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Morocco Inches Closer to Modernity

The Moroccan city of Marrakech is home to new Western-style luxury hotels.

LOS ANGELES (TheStreet) -- Driving away from the desolate airport, a marked two-lane highway quickly becomes three, and then four, makeshift lanes as scooters squeak by.

Commercial trucks don't hesitate to drive with bicycles on the road's shoulder, dodging pedestrians and dogs and even a smug goat as my driver interacts in what sounds like something between a greeting and a holler. In the visual chaos are the images and sounds of old Marrakech, Morocco: a gathering of field workers knelt towards Mecca with the call to prayer rising above the honking horns and congested mufflers opposite a ramshackle market outside the city walls with women dressed head-to-toe in black buying rebelliously pink watermelon.

But even the driver insists, "Marrakech has changed -- too new." And new seems to be everywhere, slowly inching closer and sometimes over the exotic wildness of this former trader's capital. Over the next year, Marrakech will be home to new outposts of the Four Seasons and W Hotels opening lavish mega-resorts with their own restaurants, pool bars and golf courses to join Amanresorts, La Mamounia and Mandarin Oriental Jnan Rahma. Marrakech's movie-star ambitions are clear: to make the town even more accessible to tourism and high-end convention markets in North America.

Arriving to your hotel is the moment of truth, Western eyes peering up from the cab as the driver slips you his card and you try to discern where the neighboring gas station or pharmacy or butcher ends and your riad or hotel begins. Even the city's old-school luxury properties, like

La Villa des Orangers

, is but an entryway of hand-carved doors and two silver lanterns camouflaged next to a scooter repair shop. Inside, however, most riads and hotels are like secret genie bottles of painted tile floors and walls of hand-carved blanched woods often leading to inner courtyards and reflective pools.

Staying close to or inside the medina allows you to experience the very essence of Marrakech afoot. Best to go as casual as possible. Bees still swarm the sidewalk bakeries, smoke still rises from the welders behind the craft-selling souks, and a deal can still be found as easily as a swindle.

Chateau des Souks is one of the glitzier shops in the medina, with windows of well-polished "do not touch" antiques and well-rouged hostesses pushily welcoming visitors. A two-hour sit-down session of carpet porn and mint teas ended in a failed negotiation for two Berber carpets that were bargained down to 50% of the "fixed price." Better times were had at La Porte d'Or, which has no alleyway handlers and, in fact, almost always looks closed. Bartering is its specialty, momentarily rattling would-be buyers with a wall of 8-by-10 headshots of Posh and Becks, Elton John and Tony Soprano posing with the manager who shakes the hands all would-be customers.

Landing a bargain is a five-hour commitment likely resulting in a serious case of the munchies. Luckily, food is everywhere in the medina, from children selling pastries to the grand stands of Djemaa el Fna, where, at dusk, a griller's fantasy is wheeled in, heated up and served to the masses that come from every direction. The infamous night market is a dizzying fantasy that can feel scary yet exhilarating at the same time. Food vendors and merchants are arranged in numeric order as folkloric spice traders and gangs of musicians create a dazzling spectacle best enjoyed with a heaving plate of food.

For fancier palettes or germ-phobes in need of a more traditional dining room or indoor kitchen, stake out

Al Fassia

, with its paneled formal dining room but revolutionary Moroccan kitchen. It's all-female staff is a renegade statement in this predominately Muslim country, led by chef Halima Chab, who creates a traditional Moroccan family feast with serious gourmet undertones. Chab masters the mix of spicy and succulent, marrying the savory of spiced meats with sweat dough stuffed with homegrown dates to create famous game-stuffed dumplings and intricate tanjines.

Afterward, stop off for a little night music at

TST Recommends

Azar

, from the owners of eternal-tourist hotspot

Le Comptoir Darna

, which has created a trendy Lebanese eatery and bar in a pop-architectural space that's equal parts Patrick Jouin and Andy Warhol. Weekends feature live music and belly dancing in the bar amongst wall-mounted graphics of traditional Marrakech street scenes that are a collision of old and new.

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Michael Martin is the managing editor of JetSetReport.com -- a luxury travel and lifestyle guide based in Los Angeles and London. His work has appeared in In Style, Blackbook, Elle, U.K.'s Red magazine, ITV and BBC.