About an hour into the 100 mile drive from Marrakech to Essaouira, the frenetic urban madness yields to arid farmland and tranquil villages. The earth tones which predominate the architecture of Marrakech give way to houses embellished with the colors of the sea. Even the taxis transform from desert orange to robin’s egg blue.
This is the land of the argan tree, and home to some astoundingly nimble goats. The determined creatures are known to climb into the trees in pursuit of a prized delicacy: the argan nut. One enterprising goatherd makes a living strategically posing his keep in the branches of a roadside tree. The sight is a traffic stopper, but the money shot will cost you. The goats appear a little bored with the act, but seem to recognize it as a better fate than the dinner plate.
Just past the crest of a small ridge of coastal hills, Essaouira comes into view. Known as the Windy City of Africa, the long crescent of sandy beach is a hive of activity. The tanned windsurfers working the waves could be a scene straight out of Southern California, were it not for the Berka-clad women strolling the beach, and the random camel parked under a palm tree.
It is not hard to see the draw of Essaouira. Exotic, historic and a little bohemian, Essaouira has been a magnet for musicians and artists over the years. Mick Jagger, Cat Stevens, Bob Marley and Jimmi Hendricks all made the pilgrimage to Essaouira in the 60’s and 70’s. Moody and photogenic, Essaouira’s ancient, fortified facade has served as the backdrop for many films including Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, Oliver Stone’s Alexander, and Orson Welles’ Othello. More recently, a flock of European expats, many with a decidedly creative bent, have responded to Essaouira’s seductive siren call.
For visitors, Essaouira offers a harmonious counterpoint to the often strident beat of Marrakech. Wandering the city’s souks is a kinder, gentler experience. The bounty of the sea adds a new dimension to the culinary adventure. The temperate year-round climate fosters an enticing array of active options.
Essaouira is a dreamy detour, an indulgent idyll wrapped in the comfort of a perennial ocean breeze.
WHEN YOU GO TO ESSAOUIRA:
Essaouira has a burgeoning collection of stylish riads. Villa d’lo boasts an expansive rooftop terrace with some of the Medina’s best sea views. The décor is French Colonial with smart, contemporary flourishes. The service at Villa d’lo is deliciously doting.
Hidden away on a quiet street, Triskala Café delivers refreshingly healthy, creative cuisine in a delightfully kitschy den. Pink Floyd tunes and Bob Dylan posters nod to Essaouira’s hippie heritage. When you receive the astonishingly affordable bill at Triskala Café, you will surely feel you are back in the 60’s.
The lively fish and spice markets in the Medina make for great recreational shopping, but the ultimate Essaouira take-home prize is argan oil. Argan oil, known for its cosmetic and nutritional properties, is produced locally, primarily in women’s cooperatives. If you buy argan oil in the souks, check for a cooperative label to confirm it’s the real ‘liquid gold’.
Windsurfing, kitesurfing or just plain surfing, Essaouira is the place to try your hand. Centrally located on the main beach, Club Mistral offers rentals and lessons. If you prefer to let someone else do the heavy lifting, make like Lawrence of Arabia and trek across the sand on a horse or camel with Equi-Evasion.