Standing vigil over Essaouira’s old-town ramparts, Moroccan guesthouse Madada Mogador has the easy, clean-lined chic of a cosy Parisian apartment. Downstairs, a central sand-hued salon leads to five tadelakt-surfaced bedrooms and, upstairs, two suites offer startling sea views. Take up residence in this laid-back little retreat, a haven of indulgent bathrooms with vast soaking tubs, breezy terraces and uninterrupted ocean vistas.
Double rooms from £107.62 (€120), including tax at 10 per cent. Please note the hotel charges an additional local city tax of €2.50 per person per night on check-out.
Rates include breakfast.
Try your hand at tajines with a two-hour lesson in Moroccan cookery, taught in either French or English, and culminating in a two-course meal. The cookery classes are held in L'Atelier Madada, a former almond warehouse.
At the hotel
Library, treatment room, boutique, board games, WiFi, iPod dock, and the services of a cook, if required.
Our favourite rooms
Clues to Madada Mogador’s rich history linger on inside its walls, which once housed traders in the Jewish quarter. Guests were received on the terrace; if you’re staying on a summer escapade with a lover, there’s no doubt the Madada room upstairs is the one to earmark. It opens onto the ramparts, with a private balcony and tadelakt and aged brass in the bathroom. Warm-red Sabra room has a bath in the room and club armchairs; Assala room has a wall-sized bedhead and big ivory tadelakt tub.
Madada Mogador's bijou treatment room faces the ocean; indulge in a relaxing massage or get yourself sandal-ready with a mani-pedi.
Leave some space in your luggage for a stash of hand-loomed towels from the souk: they'll double as handy wraps on the windy beaches and stylish bathroom-brighteners at home.
Smoking is allowed on the patio and terrace. The annual Gnawa Festival happens the last week of June every year, and the area around Madada Mogador can be quite busy and noisy.
Children are warmly welcome, though the layout of the hotel doesn’t make it particularly suitable. Under-twos stay free and there is a cot available; extra beds cost €30 a night for over-twos, and babysitting costs from €10 an evening.
If you're just after nibbles from the tapas menu, nab the high table for two.
Whatever you like lounging in.
Right beneath the hotel in an old converted carob warehouse, La Table by Madada is an arched, bistro-style eatery with a menu that draws heavily from Essaoira's seafood-rich waters. The day's catch – octopus, spider crab, swordfish – takes centre stage in inventive dishes such as pastilla, gratin and carpaccio.
You can order drinks in the informal lobby or on the roof terrace. Try the local rosé, a blend of syrah and muscat grapes, or the home-made fruit cocktail.
La Table by Madada takes last orders at about 10.30pm.
Snack service during the afternoon until 7pm: paninis, omelettes, salade niçoise.
Close to the port, souks and ramparts, Madada Mogador is at the heart of the old town, a short stroll from Essaouira's main beach.
Royal Air Maroc flies to Essaouira from Paris Orly, but most visitors arrive via Marrakech Menara Airport, easily reached on direct and budget flights from various hubs across Europe. One-way transfers from Marrakech cost about €65 and take two hours.
You won’t need a car to get around Essaouira but if you’re planning to drive to the town you’ll find rental desks for Avis at both Marrakech and Essaouira airports. The journey from Marrakech along the N8 highway takes around two hours. Cars are not allowed into the walled town centre and must be left at the public car park by the harbour – a two-minute walk from the hotel.
Worth getting out of bed for
Beachy, carefree Essaouira is a laid-back fishing port and surfers’ retreat. Walled in by impressive 18th-century ramparts, the car-free medina is a walker’s delight: head out on foot to experience its animated street life, bustling fish market and colourful souk. A stretch of golden sands along the windswept Atlantic coast, the city’s beach is an easy walk from the hotel, and offers plenty of waterspouts as well as camel and horse rides. Stop by Madada Mogador’s concierge desk for a rundown of the neighbourhood’s best sights and activities; staff will happily point you to the nearby hammam for indulgent treatments and aromatic steam baths, or arrange a candlelit dinner in a charming auberge.
Ida Ougourd’s Berber souk on Wednesdays and Had Draa’s Sunday market for farmers and breeders offer a glimpse of the region’s trading traditions. A charming cluster of 19th-century riads, Meskala Kasbah (+212 (0)666 233534) is now home to a farm producing artisan cheeses. Savour the table d’hôtes’ sampling platters and generous lunches, or try your hand at tadelakt or wood-painting in one of the workshops run by the kasbah. Explore Essaouira’s rivers and beaches on a quad bike with Palma Quad or head out of town on camel and horseback with Equi Evasion in the village of Diabat. For an eco-conscious Argan grove tour, try Ecotourism et Randonnées; trips culminate in a traditional Moroccan tea.
Pick a table tucked inL’Heure Bleue’s lush courtyard, somewhere by the pretty trickling fountain. Fabulously fresh seafood gets the Moroccan spice treatment – the salt-baked sea-bass is a must-try.
I am ashamed to admit that before we were invited to spend a night in Essaouira, I’d never heard of it. In fact, I could barely even pronounce it. As our taxi takes us through desert, I discover that my companion cannot only pronounce it perfectly – ‘es-sooo-weera’ with a stress on the ‘weer’ – but she was there 15 years ago. And recalling it to be rather windy, it has a delightful onomatopoeic ring to it. My Ms Smith is curious about whether it will have changed, having arrived last time in a limping coach and found accommodation by entrusting herself to the least seedy-looking guy offering a put-up in his mum's house. I assure her that from what I’ve heard of our stylish stay, Madada Mogador, we’re in for an altogether different experience.
After a couple of hours heading from Marrakech in the direction of a very pink sunset, through small towns and huge swaths of dessert, our first sign of Essa civilization is indeed a hotel with ‘Mogador’ in its name. Yikes. Surely this faux castle isn’t meant for Smiths. (My companion who slept in a closet and had to dress in full chador-like garb at mealtimes at her last abode here, still considers this modern-day concrete beast an improvement.) Thankfully, the taxi driver knows better and hurtles past, explaining that Mogador was the name for Essaouira when the Portuguese occupied it in the 16th century, so we’ll see it a lot. Having been assured our designated Mogador-mantled retreat is not only chic, but in a unique setting, we perk up again.
The approach to the old town, where we’re headed, is along a coastal road, and we’re disappointed that we’ve arrived in the dark, fearing an underwhelming introduction. We couldn’t be more wrong. Moonlight only enhances the incredible impact of miles of white sand and iridescent sea. While the modern buildings that line this road here aren’t as charming as what we were hoping for, as soon as we spy the medina and harbour in the distance, we realise that we’re bang on target for a fantastically unique destination.
Dropped off in a carpark by the port, I’m worried for a millisecond that we might end up in the same situation as my backpacking pal all those years ago. That’s quickly dispelled as a helpful soul with a cart appears from nowhere and swiftly ushers us towards the high walls of the medina. A few inches within the ancient city, and we’re at the stairway to our abode. Up a narrow, zellij-tiled flight of stairs, it feels a bit more flat-above-a-shop than North African boutique bolthole. Just as our rollercoaster-inclined expectations are poised to take a dip, the dark wooden door to Madada Mogador opens. ‘Bon soir’ – an elegant French blonde welcomes us into her incense-infused enclave of beige-hued contemporary cool. It’s just what we’d hoped for.
With a built-in wooden bookshelf acting as reception desk, hotel shop and concierge, Madada feels more like an enormous private Parisian apartment. Five of the bedrooms are here off the central sand-coloured salon, with a staircase leading to two more. As it’s uncustomarily quiet tonight (the only other folk we encounter are a young American couple sat at one of the four little tables arguing about the rules of backgammon), we’re given a choice of where to sleep.
Had it been a summer escapade with a lover, there’s no doubt the rooms upstairs with the massive Balearic-style terrace would have been the ones to earmark (the uninterrupted sea view must be the best in Essaouira); but as two friends who’ve made their way here in winter, we fancy the cosiness of the main floor. Having admired the Ralph Steadman-esque art, the Asian-accented layout of the bedrooms, the huge cream tadelakt bath and twin sinks in my open-plan room, and the tub armchairs in her red-hued den, we embrace our seaside destiny and head off to get a fresh-fish supper.
While the hotel has its own chic sister eatery below, the owner also recommends, Les Alizés Mogador, so we decide to continue on the Mogador theme. A few minutes walk away, right on the ramparts, we discover it’s shut, so we stroll through the small main square, past the fishermen’s stalls, towards the harbour. Wonderfully peaceful on this Sunday evening, we’re lone silhouettes wending their way past the postcard-perfect blue-hulled wooden fishing boats to Chez Sam, on the edge of the water.
You know you’re getting older when you revel in the ghost-town effect of being on holiday off-season, although my friend assures me that this is somewhere not thin on action most of the year. As we sit down at a checked tablecloth by the window, she toasts the fact that this taverna-like blue shack hasn’t changed one bit since she last pounced on squid and sardines all those years ago, having eaten nothing but oranges and peanuts for weeks. I make my own pact not to leave it so long before I return again myself. Still, I reckon if I do, mon amour Mogador, so rich in history and with its air of insouciance, will be the same place that I’ve so quickly fallen in love with.