ESSAOUIRA, Morocco — Southern Morocco's Atlantic coast is a growing resort destination just now pulling abreast of the status enjoyed by Spain's Costa del Sol three decades ago. But there are ominous clouds in the sunny skies that could foreshadow the disaster that has overtaken its northern neighbor.
Agadir, a crowded beach resort of faceless hotels, tawdry shops and an airport forever busy with incoming hordes of packaged tours, brings to mind the very worst of Spain's once-sparkling coast.
Yet just 100 miles north of Agadir, you'll find this delightful and virtually undiscovered port city with neat whitewashed streets, a colorful and roiling medina, wonderful beaches and the enchanting atmosphere of a southern Morocco town within its pink-sand battlements.
Essaouira (Es-a-WAY-ra), founded by the Portuguese in the 16th Century, flourished as a fortified port until the trans-Saharan trade routes became unimportant in the middle of the 18th Century.
The Portuguese left, but a rich and powerful Berber sultan rebuilt the city in 1765 to give it the beauty and powerful mystique it has kept to this day.
Getting here: Fly KLM, Lufthansa, Air France or Iberia to Casablanca, then Royal Air Moroc to Agadir. From there your best bet is a rental car to Essaouira. An advance-purchase, round-trip ticket to Casablanca will cost between $1,102 and $1,168, the Royal Air Moroc leg $55.
How long/how much? Give the city two days, which should include plenty of time for the beach and shopping in the souk (market). Lodging costs are a real bargain, good Moroccan dining a pittance.
A few fast facts: Morocco's dirham recently sold at 8.3 to the dollar, about 12 cents each. April until September is the best time for a visit, although winters are very mild and pleasant. Stick to bottled water at all times. And your high school French will be most helpful in southern Morocco.
Getting settled in: Hotel des Iles (1 Blvd. Mohammed V; $43 double) is the town's best, right on the beach and a short walk from the port and medina. Some bedrooms face the ocean, others the pool and terrace. All are furnished in restrained good taste. There are two dining rooms, the Moroccan one being our favorite.
The pool is huge and surrounded by individual cottages. Each room has TV, if you care to see ancient episodes of "Kojak" in Moroccan.
Hotel Tafoukt (98 Blvd. Mohammed V; $26 double) is half the size of Les Iles and a notch down in class, but it also fronts on the beach and has a very Moroccan feel throughout. There are lots of Essaouira inlaid wood chests about, with huge brass trays as lobby tables and colorful carpets on the walls.
Bedrooms are fairly small and many have private balconies overlooking the water. A three-course Moroccan meal in the dining room costs less than $10. The staff, like that at Des Iles, is friendly and helpful.
Regional food and drink: Moroccan meals usually start with salads of cooked vegetables, which include separate dishes of beets, tomatoes and onions, eggplant, green peppers and whatever else is in season. The vegetables are invariably fresh, colorful and very good.
Tajines (top-shaped vessels of ceramic or earthenware) are the national dish, and are served hot with lamb, beef or chicken and vegetables within. They grow on you very quickly, and are served in restaurants or at roadside stands, the latter for about $1.50 for what makes a complete meal.
Brochettes of various meats or fish are served hot from the grill on a skewer, and they, too, are a staple, as is the couscous of steamed semolina topped with meat and a vegetable sauce.
The crisp white Coquillage wine goes well with the abundant seafood: daurade (sea bream), fresh sardines, lobster, crayfish, shrimp and shellfish. Moroccan pastries are renowned for their addictive sweetness. Try the sugar-dusted "gazelle's horn" with a glass of hot mint tea.
Good local dining: Chalet de la Plage (on port) is all nautical decor almost to the point of being kitchy, yet the aromas that waft from the kitchen make you a believer immediately. There are inside rooms and a terrace right over the beach where you'll be offered 14 kinds of fresh fish, sea urchins, lobster and shellfish, plus lamb and steaks.
A four-course menu of hors d'oeuvres or fish soup, a small omelet, seafood or lamb and dessert costs the princely sum of $8.50. This place is always busy, thanks to the fine food and super-friendly owners.
Chez Sam (at end of wharf) might give you pause, since it looks like little more than a shack that could collapse at any moment. But it has stood upright long enough to build an enviable reputation up and down this coast. Two seafood menus here weigh in at $7 and $17, the latter giving you a huge lobster to tackle.
Every seafood from crab to calamari is on the menu, but almost everyone in the full house was going for the lobster.