Ah, Essaouira. Where to begin? Should we start with the wind, warm and fresh from the Atlantic Ocean – which locals refer to as the trade wind? Or should we start at the Medina, and its bustling streets and stalls? Or even the beach, with its camels and kite-surfers silhouetted against the horizon? There’s so much more to Morocco than Marrakesh, as we checked into the Heure Bleue Palais Hotel in Essaouria to discover…
No, let’s start with a nice cup of tea. On entering the Heure Bleue Palais Hotel, guests are greeted with a quintessentially Moroccan sight: a central courtyard, lush with palm trees and the sounds of a water fountain. My friend and I sink into one of the white cushioned seats placed around the square. Before long, a smiling waiter brings out a silver teapot of mint tea, and pours it from a height into small colourful glasses. The frothy tea is delicious, even without the offered sugar.
As I sip the hot drink, I look around the riad. Built in the 19th century as a nobleman’s residence, the place had been derelict for some time before it was renovated and opened as a luxury hotel in 2004. Today, it is a hidden gem tucked behind the fortified walls of the Medina, boasting 33 rooms and suites.
The Rooms & Interiors
The interior design is a thoughtful blend of traditional Islamic architecture, Colonial style and Oriental elements. Everything begs to be Instagrammed. From the vivid blue of the main door, to the patterned tiles in the stairwell, to the rooftop terrace with its azure pool – I #nofilter it all. Our deluxe double room somehow manages to conjure up the romance of travel from a bygone era, but with all the modern comforts one would expect. Alongside the silk drapes and vintage pictures of Morocco, there is a Nespresso machine and a widescreen TV.
Dusk falls and the lanterns around the hotel are lit, as if by magic. It sounds clichéd, but it’s hard not to buy into the mysticism of Morocco. It’s especially difficult when you’re standing on the rooftop, with the pool reflecting the flickering candles, and the city below humming with energy. We make our way downstairs to supper with the night air cooling our skin.
The Food & Drink
The head chef Ahmed Handour has prepared a Berber feast for us in the Salon Oriental dining room. Sitting in red velvet-covered arm chairs, we dine on couscous and lamb tagine, infused with saffron, cumin, coriander and, of course, cinnamon. To accompany it, we sip the hotel’s own label wine which comes from a vineyard just a few kilometres away. In the corner, a lute player strums a slow melody before breaking into a wistful-sounding song.
What To See & Do
The next day, we wander along the interior patio to the Petit Spa where a classic Moroccan bathing ritual awaits: the hammam. For this, there is little left to the imagination. It’s lucky that my friend and I are comfortable with each other as we strip down and don disposable thongs – not pants, thongs. Within the black tadelakt-covered walls of the hot room, the space becomes an intimate sanctuary.
We are washed and scrubbed, then washed some more before argan oil is rubbed onto our skin. The precious oil is obtained – by hand – from the fruit of the argan tree, which is grown almost exclusively in south-western Morocco. When the treatment is over, I am the cleanest I’ve ever been, while my friend’s sun burn has noticeably improved.
When we do venture out of the quiet haven that is our hotel, we pack our days full. Our knowledgeable guide, Rachida, takes us to the port and explains how it was founded by Carthaginians in 500 B.C. She also points out where to get the best hot chocolate in Morocco (Dolce Freddo, by the way).
If I were a better swimmer, I would try my chances at surfing. After all, Essaouira (“Wind City Africa”) is famous for it. Instead, I persuade my companion to saddle up and we gallop horses down the vast, sandy beach.
All too soon, it’s our final day. I bid au revoir to our waiter, say shukran to the concierge, and the staff (all of whom are tri-lingual) wish me a good trip home. In the car our driver, Saïd, offers us a brown paper bag with bottles of water and freshly baked cookies. It’s a simple gesture, but it is touches like this that has me longing to return to the Heure Bleue Palais.
Rooms at the Heure Bleue Palais Hotel start from £106.
Regular flights with easyJet airline from London Luton to Essaouira starting from £83 return. Regular flights with Transavia airline from Paris Orly to Essaouira starting from €143 return.