There are certain places in the world that just 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.”
The Moroccan coastal town of Essaouira was one of those places for me. In fact I still feel his (because if Essaouira were a person he would certainly be an effortlessly charming, slightly weather-beaten older man) sandy arms around me, and still smell his salty scent wafting by from time to time.
Essaouira was the ultimate triple threat, mixing exotic ancient souks, windswept beaches, and languid hippie vibes in an almost perfect concoction.
Here are five reasons why I can’t get him off my mind.
Essaouira’s rugged charm undoubtably stems from its history as a working seaport. Just outside the stark, sun-bleached battlements encircling the medina [old town], built to guard the city against pirates and invaders, lies the sleepy port. Here, bright blue wooden fishing boats bob lazily awaiting an outing into the Atlantic, salt-encrusted men haul nets overflowing with mounds of silvery fish, and stray dogs and seagulls the size of cats swoop in for scraps. An Instagrammer’s dream.
The narrow lanes of the ancient medina are crammed full of tiny blue-tinged shops selling everything from raffia espadrilles, local artworks and hand-made instruments, to antique jewellery, djellabas and colourful rugs and textiles crafted by the creative locals.
Spend an afternoon getting deliciously lost in the maze like we did, poking your head into the tiny art galleries, sipping coffee on the cobbled plazas, and revelling in the delightful lack of bullying shopping tactics.
When the sun sets, take refuge in one of the town’s chic restaurants. My favourites were One Up for its lavish decor, chic club vibes and tasty Moroccan-inspired tapas; and Elizir where you’ll find a series of small intimate dining rooms styled with eclectic 1970s decor, and a tightly edited organic menu that includes a delicious house rosé and squid ink risotto.
We were lucky enough to stay at Atlantic Morocco, a 200-year-old Moroccan home in the centre of the medina that captured Essaouira’s 70s coastal vibes perfectly.
This four-bedroom house, available for rent through the home swapping service Love Home Swap, is spread out over five floors and built around a central light well, meaning it’s open, light and incredibly spacious. It’s very chic yet also unpretentious and has a huge rooftop terrace kitted out with daybeds, which was the ideal spot to take in the panoramic views over the town towards the Atlantic Ocean as the sun set with a glass of Moroccan rosé in hand.
But it was the interior styling that really got me. Lush indoor plants scattered throughout, 70s tropical fabrics mixed in with minimalist curved white walls and vintage signage, with smatterings of Moroccan wool blankets and shells gathered from the sea.
Ok maybe it was the lovely housekeeper who came every day, who also made us breakfast for a minimal price, who really got me.
If you’re down for a bit of exploring, you can hire a driver like we did to take you out through the undulating Argan forests to the remote and windswept Tagenza beach. We were greeted by a group of fluffy black and brown goats and their herder, but for the three hours we were there we didn’t spy a single other soul as we sat and read books on the sand dunes and tried not to get sand swept into every orifice (it gets very, very windy in Essaouira).
People will tell you to walk to Diabat Beach at the very end of Essaouira’s main beach Plage Tagharte, which you’ll find just outside the ramparts, to visit the crumbling Borjd 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 hippy cafes where you can stop for a drink, and it’s worth the stroll to see the camels and horses waiting to take tourists for a ride at the end of the beach. But keep in mind that the famous song was actually written two years before Hendrix ever set foot in Essaouira.
Modelled on the rammed-earth kasbahs of the Atlas Mountains, we were lured to the Jardin des Douars hotel, about a 20-minute drive out of town, by the promise of sensational botanic gardens and azure pools. We were told you could loll about in them all day for the price of lunch in the hotel’s supposedly fantastic restaurant.
It was true, all of it (their fish carpaccio is still on my mind two months later), and we simply could not peel ourselves off our sun lounges until our skin was almost crackling and the sun had almost set.
Don’t worry Essaouira: in my mind, I never really did leave your side.