Essaouira Guide: The Laid-back Alternative to Marrakech
Morocco’s the kind of you place you visit once and immediately know you’ll be back. Long been the getaway destination for sunseekers, Morocco blends the vibrancy of life with a surprisingly idyllic character that is often found in far-off landscapes. It might be the way the famous Moroccan sun glows against the maze-like medina, or the smell of mint tea and mounds of spices that fill the air. Perhaps it’s the handwoven Berber rugs that bring colour to the energetic souks, the Islamic and Moorish-infused architecture or the allure of the sun-scorched Atlas Mountains that has you hooked.
But let’s face it, a trip to Marrakech can be exhausting. Enter Essaouira: a windswept seaside town that embodies the spirit of Marrakech but taken at a slower pace. If Marrakech is the Moroccan equivalent to New York, then Essaouira adopts the laid-back culture of West Coast California.
A mere three hours’ drive out to the coast from Marrakech, Essaouira still remains arguably undiscovered. Although the city is popular with French out-of-towners, Essaouira never seems crowded – even during the height of summer when tourists are drawn to its unspoiled nature; where surfers come to play at the break of dawn on the iridescent waves of Sidi Kaouki beach, and hours are allowed to slip by idly at lively cafés. Whether you are desperately seeking sun or in need of a little inspiration for your next escape, we’ve rounded up the tried and tested sights in Essaouira that are just too good to miss.
The Old Town
Thanks to its mix of locals and foreigners, Essaouira’s old town is thriving. A rich jumble of spirited cafés flourish on shady plazas, while the usual souk market wares sit neatly among unexpected concept stores. Curiously separate from the rest of the country, the souks here are free from hassle, where shopping is done at leisure. For traditional woven fabrics and soft furnishings for the bedroom, look to Atelier de tissage Omar Bahja. Locally handcrafted rugs, wall hangings, and woodcut chairs are found in Boheme of Morocco and are guaranteed to look good in any home. If it is homespun raffia accessories you are on the lookout for, hurry directly to Rafia Craft Essaouira for a colourful line-up of summer sandals.
Escape the heat of the afternoon sun by taking shelter in the many galleries that line the streets of the medina. For a lesson in the Essaouiran art scene, the Galerie d’art Damgaard hosts a colourful array of work from local painters and wood sculptors in town. Like many of Morocco’s sights, Le Real Mogador seems nothing out of the ordinary but inside, holds an impressive old-world riad exhibiting contemporary art in a unique setting.
The Heure Bleue Palais
Built into the oceanfront medina walls, the Heure Bleue Palais is an ideal base to immerse yourself in the heart of the Essaouira. Post-colonial elegance reigns at Heure Bleue, where plush furnishings and wooden-shuttered windows meet an abundance of tropical plants and wicker chairs, placing you in the centre of Humphrey Bogart’s and Ingrid Bergman’s Casablanca. A hidden oasis of grandeur, you’ll be surprised to find the bustling streets of the medina just on your doorstep. When the North African sun beats down, head up to the rooftop pool for hard-to-beat views overlooking the Atlantic.
Essaouria’s thriving art scene continues to uphold the destination’s reputation as a bohemian hotspot, and Mega Loft – the hybrid restaurant-gallery – is no exception. A contemporary community hangout that fuses coffee culture and nonchalant dining with an art gallery, a showroom and a shop, Mega Loft stays true to the spirit of Essaouira. Lively Gnaoua music performances are welcomed daily while the collective mix of vintage and contemporary furnishings are stacked with dishes that leave you wanting more. After dinner, head up to the terrace for a punchy Virgin Mojito (afterall, this is Morocco) and an unspoiled sunset over the cobbled medina.
Le Jardin des Douars
In the argan-tree hills of Essaouria, the terraced boutique hotel Jardin des Douars feels like a well-kept secret. Inspired by the rammed earth Kasbahs of the High Atlas, the Jardin des Douars boasts a collection of airy suites and domed villas with views over the lush Mahgreb landscape. A celebration of the colourful local Maghrebin craftmanship, the hotel blends zelige tiling, smooth tadelakt plasterwork, and tactile Berber rugs to give it that warm feeling of returning home. Between the jade-green infinity pools and sprawling botanical gardens, the Jardin des Douars is a refreshing antidote to the usual Moroccan offerings, where guests are invited to escape from the world in a laid-back setting.
What is Morocco without the truly bizarre? For an unforgettable night in Essaouira, make a beeline for one of the most eccentric places in town: Caravane Café. Known for its killer rum punch and creative cooking, their eclectic menu blends south-east Asian staples with traditional French-Moroccan cuisine. The mix of paintings and artefacts which spill out of small rooms that offshoot from the plant-stuffed courtyard have all the makings of a tourist trap, but Caravane Café’s electrifying charm personifies the spirit of Morocco. Expect live Gnawa music to be the soundtrack of your evening, while obscure magicians play old-school tricks and fire-dancers literally set the restaurant alight.
Sidi Kaouki Beach
You won’t be short of sandy beaches along the coastline of Morocco, but there’s something indescribable about Sidi Kaouki. Just 30km south of Essaouira, the white-washed walls of the small village exude a distinctly bohemian feel that separates it from Moorish Morocco. Iridescent waves crash into the rock formations that uphold a ruined mausoleum, the burial site of a 19th Century marabout who gave his name to the village. Behind is Les Kiosques, a small square of surf shacks, locally-run cafés, and shops making it a perfect spot for a morning coffee before hitting the waves.
Sidi Kaouki Surf Station
When it comes to lunch, the Sidi Kaouki Surf Station’s community-like atmosphere provides a relaxed meeting space for water sport enthusiasts and beach-goers. Upstairs at the surf station, the terrace overlooks scenic views of the ocean, while the all-day cafe serves up organic and healthy Moroccan dishes – promising to provide the refuel you need between surfing lessons. As the heat begins to rise, keep your cool with a fresh ginger lemonade and sink into a hammock with your holiday read.
At night it’s time to recharge at the Rebali Riads – a boutique hotel on the cusp of the sandy beaches of Sidi Kaouki, with views looking out onto the coast. Boasting a private hammam for traditional Moroccan treatments with European spa services, complete your day spent on the beach with a traditional gommage; an olive soap scrub, followed by a deep cleansing session in the steam room.
La Mouette et Les Dromadaires
Essaouira is known for its fishing harbour, so it’s no surprise La Mouette et Les Dromadaires put boat-fresh catches at the forefront of their menu. Fitting into the Sidi Kaouki lifestyle, there is a laid-back approach at the French-owned restaurant, with a focus on enjoying a slowed down dining experience. Expect to taste simple fish grills with some inventive dishes too; think dorado carpaccio, tea-smoked monkfish, and Dakhla oysters – this is cuisine inspired by the marketplace.