh (who infamously collaborated with the French during Morocco's struggle for independence). The main restaurant at the posh Le Mirage resort, a complex of 27 bungalows built on the cliffs above an Atlantic beach seven miles south, has delicious saffron-flavored soupe de poisson and curry-spiced langoustine brochettes. And a meal at Dar Zuina (Arabic for "pretty house"), 45 minutes farther south, is often a good excuse for a longer stay. Set in rolling hills outside the white seaside town of Asilah, this rustic retreat surrounded by fields of marigolds is the creation of Jean-Yves Ardiller, a Frenchman who has traveled extensively on the Indian subcontinent. Decorated with rough Berber furnishings, antiques, and fabrics from Ardiller's travels, Dar Zuina also has five suites with Moroccan lanterns, straw mats, and platform beds covered with Rajasthani throws. "There are two places in the world that always spoke to me, that have a special energy," Ardiller says: "Greece with its sea and India with its spirituality. Somehow, northern Morocco combines them both." Ultimately Ardiller sees Dar Zuina as a North African ashram for pursuing meditation, yoga, and even astrology.

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