Arriving to an indigo sky and abandoned streets, at first we presumed our driver had dropped us at the wrong spot. Here we were, hammering on the walls of the medina. There were no lights to guide us, and no one around – just the sound of the sea crashing behind us. So, when the ten-foot oak doors finally inched open, creaking, to reveal a hotel, relief washed over us.
Dropping our bags and falling back onto the sheepskin-clad kingsize, we found ourselves in a junior African suite that suited us only too well after a three-hour drive from Marrakech. Dripping with heavy carvings and fabrics, decked with lamps and wooden-shuttered windows, the room was cavernous, sumptuous and luxurious. We tried to imagine who had owned this 200-year-old riad in the days when Essaouira had only just changed its name from Mogador.
In the morning, we woke feeling well and well-rested, to multicoloured sun streaming through the stained-glass windows. The madness of taxis, fishermen, shoppers, and market vendors tearing up the port below our window noisily announced that it was time for us to explore.
Breakfast at Heure Bleue is a well-stocked, plush affair in a traditional riad courtyard, complete with twittering birds flitting from table to table as you munch. Three floors of bedrooms all look down onto this grand, stone-pillared breakfasting banquet. Warning: resist the urge to take a flying leap onto the rope hanging from the ceiling as a sneaky shortcut to your fruit salad. (And don’t even think about it when you come home after a night on the tiles.) Having plotted a route on the map over a pastry and head-swimmingly strong Moroccan coffee, we headed out.
Built into the medina walls, the hotel is an oasis of luxe in laidback, countercultural Essaouira, the sandy sister of Marrakech and old hang-out of Jimi Hendrix and Bob Marley. The beach was getting a pummelling from the face-slappingly fierce winds that Essaouira is known for and, suddenly, the camper vans of the spliff-sucking hippie contingent made sense; they just wanted to retreat from the punishing wind. Declining a friendly offer of a smoke, we made our way to Place Moulay Hassan and up to the rooftop Café Al Faid, where we got a bird’s-eye view, sipped espressi and got our bearings.
Essaouira really is compact. Tripping over an Italian film crew shooting here (the town has played host to some epic-looking films – Kingdom of Heaven and, more recently, The Hills Have Eyes), we wound our way around the slipper/spice/hooded-robe souks and back down the main drag of Avenue de L’Istiqal. Meanwhile, the North African sun belted down and burned Mr Smith rather epically. Yup, even on a chilly February day, the sun can almost skin you alive. Quote of the day, as we snapped up some wooden carvings and boxes: ‘You’re welcome, one thousand times!’. Sweet.
Luckily, the hotel is just ten minutes’ pavement-pounding from the centre of town. So, nipping back to the rooftop pool, we cooled burned brows and took a breather while the call to prayer sounded from the minarets. A quick peek into the mini spa made us wish we’d factored some official pamper time into the schedule. The exquisite black-tiled, candlelit treatment rooms were begging to be abused. But foiled by the clock, we opted for the next best thing: food.
Make a reservation for Les Alizés. It’s a rinky-dinky, unassuming, traditional little restaurant – but ridiculously popular. We waited half an hour for a table, with an endless supply of pink olives to placate us. The happiest waiter in Essaouira brought us a beautiful tajine, complete with finger-burning earthenware to eat it from (why does that never look as good when you get it home?), plus comedy-proportioned huge wooden ladles to slurp soup with. Narrowly sidestepping the waves breaking against the medina walls, we ducked into Il Mare Mogador (Rue de la Skala) for a cheeky post-dinner drink. But as the live band struck up, we struck out – back to Palais Heure Bleue’s English-style bar for a bit of a late-night leather sofa/cigar/whisky action.
If you fancy a luxurious, anonymous, squidgy-bathrobed weekend in a stylish boutique hotel, punctuated with the odd meander through an atmospheric port and its film-set ramparts, then this is just the jaunt for you. Ideally, come when you need a post-Marrakech chill-out. A three-hour drive from the hustle and bustle, this is one beautiful, hushed hideaway in one very beautiful, ancient town.