Steve McKenna sidesteps big names and fleapits to discover a clutch of charming hotels that meld Moroccan tradition with the modern.
IT'S A familiar argument; the problem with hotel chains, with their identikit decor and multinational staff, is that they can make you feel as if you're pretty much anywhere in the world.
Yet trying to find somewhere to stay with "personality" while overseas isn't always easy - especially when you realise, all too late, that the "down-to-earth" family-owned guesthouse you've plumped for has no concept of customer service and doesn't regard the cockroaches as too big a deal.
Such headaches can easily be avoided in Morocco. Over the past decade the country has had a huge rise in the number of impressive hotels born out of creaking old dars and riads - traditional Moroccan houses and palaces featuring interior courtyards and gardens.
Often financed and restored by foreigners and staffed by locals, they manage to marry centuries-old charm with a raft of modern trappings, promising a comfortable and memorable place to rest weary heads. Here are four beguiling spots that fulfilled this criteria.
Dar Attajalli, Fez
"I was completely blown away by the beauty of the old houses in Fez," Kleo Brunn says, recalling her first visit to the ancient city in 2005.
The German proprietor of Dar Attajalli had come only to learn Arabic but she stumbled across "a gold rush" of foreigners buying up rundown properties in a myth-soaked medina (old town) with more than a millennium of history.
The house that hooked her was reckoned to be at least 200 years old and formerly home to descendants of the Alaouites, the Islamic dynasty that ruled Morocco in the 17th century. The dar was in dire need of restoration but Brunn dedicated three years to meticulously restoring the property, living there and putting her "heart and soul and lots more" into a process that involved the work of more than 100 masons, carpenters and artisans. "Looking back, it was a nightmare," Brunn says, with a mixture of humour and despair.
Antiques bought in the medina's souks decorate the four cosy bedrooms, along with furniture and objects made by local artisans and based on Brunn's own designs. An irresistible spot is the rooftop terrace, with its lemon trees, lounge area and magnificent medina views.
Up here, guests can also enjoy breakfast - an organic feast of local produce, including bread, fruit, dates, olives, goat's cheese and butter and a clutch of Moroccan sweets. A real energy booster, it's just what I need for a day exploring the medina's smorgasbord of souks, workshops and majestic Islamic relics, crammed into nearly 10,000 streets and alleys.
Fez is a place for which the phrase "sensory overload" was invented.
Rooms from €90 ($124) a night; rates include breakfast; +212 677 08 1192, attajalli.com.
Dar Jameel, Tangier
For many people, especially those coming from Spain by ferry, Tangier is their first experience of Morocco - and the culture shock means it's doubly reassuring to have a decent place to bed down.
Tourists have long been drawn to the eastern fringes of the medina, and to the faded grandeur of the Continental, one of the city's most famous hotels, whose patrons have included Winston Churchill and Prince Alfred, the eldest son of Queen Victoria.
A minute's walk away, however, hidden down a small arched passageway, is the relatively unknown Dar Jameel.
Translated, it means "the House of Beauty and Grace". It is the result of a two-year restoration and expansion of a 150-year-old home, combining a variety of architectural and cultural influences. Built on five levels with eight spacious rooms and suites, it frames a central courtyard richly decorated in zellij and endowed with beautifully hand-painted cedar doors.
Framed black and white photographs of old Tangier hang on the walls and eight-pointed stars (a mystical symbol in Islam) are etched throughout the property, which also has Hindu and Buddhist flourishes.
Such quirks reflect the dar's cosmopolitan set-up. It's jointly owned by Syrian-Indian Talib Syed and British-Pole Stefan Lipka, while the staff, managed by the gregarious Idriss Aboulaghrass, is Moroccan. As with many dars and riads, the top terrace has splendid views. In Dar Jameel's case, the 360-degree vista takes in the Bay of Tangier and the medina's tumble of white-cubed houses. Looking out, I'm reminded of the thrilling chase scene in The Bourne Ultimatum, in which Matt Damon's rogue spy hopped across these very roofs.
Rooms from €48, suites from €68; rates include breakfast; +212 539 33 4680, magicmaroc.com.
Zamzam Riad, Marrakesh
The refurbishment craze swept through Marrakesh more than in any other Moroccan city, with more than 1000 riad or dar hotels and guesthouses vying for custom - many within a stone's throw of Djemaa-al-Fna, the market square that throbs with snake charmers, storytellers, magicians and food vendors.
Zamzam Riad, in contrast, is tucked away in the northern reaches of the medina, about 20 minutes' walk from the square, in a historic neighbourhood virtually untouched by tourism.
Opened in 2008, after a 15-month restoration project, this plush hideaway has seven luxurious rooms and suites, is fitted with Moroccan marble bathrooms and is lovingly decorated with antiques from all over Africa, as well as French colonial-era furniture with throws made of local fabrics.
The riad's name is inspired by the towering 150-year-old palm tree in the building's light-filled courtyard.
"Zamzam is the source of life in Mecca and in the Koran, it is where Mohammed found water," say owners Marcus and Emma Joyston-Bechal. "When we bought the riad there was a well shown on the original plans, which keeps our wonderful palm tree alive.
Zamzam's cosy salon-lounge has an eye-catching fireplace, zebra-skin rug and a classic book collection, while the roof terrace has sun beds, a spa and a hammam as well as super views of Marrakesh and its snow-capped Atlas Mountains backdrop.
The riad's affable staff make delicious meals with locally sourced ingredients (complemented by a fine international wine list) and also arrange cookery classes, yoga retreats and deluxe trips to the Sahara (desertcampmorocco.com).
Rooms from €140 a night; rates include breakfast; +212 524 38 7214, riadzamzam.com.
Riad Baladin, Essaouira
As riveting as Morocco's legendary cities are to explore, they get rather exhausting after a while, so I'm glad I'd pencilled in Essaouira as my final destination.
A 2½-hour bus ride from the hubbub of Marrakesh, this breezy, laid-back Atlantic port town is perfect for beach strolls, seafood feasts and some last-minute souvenir shopping.
Counting Jimi Hendrix among past visitors, it's also the heartland of Gnawa music, which blends Berber, sub-Saharan African and Arabic tunes and rhythms.
These upbeat sounds can be heard in the streets and bars all year round but particularly during the annual Gnaoua festival (June 23-26, 2011; festival-gnaoua.net).
My elegant and relaxing base is Riad Baladin, where whitewashed walls and ceilings and Moroccan fabrics, antiquities and lampshades set the scene, especially in the neat communal areas - an open-air central patio with leather poufs, a candle-lit lounge (with Wi-Fi access) and a terrace with sun beds.
The five rooms are well appointed with attractive ensuites decked out in tadelakt (a polished plaster that has been used in Morocco for thousands of years).
My bathroom has a tub conducive to long, lazy dips while the shower's entrance is shaped like the silhouette of a figure in a djellaba (djellabas being the long, pointy-hooded cloaks worn by many Moroccans). The riad - which will double its room capacity by June - is run by Swiss woman Nicole Pavlin, who spent 15 years in the media industry before turning her hand to hospitality, fulfilling what she calls her "childhood dream" with the help of her Italian partners.
Well placed in the quiet north-west corner of the medina, both the riad and its sister restaurant, the Italian-inspired Pasta Baladin, are a minute's walk from the city's
15th-century Portuguese ramparts, which, come sunset, are the place to be in Essaouira. Double rooms from €60; breakfast is an extra €10; +212 642 44 8136, riadbaladin.com.
The writer was a guest of the four hotels.
Etihad Airways flies from Sydney to Casablanca via Abu Dhabi from $2066. 1800 998 995, etihadairways.com.
Morocco's efficient rail service (oncf.ma) links Casablanca with Tangier, Fez and Marrakesh, with onward buses to Essaouira.