In the tranquil fishing port of Essaouria, with its crescent-shaped bay and honey-colored stone battlements, you can escape the crowds of Marrakesh and discover a gentler Morocco.
This bohemian enclave is the answer to that vacation holiday dilemma — lounge on an exotic beach or take a cultural city break? Essaouira won’t make you choose.
Amble down its maze of narrow streets, with shadowy doorways and blue shutters clattering in the wind, and you feel like you are trespassing on a film set. The thick ramparts with their cannons pointing out to sea hint at centuries-ago strife in this forgotten bastion, left behind by the Portuguese.
Essaouira is a three-hour drive from Marrakesh and popular with day-trippers, but it is ideal for a longer stay. It is one of the world’s most popular spots for windsurfing and kite boarding, and it’s possible to rent a bike and explore the sand dunes.
Spend time doing nothing
You can easily while away an afternoon strolling down the glistening beach, negotiating your way past the constant offers of hashish and space cakes from street hustlers. If you want to escape a nose full of fish, wander to Essaouira’s central square, the picturesque Place Moulay Hassan where you can listen to the muezzin’s call. While the sun sets, enjoy an African coffee and pastry slathered in argan honey, a regional delicacy.
Stay: Villa Maroc
Villa Maroc was Essaouira’s first boutique hotel and has a luxury edge on the others. Boasting 21 bedrooms, seven lounges and a roof terrace overlooking the ocean, it somehow still manages to retain a homey feel. www.villa-maroc.com
Do: Any number of festivals
Essaouira plays host to a number of festivals, the most popular of which is the Gnaoua and World Music Festival in June which celebrates fusion with collaborations between jazz, pop, rock and traditional — plus the hypnotic lute-fuelled sounds of Gnaoua. Most festivals are free.
Eat: Street stalls
Follow the squawks of the seagulls down to the sea walls and eat freshly caught crab or sardines. Watch it being grilled before you as the blue fishing boats bring in their gleaming catches.
Alternatively, stop off at one of the many food stalls and try a chicken and almond or pigeon pastilla.