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Reviews of Holidays and Hotels in Morocco - Stars Flock To The Land Of Forbidden Pleasure

The Observer, 22 June 2003

Stars flock to the land of forbidden pleasure

Sex and drugs first lured celebrities to Morocco, says Andrew Humphreys, and they can't stop going

Rapper P. Diddy recently flew in his A-list friends to party in Marrakesh and Blur recorded their latest album there, but Morocco's links with the rich and famous go back way beyond rap and rock.

Unfortunately, London's prototype celebrity diarist, Samuel Pepys, didn't like the northern port of Tangier. He was posted there as Secretary of the Admiralty when, for a brief period in the mid-seventeenth century, Britain gained a portion of northern Morocco as part of Catherine of Bra ganza's dowry on her marriage to Charles II. Pepys summed up the city as a place for 'swearing, cursing, drinking and whoring'.

At least two of those activities were part of the appeal for the writers that lodged Tangier on the literary map in the post-Second World War years. Like the Berlin or Vienna of the time, Tangier was an International Zone, administered by resident agents of nine foreign powers. The resulting free-for-all ambience provided an alluring haven for misfits, non-conformists and committed hedonists. The Woolworth's heiress Barbara Hutton was mistress of ceremonies, American expatriate author Paul Bowles the myth maker-in-chief. Fellow literary light William Burroughs took up residence, as did Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and the three worked together to produce The Naked Lunch , in which the International Zone that was Tangier was recast as the hallucinatory 'interzone'. Tennessee Williams came and mapped out an early draft of Cat On a Hot Tin Roof , while Joe Orton came cruising for sex and labelled the place the 'Costa del Sodomy'.

Morocco's reputation for easy drugs and risky sex reached Swinging London. Jimi Hendrix came and hung out in the whitewashed Atlantic port of Essaouira, which retains its laid-back hippie vibe today. Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones rolled up in 1966 with girlfriend Anita Pallenberg. He brought the rest of the band with him on his next visit; they drove from Tangier to the southern city of Marrakesh where Jones tripped on LSD and ran into society snapper Cecil Beaton, who photographed Mick and Keith by the hotel pool.

At the centre of the Marrakesh scene were the American oil heir John Paul Getty Jr and his wife Talitha. The Gettys owned a palace in the old city, where they were famously photographed in kaftans on the roof terrace against a backdrop of the Atlas Mountains. Here they hosted 'One Thousand and One Nights' parties that went on for well, if not 1001 nights, certainly for days at a time. An entry in John Hopkins's The Tangier Diaries for 1 January 1968 reads: 'Last night Paul and Talitha Getty threw a New Year's Eve party at their palace in the Medina. Paul McCartney and John Lennon were there, flat on their backs. They couldn't get off the floor let alone talk. I've never seen so many people out of control.'

In fact, Marrakesh had been welcoming the elite ever since the Twenties, when the same mixture of local colour, Orientalist mystique and a liberating remove from the West captured the imagination of an earlier generation of millionaires and aristos. The social circle then revolved around the Villa Taylor, built in 1923 by the Tay lors of Rhode Island, who came to Morocco on a steam yacht. Its guest rooms played host to Rita Hayworth and Charlie Chaplin, Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt. The story goes that when Mrs Taylor learnt that FDR had spent the night at her house, she refused ever to set foot in it again and the place was sold.

The man voted the greatest Briton loved Morocco, and Marrakesh in particular. Although an occasional guest of the Taylors, Churchill usually favoured the renowned Mamounia - not so much a hotel, it was said, as a way of life, where a small exclusive community of expats, colonial rulers, adventurers and well-heeled travellers would lazily sip Scotch in its well-watered gardens, away from the African heat and dust. Churchill called his balcony there the 'most lovely spot in the whole world'. He termed it 'paintaceous' and did a number of watercolours to prove his point. The paintings now hang in Britain while a �900 a night suite at the Mamounia is named after him.

The Mamounia seems to have had great appeal for rotund, jowly Englishmen, as not long after, Alfred Hitchcock checked in to film The Man Who Knew Too Much (in which James Stewart and Doris Day occupy room 414). In fact, the A-list of names in the hotel's livre d'or is impressive, from Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper and Erich von Stroheim (in town to film Morocco ) through Tony Curtis, Charlton Heston and Omar Sharif to Sylvester Stallone and Kate Winslet, plus sundry royalty and heads of state. But in 1986 when a conference centre was added and the hotel was refitted, the cool elegance was sacrificed in a kitsch makeover. This was doubly unfortunate as it coincided with the opening of the first of Marrakesh's famed hip hotels, and the grande old dame began to be outclassed.

The big names keep coming but these days they're more likely to put up in one of the highly exclusive residences in the Palmeraie district. An oasis on the edge of town where tens of thousands of slender palms sprout from a dry, dusty lunar-like landscape, this is probably the costliest real estate in all of North Africa. It's the Beverly Hills of Morocco where high pink bougainvillea-bedecked walls keep out prying eyes and the swish of water sprinklers keeps lawns verdantly green. The guest book at the rental villa Dar Tamsna now trumps that of the Mamounia, with the signatures of Brad and Jennifer, David and Iman and the former Tom and Nicole. Russell Crowe cancelled when his film was put on hold.

Now the drugs and sex are (mostly) gone, film keeps southern Morocco's celeb quotient high. The Atlas Studios, in the tiny one-camel town of Ouarzazate, offers cheap film-making facilities to Hollywood. Costs are a fraction of those in America, and there are 300 clear sunny days a year. So Morocco has in recent years become the exotic backdrop of choice for foreign producers, standing in for Tibet in Martin Scorsese's Kundun, Somalia in Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down and Egypt in the French hit Ast�rix and Obelix: Mission Cl�opatra. Hideous Kinky with Kate Winslet was also filmed there.

Ethnicity and colour have long proved a draw for the fashion crowd. First into the souk was Yves Saint Laurent and partner Pierre Berg�, who picked up their first Marrakesh home in 1967. They're now on their third. Jean Paul Gaultier set a collection in Marrakesh's ancient Medina, while Gucci's Tom Ford has been spotted truffling through the souks for prizes.

Such is the parade of A-list names swanning across the concourse of Morocco's modest international airports that the Best of Morocco travel company imposes a 10 per cent surcharge on all 'celebrity' bookings due to the amount of pampering these clients demand. The firm could probably up this to 50 per cent and still find plenty of takers.