Our travel writer spent the early part of the year discovering Morocco, taking in the towns, cities, villages and desert. One place in particular caught her eye: The sleepy port city of Essaouira, the argan oil capital of the world and the perfect alternative to the country’s busier tourist spots.
Essaouira is one of Morocco’s best-kept secrets. The city’s laid-back attitude and hospitable personality stands starkly against Marrakech’s relentless buzz, packed-out crowds and non-stop barter culture. This city on the Atlantic coast known for its rich history, argan trade and 18th century fishing port, is the idyllic weekend alternative to Morocco’s more commonly visited destinations.
With consistent sun all year round and two direct flights from London each week, this hidden gem of Northern Africa is a haven for those looking to experience a uniquely captivating culture, without ever being more than ten minutes away from the beach, a spa, or a plate of fresh seafood.
Where to stay
Well positioned on the edge of the city’s small medina (old town) and just a stone’s throw from the port, Villa Maroc (on rue Abdellah Ben Yassine), is the riad (traditional Moroccan palace) of choice when it comes to a stylish stay that balances modern luxury and quintessential Moroccan design. A place of real indulgence, visitors can enjoy a steam bath, cookery workshops, homemade cuisine served onsite and a sister pool-side restaurant a mere 15 minutes outside of town. Wake up to breakfast on Villa Maroc’s sea view terrace or wind down at dusk in the same spot for one of Essaouira’s majestic sunsets.
Where to eat
There’s an authentic Moroccan eating spot in every nook and cranny of this town. Caravane Café on Rue Du Qadi Ayad, located within a beautifully decorated riad venue, boasts a line-up of live Moroccan music, while The Loft on Rue Hajjali is a favourite among locals, complete with kitsch décor and a mouth-watering beef tenderloin and pear dish. No trip to Essaouira however, would be complete without experiencing lunch at the port’s famous fresh fish market. There’s everything, from seabass and shrimp to Moray eels and stingray, and patrons are willing to grill it all right there in front of you before serving with fresh salad. Be prepared to hustle and haggle for the best price.
What to see
Morocco is known for its argan oil, used across the globe for its medicinal and cosmetic benefits, but mysteriously, the argan tree only grows in the region between Essaouira and Agadir. It’s well worth taking a trip outside of town to visit an argan oil cooperative and witness women pressing the kernels of the tree by hand. On the way back, prioritise looking out for a famous spectacle – Morroco’s famous argan tree climbing goats. The Gnaoua Music Festival held annually in late June is the go-to for a unique exploration of world music and Moroccan musical heritage.
What to do
To fully immerse yourself into the Moroccan lifestyle, a visit to the local Hammam (public baths) is a must. Expect to be stripped down, scrubbed and massaged until your skin is gleaming. Do it cheap with the locals and ear-in on the daily gossip, or pay extra for a more relaxing and opulent experience in one of the city’s many hotel spas or luxury hammams.
If you fancy something to increase your heart rate, Essaouira and its neighbouring coastal towns and beaches are renowned water sport hotspots worth travelling for. The Atlantic breeze blesses the coast with great surf all year round and there are numerous surf and kitesurfing schools within the city and nearby Sidi Kaouki beach. Beginners and pros are both welcome. Other ways to travel up and down the bay include: Camel rides, quad biking, horse riding and horse and carriage.
Where to shop
The old medina is home to easy-to-navigate, hassle-free souks, where you can find hand-painted wooden crafts and pottery, traditional rugs, blankets and Essaouira’s famous ‘liquid gold’ argan oil. The stalls of Sunday’s joutiya (flea market) offer everything from bicycles to handmade jewellery – but for extra special, one-off pieces for your humble abode, visit Elizir Gallery on Ave d’Istiqlal for a goldmine of vintage movie posters, 70’s retro furniture and antique Moroccan homeware that can be shipped to your front door.
Words By Hannah Sargeant