Pretty little Essaouira has long been a surfers’ paradise, but these days it’s more hip than hippy. A UNESCO world heritage site, wide boulevards lead to the medina (old town). Here you’ll find a warren of Portuguese, French and Berber architecture protected by the honey-coloured 18th century ramparts of the Skala de la Kasbah.
Sitting on Morocco’s southwest coast, the surfers are attracted by the ‘Alizee Winds’, at their strongest in height of summer. The town embraces you with a taste of traditional Moroccan life, a riot of spice and colour. Head down to the port to see fishermen mending nets and dozens of bright blue boats bobbing in the water.
The winds mean Essaouria is not quite the place for a lazy beach holiday, but a place for wandering, breathing in the heady scents in the souks and poking your head into art galleries and boutiques.
The countryside around unfolds into rolling hills, forests and rocky ravines, full of eucalyptus, mimosa and juniper and dotted with little Berber villages. Oh, and yes – those are goats in the trees!. You certainly don’t see that every day.
They love their music (must be why Jimi Hendrix ended up here in 1969), and there are various jazz, world, classical and flamenco-based festivals throughout the year. Even without a festival, you’ll find performers in full swing at pretty much any time of the year. It’s just that kind of place.
Seek out some peace and quiet in the traditional Moroccan village of Sidi Kaouki. Little more than a village on the beach, electricity only arrived here a decade ago. Small boys herd cows and camels down the street, but there is a useful amount of riads and places to stay for such a small place (must be all those surfers). Get out on that huge sandy beach, and if you want to do it in style, set out on a camel ride.
You can stroll the few kilometres down the beach to Diabat, the rock and roll home of Café Jimi Hendrix. Well, he visited once in 1969, and the place is alive with stories about his experience here – almost none of them factually correct, but never let the truth stand in the way of a good story. Afterwards, wander through the small town and explore the ruins of the old kasbah and bridge.
Every Sunday Had Dra plays host to one of the largest souks (markets) in Morocco, piled to the rafters with livestock, local produce and hand crafted products. This is still a local market as opposed to a touristy one, so get into the swing and haggle for some of the freshest fruit and veg. Afterwards, head out to Ain el Haja, a lush countryside oasis centred around a village.
Jardin by Villa Maroc
If the breezes of the coast get too much, spend the day by the pool at one of the riads in the surrounding countryside. A particular favourite is the chic Jardin by Villa Maroc, where you can have a massage, sip cocktails and lunch on salads and grilled meats by the pool. There’s even a peacock and a tortoise to add to the chilled out ambience.
Yes, a Moroccan vineyard. French winemaker Charles Melia has developed his own winery where three ranges of red, white and rosé wines are produced, in addition to Moroccan gris (a blend between a rosé and white). You can tour the vineyards, taste the produce, and then get stuck into lunch in the romantic restaurant. Top it all off with a dip in the swimming pool, under the olive trees.
Make the most of that beach
Essaouria sits on a beautiful wide beach – and if the wind is too strong for lying around, there are plenty of other things to do. An absolute haven for surfers, kitesurfers and wind surfers, there are lots of places for beginners to give it a try. If you fancy something a bit more four wheeled (or legged) there’s quad bike hire and horse riding or even camel riding.
Oh, it’s got to be the seafood. Absolutely as fresh as it comes, in fact you can even choose your own straight off the boat and have it grilled on the spot. Lip-smackingly good. Local grilled sardines are another speciality, as well as traditional tagines heavy with spice.
Little street treats include crepes, makouda (a fried potato cake) and sfenj (lovely Moroccan doughnuts). There are plenty of places to pick up a snack, and of course it’s absolutely obligatory to wash them down with at least one cup of mint tea.
Eating and drinking – from fishermen’s shacks and coffee shops to sleekly stylish restaurants – is exceptional. Have your fish cooked in front of you at the harbour. Dress up and dine at one of the sleek rooftop eateries, or dress down and dine at a souk cafe with local musicians. There are plenty of buzzy bars, retro joints playing Leonard Cohen, and lots of live music and drinks on the terrace.
Essaouria is a different kind of Morocco. Less packed than the big cities, more informal and easier to get to know – partly because direct flights only started here recently. It’s now so easy to get to, it’s possible to go for a long weekend.
Surfers and watersports enthusiasts will love it, as will couples and independent travellers. There’s more than enough to keep families entertained, and anyone with an interest in music or Game of Thrones (some scenes were filmed here) will find much to while away the time on.
Chic, bohemian, lovely. Essaouria will be more than happy to welcome you.
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