CASABLANCA, Morocco — Few cities in Africa conjure up thoughts of romance, intrigue and things exotic more than this one. Yet this 20th-Century town, Morocco's economic and industrial hub, is singularly devoid of traces of its once-colorful history.
Berbers, the original tribes of Morocco that were in the country when Phoenicians arrived in 1200 BC, had already settled the now-affluent Casablanca suburb of Anfa before the 7th Century, when Arabs arrived.
In the 13th and 14th centuries, as the Moors returned from their 700-year venture in Spain, Casablanca became a hotbed of pirate ships attacking riches-laden Spanish and Portuguese galleons bringing back loot from the New World.
But Casablanca's greatest transformation came under the 1912 to 1955 protectorate of the French, who created a new town that spread its broad avenues and stately squares inland from the old port-side medina.
Today Casablanca lives up to its name with a sparkling vista of white buildings spread down to the sea, and the white beaches, a European ambiance and tempo, fine hotels and restaurants, plus some of the best and most affordable shopping anywhere.
Getting here: Fly KLM, Lufthansa or Iberia, with changes in home countries.
How long/how much? Set aside two full days, unless you're a world-class shopper or would like to use the city as a base for day trips by Air Maroc to Fez or Marrakech. Hotel costs are moderate, good dining the same.
Fast facts: Morocco's dirham recently traded at 8.1 to the dollar, about 12 cents each. Weather is marvelous almost all year, with summer heat kept bearable by breezes from the Atlantic Ocean. Taxi fares are reasonable. But stick to bottled water.
Settling in: Hotel Basma (35 Ave. Moulay Hassan; $47 bed-and-breakfast double) has the best location in town, right on Place Mohammed V, the city hub. You're greeted by a modern lobby with brass vases brimming with roses. The doorman is in a green outfit with baggy pants and a tasseled fez. Bedrooms are comfortable, with color TV and mini-bar. The hotel has an atmospheric bar and a French-Moroccan restaurant.
Idou Anfa (85 Blvd. d'Anfa; $47 double) is a five-minute cab ride from the medina, Corniche and Place Mohammed V, its higher rooms giving you a spectacular view of the town. There's a small pool, a formal restaurant, a coffee shop and two bars. Bedrooms, like the hotel, are modern, with TV and mini-bar. Don't miss the sunset from the rooftop bar-lounge for a panorama of the city.
Riad Salam le Meridien (Boulevard de la Corniche; $82 double) is a sprawling, modern and pretty place on the beach. The pool-terrace area is enormous, with rooms and separate bungalows, each with its own small sunning terrace rimming the palm trees and banks of flowers. Four restaurants, a couple of bars, tennis courts and Africa's first water-therapy spa and fitness center.
Regional food and drink: The tajine is Morocco's national cooking vessel, a top-shaped, glazed terra-cotta work of native art. Plan on lamb in some form much of the time, cooked simply with few spices. It can be more regal with the addition of vegetables, fruit or even more spices, olives and preserved lemon, the last el lahm el m'gali .
Hearty soups often start a meal, one of the best being harira , which is made with lentils, veal or lamb, plus onions, tomatoes and lemon. Couscous also is a national dish--it's semolina cooked over broth with meat or chicken, vegetables and often raisins.
But Casablanca also is noted for its superb seafood: shrimp, oysters, crab and a variety of fresh fish, prepared French style or given local flavor with a panoply of spices on top.
Fine dining: Al Mounia (95 Rue Prince Moulay Abdella) is one of the best Moroccan restaurants in Casablanca. Sit on low banquettes, with back pillows along walls, beneath a ceiling of tiles, and eat a meal that includes all the country's specialties. Try one of the many tajines , sea bass prepared with peppers, garlic and cumin, a dish marvelous throughout Morocco. End the meal with a super-sweet local pastry and coffee.
A Ma Bretagne and Le Cabestan are two of the best seafood restaurants on the Corniche, both giving a French fillip to their fish and shellfish. Le Cabestan has a great view of the ocean and Casablanca lighthouse, while A Ma Bretagne is a study in nautical decor with nets, binnacles and such.
Hotel Basma's dining room is contemporary with Moorish touches, the focal point being a huge table loaded with hors d'oeuvres. Prices are less than at any of the above, with two nightly menus costing $12 and $17. Start with hors d'oeuvres, then a fish course, next a lamb tajine , lemon chicken or an entrecote . Finish with an endless choice of Moroccan desserts.