Travel: Sample fine food and architecture in this charming African gateway
It's not just in the geographical sense that Morocco is the gateway to Africa.
Easily accessible from the UK with a flight time of around three hours and several low-cost airlines making the trip, the country across a narrow strait from southern Spain is an ideal destination for anyone looking to experience the continent for the first time.
And for those looking for an African adventure, Rebali Riads makes a good base for exploring the west coast.
Located in the quiet village of Sidi Kaouki, about half an hour south of the town of Essaouira, the team led by manager Mohamed and assistant manager Fatima have created a beautiful slice of luxury holiday living.
The villas are large and spacious, each flooding with light through a massive glass rooftop above the central living area.
The architecture, as the guide to the accommodation states, is an intriguing blend of different styles from across Morocco, with the riads taking inspiration from the country’s old walled towns like Essaouira, the similar accommodation in Marrakesh and the large Spanish-influenced villas in the north. The effect is gorgeous: airy but with real craftsmanship and giving a real sense of place.
Settling in, I was immediately offered delicious Moroccan mint tea and large slices of cake, which I enjoyed sitting on the patio basking in the evening warmth.
Mohamed and Fatima run a relaxed and courteous ship at Rebali Riads. If you are dining at Rebali (and the food is delicious, so why not?) you say what time you would like your meal and it is brought to your riad.
On my first full day there, anxious to absorb some local vibes, I asked for a taxi to the town of Essaouira.
For someone who had only previously visited Europe and the United States, being dropped off at the entrance to the medina and walled old town was exhilarating.
The place buzzes with energy, whether it’s the port’s famous fish market, where an abundance of species are being doled out on huge slabs and taken straight off to the grills around the harbour, or the sheer hustle and bustle of the vendors trying to attract customers and the numerous street performers and musicians showing off their skills.
At this stage a word is needed about salesmen in Morocco. Numerous people say they are put off the country by being ‘hassled’, but this was not at all my experience; a firm: “Non, merci” was enough to dissuade anyone from pushing their products any further.
The medina was the town’s highlight: a maze of lanes and stalls selling the famous Thuya wood carvings, which the area is known for, and much, much more.
When the souks become a bit overwhelming, soak up the atmosphere with more mint tea and a snack at one of the many cafes, with the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer at mosques, adding to the ambience.
There are quieter spots, too. The old fort can be accessed for a minimal charge and the views over the town are spectacular.
More Moroccan culture awaited. One of the best trips from Rebali is a traditional Berber lunch.
One of the employees took us on a half-hour walk up to the village where he himself grew up, where his mother lays on a delicious chicken tagine, one of the classic Moroccan dishes.
This was a real step into another world, but the welcome was as warm as you could expect and Hussain, the guide, proudly shows off the photographs of his relations and previous visitors and explains about life a long way away from the urban 21st century.
Back at Rebali, it was time to unwind a bit, and the best way to do that is with the hammam.
A tradition in Muslim countries, the clean and scrub in the hammam on site at Rebali is highly recommended. In a stunningly beautiful octagonal stone room, hot water fills the huge bath and warmth coarses through the stone benches you sit and lie on. The washing, scrubbing and oil treatments are a revelation as dead skin you never even knew you had is removed.
Afterwards, you sit glowing with sudden good health and feeling like a new person.
What else to do:
The chefs at Rebali run special cookery courses, where you tour the Essaouiras souks to pick out ingredients before returning to your riad to prepare a typical Moroccan dish. Pastry-making courses are also available for those who want to enjoy the country’s rich tradition of sweet treats.
Sidi Kaouki itself is known for its surfing, and several places along the beach cater for the trade, as well as providing basic accommodation and a couple of cafes and restaurants.
There’s also camel trekking or, for those who prefer the free option, miles of golden sand taking you as far as you wish to unspoilt fishing villages and natural wonders in the largely dry and rocky landscapes.