Destinations

Essaouira: Morocco's hip town on the coast

Essaouira: Morocco's hip town on the coast
Rebali Riads at Sidi Kaouki,

Afew weeks ago I found myself happily pootling around Morocco’s most infamous beach town doing nothing much of anything at all. This is where Jimi Hendrix was said to have penned Castles Made of Sand, though, in fact, it was written long before he set foot in Essaouira. But there are fortifications, and miles of golden sand, as well as narrow lanes and blue-trimmed houses all neatly shoehorned into the chunky walls of the Skala Kasbah that protects the charming little town from the pounding waves of the Atlantic Ocean.

When direct easyJet flights start from Luton in May, there will be nothing easier that frittering away a weekend poking around the souks, dipping in and out of the numerous art galleries, sipping coffee on the plazas and munching freshly grilled fish at the open-air stands down at the port. From there you can stroll for hours along the seashore, stopping for juicy burgers or just-caught fish sushi at beach bars such as Ocean Vagabond (oceanvagabond.com), or continue on to the village of Diabat, just south of town, and pop into Tangaro (aubergetangaro.com) for a yoga session, massage or sunset beer.

Largely thanks to its mix of locals and foreigners, Essaouira is a lot more laid-back than most Moroccan destinations, and while there’s no denying locals love a chat over a carpet or carved thuya wood trinkets, you’ll never feel bullied into doing, or buying, anything.

In the past few years the town has been transformed from a pretty, pint-size medina with a tranquil air to a place where the souks now coexist with hip young Moroccan designers, simple guesthouses have become boutique hotels and the eating and drinking – from fishermen’s shacks and coffee shops to sleekly stylish restaurants – is exceptional. But there is more to the wider region of Essaouira than you would ever imagine and if you rent a car and expand your exotic weekend away to a full week’s stay, you’ll be rewarded with the thrill of discovering a place with its own special atmosphere.

Inland from the town, the Saouri countryside unfolds in a series of undulating hills intersected by deep ravines carved by ancient rivers that occasionally still roar after heavy rains. Argan forests are carpeted with wildflowers and provide fodder for tufty-haired black goats. Just six miles south of the town, hidden among dune forests thick with eucalyptus, mimosa, juniper, tamarisk, carob and thuya, you’ll find Baoussala (hotel-baoussala-essaouira.com), which opened about 15 years ago, the first eco-lodge in this area.


The spice market in Essaouira (Getty Images)

A local favourite for weekend getaways, it’s a great place to hole up when the Atlantic wind blows in, and wallow in the garden bath, ryokan style. Double rooms from about £60. Nearby Sidi Kaouki – until recently the domain of surfers – is all the rage among the fashion set, who check into Rebali Riads (rebaliriads.com; doubles from £92) and spend their days hanging out by the pool or roaming the beach. You can’t really blame them – the wide, golden sand runs for miles to a hazy horizon.

Nearby, down a boulder-laden track that follows the line of the sand is Mouette et Les Dromadaires (facebook.com/LaMouetteEtLesDromadaires). Set back a little from the pounding waves, Mouette is a spruce, whitewashed shed with wicker furniture on a paved terrace, sail shades and, I’m told, sensational fish and seafood.

Unfortunately, it was closed when we visited, so we continued to the more rustic, but even more off-the-beaten-path, Chez Abdou (Taguenza Beach; 00212 613 037 691). Abdou is Sidi Kaouki’s very own Dr Dolittle, who told me over a lunch of the most intensely delicious octopus salad, fried squid and John Dory grilled over flames, that he had grown up on the streets and had often slept with animals to keep warm. This was his payback time and the little stone dwelling with its terrace raised in the sand was teeming with dogs, ducks (rescued from the souks) and even a donkey dozing in the shade of a tree.

We stayed and played with the animals until the sun dipped over the horizon, turning the unusually quiet waters of the Atlantic a deep fiery red, then reluctantly took our leave despite Abdou’s offers of a room (if you’re into back-to-basics camping, he rents a converted stable next door with no electricity, but a fireplace, an idyllic terrace and views that make you feel you’re at the end of the world).


A carpet stall in the town (Getty Images)

These are by no means the region’s only secrets, though. Scattered across this coastal countryside is a clutch of stylish rural hotels, chilled-out restaurants and little market towns such as Had Dra – known for its Sunday souk selling livestock, local produce and the odd antique carpet. It’s part modern-day eco-warrior (everything is local, organic or slow), part hippy (alternative lifestylists abound), part in-the-know jet-setter (check out the palatial villas and newbuild kasbahs hidden in the hills), which gives it an attractive, anything-goes atmosphere that seems to work for everybody.

Family favourite is the Jardin des Douars (jardindesdouars.com) where little ones can comfortably spread their wings. Built in the Nineties and modelled on the rammed-earth kasbahs of the anti-Atlas, it has the most sensational botanic gardens and terraces spilling down over a ridge looking across the Ksob river. Rooms come in just about any configuration, from the cavernous, two-bedroom Royal Suite with open fireplaces, banks of arched windows opening onto impressive views and a huge domed living room, to the sprawling family rooms with bunk beds and walled-in terraces; double rooms cost from £107. There are two pools – one for children, one for grown-ups – both heated for year-round swimming, and a private, glassed-in room for extended family gatherings off the main lounge and dining room. I’ve yet to meet a parent who didn’t love it – or who didn’t manage to squeeze in an afternoon in the spa and hammam.

Style-seekers head to the Jardins de Villa Maroc (lesjardinsdevillamaroc.com) and loll around a pale aquamarine pool, sipping cocktails while surrounded by gentle, postcard-perfect countryside. The dining room, bar and lounge were decorated by John Quinn (of the One Up bar in town), who painted giant wicker lanterns in shades of olive and teal, paved the floors with modernist-inspired tiles and clad the cocktail bar in carved plaster. The £20 transfer fee from the centre of town includes an all-you-can-eat barbecue buffet, or you could just book a stay. Three spacious suites arranged around one of the old farm buildings have been given a sleek, Martha Stewart-style makeover with a large kitchen-dining room presided over by an open fireplace, outdoor dining in the shade of a giant bougainvillea and a private swimming pool; doubles from £74.


Jardins de Villa Maroc (Getty Images)

The region is especially appealing to foodies. It seems there’s a women’s cooperative making superlative organic Argan oil over every hill, but less obvious is the Val d’Argan (valdargan.com) winery, which despite its unlikely location is widely considered by connoisseurs to be the best in the country. Winemaker Charles Melia has won multiple awards for his vintages at the Châteauneuf du Pape and started looking for suitable vineyard land when he first fell in love with Morocco in the mid-Nineties.

Evidently the minerality of the land here, combined with ocean breezes, conspired to produce New World-style wines that could hold their own against any of the South American or Australian vintages. Melia now makes several different wines, from entry-level Gazelle de Mogador – a crisp, refreshing white that goes down a treat with local seafood – to the more powerfully gutsy reds of his flagship Orient du Val d’Argan.

Have lunch at the winery, or follow a morning of wine tasting with a long lunch at Abderrazzak Khoubbane’s La Fromagerie (Route Cotiere de Safi; 666 233 534), an organic goat farm producing wonderful goat’s cheese. His chef serves the sort of lunch that would make Yotam Ottolenghi proud – sprouting seed salads and vegetable-stuffed briouats, finished with a lavish cheeseboard on a terrace. Khoubbane flits around, explaining how it was thanks to the director of Marrakesh’s very own grande dame, La Mamounia, who happened by one day and ended up buying his cheese for the hotel, that put him on the map.

You can’t help thinking it won’t be long before the rest of the region follows.


Baoussala, eco-lodge (Getty Image)

Essentials

When to go

Early spring promises cobalt-blue, cloudless skies and gentle breezes. July and August are the windiest months. The music festivals Alizes in April, Gnaoua in May and Atlantic Andalous in October are worth travelling for (essaouiramorocco.org/things-to-do-in-essaouira/events).

Flying time and time difference

Flights from London to Essaouira take 3½hr. Morocco keeps the same time as the UK.

Getting there

EasyJet (easyjet.com) offers direct flights to Essaouira from London Luton twice a week (Monday and Friday) from May 1 to October 23; from £34.99 one way.


A camel rider on the beach (Getty Images)

Car rental

Avis (avis.com) and Europcar (europcar.com) both have concessions at Essaouira airport with economy cars starting at about £95 from Friday to Monday. For longer stays, many hotels can have a car brought on-site to use for just part of your stay. Driving in Morocco is on the right, and road conditions in this region are generally good with a low volume of traffic.

Packages

Tara Stevens’s accommodation was provided by the Jardin des Douars. Plan-It-Fez (plan-it-fez.com) will soon be launching throughout Morocco (Plan-It-Morocco) and promises to get you to the heart of the food, wine and culture scene of the Essaouira region.

Inside track

Essaouira being its laid-back self, shorts and T-shirts are fine (don’t go too skimpy) and swimsuits are acceptable on the beach, though you’ll probably be less comfortable in a bikini. Take plenty of high-factor sunscreen and a hat – the sun is deceptively strong when the wind is up.

Health/visas

European residents are given a 90-day visa on entry to Morocco. No vaccinations are necessary; however, the usual advise applies. Drink bottled water and follow the usual rules for eating: if it’s crowded, it’s probably safe and good.