The laid-back surf towns of Essaouira and Sidi Kaouki

Essaouira, Morocco

Travelers to Morocco enter the country through the chaos of Marrakech, which can be a thrill in small doses. After a few days, you may be ready for some chill-out time. Enter Essaouira (pronounced ess-way-ra.) Meaning “well designed,” the name was bestowed by Sultan Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdallah after hiring a French architect to build a modern city in 1764.

I intended to stay for a two weeks, which turned into six. The charming old town is a UNESCO world heritage site, with Portuguese-built ramparts complete with cannons. You can wander the souks in the old part of town, watch the fishermen pull in their catch in the port, take photos of the distinctive blue doors and boats, and head up the new promenade along the water to catch a ride on a camel or horse. Don’t miss sunset along the ramparts. If you’re a photographer, the light is magical.

Essaouira is where all of Morocco goes to escape the heat in the summer. Its location on the water means cooler temperatures and a fair amount of wind, which sends the thousands of seagulls aloft and powers the wind and kite surfers who flock here from every part of the world.

I doubt the average tourist would want to stay as long as I did, but it’s ideal for working nomads who want a charming, affordable place to camp out for a while. I got into a rhythm of work, photography, dining out (or cooking in), getting my exercise on the promenade, and the occasional random adventure.

Where to eat

  • Restaurant Il Mare has a perfect view over the ocean and ramparts. Go to watch the sunset.
  • La Tolerance: a family-run restaurant in the heart of old town. Order the grilled sardines, pulled fresh out of the ocean that morning.
  • Gusto: a marvelous little restaurant in the new part of town. It’s authentic Italian (the owner is Italian and quite charming) with live music. It’s also where many expats hang out.

Getting there

Unless you’ve rented a car, the only way to get there is via bus; it takes about 2.5 hours from Marrakech and 6 from Casablanca. It’s a comfortable, air-conditioned and cheap way to travel, and if you’re lucky you’ll see the goats in the argan trees along the route (I saw a tree full of goats, but not in time to get my camera.)

Sidi Kaouki day trip

One of my small adventures involved renting a bike in town and riding 15 miles (25 km) south to the neighboring surf town of Sidi Kaouki. Much of the ride is inland and it was already hot in April; I wouldn’t recommend a bike trip in the summer. Easy enough to hop on a bus if you’d like to explore.

If you’re not a surfer there’s not a lot to do; it’s tiny, and I occupied my time by photographing (what else) camels. But that side trip rewarded me with my first published photo in National Geographic’s Your Shot community (one of the photos of the week), so it was definitely worth the trip. I found a taxi driver willing to stuff my bike in the trunk and take me back to Essaouira; 15 miles was a long ride without bike shorts, and I wasn’t going to make that trip twice.

Sidi Kaouki
Have you ever seen a camel move from standing to sitting? They move like old men with bad knees. The wobbly thump as the front legs go down can trigger a wince, at least among those of us who have felt that stiffness from time to time. So this camel was perfectly content, despite the tide coming in. A grownup would scramble up the beach, but this old guy… no. He just tasted the salt, slowly, lazily, as the children danced in the surf.
Sidi Kaouki

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