Day 5 & 6: Essaouira and Salut Maroc!

I woke up at 8am, the latest I’ve gotten up this entire trip. I heard the call to prayer at five but was able to go back to sleep thanks to the AC that kept the room nice and cold. Are you tired of hearing about my sleep yet?

Jo, Lindsay, and Mimi were at breakfast and we went over what to expect as people trickled in.

I’m not sure what I expected. Jo said something about “color explosion” and “seaside” but that was about it. I still didn’t know a thing about it. 

Jo provided baskets for us to put our overnight things in – thank goodness we didn’t have pack all our shit up for one night – and we carried them out of the médina to the transport waiting for us. 

I took the back row with Mimi, Connie, and Roseanne and settled in for the three-hour drive through the desert.

I enjoyed sitting next to Mimi and getting to know her story. I’ve been slow to get to know people, I’m not feeling as outgoing as I have been in the past. It felt better to let conversations and discovery happen naturally rather than seek it out. It feels nice to be an observer.

We stopped along the way to take pictures of goats standing in an argan tree. I’ve seen the pictures without knowing where they came from or even really believing they were real.

Goats in trees

Naturally we stopped to take pictures and hold a baby goat.

We stopped at a women’s argan collective and spent about 45 minutes taking the tour and perusing the shop. I didn’t get anything, I’m not into beauty products beyond sunscreen, a big hat, and quality food. After swearing off on everything but Vaseline when it cured my acne at 30, I just can’t get excited about anything that promises to be be “Botox in a bottle.” 

It was another 45 minutes before we arrived at Essaouira. The approach to the médina looked kind of like any other seaside resort town. Lots of hotels, restaurants, and parking.

A little airier than in Marrakech

We got out and walked into the médina and stepped into Salut Maroc and another world.

Jo wasn’t kidding when she said we were in for a color explosion. I know I keep writing this but I have never seen anything like this place before.

Check out my room!

Salut Maroc is the product of a five-year labor of love by an English woman named Helen Howat.

She started her career in retail, moved to Dubai cut her teeth on the hospitality industry by managing a luxury estate for a wealthy client, and started her own line of souvenirs and opened twenty stores. Then she went to Essaouira and decided her calling was to open a boutique hotel on the water.

This woman is enterprise embodied. Fearless, resourceful, visionary.

The ocean is on one side, the souk on the other

She found what is now her hotel in completely dilapidated condition, sunlight penetrating through the walls, floors caved in, and structurally unsound. She tracked down the owner – a French film producer – who purchased the property for his wife as a passion.

His wife died unexpectedly and the property languished until Helen came around. The husband felt like it was finally time to let it go and that his wife would forgive him.

Helen spent two years getting the building up to code before she even was able to start designing it. I cannot imagine what it took to get project of this magnitude done in a foreign country, where motorized vehicles aren’t allowed, and being a woman. She has my respect.

Originally it was a Jewish Consulate and she honored that past with Stars of David on the linens and throughout the interior design.

Star of David on the linens and the stained glass

Every single room was unique, decorated with antiques and tiled in patterns she drew herself. Not a single corner was neglected, each room a piece of art. We spent the first hour touring each other’s rooms and taking pictures. It was an absolute feast for the eyes.

We had lunch on the roof of the freshest fish I’ve ever had and the ever-present assortment of Moroccan salads. I cannot get enough of them.

Lor and I played the game where we tried to identify the spices in the eggplant, carrot, and cabbage dishes. With the sun on our skin and a spectacular view of the Atlantic ocean, we feasted yet again – reaching across each other to taste everyone’s food – before setting out to see the souks.

Essaouira was quite literally a breath of fresh air after being in Marrakech. In Marrakech you either cannot see the sky, or you don’t notice it because your gaze has to be fixed on the path ahead. There are fetid puddles to avoid, animals, debris, scooters and people to be ever alert to. It is oppressive, confrontational, and requires hyper vigilance.

You can breathe and let down your guard a little. The air is fresh and the sun is shining; it’s a delight.

The souk feels more relaxed, too. Don’t be fooled, the merchants are out to get your money, but they are more laid back. They offer you tea and hang out with you before they get down to the business of hard core negotiating. 

The tea is so strong it will grow hair on your chest

Even the cats are in better condition. There is a Trap-Neuter-Release program and you can tell the animals are better cared for. There are less scooters and pitiful little mules pulling huge loads. One could say it is more touristy but I was happy for the break. 

Jo showed Lor, Shannon and I around that afternoon. It’s a pleasure watching her interact with the merchants, she knows what she is doing and won’t get taken for a ride. While it is reassuring to have her there to prevent me from getting ripped off, I have zero confidence in my ability to negotiate on my own.

Shannon was a surprisingly good negotiator, it must be in her blood but it sure isn’t in mine. Even Jo was impressed.

I would nod at what I wanted, make eye contact with her, and watch in awe as she savagely dickered the price down. Thanks lady, I appreciate it.

We mostly took notes on where we wanted to circle back around to the next day because we had to be back to Salut Maroc by 6:30 for a camel ride on the beach.

I’ll admit that it sounded like a cheesy tourist thing to do, but I’m game and Jo hasn’t led us astray yet. 

We took three cabs to the camel site and there they were, resting in a line on the sand. One-by-one we loaded up and and off we went on the beach.

After the first flurry of pictures and video taking had passed, I settled in to the slow rhythm of the camels. Lindsay rode ahead of me and I took joy at her hijinks and broad smile. She is yet another reminder of why I surround myself with young people, their love of life hasn’t been tamped down.

After a bit I put in my earbuds and started up a playlist of music. There’s something about having nowhere to go and not being able to do anything but simply be in the moment. All I could do was look at the setting sun and take in the gigantic sky and reflections. It was so beautiful that I couldn’t help but shed a few tears of gratitude.

The ride lasted an hour and I was cold but elated by the time we were done.

Everyone raved about the experience. It was not touristy like I feared it would be, it was a beautiful time to commune with sun and ocean and reflect upon how truly fortunate I am to be riding a camel on the beach in Morocco.

Will wonders ever cease?

After that it was back to the riad where dinner was waiting for us. I had a wonderful salad of potatoes, octopus, preserved lemon and capers. It alone would have been a perfect dinner but naturally there was chicken tagine (served in copper tagines Helen had custom made for the hotel) and an apple tart for dessert.

We broke for bed, all exhausted from the souk, travel, camels, sun and ocean air. I think everyone had it in their heads to take long baths in the giant copper tubs that graced each room, the result was no hot water. Alas.

I was happy to rinse off the grime with tepid water and collapse into bed after throwing open the windows to the night air.

Notice the Star of David on the tub

The next day we awoke at eight for breakfast on the roof before setting out to the souk.

Sálut Maroc had the best breakfast and by far the best bread I had on my trip

The shops were just setting up and I enjoyed the spaciousness of the morning. We ended up at a small shop where Lor and I spent a couple hours digging through the Berber treasures and drinking tea before settling on a few pieces of jewelry for myself. 

I’m wearing the Moroccan “Magic Dress” I got on the first day

I probably paid too much but I’m not sure I care. It’s not that fretting over it will change anything but make me feel bad. All I know is that I love what I got.

I came to be on this Moroccan retreat because of my interest in bohemian style interior design; it’s how I found Jo to begin with. Then I built my tiny house and kept it as a clean slate to be filled with spoils from this trip.

Spending the night in Helen’s masterpiece gave my hunt at the souk more direction and Lor helped me drill down on what exactly it was about some particular tableau that appealed to me.

This is happening in my Tiny House (aka Riad Vivienne, pronounced the way Julien does)

That day I was a guided money spending missile, intent on purchasing yards of fabric for curtains, a bedspread, cushions, throws, a pouf, baskets, and antique objects. On the way I picked up some dresses, the most lovely scarf, and small parcels of blended herbs to take a taste of Morocco home. 

Lor and I were wiped out come 2:30. We sat down for a late lunch on the main square and then rendez-vous’d with everyone at the hotel. Our collective pile of spoils looked like a garbage heap with all the bags. The hotel sent a couple porters with giant hand carts to get our things to the transport. I have no idea how they fit everything in.

I have been writing for a couple hours in the van, save for stopping to chat with Connie and Roseanne for a bit. I’m glad to catch up, I don’t want to forget a single moment of it and each day is so packed that it pushes the previous day down the memory hole. Either I write about it immediately or it’s gone forever.

I have no idea how I’m going to get all my stuff back to the riad – it’s the size of a contractor’s garbage bag – but I’m happy that a hot shower will be waiting along with a meal and familiar faces.

Biceps texted me with a question and said he hoped I was having a good time.

Sun setting over the mosque in Marrakech

Honestly, I could not imagine how this could be any better.

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