Essaouira (pronounced 'Essa - weera') is a lovely, traditional coastal town. It has in recent years become more of a resort with a golf course, larger hotels and much work on the town's buildings and streets and general infrastructure; so there are now more visitor facilities than ever. This does mean, of course, that for some it has lost a little of its small world charm but we still think it easily merits a night or two on any fly-drive itinerary or as part of our Classic Three Centre Holiday with Marrakech and the Atlas Mountains.
* BOOK EARLY * The Gnaoua and World Music Festival takes place early summer.
Essaouira's houses and shops in the medina are white-washed with blue doors and shutters and it is a town that has always been popular with more independent travellers. An expansive sandy beach is located next to the harbour and is shallow enough for safe bathing. Essaouira is also a fascinating former Portuguese fishing port. This is the place to eat fresh fish – sit down at any stall in the harbour and feast yourself on the freshest and most varied fish BBQ you will ever encounter. Also famous for inlaid woodwork (thuya and cedar), Essaouira is now a very relaxed town although it was frequented in the past by rock stars such as Jimmy Hendrix and Mick Jagger and stood as the location for Orson Welles’ famous film of Shakespeare’s Othello.
Today, standing on the impressive battlements looking out over the line of cannons and on out to sea it is impossible not to think of the history this town has seen and the daily adventures of the local fishing boat crews. If you want to experience Morocco's many faces then you should not miss Essaouira - great as a combination with Marrakech. Although the area is very popular and world-renowned for surfers its reputation as Morocco's 'windy city' is exaggerated, in fact the sea breezes are very welcome in the summer months. Essaouira is a charming place for a relaxing break after a hot desert trip, trekking in the Atlas or sightseeing and shopping in Marrakech.
Today, Essaouira is a much busier place than when we first encountered it in the mid 1990s, there has been a huge expansion of riads and restaurants, although not all are up to the standards we have come to expect from Marrakech. In the centre there are two main streets, one through the medina with shops (more like permanent market stalls) all along leading to the Bab Marrakech. Another smaller one which has a mixture of shops, restaurants and art galleries is for pedestrians only. The Gnaoua, descendents of African slaves, practice trance and faith healing whilst playing a syncopated music accompanied by singing and dancing. Essaouira has been host for many years now to a very popular festival, which takes place at the start of summer every year, and which promotes Gnaoua music whilst giving a wide opening to world music, jazz and blues.
The Sqala of the Kasbash, the artillery platform on the ramparts, offers from its north bastion, an incomparable view across the medina and out over the ocean. Some of the Kingdom's most famous marquetry craftsmen and cabinet makers founded their workshops here. The old Jewish quarter, the mellah, is located in the north-eastern part of the old town. Its size shows that the Jewish community was very large in the 18th century and that the communities lived in harmony in Essaouira. The souk's alleyways lead you to Moulay El Hassan square and its cafés.
Essaouira's beach is a long ribbon of around ten kilometres bathed in surf. In the beautiful little port, which can be accessed through the Bab El Marsa gate, the return of the boats at the end of the morning is a daily event; the baskets are unloaded under the keen eyes of the seagulls.
The main square is a large open space surrounded on each side by the harbour, town wall, sea wall and has one street leading into town with many restaurants; many of the newer restaurants are either near the sea wall and ramparts or along in the port, although, we must admit, it is difficult to go wrong in Essaouira with fresh fish. Along the sea front south from the port is a very long promenade and a huge beach, there is windsurfing, kite surfing, horse riding, quad bikes and even camel rides. When the beach eventually fades to a narrower strip it continues in front of a long stretch of dunes, accessible in places from the Agadir road. In the other direction the road climbs inland towards a panoramic viewpoint of the town and coast before heading down on its long way to Marrakech.
In the nearby countryside grows the argan tree, from which argan oil is harvested. In town, women's cooperatives run the market for this renowned oil which has skin moisturising and anti-ageing properties. To familiarise yourself with another facet of the local crafts, visit Chbanate street, accessible from the Bab Marrakech bastion, for its weaving workshops producing wool blankets that can either be ecru or brightly coloured. Falcon island - a fifteen-minute boat ride will take you close to the two Mogador islands, which are a true link between the ocean and the continent, but you are not allowed to disembark: it is a protected bird sanctuary. These islands, which were used by the Phoenicians as a stopover, housed a purple dye production workshop at the start of the Christian era.
Children need only walk around the ramparts and sit on the old Sqala canons to feel like a pirate. The town is safe and you can relax; on the beach, you will never lose sight of the members of your family and in the villages, your guides will introduce you to the craftsmen. In their company, the members of your family can try making some pottery, learn to cook or make traditional Berber bread. Discover the magical and enchanting music of the Gnaoua, their dances and their singing; their universal rhythms will please both young and old. Another suggestion is a visit to the Sidi-Mohammed-Ben-Abdallah museum and its formidable collection of jewellery, costumes, rugs and marquetry furniture.
Surf, kitesurf and windsurf enthusiasts come from around the world to take advantage of the swell and surf of this region. Essaouira and Sidi-Kaouki are ideal beaches for beginners. Fishing fans will never come home empty-handed with such abundant waters. Essaouira is the ideal base to discover this splendid region on foot or on horseback.
An ideal place for rest and enjoyment. The Mogador resort, nestled in 1,500 acres of forest along sand dunes, is like a lush green sea of vegetation plunging down into the ocean. To reach the premium hotels go through the forest on the dry stone paths lit by an original, energy-efficient system; the Jardins Filtrants® (filtering gardens) recycle the water used to irrigate the gardens and golf courses.
The ecological Mogador Golf Course is in a perfect natural setting, surrounded by dunes, forest and the Atlantic Ocean. With its two 18-hole courses designed by Gary Player, it is fast becoming the leader of its kind. But golf is not the only sport on offer at Mogador, you can also enjoy tennis, squash, kite surfing, windsurfing, horse-riding and of course hiking around the Souss plain. Argan trees grow in this region, providing precious argan oil... that you can sample in the spa. Relax with your mind at rest: a special club is on hand to look after your children.
Where to stay
A friendly riad-style hotel designed to a high standard, built into the sea wall on the north side of the medina with stunning views overlooking the Atlantic.
The hotel Atlas Essaouira & Spa enjoys a privileged location on the seafront with breathtaking views of the medina.
Dar L'Oussia is a fine example of Moroccan architecture. Charming accommodation and a huge roof terrace right next to the port of Essaouira.
Central, great value, traditional atmosphere, excellent choice for families.
The Madada Mogador offers chic accommodation with a view of Essaouira's bay from its exquisite roof terrace.
" The flights and all transfers were seamless. Even the last one from Essaouira to the airport which was rather early for our hotel but the driver was waiting patiently in the street outside. All in all it was an excellent holiday and we really enjoyed visiting Morocco. The people are really friendly and we felt safe and looked after. "
C Haynes, UK, March 2016
"The Essaouria hotel was good, and although it had less charm than the others was still good."
Z Berndes, UK, Sept 2015
"We are just receovering from our trip to Morocco, we had a great time. Thanks to you and your company everything went according to plan. The riads were luxurious, the receptionist very helpful, the drivers excellent & the guides extremely informative & friendly. Well done."
J & P Legge, UK, June, 2015
"Riad Mimouna had stunning sea views from our room and roof terrace. Its position in the Medina meant that you had longer walks to everywhere else. If staying again we would recommend staying near the cookery school which was ideally based for the Medina, beach and fishing port. We had great fun at the cookery class and Alison and Mouna were a great combo. The seafood in Essaouira is to "die for" for variety and price."
D Moorhouse, UK, May, 2015
"I just wanted to thank you personally for organising our trip to Morocco. Our Australian friends are quite particular, having travelled the world extensively. Our 11 day trip hit the spot with the three locations allowing us to see a varied culture, scenery and meet some of the locals. All the private transfers worked like clockwork. The walk in the Atlas was just right and our guide - Hassain was excellent. Thanks once again for organising a superb holiday - we will definitely recommend your company and hopefully use you again. A well organised varied itinerary that showed us the many faces of Moroccan life and scenery."
D Moorhouse, UK, May, 2015
"We were very pleased with the accommodation in all parts of the trip. Riad Daria is truly lovely and the service there is top notch! The local guide for trekking was wonderful; super knowledgeable about his country and the routes, very flexible when my husband decided he was not up to the Toubkal summit, and extremely personable with our 12 year-old son. He also took us to a local market in the countryside on the way to the trekking start point, which gave us an insiders view of rural Morocco and the lifestyle. The mule driver/cook was also amazing. We never expected such well-prepared lunches on the trail and dinners in gites and he was just a lovely person to be around. Only one slight glitch in that we phoned local agent to confirm time for pick-up in Essaouira for Marrakech airport transfer. We agreed on 13h but she sent the driver a text to arrive at 13h25. Was not a problem as the route was fairly open but we were nervous when the driver did not at the time that we had agreed upon the day before. We arrived at the airport in plenty of time."
P Bohl, France, April, 2015
"The transfers all worked fine, although the drive from Immouzer to Essaouira was by a local (Agadir) taxi and so the quality of vehicle and driving was not as good as the other transfers but it all worked fine and the driver was courteous and stopped for photos etc. The other drivers were all good and drove safely. Our guide for the afternoon in Marrakech seemed a little offhand but he was quite knowledgeable etc. He of course took us to his friend to try to sell us carpets and to another, a herbalist, for hard sell, which we didn't much appreciate but realise that is part of the experience! It didn't help that we were a bit tired that first day having had a very early start! Immouzer worked out well. We did a guided walk one day (very helpful guide, Mubarack, one of the hotel staff) and a donkey ride on another. Hotel Atlas was very good but in some respects the service was a bit lacking for what claims to be a 5* hotel."
P Nias, UK, October 2014
"We had a FAB time and really enjoyed ourselves. The service at the Kasbah Tatfi was charming but utterly chaotic. Luckily the wonderful setting made up for the lot."
T Stileman, UK, September 2014
"It was a great trip you put on for us to Morocco, our driver Aminn was an absolute gem, first class guy. A great trip."
P Street, UK, May 2014