Modern-day Morocco is a country of fascinating contradictions. For me, Marrakech is anything but relaxing; my heart rate doubles at the mere sight of the city’s manic medina, and yet just a two-hour drive away resides the ultimate bohemian retreat. Lovingly referred to as Jimi Hendrix’s hippy homeland, Essaouira sits nestled between Agadir and Casablanca, on the western coast of Morocco.
This evocative salt-soaked city is where Hendrix and Jagger would retreat to in the ’60s, to take in the sea air, relaxed vibe and get stoned on its sandy beach.
Today, the UNESCO World Heritage site still maintains a bohemian flare with the sweet scent of shisha filling its ancient white-washed streets, countless galleries and live music venues sprinkled across the town. This June, the annual Gnaoua World Music Festival will descend on the city, attracting half a million cultural revellers – and yet somehow, Essaouira remains a hidden gem, refreshingly undiscovered by Brits. Part of me doesn’t even want to write this feature at all, for fear of revealing this secret ‘windy city’ and the best Riad in town…
Visitors are spoilt for choice when it comes to dining out here; from relaxed beach bars and rooftop gig venues to upmarket restaurants, Essaouira has the perfect venue to suit every taste and budget. While there you must try some of the local fish. If you are feeling particularly adventurous then venture down to the docks and you will be rewarded with the catch of the day at wonderfully low prices.
Thanks to the hippy culture vegetarians and vegans are also surprisingly well catered for here, The Earth Café is a particularly good option.
For a relaxed al fresco lunch head to Ocean Vagabond, located on the beach this chilled café’s shady terrace serves up fresh salads and offers various waters sports.
However, Taros is possibly my favourite haunt; located on the main square this trendy Franco Moroccan restaurant has a fabulous roof terrace overlooking the bustling port – that’s if you can tear your eyes away from its clientele. Taros is great for people watching, it is where the beautiful bohemians frequent and with great live bands most night it has an amazing atmosphere.
On my visit I was staying in the sumptuously-styled Dar Qawi (Riad by the sea), and having tasted the maid’s mouth-watering cooking at breakfast I took her up on her offer of a traditional homemade Moroccan tagine. That evening Zara taught us how to make an authentic tagine from scratch. With the elaborately presented dish complete we tucked in on our private roof terrace, overlooking the city as the sun set and the call to prayer reverberated around the ancient city.
Riad Dar Qawi is a stylish boutique residence in the heart of Essaouira. Built around a traditional open courtyard the riad boasts three bedrooms (two doubles and one twin) which are all en-suite. Like the city itself this property is full of beautiful contradictions and is the perfect mix of traditional Moroccan architecture with stylish, contemporary design touches. Think traditional whitewashed walls, tiled floors and elegant arches brought to life with vibrant cushions and throws. For travellers that seek authentic cultural experiences with high-end accommodation that values their privacy, this is the ultimate Moroccan retreat. The rooms are beautiful, the location is perfect and the maid is a dream, but that roof terrace is the cherry on the cake.
Who Goes There?
Essaouira attracts a real range of visitors and with whispers of Ryan Air setting out to fly there soon I am sure things will change, but at the moment it remains a refreshingly rare destination for travellers, not tourists. This is a city full of authentic delights; independent restaurants, boutique riads and a thriving art scene – not faceless hotels and chains.
Out & About:
The beauty of a vacation in Essaouira is that it is whatever you want it to be. Adrenaline junkies can charge around the dunes on quad bikes, whilst the crashing waves are a magnet for all surfers. I wasn’t quite brave enough for that but I couldn’t resist hopping on a camel, as cliché as it is it takes you away from the main beach and out to the secluded end of the bay – it’s a fun way to take in Essaouira from afar.
For a culture hit simply meandering around the town’s eighteenth century streets is a must, which ever road you take you will stumble upon a hidden art gallery or music venue to explore. If this all sounds a bit too much like hard work then fear not, sun worshipers will be pleased to hear they have Essaouira’s best suntrap on their doorstep… well their rooftop. Dar Qawi’s two tiered roof terrace is beautifully peaceful and offers complete privacy.
The Best Thing:
The best part of a holiday here is the smug smile that creeps across your face when you realise you have beaten the tourists to the next holiday hot spot. The cobbled streets, the empty beach, the delicious restaurants – they are all yours.
The Worst Thing:
The worst thing is that it is a couple of hours transfer from Marrakech, but this is definitely one taxi ride worth doing!