By Clenys Roberts
By Clenys Roberts
Spangled seas, hot sun, freshly-squeezed orange juice. There are few early morning pleasures quite so seductive, especially when it’s miserable back in England.
It is easy enough to find such joys in California, but that is an 11-hour flight and an eight-hour time change away. The beautiful little Moroccan port of Essaouira, with temperatures that do not drop much below 22c even in January, is California practically on our doorstep.
The huge hotel rooms, the dazzling light, delicious food and the year-round sporty lifestyle catering for windsurfers, golfers, horse riding enthusiasts – everything smacks of Malibu this side of the Atlantic.
But the town also has a fascinating history and such beautiful medieval architecture that it was used in Orson Welles’s award-winning film of Othello. There is even an Orson Welles square.
I have been going to Morocco ever since the early Sixties. The combination of lingering French sophistication from the days of the protectorate, the flavours of the hot African south, the geometric Arab designs coupled with the romance of the nomadic Berber tribes make it irresistible.
I know this beautiful country from the writers’ city of Tangiers, in the North, to Goulimine, the gateway to the Sahara, but I have come late to Essaouira, midway down on the Atlantic coast between Casablanca and Agadir.
What a wonderful place to have saved till last. It was discovered in modern times by rich European hippies. Musicians from Mick Jagger and Jimi Hendrix to Maria Callas, came here in the Sixties to immerse themselves in the local beat.
Many still stay in atmospheric riads in the old town. But now there are also modern hotels which could hold their heads high in Paris or New York.
From the fabulous breakfasts to the haute cuisine dinners,the food is superb. You can have oysters and local wine by the waterside at Chez Jeannot or a sinful lemon meringue tart at Ocean Vagabond, right on the sand.
The plates are piled high – another parallel with California. And since there is only so much John Dory one human being can eat, the leftovers make their way straight to the town strays.
I’ve never seen such well-fed animals. At Essaouria’s sardine port, little has changed since the Carthaginians five centuries before Christ.
The fishermen go out in blue wooden boats at dawn and fat herring gulls swoop overhead as the catch is unloaded on to the quays.
The souk is exceptionally charming and, for those who have lost themselves in the labyrinthine alleyways of Fez and Tangier, reassuringly easy to navigate. It is laid out on the grid system by a French architect. Hence the name Es-Saouira – it means the beautifully designed.
Here tourist trinkets jostle for space with unrepeatable Berber carpets, exotic spices and fresh mint. It is the most peaceful of towns these days, but the square Portuguese forts dominating the skyline testify to a violent history from seaborne invaders who knew the treasures to be had inside its crenelated walls.
The landmark watchtowers are lined with bronze canon from all over Europe, traded in exchange for gold, spices, and goods from the African interior via Timbuktu. Once the town had the largest Jewish population in Morocco, attracted by the trading opportunities.
Most have now dispersed, but they come on a pilgrimage every year to the burial palace of the 19th-century rabbi Chaim Pinto. He is still said to be capable of performing miracles, and one of his sons founded a famous synagogue in Los Angeles.
The trading tradition goes back even further to the days when the royal purple dye from murex shellfish, found on the so-called Purple Islands close to the port, was used to embellish Roman togas.
The shellfish are still there and so are the rare birds who nest on the most prominent offshore island Mogador – the name the Portuguese gave it in the 16th century.
But people are not allowed there; today it is a wildlife sanctuary, its landmark fort abandoned. It used to be a prison – a Moroccan Alcatraz.
There is even the famous morning sea mist, which burns off to reveal the clearest blue skies. Most of all there is the year-round outdoor lifestyle.
The new vogue is riding quad bikes on the endless sandy beaches. The sea is shallow, making it relatively unintimidating for the beginner surfer.
You can play a round of golf on the new Gary Player course like the well-heeled French. The aviation-rich Dassault family apparently recently flew in on one of their private jets, having sent a plane full of their favourite wines on ahead of them, or simply just chill out.
Seasoned Morocco hands will still like to put up in the magical medina with its colourful shopping, cafes and sea-view rooftop restaurants such as the Taros-meaning the North wind that powers the wind surfers
Run by a retired French doctor, it has one of the world’s deftest magic acts, by local talent Yussef. You won’t have a clue how he does his tricks.
For a family holiday, stay at the Sofitel Essaouira Mogador Golf and Spa. An on-the-hour shuttle service takes you to the town just ten minutes away.
An on-campus, fully-staffed kindergarten liberates the grownups. With an indoor heated pool kept at more than 30c, even the elderly will be happy, too.
It is hard to think of a more perfect short break at this time of year. The most convenient flights go into Marrakesh, which is well and truly hopping these days, so to make the trip really memorable, consider stopping there for a night before embarking by air-conditioned bus across the desert to magical Essaouira.
Source: Daily Mail