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In the Moroccan Desert, An Oasis of Luxury That's No Mirage

May 20, 1990|COLEMAN ANDREWS | Andrews writes The Times' Restaurant Notebook column and is the author of "Catalan Cuisine" (Atheneum, $24.95) .

TAROUDANT, Morocco — I suppose my first thought, once I'd had time to collect my thoughts after a not long but inevitably somewhat jarring journey here, to the Gazelle d'Or in Taroudant, was something like, "Where exactly am I?"

I had awakened in Paris about eight hours earlier, boarded a jet at Orly and flown roughly 1,550 miles to the south and west. I had disembarked at the sun-baked, no-frills airport in Agadir, fended off a dozen or so would-be guides and drivers, rented a rattletrap Renault station wagon whose interior reeked of stale tobacco smoke and sweat, and headed east.

I drove about 50 miles, past veiled women walking glumly by the roadside and old men in striped robes selling cactus fruit from the backs of donkey carts; past army bases as grim as prison farms, and automobile graveyards as ugly as hell; through unfinished concrete villages with a bombed-out look, and stretches of hilly, dusty desert, blurred with haze.

Finally, after about an hour on the road, I came upon a town surrounded by orange groves, obscured by extensive crenelated ramparts that were alternately ocher and earthy-pink, dating mostly from the 18th Century.

If I had squinted out the cars and motorbikes around me, in fact, and focused solely on the walls and trees instead, I might have thought I was in the 18th Century.

But now, half an hour later, I found myself ensconced at a handsomely set luncheon table on a beautiful red-tiled terrace, amply shaded against the early-afternoon heat by huge wanton clumps of fat bamboo, cooled by the faint and faintly fragrant breeze that rustled through the nearby stands of bougainvillea, olive trees and palms.

I found myself attended by a crew of amiable and efficient waiters in white robes and embroidered slippers, sipping very good and very cold rose and eating an assortment of bright vegetable salads--carrot, eggplant, zucchini and tomato with roasted green pepper--soon to be followed by a chicken tajine --chicken braised in a domed clay pot with marinated lemon peel and purple olives.

I found myself, in short, in another world, in the third of three wholly different worlds through which I had traveled in a third of a day. I had started in the sophisticated, cosmopolitan capital of Paris, passed through a land of donkey carts and veils and ended in a kind of displaced paradise, enjoying a degree of cosseted well-being that not even urban Paris can easily provide.

My sense of dislocation was immense. But then that's one of the things I like about Morocco.

What always unsettles me about this country at first, that is, but what I always end up liking so very much about it, is the sheer ferocity of contrast it offers. This is not a land of delicate shadings, of subtle change and gentle counterpoint.

The late Malcolm Forbes threw parties here that cost more than whole towns earn in a good year. Yves Saint-Laurent and Yassar Arafat pass each other on the street, or might well do so. At night the video gunfire of "MacGyver" on TV in Arabic translation plays against the bray of asses in camps of tents.

Even nature jars: From one valley to another the earth turns suddenly from terra-cotta red to gypsum white. In the midst of the most barren deserts, oases--tropical in their lushness--seem to spring from dry rock.

So unmistakably Moroccan and at the same time so dramatically different from the Morocco that surrounds it, the Gazelle d'Or seems to exemplify this aspect of the country, seeming to encapsulate the contrast.

I had come here in the first place because a couple of Parisian friends had made fun of me. I had planned originally to spend a few days at another Moroccan landmark hostelry, the posh, recently renovated La Mamounia in Marrakech.

"Tourist trap," my French friends jeered. "Miami Beach!"

Well, I answered, then where should I go?

"Why, the Gazelle d'Or, of course," they replied. "It's the real Mamounia."

My friends' assessment of La Mamounia was not entirely fair, I later learned. It is, in fact, a spectacular establishment, well worth visiting. But it is also, undeniably, overwrought--excessive--with its Alain Senderens restaurant, its ornately done-up attendants, its gaudy casino.

The Gazelle d'Or isn't overwrought in the least. Its luxuries are comfortable, not self-conscious. It doesn't try as hard, and thus succeeds more genuinely.

The original structure on the property was a hunting lodge built in the 1930s by French architect and artist Baron Jean Pellenc. (The region's migratory turtledoves are particularly favored by local Nimrods.) Pellenc later added cottages, and the complex was converted into a hotel in 1961 and expanded in 1981.

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