It’s argan territory, the hills outside Essaouira.
Every day in Morocco we’ve been offered argan oil – shops are dedicated to it, it’s offered by stallholders in the medina at a loud bellow, and offered on street corners at a covert murmur of Argan? Do you want some argan? I have good argan for you, my friend… The Moroccan government’s announced plans to double their argan oil production from 2014 to 2020. It’s estimated up to 3 million people rely on the argan tree for their primary source of income. People call it the green gold of Morocco.
You could mistake them for olive trees, on the drive from the coast up to Le Jardin des Douars, and I do. But here they are, hiding in plain sight.
A lot like Le Jardin itself. Our hotel for the next three nights is set into the side of the hills, an outcrop of high terracotta walls – all walls are high, here, for protection from the winds that sweep in from the Atlantic coast – and tall fronds of green that drift in and out of view as our road winds towards it.
On paper Le Jardin sounds huge, dwarfing your average guesthouse in the area – choose between the family-friendly pool and the adults-only infinity pool, between two dining rooms and dinner served on the terrace, between hammam and spa. Throw in the golf course – Golf de Mogador, five minutes’ drive away, with two 18-hole courses – and the location, set apart a bit from the city itself, and you’re ticking a lot of the boxes of a big resort franchise.
The reality’s a bit lovelier than that, though, and smaller. With only 26 rooms they have a capacity that, even at its fullest, means competition’s never going to be that stiff for a table in the candlelit dining room or for a place by the palm-flanked pool. The bedrooms are all slightly different, but matching the rest of the hotel – luxurious in a sun-faded way, everything warm terracotta and heavy silks. If anything this is the Maghrebian equivalent of an English country-house hotel – more family-run estate than resort.
Essaouira’s a short drive from Le Jardin des Douars, and the lure of the town – drinks overlooking the city’s fortress walls, paddling in the sea, extremely windswept walks along the beach – means we spend a fair amount of our time wandering over street and sand there. But although Le Jardin makes it easy enough to leave, with a shuttle car into town on request, there are some compelling reasons to spend a lot of your stay inside their enormous gardens and high walls.
One of those reasons is the food, as much of a focus at Le Jardin as you’d expect from a French-owned hotel. In the afternoon waiters bring complementary tea and spiced cakes to the side of the pool. In the evening we eat by candlelight in La Table des Douars, a separate dining room filled with wrought-metal lamps, heavy, carved wood and small mirrors covering the walls. We have phenomenal seafood and mango tartare, great pasta and an unnecessary chocolate torte that feels really necessary when we see it arriving at the table next to ours. Some seriously sweet cocktails steer us back to Le Jardin’s excellent Moroccan wine list for the rest of dinner.
So, plenty of reasons not to leave Le Jardin, but the beaches and ancient walls of Essaouira are enough to prise us out of the gardens regularly.
With a flight route now open direct from London to Essaouira, tourism to the fortress-city’s on the rise. And a shopkeeper tells us that Game of Thrones has done more for tourism than any flight route. Essaouira’s ramparts and city walls double as Astapor, and fans are turning up in hordes to see the place swept through by Daenerys and her dragons in the show’s third season.
Off-limits for rebuilding work while we’re there, we compromise with cold beers at a rooftop bar overlooking the ramparts and their ancient cannons. Other intensely touristy things we do: browsing through the tadelakt pottery stalls, eating mystery pastries from street stalls. And stopping to watch the football at the Ocean Vagabond bar at the edge of the beach.
But a lot of our time’s just spent walking. Sometimes on the beach, where the winds are so constant it’s like a different beach each day, small dunes moving overnight and changing the shape of the horizon as you walk south along the beach from the port. Sometimes through the medina, far simpler to navigate than the narrow, labyrinth alleys of the Fez medina or the vast spread of the Djemaa el-Fna square and the medina in Marrakech. In Fes and Marrakech we got lost, daily, even with maps. But in Essaouira the medina’s small enough and the streets light enough you can freestyle your way through the smaller sprawl, orienting yourself by the smell of sea and the seagulls above you, or just the flow of people towards the big gates in the city walls.
We finish our last evening in Essaouira at Le Patio, almost hidden down a narrow alleyway and waiting to serve you tapas plates of harissa-spiced aubergine chips and tiny, cold glasses of mahia – Moroccan fig brandy.
On our last day at Le Jardin I skirt the hammam itself for a massage and pedicure in the spa, where I’m rubbed down with scented oils. Sometimes gently and languorously, sometimes like the masseuse wants to beat a secret out of me. Both of those times excellent.
Three days of pattering over the sun-baked stone paths of Le Jardin in barefeet, along with a few days kicking through the dust of Marrakech and my feet are apparently in a state to need all the argan oil the masseuse can lay her hands on. At the end, triumphantly, she looks up at me.
‘Now you are baby feet’, she says, and sends me off to show my baby feet to Shaun, who admires them duly.
Like the argan oil, the spa at Le Jardin’s a piece of luxury drawn out of an improbable landscape. Behind the fortress walls and winds of the city there are places like Le Patio, hidden cave-like in quiet alleyways with stores of fig spirits and live Berber music. And in the hills beyond Essaouira there are places like Le Jardin hiding, verdant and vast, behind high sun-bleached walls.
The Relax rooms start at 109 Euros per night, with a private terrace and breakfast. Easyjet offer two direct flights a week from London to Essaouira.
Le Jardin des Douars, Douar Sidi Yassine, Essaouira, Morocco. For more information, visit www.jardindesdouars.com.