By Ed Salvato
On the surface there is almost a Disney-like feel to Marrakech, the most popular city in Morocco for gay and lesbian travelers. It?s where you?ll find hordes of tourists snapping pictures, Internet caf?s dotting the traditional marketplaces known as souks and a beautifully restored Djemaa el-Fna, sporting a paved plaza and rows of dazzling food stands. The city, especially the built-up modern section with well-maintained roads, office buildings and new neighborhoods of McMansion townhouses outside the souk, trumpets a prosperity largely absent just 20 years ago.
Locals drive zippy European cars and walk around with cell phones pressed to their ears. Though many women are veiled, a large number are not, and many who choose this typical Muslim respect for tradition combine it with snazzy outfits.
You'll find world-class restaurants (many with a divine fusion of French and Moroccan cuisine and most with live music and beautiful belly dancers) and even a chain of McDonald's outlets. Accommodations run the range from generic chains to huge world class hotels to truly one-of-a-kind riads (former residences -- now small B&Bs) and boutique hotels.
Marrakech is a beautiful, exotic place to visit that retains an aura of mystery and ancient charm -- despite a veneer of modern trappings and the welcome improvements to life for locals.
Consider staying the grand dame of all Marrakech lodging options, La Mamounia. A fabled hotel, La Mamounia has hosted presidents, prime ministers (Winston Churchill was a regular) princes and even the artist known once again as Prince. But a queen doesn't have to be famous to stay here.
Chicken Tangine, a favorite dish
There is much buzz about staying in a riad, a former private home built around a lovely inner courtyard and fountain. Three highly recommended ones include: Dar Doiukkala, with both Art Deco and Moroccon touches; Riad Ka?ss, with colorful exotic birds flying around and splashy fountains cooling things down; and Riad Mabrouka, sporting a modern, spare look.
At the souk's entrance, these brightly-lit stands lure hungry passersby with everything from fresh-squeezed lemon juice to grilled shrimp to the very popular and tasty delicacy, goat's head.
If you prefer your goats' heads attached to their bodies and not on your plate, you have plenty of other options in Marrakech, whose dining scene has evolved to a point of remarkable sophistication.
The native cuisine is rich and delicious and often prepared with an accent on French culinary traditions. Many are surprised by the variety and quality of Moroccan wines, which include perky whites, rich reds, delightful roses and cheery sparkling wines.
Dinner typically starts later than in the United States, with diners heading to restaurants at 9 p.m. Check out European-run and gay-friendly Comptoir, a beautiful, contemporary French-Moroccan restaurant, with a super-hip lounge upstairs, a cool boutique and hot belly dancers.
In the old city, Tobsil (22, derb Abdellah Ben Hessaien, R'mila, Bab Ksour; +212-44/44-40-52; 150-300 DH) is a fabulous French-Moroccan restaurant, located in the heart of La Medina and accessible only by walking along several narrow, twisty alleyways. (But don?t worry: A guide will meet your party where the taxi drops you off.) This dining establishment is almost unbearably romantic and impeccably managed.