essaouira

It is hard not to be seduced by the beguiling ambience of this artists’ colony with cobblestoned streets, whitewashed walls, and massive stone ramparts along the Atlantic Ocean.

A former Portuguese trading colony built in the 18th century (designed by a French architect held captive), this port town once known as Mogador had large Christian and Jewish communities.

It is still very much a fishermen’s town, windy and with dazzling light. Its pretty harbor is filled with tiny, colorful boats that go out early every morning for the day’s catch.

Its resident guests over the years (besides the Portuguese traders) have included such diverse figures as Orson Welles, who made Essaouira the setting for his 1952 Othello (in which Welles himself played the Moor), opera legend Maria Callas, and musician Jimmy Hendrix, who spent time here in the 1960’s and whose music still flows from the cafes of Essaouira’s squares.

Essaouira’s romantic charm, plentiful shops, and quirky art galleries make this little town a particularly pleasant place to unwind and relax for a few days. It is a good shopping destination for those overwhelmed by the endless opportunities to spend your money in Marrakech.

Essaouira is particularly famous for its burled thuya wood – delicately formed, polished, and inlaid in tiny shops built into the thick walls of the Portuguese ramparts. The scent of the oils used to polish this richly-colored wood permeates the air.

Essaouira has become a hip destination for sun-worshipers and adventure-seekers. Wind surfers and kite surfers make use of the wide stretch of beach and the windy and shallow lagoon.

We can arrange for horseback riding along the beach or a cooking lesson with a colorful expat who has made Essaouira her home.

Many people visit Essaouira as a daytrip from Marrakech (2 ½ hours each way) due to a lack of outstanding hotels here. But Essaouira is at its finest in the early morning, when the harbor is lively and in the low light and long shadows of dusk, just before the sun sets over the Atlantic. The dying light casts in silhouette the half-buried castle in the middle of the ocean a few miles offshore.