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A Casbah Escape


Hamptons too trendy? Cote D'Azur too packed? Tuscany too full of trattoria menus in German? As more exotic locations attract upscale travelers, Africa has become a hot spot. But the continent isn't all safaris and camp huts. Morocco, for one, is using its rich heritage and a new attention to luxury to lure travelers.

This pro-Western Arab and African nation is about as exotic -- and romantic -- a destination as you will find within a two- or three-hour flight from Europe or seven hours from New York. Luxurious accommodations are accessible, too, thanks to Villas of Morocco, a rental agency specializing in private villas and palaces (contacts: villasofmorocco.com; Tel., 44 207 823-2255; e-mail, reservations@villasofmorocco.com).

Set up last year by 32-year-old Youssef Benamour, a former Morgan Stanley (MWD

) investment banker from a prominent Casablanca family, the London agency can open the doors to such wonders as the Al-Ghalia Palace in the medieval city of Fez. The palace, which rents for $17,000 a week, has five bedroom suites and a staff of 10, including two cooks. Dar Iman is a huge villa in an oasis next to Marrakech, the medieval walled city that started attracting jet-setters such as designer Yves St. Laurent back in the 1970s. The complex, with an Olympic pool, is a favorite of French film star Catherine Deneuve and will set you back around $20,000 for a week of utter luxury. Steep, but then again, you're getting an entire compound with a staff of 15. You can even hire a part-time or live-in nanny during your stay.

When you've spent a day poolside, the big attraction is roaming around the endless labyrinth of the Marrakech souk. It can be noisy and even infuriating -- when, for example, you have to make way for motor scooters and donkey carts in narrow lanes. But it's a feast for the senses, from the pungent spice market to the gleaming brass and colorful silks. You can finish up the expedition drinking mint tea on the rooftop terrace of the Caf? de France, looking at the sun setting behind the Atlas Mountains.

Villas of Morocco also handles more modest offerings, such as Dar Al-Arsa, within the old casbah of Marrakech. The elegant mansion, with its marble inner courtyard, is a haven of peace at the center of one of the most fascinating cities of the Islamic world. With three large bedroom suites, Dar Al-Arsa rents for just $3,500 a week. It includes a live-in cook who will happily prepare local specialties such as baby lamb with almonds and lemons, and Tariq the butler, who is always at hand with refreshing glasses of fragrant mint tea -- the national beverage.

Benamour's agency takes most of the potential hassles out of a Moroccan vacation. Guests are met at the airport and escorted through customs. Staff help not only with restaurant reservations but also with suggestions about historic sites to visit. Chauffeur-driven cars can be easily arranged. "People want to relax when they come to one of our properties," says Benamour. Spending a week like a Middle Eastern potentate can bring down the stress levels of any overworked exec. By John Rossant


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