In France, where I have lived for the past 10 years, there are strong historical links to Morocco, and many French travelers know the country well. Everyone goes for different reasons—to laze by a pool, to visit family, to shop in the historic medinas. Some love the luxury bubble of Marrakesh; some, myself included, aren’t so keen. But there is one place all of them seem to agree on, across the spectrum of taste and budget: Essaouira.
A small seaside town with impressive 18th-century fortifications, Essaouira sits on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, a three-hour drive west of Marrakesh. Strong trade winds make it one of the world’s great surf spots, and it has enjoyed a healthy tourist trade since the 1960s, when hippie icons like Jimi Hendrix and Cat Stevens made high-profile visits. Despite this, Essaouira remains peaceful, quaint, and slow-paced. “It’s lovely,” a Moroccan friend told me earlier this year. “Relaxed and friendly.” The idea is to take it easy: sit by the ocean, plop the kids on one of the rideable toy cars that ring the Place Moulay Hassan at the entrance of the medina, perhaps drink a beer in a sidewalk café.
Unlike in Marrakesh, there is no constantly changing hotel scene in Essaouira. “I arrived seventeen years ago,” said Emma Wilson, who was working as a high-end London florist when she came on a vacation and promptly bought a house in the area. “It was a donkey town, without even good electricity.” In the years since, she has transformed that little two-bedroom into Dar Emma, a popular guesthouse with traditional tiles and a sunny patio, and added Dar Beida—another, grander, property, styled with Midcentury furniture and gorgeous Berber rugs.
Related: Marrakesh Travel Guide
Things have modernized since then—today the electricity is fine—but in the azure-and-white medina, gently sandblasted by the winds that sweep through its narrow streets, there’s still a relative lack of conventional hotels and a total lack of contemporary polish. People tend to stay in riads like Emma’s: traditional homes built around open-air courtyards to let the ocean breeze wash through.
On my first day in town I took a walk through the medina. Elsewhere in Morocco, the markets in these historic town centers can be overwhelming, but here, the jumble was harmonious. No one jostled me into his brother-in-law’s shop for the very best caftans/slippers/jewelry/wooden boxes at obviously inflated prices. When I wanted to buy cotton beach throws, I easily found Fine Arts, a lovely spot around a corner, staffed by a graceful teenage girl who demurred when I hinted at haggling. (The general rule: proper shops with price tags tend not to negotiate. Elsewhere, vendors are flexible, but because starting rates tend to be low in Essaouira, don’t expect discounts of more than 40 percent.) Of course there was stall after stall of trinkets of dubious value, herbalists peddling “natural Viagra for women,” and Berber-rug salesmen who talked a good game. But the exchange was easy. “Non, merci,” was taken for an answer, with a smile.
It was municipal election season when I was in town, and bands of volunteers with loudspeakers and political party T-shirts went hooting and chanting up and down the medina’s three main thoroughfares. Women in bright headscarves joined the crowd, scattering flyers and greeting friends on the sidelines. During one of those impromptu parades, I wandered into a quieter corner of the medina and found Galerie Jama, a showroom filled with antique tribal rugs and heavily embroidered wool caftans from the 1940s. Its owner, Mustapha, is a knowledgeable collector; he’s also happy to send photos to shoppers abroad and ship internationally. If you happen to hanker for a tufted eggshell wool Beni Ourain rug, handmade in the Atlas Mountains by Berber nomads, Mustapha is your man.
The town’s most formal restaurant, Salon Oriental, is in the English-colonial-inspired Heure Bleue Palais hotel, still steeped in the atmosphere of the mid 19th century, when it was built. “It’s where we like to go for a night out,” said the front-of-house manager at Umia, one of a handful of Western-fusion restaurants in town, where lovely fresh salads, grilled lobster, and molten chocolate cake are served alongside updated Moroccan classics like a pastilla of duck confit. Heure Bleue Palais is a grown-up, historic version of the same hybrid concept. Its shady, central garden, dense with palms and ferns, is surrounded by a tiled courtyard where serious men in fezzes serve cocktails and neat assortments of snacks—crudités in a curry-cream cheese dip, baby shrimp in herbed fromage blanc with house-made potato chips, followed by slow-cooked lamb shoulder with dried fruit, almonds, and whole-wheat couscous.
The service there was gracious and the food carefully prepared, but it couldn’t surpass Les Bretons du Sud, one of the famous stalls next to the fish market right outside the medina. A lunch-only spot under striped blue-and-white awnings among about a dozen others like it, it’s as well known as the Salon Oriental, though on the opposite end of the polish spectrum. Ali, chief of the jokey on-site fishmongers, helped me select a beautiful sea bass and a handful of giant prawns from a rainbow selection that included dorado, mackerel, and sardines. Having weighed them up and grilled them with a blend of cumin, paprika, and lemon—Ali’s version of chermoula—he served them with a simple tomato-and-sweet-onion salad and wedges of fresh bread. After lunch, I took a stroll through the fish market. There, down a long pier, everyone from well-organized three-man teams to lone, veiled grandmothers hawked glistening anchovies, eel, hake, and on and on. Neither ice nor refrigerators were anywhere to be seen; instead, vendors douse their catch with cups of water throughout the day to keep it from spoiling. Riotous gangs of seagulls attacked piles of waste, and anything left over was fodder for armies of cats.
Ah, those cats. Essaouira is home to a critical mass of strays, so generally well loved that there’s a large mural of one just off the medina’s main thoroughfare, Avenue d’Istiqlal. The donated scraps scattered on every street corner in the medina might strike Western eyes as unhygienic, but the kitties make fast work of them. The proud tom who policed the grounds around Umia was fatter and tamer than my two cats at home.
The cats completed a picture of earthy cheerfulness in Essaouira that I found more refreshing than an expert massage in a luxurious spa.“This has become my place,” said Adil El Barhami, a guest at Le Douar des Arganiers, a contemporary four-room guesthouse with dashes of traditional design (and eight cats of its own) about half an hour south of the town center. A naturalized German whose mother and father grew up in the medina of Casablanca, he first came to the region in 2011 and has been a regular ever since. “I’m looking for my own property here now. The people are so relaxed and open.”
I couldn’t have agreed more. That night I stayed at Baoussala, a complex of clay cottages in a cool eucalyptus grove. The first thing I did upon arrival was wander into their hammam, or Turkish steam bath. Powered by a wood fire, it was wreathed in steam and puffs of smoke that dissipated into a grove of sheltering trees.
Inside, sprawled on a yoga mat, naked except for a pair of loaner Crocs and covered chin-to-toe in tarlike, aromatic black soap, I lay utterly alone as steam swirled through a narrow beam of sunlight and water drip-drip-dripped down the walls. Finally, after scrubbing myself to a rosy pink and dousing myself with warm water, I stumbled out to the patio, where the first dinner guests were sitting down at candlelit tables.
Baoussala was at capacity on my visit, but everywhere there was room to breathe. Brazilian music did battle with the distant sound of goats bleating and a rustle of wind in the trees. Abundant couches were scattered around secluded patios; guests passed through the vast open kitchen to ask the chef about recipes for carrot mousse with caraway seeds or fish tagine. “This was supposed to be a vacation home for myself when I first started building it, fifteen years ago,” said Dominique Choupin, a former pharmaceutical industry executive from Paris who owns the six-room lodge. “I got a little carried away.” Who could blame her?
The Details: What to do in Essaouira, Morocco
The most convenient airport is in Marrakesh. From there, rent a car and drive three hours west. You can also add Essaouira to our T+L Journey through Morocco. For details, go to tandl.me/journeys-morocco.
Baoussala: A riad with a convivial atmosphere and multiple nooks and patios for discreet lounging. Rooms are simple, spacious, and charming. hotel-baoussala-essaouira.com; Doubles from $93.
Dar Beida: British expat Emma Wilson’s drop-dead-chic medina guesthouse. castlesinthesand.com; From $1,356 per week.
Dar Emma: Dar Beida’s smaller sister property. castlesinthesand.com; From $1,055 per week.
Heure Bleue Palais: This colonial-inspired hotel was built on the ruins of an ancient hostel and offers meze (below) in the courtyard. heure-bleue.com; Doubles from $191.
Le Douar des Arganiers: A guesthouse exemplifying contem- porary Moroccan design, with modern amenities and open fireplaces in every suite. douardesarganiers.com; Doubles from $82.
Les Bretons du Sud: A lunch stand at the port serving delicious grilled seafood. Prices vary based on the daily catch.
Océan Vagabond: This cordoned-off snippet of beach just south of the medina is popular for sandwiches, pizzas, and freshly pressed juices. oceanvagabond.com; Entrées $5–$12.
Salon Oriental: Chef Ahmed Handour puts a modern twist on Moroccan classics like roasted monkfish with ras el hanout, smoked eggplant, and goat cheese. heure-bleue.com; Entrées $22–$32.
Umia: Dinner includes ambitious dishes like scallop carpaccio and apricot-coconut clafouti. 22 bis Rue Skala; 212-524-783-395; Entrées $16.
Fine Arts Maroc: Cotton and linen hammam towels comple- ment a well-edited selection of raffia wedges and slides. 33 Rue Allal Ben Abdellah; 212-615- 910-985.
Galerie Jama: A serious collec- tion of antique rugs, pottery, caftans, and hand-painted wedding chests. 22 Rue Ibn Rochd; 212-670-016-429.