If Essaouira were a house, it would have to be this one. Rustically glamorous, its curved whitewashed walls nod to the Moroccan seaside town’s languid ’70s vibes, and the central light well and trio of black-and-white-tiled rooftop terraces renders it sunny, breezy and relaxed. Do my travel companion and I need five floors’ worth of space? No, we don’t. But one glimpse of the interiors of Atlantic Morocco – this 200-year-old four-bedroom home tucked inside Essaouira’s medina – convinces us we do. From the rusted vintage signage and indoor banana palms, to the ’70s cushions and Berber rugs strewn across the floors, the Atlantic oozes a warmth and charm that immediately draws us in, hugs us tight, and tells us that we’re home.
Which makes sense, really, because this actually is a home. The home of two friends – Rosie and Lisa, from London – who posted it on Love Home Swap, the world’s biggest home exchange website, where it happily found us.
When we’ve exhausted ourselves running up and down the four flights of stairs, checking out the terraces and poking our heads into room after room after room, we slide on our Moroccan babouche slippers and step out into the centre of the ancient souk.
Shuffling through the warren of narrow laneways, we pass tiny art galleries and blue-tinged shops selling everything from raffia espadrilles and silver teapots, to local artworks, handmade instruments and colourful Berber rugs. Resisting temptation, we head outside the sun-bleached, honey-coloured fortress walls wrapping around the medina, built to guard the town against pirates and invaders in the mid 18th century, to Essaouira’s seaport.
Gnarly, salt-encrusted fishermen haul nets filled with writhing silvery fish out of their faded blue wooden boats, as stray cats and dogs and terrifyingly large seagulls swoop in for scraps. Since its foundation, this has been a major international trading seaport, linking Morocco and sub-Saharan Africa with Europe and the rest of the world. The air is laced with the scent of two centuries’ worth of rotting boat hulls and fish gizzards. It’s almost enough to make us turn and run, but the promise of great Instagram shots keeps us there.
When the sun starts to set, we find ourselves flopped on the rooftop daybeds of the Atlantic, sipping crisp Moroccan rosé and watching the gull-smattered sky turn pink, then tangerine, as the lights of the town start to flicker on below. We peer down onto a scene out of Arabian Nights: countless white-washed terraces spreading toward the North Atlantic, the call to prayer wailing from the minarets of a nearby mosque seemingly inviting us to get back out among it. We consult Atlantic’s dossier, collated by Rosie and Lisa, who recommend One Up just a few streets away. The dimly lit, lavishly decorated space offers cool clubby vibes and tasty Moroccan-inspired tapas, but we move on rather quickly when we discover they don’t yet have a liquor license. Around the corner at Elizir we find a series of intimate, interconnected dining rooms styled with derelict ’70s decor, and gobble a squid ink risotto from their tightly edited organic menu accompanied by another delicious glass of Moroccan rosé.
Essaouira is known as the Wind City of Africa because of the trade winds that whip off the Atlantic. We experience them for ourselves the following morning when our housekeeper Nezha (yes there’s a housekeeper at the Atlantic, who’ll clean the whole place and also cook breakfast for about $7 a person) suggests we head to Tagenza Beach. It’s a fair way out of town, so we hire a driver to run us out through the undulating Argan forests.
We’d asked for remote and remote we get. Arriving at Tagenza we discover we’re the sole visitors, aside from the local goat herd. It only takes about five minutes – five minutes from when we’ve told our driver to come back in two hours – to discover why. The wind has turned the ocean into a frothy cauldron too wild to take a dip, and is sending sand up our noses and into our mouths, eyes, hair and clothes. It drives people nuts, this wind, or so my guidebook had told me. And it certainly feels like I’m headed that way as I wrap one towel around my torso, another around my waist and yet another around my head, to keep the sand out. Eventually we just give up and explore the hauntingly beautiful ruins by the shore.
The final secret Rosie and Lisa share with us via their dossier is Jardin des Douars, which we take the 20-minute drive out of town to visit late the following morning. Modelled on the rammed-earth kasbahs of the Atlas Mountains, this bougainvillea-shrouded boutique hotel is surrounded by thriving gardens and two elegant swimming pools. We’re allowed to loll about in them all day long, provided we eat lunch in Douars’ reasonably-priced restaurant. Which we do with gusto, devouring fresh tuna, salmon and kingfish sashimi served with a herb and lemon tapenade, then taking our gelato by the pool, where we stay until our skin turns crispy and the sun hangs low in the sky. We make it back to the Atlantic’s terrace just in time for sunset, toasting with Casablanca beers and wondering how exactly we’ll break the news to Rosie and Lisa: we’re never, ever going to leave.
THIS STORY FIRST APPEARED IN PRINT AND ONLINE HERE
Emirates flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Casablanca via Dubai from about $1680 return. From there, it’s about a four-and-a-half-hour drive to Essaouira.STAYING THERE
Love Home Swap has a 14-day free trial, after which annual membership starts from $250 for an unlimited number of swaps throughout the year in 75,000 properties over 160 countries.NEED TO KNOW
By Prior Arrangement creates small bespoke luxury tours and private itineraries to Morocco based around shopping, art, architecture, gardens, food or trekking.