Have you ever wondered about the term ‘Arabian nights’? Ever pondered what particular quality it suggests? Well, time spent in Essaouira will reveal all, transporting you into the timeless enchantment of the Arabian night. You can grasp Morocco’s heroic history and fascinating people purely by lying in your bed, listening to its music, smelling its perfume, feeling its warm breeze and imagining…
You will not find all the fun in bed, of course. As a small city on the Moroccan coast, Essaouira offers both culture and adventure to disrupt your evening languor. An imperial Portuguese fortress stands vigilant against the Atlantic Ocean, which surrounds the Medina streets brimming with Moroccan intrigue. Dubbed the ‘Windy City of Africa,’ Essaouira’s white sandy beach draw those exciting, active traveller-types who live in their hareems, love to sample the local happy cuisine and spend their day generally feeling at one with nature. Local and visiting adventure enthusiasts of most disciplines share the shoreline: you will see windsurfers, kite-surfers, surfer-surfers, paddle-boarders, climbers, hikers, horse riders, camel riders, quadbikers, and yogis. They contribute to the eclectic mix of travellers and locals and provide a holiday that offers both excitement and a time to recharge. So don your hareems, swab yourself in anti-chafe and hop on your direct ight to Essaouira for a weekend to remember.
Rise gently to the sound of seagulls. Breath in. Breath out. Sigh. Smile. Now get up! Head to YOO, on a narrow street off the Rue Abdelazziz, for a freshly blended smoothie to ready yourself for the day ahead. Then follow your nose to one of the stalls selling freshly baked bread and pastries and fuel your body, the proper way, with baked goods and Nutella.
Stocked up and well rested, it is time to head for the fort’s impressive gates and out towards the beach. You can get a taxi or rent a mo-ped to get yourself to the surf spot at the other end. However, I would recommend the twenty-minute walk for the invaluable Essaouiran experience of what I like to call the “Party Peddlers,” who are stationed along the beach to offer whatever you so desire. “Cakes? Happy Cakes? You want some hash?” “Not now thank you.” Walk ten yards where a man wearing leather jacket and fez awaits you: “Quadbiking?” “No thank you, I’m going surfing” “Horse-riding?” “No thank you. I’ve got no money.” “Camel?” Unless you run away screaming, there is really no escape, so put on your most apologetic face and your most British politeness and be ready to stand strong.
The flags of the various water sports centres will beckon your arrival, and from here you can choose whichever takes your fancy as they generally charge the same prices. They all offer great, affordable kits and friendly, laid-back instructors. The morning is the best time for a surf before the wind picks up, so grab a wetsuit and board and ride those sweet waves, brah.
Once you have tired of surfing – or rather of just getting slapped in the face by waves – you can feed your hunger at the Ocean Vagabond restaurant. Here you can find the fuel you need on a full menu that also offers beer as well as a good lay down thanks to its sun chairs and sofas. The terrace is sheltered from the wind and overlooks the beach, so you can watch those still playing in the water and relax to the tune of the Berber musicians who stop in on the restaurants.
Various herds also conglomerate next to its fence, providing endless entertainment watching horses make a dash for freedom, camels spitting on passers-by or quad-bikes aggressively accelerating to expel one or more of their passengers.
Rejuvenated and ready for more, now is the time for the wind-riders to come out to play. With the stronger winds in the afternoon, kites and windsurf sails dab the sea in multi-colour to make the most of the consistent wind and wave-riding. Afterwards, warmed up and dry once more (or re-energised from an afternoon nap), you can amble further along the beach to a ruined watchtower on the shoreline. Clamber onto its sea-facing side and stand to catch the glittering sea spray, arms outstretched and singing the Lion King’s ‘Circle of Life’ (obviously). In the later afternoon, Essaouira’s spirit is really alive, with the sun setting behind the fortress ahead. Paddle your feet in the foamy shoreline as the locals gather for evening walks and football matches on the beach.
Grab some grub from one of the many street stalls (just make sure it is cooked through!) and then allow yourself to collapse into bed, listening to the evening prayer echoing across the rooftops. Let your imagination to run wild as the Arabian night unfolds.
If you rise early enough, head down to the port for the fish market. The sturdy vessels line the harbour, their masts rising amidst a cloud of seagulls, wheeling circles around the stalls of fish. Young boys armed with sticks guard the fish from the birds, while fishermen barter enthusiastically with their customers. To rid yourself of the fish smell (which weirdly lingers on your tongue) you can get a glass of freshly squeezed grapefruit juice at the entrance to the harbour.
This time of day is perfect for wandering the town without being too hot or hassled by shop peddlers. From the port, you can follow the length of the fort wall around the town and witness the abundance of life within its walls that goes far beyond the main tourist streets. Diverting down the narrow lanes opposite the wall will take you into the winding covered streets of the old fort, past the artisan workshops where you might find men and women deftly working a carpet-weaving loom, rich-smelling tanneries draped in dark hides, men sculpting wood using their feet and string, basket weavers and cloth dyers, painters and jewellery-makers producing exotic works of art. Down another tunnel-like street you will find the food. The heavy aromas of Morocco make an impressive symphony, to the say the least, and leave your nose tickling like that sneeze that never comes.
After a coffee in one of the courtyard cafes off the main bazaar, wander down to the beach and make a Party Peddler’s day: Say YES to the camel! If you have never ridden a camel before, the best advice is to just relax and go with the flow. It is a bumpy ride, only made worse by an awkward sack of potatoes on the poor camel’s back. Once up and ready, it is a wonderful experience that takes you around the coastal headland where you are met with a long stretch of empty white sand and curling waves.
If you have opted for a longer camel tour, you will be able to have a Moroccan-cuisine picnic on the beach and stop to explore villages and ruins along the coast.
Return to an Essaouira that is busy with evening-life once more and climb to the roof terrace of Taros, one of the best restaurants I have ever had the pleasure to visit. Drape yourself in a thick blanket for the cooler evening, sip on a sugary Moroccan tea, rest a camel-sore posterior and listen to evening sounds of a gently ebbing city. From here you can watch the sun set over the Atlantic Ocean on one side and, on the other, gaze over the rooftops bathed in the sun’s orange glow and watch the activity of the harbour and the square below.
When you can no longer resist the alluring smells drifting up from the restaurants, you can relax into the colourful cushions and enjoy the sizzling tagines of Resto Buen Gusto, in the heart of the Medina. Follow this up with desert and a drink in the Mega Loft, a hipster hang-out beneath the fort wall with live reggae music and multi-coloured Moroccan baskets lining the ancient stone arches. All at one, your dual experience of Arabic culture and hipster-travel will be complete.
With your imminent departure, take time to think about where you are: in Morocco, surrounded by a fascinating Arab culture, with the ocean playground on your doorstep. Lying in bed, hair salty and windswept, skin smiling from sunshine, head humming along with the evening prayer as exotic aromas (sometimes unsavoury) drift through your window, I hope that you will reply to the dreamy haze: “I dub you an Arabian night.”