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Morocco's Makeover

Kasbah Tamadot

Seven years in the making, Richard Branson's Kasbah Tamadot has been one of the most eagerly awaited hotels in Morocco. A little less than an hour's drive south of Marrakesh, perched on a steep cliff near Mount Toubkal, Tamadot was originally a Berber chieftain's private palace built in the casbah style. The exotic property belonged to an Italian antiques dealer when Branson's mother discovered it in 1998 and persuaded her son to turn the place into a luxury retreat. Now, after much speculation, several decorators, and a number of false starts, Tamadot has finally opened.

For the most part, it proves to have been worth the wait. The grounds are covered in Zen-like cactus gardens, thick rose beds, and fragrant apple and cherry orchards. An infinity pool seems to drop off the side of the mountain. The hotel's 18 guest rooms and suites mix Moroccan furnishings (chests, carpets, tiles) with Asian antiques (carved Indian tables, Thai and Indonesian sculptures). In addition to the accommodations in the main casbah building, a separate "studio" houses a small suite with a private plunge pool and two additional bedrooms (the rooms can be rented individually or as a three-bedroom villa).

Tamadot's chef, Jean Mundell, who recently headed the kitchen at Branson's Ulusaba Private Game Reserve, draws on the richness of the Berber culinary tradition to create her own versions of Moroccan vegetable salads, tagines, couscous, and lamb dishes. Unfortunately, the dining room—with its mauve color scheme and heavy chairs—is one of the least appealing of the hotel's public spaces. But chances are, in warm weather, you'll choose to dine on the veranda overlooking the pool and gardens. You may also ask to have dinner in your suite or at a private table on one of the property's many terraces.

Despite its tranquil setting, Tamadot is not aimed at the kick-back-and-do-nothing crowd. Indeed, it is populated by type-A travelers who take full advantage of the resort's two tennis courts, well-equipped weight room, and large indoor lap pool. Tamadot also sets up golf, horseback riding, skiing, and treks—from a six-hour outing into the Atlas Mountains to a challenging three-day ascent of Mount Toubkal. Also available,that Branson specialty: hot air ballooning.
Asni; 800/225-4255; www.virgin.com/kasbah; doubles from $310.

Dar Ahlam

One of the most amazing drives in Morocco is the four-hour route from Marrakesh to the desert city of Ouarzazate. From a green, river-run valley you take a slow climb on a twisting road up the High Atlas Mountains to the stark and cloud-packed Tizi-n-Tichka Pass. The wind howls—it could rain or even snow. Then you descend and find yourself in a magical world of red table-top mountains, Berber villages, and mini-mosques that seem to grow organically from the earth.

On the outskirts of Ouarzazate, two massive movie studios attest to the fact that the town has become Morocco's film capital, specializing in swords-and-sandals epics like Alexander and Kingdom of Heaven. Another 30 miles beyond is the palm-filled oasis town of Skoura; it's surrounded by mud-walled casbahs, most of them in various states of disrepair and abandonment. Dar Ahlam, which in Arabic means "house of dreams," is a notable exception. Built in 1920, this adobe palace was restored three years ago by Parisian event organizer Thierry Teyssier, whose concept was to do "something between a hotel and an event.

"I want our guests to be able to live out their dreams here," Teyssier says. "If they want to have tea in the desert or sleep out on the roof, we'll arrange it. Everything is possible here." While guests have the ability to personalize much of their stay (from the scent of their shampoo to the type of wood in their room's fireplace), Dar Ahlam works hard to surprise. Meals, for example, are almost never served in the same place twice. Instead, guests will find their table lit by masses of candles and lanterns and set up in the garden, by the pool, or in a secret salon. Despite memorable settings, the food (dry chicken brochette, tough fricassee of rabbit) can fall short. Though dessert (passion fruit crème brûlée) and breakfasts (dried and fresh fruits and sensational bitter-orange and tart-strawberry jams) are pleasing, it's still odd to be at the mercy of the plat du jour.

Ultimately, what you remember about Dar Ahlam is a certain dreamlike quality—whether you're admiring the gardens from a hammock, steaming in the hammam, or wandering the silk-curtained corridors. The most captivating experience of all is sunset drinks in the desert, where you'll enjoy glasses of gris (dry Moroccan rosé) in the shadows of golden mountains.
Skoura; 800/735-2478; www.darahlam.com; doubles from $780, including meals and drinks.

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