After a week of heavy rains across Morocco, we drove north from Tamraght, on the scenic N1 route to Essaouira. Passing through a surprisingly verdant countryside of argan trees and eucalyptus alleys, I felt that sense of freedom that comes from being behind the wheel on a winding coastal road in Africa.
This was my first night away from home since March 2020, I was ready for a change of scenery. Originally from the UK, home is now Tamraght, a small fishing and surfing community in southern Morocco, a desert-climate where the beaches are currently closed and water reserves in general sparse and restricted.
For our two-night stay, I’d packed a suitcase for two weeks travelling, what do you pack for a city break in Covid times? Not outfits for an evening dressed up and out in the city as I'd done, completely forgetting about a curfew!
I’d always wanted to experience Essaouira in more depth, this trip provided that and so much more, it was a glimpse into how travelling has - and we as travellers - have changed.
Who’s travelling in these times?
People who are happy with the unknown. It feels like the travel slate has been wiped. We travelled without recommendations, as, other than a quick search on Instagram, there was no way of knowing what was open in the City these days. We met a handful of travellers, mostly those already residing in Morocco.
Those who are expecting Essaouira to be as it was pre-Covid, may be disappointed. It’s not the same. It’s quieter. It’s more real. It’s local life. Less noise. Less choice. But, my travel buddy and I both said, we preferred it. We weren’t ready for hoards of tourists, aggressive haggling, or 100s of dining options and late night partying. We enjoyed wandering without following other’s recommendations. Two yoga teachers practicing what they preach - going with the flow.
Without an agenda, we were surprised by what is open rather than disappointed by what isn’t. Really appreciating the effort that people are putting into the reopening of the City, proudly presenting their passion projects, knowing that only a handful of people will pass each day.
What’s open in Essaouira?
The port was busy with fishermen and onlookers going about daily lives. The beach and promenade with locals playing football and walkers making selfies at sunset. Swimmers, sunbathers and surfers. We saw people enjoying personalised surf instruction and quieter waves. Some - not all - street vendors, market stalls, cafes, galleries, shops, restaurants, hammams, and selection of hotels and riads in and around the city.
In terms of cafes / restaurants - we loved brunch at Mandala, a late lunch at Triskala, and a sunny coffee stop at Ocean Vagabond, right on the beach (pictured above). Both catering well for ex-pats, locals and a handful of tourists these days. We really enjoyed seeing people sitting in the squares, street cafes, watching the world moving a little slower.
Several art galleries and shops are open, including some beautiful concept stores; L’Atelier (pictured above), Hiya and Up & Above. It was such a treat to shop for handmade crafts, supporting local artists, and sampling local produce; argan oil, rugs, colourful art, baskets, ceramics and jewellery. The salesmen's enthusiasm reminded me of how I feel when I get to teach ‘real’ yoga classes - as opposed to virtually on Zoom, practicing their trade, and happy to have customers passing once again. Inside the Medina we found the city streets clean and quiet. There was still some construction work in a few of the side streets, but overall the city is spotlessly clean.
How is Essaouira these days?
Quieter, still lots of ambience and charm. We enjoyed exploring the medina of Essaouira, a walled city, wandering on foot without the traffic hazards. Walking the full length of the beach back and forth. It was lovely to be able to stop at different cafes, tables spilling out on streets and experience the flavours of street food vendors.
It’s like visiting a local town, not a tourist town. You can see the locals, less tourists and feel the hustle and bustle of local life. It feels calmer, I was pleasantly surprised by the ambience and vibe of the city. Less cafes, restaurants and shops are open but still plenty. We were welcomed into watch the artists working away in their shops.
Current regulations require face masks to be worn in public areas. Once seated at tables, it is ok to remove them. Spotlessly clean in shops and cafes we visited. Hand sanitiser everywhere! City curfew is 21.00. Shops and restaurants close at 20.00. Around this time the city felt very busy and vibrant, with everyone packing up for the day.
Coming from a village where the beaches are closed and the water is currently being turned off at 9pm, to have a hot bath before bed was a real indulgence. And to be able to swim in a hotel pool, and then surf in the ocean was AMAZING!
How did I feel travelling in these times?
It felt surprisingly easy, relaxing and enjoyable. Seeing people wearing face masks looked a little alien at times. Still special. It is a privilege to travel at these times, as it always was, although I for one had stopped seeing travel as such a luxury pre-Corona. Essaouira with its creative spark and outdoor, relaxing way of life is a great place to break the travel seal!
I was nervous about travelling. It had been 10 months since I'd left home. What is appropriate these days? Would we get stopped by police? The judgement, is it irresponsible to do so? Would the city be a ghost town? Would the hotel be empty? I wanted it so badly to not be. That this trip would mark the end of the travel blackout period. That those who love to host people could go back to doing so.
I am happy to say that even with a few awkward moments - do we shake hands? Can I remove my face mask now? It was a truly wonderful experience. To travel. To be welcomed. To see the world with fresh and excited eyes.
If you can overcome any fears about travelling in Covid, and I appreciate everyone’s will be different, Essaouira is a beautiful place to visit and the locals and hoteliers are ready to welcome you.
My travelling buddy summed it up beautifully; ‘we experienced intriguing glimpses of the true Moroccan ways as you see, hear, taste and feel your way through the town. There is a specific colour and light to this creative artistic town which is a real treat for the senses.’
Where did you stay?
We stayed at the Heure Bleue Palais, I would highly recommend this historic, luxury hotel to anyone looking for a treat. Bonus: their rates have been heavily discounted, with rooms now starting at €150 per night, and the hotel looks refreshed following some renovations and room upgrades in 2020.
Centrally located in the medina, this hotel offers 5 star service alongside excellent facilities including a hammam/ spa, heated rooftop pool, sunny terraces, cosy firelit bar and delicious cuisine on offer. The staff here - the same team looked after King Mohammed VI of Morocco in January 2020 - will make you feel like royalty. The hotel’s implementation of Covid health & safety measures would be reassuring for any nervous travellers.
The apartment-style rooms are gorgeous; impeccably clean and very spacious. Having a night time curfew, it’s important to have a space to sleep that you feel comfortable in. Thankfully our suite at the Heure Bleue was a lovely cosy space to relax, chat, listen to music, drink tea & wine, and look and laugh through photos of our day exploring. Even with a wintry spell, the room was warm and log fire lit on demand. A TV ready in case we wanted to watch a movie. High standard of Covid safety measures implemented.
Pick your travel companion well
My travel buddy shares a similarly positive outlook on life, and having both lived in Morocco for a number of years, we have a good understanding and love for the culture. We had a lot of fun practicing our newly acquired Moroccan Arabic!
To be able to chat and process this experience with a friend was wonderful. It is a new way of travelling, our way of looking at the world has changed. For the better. I for one felt more patient, grateful and grounded.
If you can reframe your mindset, and are happy to travel in quieter times, do it. Morocco will be sure to welcome you. Travel with a beginner’s mind, no expectations, and an open heart and mind. The cogs are starting to turn on tourism here in Morocco, my hope is that it continues along the lines of Essaouira, with authenticity, awareness, and driven by people pursuing their dreams at a slower pace.
Thank you to all who made this trip happen.