Sitting on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, Essaouira is known for its imposing fortress architecture and chilled-out, cosmopolitan vibe. In recent years the city has grown in popularity as a tourist destination, and travellers come from across Europe and the Middle East to hunt for treasures in its colourful souks, enjoy local speciality seafood, and soak up the year round, white hot sun.
Nestled within the walls of the UNESCO protected medina is Villa Maroc, the city’s first riad hotel and without question its most appealing. The four 18th century buildings which make up the hotel are a warren of staircases, corridors, twists and turns. Round every corner is an interiors delight, from hidden lounges to open air patios. Each floor has its own courtyard mezzanine landing, where architectural fittings are painted royal blue and nooks and crannies overflow with creeping potted plants. The 21 rooms at Villa Maroc are presided over by Swiss-Moroccan couple Cornelia and Abderahim whose attention to detail and flair for design has preserved the hotel’s reputation as the best place to stay in the city.
Villa Maroc’s location in the southern part of the medina places it in close proximity to the beach, and affords the property stunning ocean views. The hotel also boasts one of the most romantic restaurants in Essaouira, a cosy bar, a spa, lavish breakfasts on the sun-drenched roof terrace, and now a countryside oasis – Les Jardins des Villa Maroc – a few kilometres out of town which guests can book for a day of food, wine, and relaxation.
Like most of the accommodation in Essaouira, rooms here are attractively priced and a minibreak to this city offers an affordable dose of winter sun. For what you pay, you are rewarded with spotlessly clean, white washed bedrooms furnished with a mixture of Moroccan antiques and market finds.
Our room was made up of a small sitting area overlooking the city, a queen sized European style bed, and a large dressing area with ample storage. The hand-made decorative touches – painted plates, woven rugs, and ink drawings – were placed with restraint and elegance, giving the space a chic, boho feel. A white, light-filled bathroom was brought to life with Moroccan tilework and stocked generously with premium amenities.
Dinner at Villa Maroc is a truly enchanting affair. A set three course meal is to be chosen in the morning from a menu with meat, fish, and vegetarian options for each course. Come dinner time, the hotel’s first floor labyrinth of candlelit dining spots is yours to pick a table from. There are quiet, totally private corners in tiny cubby holes, low padded seating by crackling fires, communal dining room tables, and terrace style seating by the banisters of the indoor courtyard.
We chose a small private room with banquette seating and twinkling candlelight. The large linen clothed table was covered with various baskets and bowls laden with breads, olives, nuts, and an assortment of locally made oils. Food grade Argan oil was a particular highlight, its woody, nutty flavour a revelation on the palette.
The meal began with a dish of minced lamb wrapped in vegetable leaves and slow cooked in a tomato and olive sauce. It was superb; a dish of comforting textures and traditionally Moroccan flavours. Our main courses were a tantalisingly sweet and tender eel tagine and chicken Pastilla, a national dish of layered meat and pastry often served at weddings. Pudding was a homemade Tarte Citron, beautifully rich with a texture akin to crème brulee.
Breakfast is served under soft morning sun on the hotels rooftop terrace. Waiters pile guests’ tables high with coffee, tea, freshly squeezed orange juice, and a variety of local breakfast treats including fresh fruit salad, rich Bircher muesli, dried fruits, and Moroccan crepes. There’s little choice, but when the quality is as good as it is at Villa Maroc it hardly matters. For those after something savoury, the kitchen also provides eggs cooked any way. A morning spent with Moroccan coffee, dappled sunshine, and views out over to the harbour and sea beyond is a very special way to start the day.
Villa Maroc’s peaceful spa offers traditional Moroccan treatments such as hammam and steam bath. Also available are a variety of international treatments including Ayurvedic, Oriental, Swedish, Californian, Scalp, and Four Hands massage.
For those looking to spend time lounging by a pool, the hotel offers a garden oasis outside of town named Les Jardins des Villa Maroc. The space consists of a large, gently heated swimming pool, comfortably spaced divan day beds, an indoor lounge and bar, and an outdoor barbecue area all nestled in remote countryside. A day trip to Les Jardins including transfers from the main hotel and a delicious barbecue lunch is priced at £18. For guests looking to unwind even further, there are several guest rooms on site for a more intimate stay away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Direct flights to Essaouira run from Luton airport on EasyJet and are priced from as little as £50 return. Otherwise road transfers from Marrakech take between two and three hours. Double rooms at Villa Maroc are priced from around £100 a night.