There are certain places in the world that wrap their arms around you as soon as you arrive; that whisper sweet nothings in your ear, like ‘come here sweetheart’, ‘stay with me darling’, and ‘never leave my side’. Creepy? Maybe. But the Moroccan coastal town of Essaouira (pronounced es-Sweera in Arabic) is one of those places. In fact, you’re almost guaranteed to still feel its sandy arms around you, still smell its salty scent wafting by from time to time. Yep, Essaouira is the ultimate triple threat, mixing exotic ancient souks, windswept beaches and languid hippie vibes in an almost perfect concoction. So throw on your babouches (those pointy leather slippers Moroccans all wear), prepare your ‘best of Jimi Hendrix’ playlist, and get thee to the coolest city in Morocco.
Wily (Alley) Ways
The first thing you’ll want to do when you arrive in Essaouira’s ancient medina – well, after you’ve checked into your riad, which you’ll have probably already enquired about buying because it’s so bloody nice, even though you’re unemployed and wearing a $10 pair of flares from Glassons – is start shimmying your way down the warren of narrow laneways. You’ll be digging those whitewashed houses. Those elegant cobbled plazas where you’ll scald your tongue on fresh mint tea. Those tiny art galleries and blue-tinged shops selling everything from raffia espadrilles and antique jewellery to local artworks, handmade instruments and, of course, rugs. They’ll be everywhere you go in Essaouira, those rugs. Lovely orangey, reddy, autumnal carpets of all shapes and sizes, just begging you to lose the contents of your Commonwealth YouthSaver account to them. Alas, your $274 will probably only get you a bathmat. Instead, keep an eye out for the guy sitting in front of that rough-hewn wall (tricked you, they’re all rough-hewn), on his rickety stool knitting hundreds of colourful beanies for just five bucks apiece.
You can get lost in the maze and browse to your heart’s content, because those renowned Moroccan bullying shopping tactics are pretty much non-existent here. Okay maybe a shop owner will occasionally call after you, ‘You come back later, madam!’, but you did actually love that five-dollar beanie so you probably will.
When the sun starts to set, take refuge in one of the town’s chic restaurants. Maybe One Up, with its lavish decor, cool club vibes and delicious Moroccan-inspired tapas. Or Elizir, where you’ll get tripped out by the series of intimate, interconnected dining rooms styled with derelict ‘70s decor, then demolish a squid ink risotto from their tightly edited organic menu and a house rosé so delicious it’s almost arousing. Or maybe you’ll just keep things lo-fi and kick it with the locals, heading down to the fish stall eateries lining the little park by the marina. Peer into the ice cart, pick your fish (or still wiggling lobster if you want to be posh) and take a seat while they cook it up in front of you. Just watch out for those terrifying cat-sized seagulls eyeing you from above.
Aaarrgh me hearties, this here be a workin’ seaport (sorry, couldn’t help it). Just outside the sun-bleached, honey coloured fortress walls wrapping around the medina, built to guard the town against pirates and invaders back in the day, you’ll find the sleepy port.
Come here just after sunrise to see gnarly, salt-encrusted fishermen haul nets filled with writhing silvery fish out of their faded blue wooden boats, as stray dogs and those horrifying seagulls swoop in for scraps. You won’t like the smell of the rotting boat hulls and fish guts left on the concrete, but by god you’ll get some good pics for the Gram.
Essaouira is known as the Wind City of Africa, because of the trade winds that whip off the Atlantic and send the beach sands up your nose, into your mouth and eyes, into your hair, up your… You get the picture. It drives people nuts, they say. But don’t let that put you off a day at la plage (French for beach, learn a bit, as French is Morocco’s unofficial first language).
People will tell you to walk to Diabat Beach at the end of Essaouira’s main Tagharte Beach, to visit the crumbling Bordj El Berod watchtower that supposedly inspired Jimi Hendrix to pen ‘Castles Made of Sand’. By all means take the walk – the ruins are beautiful, Diabat has a couple of laid-back hippie cafes, and there are some freakishly well-dressed camels and horses waiting to take tourists for a ride at the end of the beach. But just keep in mind that the famous song was actually written two years before Hendrix ever set foot in Essaouira.
Alternatively, hire a driver to take you out through the undulating Argan forests to the remote and windswept Tagenza beach. You’ll probably be the only one there – aside from the local goat herd or a couple of mad windsurfers, anyway. So you can just take a dip, lay back on your towel and relax. On second thoughts, you might want to wrap that towel around your body and another around your head to keep the sand out of every orifice. Or even better, buy a djellaba – those long sack-like Moroccan dresses with the pointy hoods – in town before you hit the beach.
Jardin Des Douars
After a few days battling the sand invasion, you’ll deserve a visit to Jardin des Douars. You boss, you. You’ll have no doubt heard about this place, just a 20-minute drive out of town, during your first few days in Essaouira. Heard whispers that it’s modelled on the rammed-earth kasbahs of the Atlas Mountains. That its botanic gardens are ‘sensational’ and its pools ‘azure’. And that you can loll about in them all day long for the price of a pretty reasonably priced lunch in the hotel’s ‘faaabulous’ restaurant. They’ll even pick you up and drop you home.
And guess what? It’s true. All of it. There are two dream- like pools at this hotel; memories of their fish carpaccio will wake you up in the middle of the night months after you’ve eaten it, and you simply will not be able to peel yourself off your sun lounge until your skin is crispier than a KFC wing and the sun has almost set. But get thee back to thee’s riad. Because you won’t want to miss having a sunset Casablanca beer on your rooftop terrace, as you watch the sky get set ablaze and come to the realization that Essaouira’s rough, sandy arms already have you firmly in their clutches.
You might not think you need five floors worth of space, but when you see the interiors at Atlantic Morocco – a 200-year-old, four-bedroom Moroccan home inside the medina – you’ll be convinced you do. This joint perfectly captures Essaouira’s ’70s coastal vibes (think lush indoor plants, tropical fabrics, minimalist curved white walls and vintage signage) and is built around a central light well, making it open, airy and stupidly chic. See atlanticmorocco.com.