TRAVEL: Blown away by breezy Essaouira

Essaouira
Essaouira

It’s always played second fiddle to big brother Marrakech, but thanks to a new direct flight route, this relaxed coastal town is set to take centre stage.

While walking down a narrow, shaded alleyway in Essaouira’s historic Medina, I am immediately drawn to a shop covered in colourful painted ceramic plates.

But I approach with caution.

This is Morocco, after all, the place where, I’m told, you’re constantly hassled by overzealous traders demanding you part with your dirhams in exchange for their goods - whether you want to or not.

Gingerly, I start browsing, expecting the shopkeeper to pounce on me any second, but I’m left well alone.

In fact, the only sound I’m aware of is a couple of kittens mewing and play-fighting in the doorway, their mum snoozing nearby in a patch of sunlight.

As I continue my afternoon stroll, I spot so many cats, I wonder if there might actually be more feline dwellers than humans in this walled town-within-a-town.

A four-hour drive west from Marrakech, Essaouira has always been a popular bolt-on, providing much needed respite from the intense pace of Morocco’s most popular city-break destination. But a new direct four-hour flight with easyJet from Luton means tourists can bypass the chaos (should they want to) and come straight to this sleepy coastal town.

I’ve based myself at the Sofital Mogador Golf and Spa Hotel, a 10-minute drive from the centre, with views to the Atlantic Ocean. Although elegant and modern, the property has many traditional touches, such as the blue mosaic bath, which serves as a partition in my spacious open-plan room.

But most of the action (if you can call it that!) takes place close to the seafront Medina, a UNESCO World Heritage Site recently used as a film location for Game Of Thrones.

Alongside the tourist-friendly shops, selling ceramics, leather goods and carved thuya wood furniture, the busy main drag (no cars are allowed but you still need to watch out for bikes zipping by) is lined with stalls stocking essentials for the Medina’s full-time residents. The town is also packed with riads. I duck into the cool, spacious courtyard of one of these intricately tiled homes for my first taste of the country’s most famous drink.

Also known as the whisky of Morocco (but without the booze, obviously), fresh mint tea is served in gilt-edged glasses and poured from a height to create the all-important foamy head.

It’s wonderfully sweet and refreshing and I quickly develop a five-cup-a-day habit.

Back outside, I venture further along the shore where bright blue fishing boats are bobbing in the harbour, having completed their daily trawling trips. The clang and whir of tools suggests larger boats are undergoing repairs, and overhead, a chorus of seagulls swoop and dive on the hunt for their own catch of the day.Fishing is Essaouira’s primary industry, and fresh seafood stalls can be found all along the waterfront.

At La Chalet de Plage on Avenue Mohammed V, we grab a table on a veranda overlooking the sea and order huge platters of deliciously salty oysters, meaty prawns, sizzling calamari and spiky sea urchins (admittedly the latter isn’t received quite so enthusiastically), while the waves lap below.

It’s all washed down with glasses of local wine (not bad at all), while owner Jeannot tells a story about the time Jimi Hendrix paid a visit to drink a beer and smoke a joint.

Everywhere you go in Essaouira, tales of the rock legend’s sojourn here in the summer of 1969 abound: he played his guitar on this beach, he stayed in that room, he wrote the song Castles Made Of Sand here (even though I don’t like to point out it was actually released in 1967).

Who knows whether the guitar hero actually did sip a beer at La Chalet, but after a boozy lunch, we’re willing to give adorably animated Jeannot the benefit of doubt.

Stuffed and ready for a snooze, I return to the Sofitel and, after stopping in the lobby for another mint tea, spend the rest of the day lounging by the hotel’s natural pool (the water is filtered by plants, so it looks a bit green but is delightfully chlorine-free).

Venturing back to the Medina after sunset, the streets are buzzing as I make my way to the Hotel Riad Al Madina for a taste of Gnawa, traditional music from sub-Saharan Africa.

A three-piece band plays as percussionists dance into the hotel’s courtyard. Metal krakebs (a bit like castanets) and tbal drums beat a frantic rhythm and the melody of the lute-like sinter is echoed with chants from the dancers, who whirl until the long beaded strands in the middle of their hats spin too. What is initially met with icy British reserve ends with eight of us chanting along and doing what can only be described as Morocco’s answer to the hokey-cokey in the middle of a packed restaurant.

Eventually we sit down, laughing and breathless, to a meal of typical cuisine, including fragrant lamb and chicken tagines served in dinky versions of the well-known domed dishes.

Early the next morning, I head to the beach. During the windy season, from April to September, Essaouira is a water-sport paradise.

Kite-surfing looks pretty tricky for a beginner, so instead I decide to have a go at short board surfing. A blonde, bronzed surfer dude from the Explora Adventure Centre quickly explains the basic technique, but I don’t rate my chances of getting upright once I’m in the water.

I head into the surf, paddle for dear life and hoist myself up onto the board. I’m exhilarated when I manage to stay standing all the way to shore on my first wave. I think it’s a definite case of beginner’s luck, though, because I have mixed results thereafter.

Nonetheless, it’s seriously fun, and gives me a new appreciation for the ‘windy city of Morocco’.

If you’re look for non-stop sunbathing weather, Essaouira’s breezy climate might be off-putting, but for me it’s a small price to pay. In fact, perhaps it’s the cool breeze that gives the town its laid-back demeanour...

I can see why Hendrix liked hanging out here so much.