Kid-free weekend in hippy heaven Essaouaira...and many, many Beni's
Ok, I know what it looks like....but I assure you we don't always leave our children at home while we go swanning off on fancy holidays. It's just that our most recent family holiday was in Cornwall and wonderful as it it was, we left it rather late to book so ended up in a teeny one bedroom apartment in Padstow. Cute and did the job, but not much else to say really. Anyway, no prizes for guessing why I chose Essaouira for this year's trip? Yes, I was on the hunt for another rug. This time a Beni Ourain. And I got one, of course. I'm quite good at this rug buying thing now you know. (Read all about it here)
But that wasn't the only reason. The thing about mini-breaks is the opportunity to take a break from the norm. But living in London I sometimes find the idea of your usual City break a bit uninspiring. Sure, there are some really beautiful cities out there to explore. But I don't want to leave one bustling city full of Zara's and H&M's and go to another with more of the same. I think this also stems from the fact that pre-kids our big annual holiday was always three weeks flashpacking around somewhere exotic like Vietnam, Cambodia, Brazil, Thailand, Mexico etc etc Having young kids has meant that kind of thing has been temporarily placed on hold. Sigh! But the wanderlust is still there. And the amazing thing about places like Marrakech, Istanbul and Essaouira is that they are all within an easy four hour reach of London, but all give you that feeling that you have travelled somewhere exotic and far flung. The other thing is that we got three nights in one of the best hotels in Essa with s strong chance of sunshine for around the same price as one night in a boutique hotel in Blighty. After the never ending winter we've had, there was no competition.
Having been to Marrakech previously (we took Raf. See we do go on holiday with our kids!) I thought we'd give Essaouira a go. Normally I buy a guidebook in advance and plan where we're going to eat, what we're going to see etc etc but this time we were both so busy in the run-up to the break that we had planned how we were getting to the airport and that was about it. I knew it was going to be windy. That's what Essaouira means. But daft Brit that I am, I was still optimistic about the tanning potential.
Flights to Essa leave on Saturdays and Tuesdays so we flew out on Saturday, leaving the kids in the capable hands of my mum and dad (Thank you!) We arrived early evening and headed to our hotel, the Heure Bleue Palais. We'd chosen to stay in the medina because we didn't want to be taxi-ing back and forth too much, but I understand there are several nice options situated about 20 minutes drive away from the city walls. We jumped out of the cab and wandered around for about 20 minutes trying to find the hotel after the shock realisation that Google Maps and 3G was not a lot of use here. Stupid townies! Turns out the hotel was literally 20 yards from the taxi door and we'd walked past it five times. Wooopsy!
The hotel itself was pure class, and very much for grown-ups. Ideal. And on checking in we got a free room upgrade. Woop! (This literally never happens to me!) We dropped our bags in our room and I immediately logged on to the wifi to find somewhere good for supper.
We decided to go and look for Mega Loft. Terrible name I know, but it had good reviews so off we went. That whole Google maps thing caught us out again and we were about to abandon the search when we stumbled across it at what we thought was a dead end. And I'm so glad we did! What a little gem, despite the name.
Part beach shack, part 60's psychedelica, Mega Loft is pure Essa. Full to the brim with quirky little design details and battered original Panton chairs, it is run by local interior designer Othman Chic. Essa was a major hippy haven in the 60's with Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa and Cat Stevens all paying pilgrimage. Mega Loft gives a massive nod to that hippy heritage in both it's design and atmosphere. When we went there was an acoustic band playing, which I'll be honest would usually have me running out of the door, but the lead singer sounded like that guy from Counting Crows, singing covers of Craig David and Drake. It. Was. MEGA! And no I wasn't drunk because they don't serve alcohol. So there.
We ate yummy tagine and headed back to the hotel for a whole night's sleep uninterrupted by the four-year-olds frantic demands for 3am wee chaperoning. Bliss.
At breakfast the next day it was pretty apparent that I had been a bit too optimistic about the weather...in the windy city...in March. Shivering ever so slightly in shorts at breakfast, there was no mistaking the Brits in the room ;-) Everyone else was wearing coats though, which was a bit excessive if you ask me. Sunday was all about exploring, so I grabbed a jumper and we headed out of the walls, first to the beach with the famous waves which make the area a surfer's paradise.
We decided against camel rides or dune buggying, in favour of just wandering. Essa is small and totally wanderable. Don't get me wrong, it's easy to get lost amid the crumbling medina walls but one way or another we seemed to find our way to somewhere we recognised whenever we did get a bit off track.
From the beach we headed back towards the sea walls, the harbour and the fish market where you can buy your fish straight off the boat and take it to a little cafe at the end of the market to be cooked. You choose grilled or fried and it comes with a chunk of bread and some salad. No frills and fresh to death.
Sea urchins are a local delicacy in Essa and we were planning on trying the spiky little devils in a fancy pants restaurant that night but saw this little stall and couldn't resist sampling them then and there. South of France chic it ain't but I loved the little visual feast created by this market stall holder. And the urchins themselves? Actually pretty good.
After the bustling fish market we wandered back to our hotel through the medina to hang out by the rooftop pool for a bit. This is Morocco so obviously I saw some good doors on the way back...
The rooftop at the Heure Bleue is a great way to get a panoramic view of the city. Everything is built at a low level so you can see the beach and the out to the mountains. We had a good gander while sipping a glass of the local rose, known as gris. We don't have it here but it's good, and usually quite cheap too.
On Sunday evening we decided to eat in the hotel's own restaurant which has a reputation of being one of the best in Essaouira. It didn't disappoint. We had a delicious supper of salt baked seabass and saffron infused risotto, accompanied by a lovely bottle of local red but I was in a bad mood because I'd brought my favourite pink jumpsuit to wear and couldn't find it in my suitcase so had to wear something else. Of course, I hadn't looked very well because I found it the next flipping morning!
So Monday was all about shopping. Finally! I'd been waiting patiently. Well not that patiently actually. More like gazing longingly at all the rug shops while we were out exploring. But now I had been given the nod to be let loose. I knew what I wanted and after wading through a mountain of Beni's and spending a good hour bartering, during which I also gained the nickname Fatima Couscous (which I think is a compliment), I got my Beni Ourain (see earlier link for more on this). Yay! Mission complete.
I also got my mum a basket...and am regretting not getting myself one to be honest but I had an attack of the guilts given I'd already got a bloody great big rug and didn't want to be greedy.
We also discovered sugary saffron doughnuts, which may just be my favourite thing about Essaouira.
And then, while we were heading back to our hotel with our spoils, we decided to go a slightly different way. I'm a big believer in fate and if we hadn't gone that way, we would never have come across this absolute gem of a vintage furniture shop. I spied it from the street and on stepping inside it turned out to be a four-floor mecca of original 60's and 70's pieces. Now I'm saying this to you and whetting your appetite but I'm actually being a bit of a tease because they had a strict no photos policy in place. Sorry and all that. But it's called the Elizer Gallery and if you're ever in Essa go and check it out.
Back at the hotel we got ready for our Hammam spa experience, which came as a complimentary perk when we booked through Mr and Mrs Smith. If you haven't had one before a Hammam is basically sitting in a pair of paper pants while you're steamed, soaked, scrubbed and rubbed. Sounds a bit like torture but it's SO good. I didn't want to leave. The spa itself was like a little black marbled cave. Very different to my previous super sleek Hammam experience, but still a treat.
We were so relaxed and sleepy after the Hammam that we almost didn't go out on Monday evening. But as it was our last night we dragged our lazy bums out of our room for one last tagine, this time at La Licorne, a faux baroque extravaganza whose decor pushed even my realms of taste and decency. It was good food though and with a belly full of tagine, I went to bed that night feeling rested and rejuvenated and very much ready to go home and cuddle my babies the next day.