An Atlantic oceanfront view of north Africa’s most intriguing country, Morocco, presents this family with a relaxing and rewarding vacation.
We knew a few things from our first trip to Morocco: its ideal location in north Africa, its distinction as one of the most tolerant Muslim societies, the fact that French is universally spoken. We remembered the country’s intense markets and devoted artisans, and knew how its modern infrastructure, fine cuisine and music would appeal to the family. But if we planned a return trip to the country’s beaches, would we experience the exotic culture that had so appealed to us?
On our summer coastal journey, we discovered Essaouira, then explored Casablanca and Tangier on the Atlantic coast before our return to Spain. Surprisingly, we found contemporary conveniences coexisting with age-old traditions. If the last 10 years of exposure to Europeans and their customs has made Moroccans more tolerant of tourists in bikinis, it’s also reinforced their commitment to preserving a unique culture. While Western women can feel comfortable sunbathing at the beach, they’ll have to stay away from the footpaths trod by camels on their way from desert to market.
Essaouira – Since the Days of Jimi Hendrix
From an 18th century Portuguese trading outpost to the setting for Orson Welles’ “Othello” and, later, the antics of Jimi Hendrix, Essaouira has always flourished. This picturesque port is on Morocco’s eastern Atlantic coast almost opposite the Canary Islands. What is surprising is that Essaouira survived the last decade of the 20th century, when it remained largely a Marrakech Express By The Sea, to become one of Europe’s most popular and pricey seaside getaways. Still colorful and funky, it’s a fun place to stop with the family for a few days of chaotic R n’ R.
Moroccans come for the town’s famous seafood and here, just outside the Medina’s walls, are a dozen food stalls where you can select a fish and have it grilled fresh on the spot. Not far from Square Orson Welles, Chez Sam is the best choice for a delicious tablecloth meal; in a boat-like edifice, they even serve a beef kofte with potato that could easily pass as a hamburger and a fries.
An unforgettable Beach Scene
Essaouira’s fine sand crescent beach extends along the coast road south of town, with many horse and camel ride vendors at the far end near the gently eroded ruins of a Portuguese fort. Windsurfers and surfers attempt their sport near the Club Mistral shop somewhere in the middle. At our July visit, the line of families waiting for adult camels who could carry all the children at once stretched down the beach, so we ended up hiring two baby camels for a 15-minute introductory stroll. At the north end of the popular beach is the busy fishers’ port filled with the blue caiques that bring in the daily catch of sardines.
Can you swim? Yes, we did, but families concerned about hygiene might wonder what a parade of camels waiting for passengers can do to the sand.
Essaouira’s restored ramparts now serve as an esplanade for thousands of visitors each sunset, and its well organized medina, designed by French architect Cubert, is filled with artisans shops, postcard stalls and thousands of cats. An intriguing collection of enterprises are tucked behind the high stuccoed walls, and places like the creperie/gallery call La Triskalla on rue Touahen, with its smoothies and Moroccan salads and mezzanine seating, will delight all ages. Le Taros on Place Moulay Hassan has indoor and outdoor dining, a lively bar scene and loud pop music typical of Essaouira’s nightlife, which tends to be led by young Europeans who move from dining to reclining at the port’s many stylish eateries throughout the night.
Essaouira Lying Down
The same mix of style and substance extends to the housing options, many owned or managed by Europeans. We stayed at the legendary but funky Villa Maroc. Filled with character and a warm, worn charm, this popular B&B welcomes anyone who can afford it, from Italian film crews to Australian backpackers who have prized its central medina location for years. In this helter-skelter accumulation of four adjoining riads are 20 whitewashed rooms whose shuttered windows and glass French doors open onto a common courtyard. Patches of old floor tile, wooden armoires, cut bronze lanterns, narrow twisting staircases and cranky showers lend a homelike feel to the various units, no two alike. Villa Maroc’s best assets for families are the interior courtyard overlooked by a maze of balconies and stairs, a warren of dark and cozy lounges, and the roof deck. Here, views of the port are obscured by a morning fog that doesn’t lift till after breakfast, but it’s lovely for a sundown drink.
On a return visit, we tried the gorgeous Heure Bleue, a restored and luxurious riad that is part of the prestigious Relais & Châteaux collection. Befitting its status, everything is just-so: formal staff, exceptional Moroccan decor, the most delicate of pastries at breakfast. There is a rooftop pool that children will enjoy and many cozy places to relax between visits to the market, which is right outside its discreet doors.
The 33-room Riad Mimouna, the former home of Ferdinand Sandillon dating from 1896, is another choice at near the souk Jedid, on the medina walls by the al Bahar Gate facing the sea. This restored riad boasts the newest of mosaic floors, painted coffered ceilings in the Berber style, carved furniture and beautiful fabrics, along with an outdoor terrace for breakfast. Their immaculate rooms have a large double bed and room to sleep a child.
Driving the Atlantic Coast to Casablanca
A highpoint of the coastal drive to Casablanca (something we would have missed had we taken the train) is the half moon beach cove at Oualidia, a resort village north of Safi in the El Jadida region. Oualidia is popular with European families because its shallow, calm waterfront is a large lagoon stocked with oysters that’s protected from the churning Atlantic by a string of small islands. Picturesque, known for its seafood, and a center of surfing lessons in summer, it’s a place to come back to.
From miles away, the grim white high-rise slums of densely populated Casablanca come into view. Since the city has experienced more terrorist attacks than other parts of this mostly peaceful country, familes have no reason to linger. The main sight is the stunning Mosque of Hassan II, father of the present King Mohammed VI, which crowns the city’s industrial port with its marble and green tile elegance. One of the city’s few attractions, it is worth a visit for those spending time here on your way to or from other parts of the country.
Tangier, Where Atlantic Meets Mediterranean
From Casablanca, we took the six-hour express train to the northcoast port of Tangier (or Tanger in French), a bustling city where chaos beats sanitation and horse-drawn carriages vie with Mercedes taxis.
Families can spend several days in Tangier, a city favored by author Paul Bowles, artist Henri Matisse and generations of adventurers because of its exotic position as a gateway to Africa across the Straits of Gibraltar from Spain. The old town or medina is small and easy to tour, there are dozens of restaurants used to dealing with tourists, and the small souks above the port have some nice shops. We particularly like the small items like silver jewelry and Berber folk art at Kassba on rue Jamaa Kabir Petit Socco; other stores are run by ex-pats and display an eclectic range of decorative items.
Our final resting place in the country was the charming El Minzah Hotel, just outside the hilltop medina of Tangier. The classic colonial hotel was built in 1930 by Lord Bute for his colleagues and is perfectly restored, with a notable spa addition in its garden. Hotel guests (and monthly spa members) are welcome to use the large Jacuzzi, steam room, sauna, hammam or Turkish bath, indoor pool, and locker rooms stocked with fluffy bathrobes free of charge. The spa has a low-calorie restaurant on its roof terrace overlooking Tangier’s red roofs, the port and the Atlantic in the distance. Private babysitting is available through the concierge for parents enjoying spa treatments; older children and non-spa types can take advantage of the hotel’s four tennis courts, and access to golf, horseback riding or the beach just 10 minutes away by taxi.
As befits its five-star status, the El Minzah’s rooms have all the modern conveniences for Western guests and everything is immaculately maintained by uniformed housekeepers who seem to scrub and polish all day. At the front door, expertly trained staff dressed in the traditional baggy Capri length pants and wool cap advise guests on which taxi to take, or roam the dining area to be sure no glasses are out of place. Comfortable double rooms are charming, but families with more than one child will need to book the hotel’s connecting rooms.
A Few Hints about our Favorite Pastime: Eating
Moroccan cuisine is a wonderful blend of Arab, Spanish, Berber and French tastes, with sweet and tart sauces and many small side dishes to complement the entree. It is indelibly associated with couscous, those tiny pasta balls that roll off forks before reaching lips. In all tourist restaurants (and the majority of restaurants in traditional houses with carved wood furnishings and tassled silk pillows are for tourists), you’ll find couscous served with meat, poultry, fish or vegetable stew. These tomato-based stews are steamed in peaked-hat copper pots called Tajines, over a coal fire whenever possible.
Since the best couscous is handmade by women who grind the wheat, make the dough, then roll out tiny balls in the palms of their hands, Moroccans consider it a Friday (Muslim holy day) specialty. A good rule of thumb for visitors is that if a restaurant serves couscous every day, it is oriented to tourists. Not to say you won’t find a good meal; we never had a bad one.
For breakfast and lunch, hotels and international cafes will also serve French baguettes (sandwiches of cheese and ham on a long roll), egg dishes and French pastries. At other meals, kids can order plain grilled kefta (chopped lamb meatballs) and kebabs (skewered chunks of beef, lamb or chicken), the thick pita breads, and the many Moroccan salads, typically a mix of chopped tomatoes, green peppers and spring onions or eggplant. The Oasis Cafe Tafernout is a chain of large, brightly lit roadside eateries where families can partake of a high quality Moroccan meal (casually served but well prepared) or a Menu Boomba, the kids’ selection of hamburger, French fries, soda and toy.
Mint tea (black tea brewed with fresh mint leaves and crystals of sugar), bottled water and fresh orange juice are the most common beverages. The best of the fine local wines come from the Guerrouane winery. They make reds, whites, roses; aficionados prefer the red but the rose is popular for summer.
Crossing the Atlantic from Spain to Morocco
As Morocco’s banking and commercial center, Casablanca is well connected by air to many major capitals and, within the country, by rail to all the major tourist destinations.
From Europe, ocean-worthy ferries and high-speed hydrofoils ply the route from Algeciras, Spain past the Straits of Gibraltar to Tangier dozens of times a day. The 1.5 to 2.5-hour journey accommodates both passengers and vehicles. From Tangier, families can rent a car, take a train or fly on to the next stop in Morocco.
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