by Richard Mellor
Increasingly, we travel for restorative reasons: not just to tick off the big-name sights but to recharge from busy urban lives. Few places offer more serenity than Oualidia, a soulful small town and beautiful lagoon halfway along Morocco’s Atlantic coast, two hours south of Casablanca and three hours northwest – but a million metaphorical miles – from Marrakesh’s easily overwhelming cocktail of hurly-burly, haggling, dust and dubious guides.
Dodge Oualidia’s peak season of August, when residents of Marrakesh and Casablanca descend in droves, and any such stresses will soon be a distant memory. From bird-watching to beach-wandering, here are six ways to spend quiet, dreamy days by the sea.
Oualidia’s crescent-shaped lagoon is seven miles long, with toffee-coloured sand lining much of its shore. That means ample space, which, combined with an average 320 days of sun per year and gentle waters protected from Atlantic winds by two rocky promontories, makes swimming and sunbathing a virtual must. In between these horizontal pursuits, go for a stroll to absorb the daydreamy vibe: you’ll pass below a crumbling kasbah and former ruler Mohammed V’s ruined summer palace, and meet beginner surfers, darting swallows, football-playing children and melancholy men in airy kaftans. Opposite is a tidal island, at least until it mostly disappears, like a mirage. In fact, the landscape seems to constantly be shifting, especially magical at sunset. Find a nice spot, and watch as the lagoon turns a silvery pink and silhouetted fishing crafts putter back to shore.
It’s possible to rent a brightly-coloured motorised vessel at points along the shore. Such freedom allows for stops on the lagoon island and its empty sandbars, or further north towards wetlands and oyster beds for birdwatching. Back toward the main beach, gaze upwards and you’ll spy brash modernist villas on cliff tops and fringing Oualidia’s main town, in which shops and a weekend souq hide. Rather someone else do the sailing? Guests of waterside hotels such as L’Hippocampe and the plusher La Sultana can book pleasure trips up the lagoon in flat-bottomed wooden boats, excursions with fishermen who help you catch sea bass and bream that a chef will later barbecue, and simply launches to quiet dunes for picnics. Pedalos and kayaks may also be hired on the strand for those who want to expend a little more energy.
During spring (March to May) and autumn (August until early November), flocks of migrating birds stop over at the northern end of Oualidia’s lagoon and adjacent Sidi Moussa wetlands amid trips between Spain and southern Africa, rendering the area a premier twitching haunt. Though the star turns are undoubtedly bright pink flamingos, liable to perform their usual party trick of en-masse takeoffs, a vast supporting cast spans storks, stilts, cormorants, warblers, egrets, elegant herons and heaps more. At times the cacophony of songs share the airwaves with plaintive call-to-prayers from Oualidia’s minarets, lending a wonderfully local flavour to this particular birdwatching experience. As no permits are required, anyone can go for a peek, but sharp-eyed guides with their boats and binoculars will ensure the maximum possible sightings. Ask your hotel or tour operator to organise one.
Spa-sampling and spirituality
It says something that the honchos behind Marrakesh’s luxurious La Sultana hotel chose Oualidia as the location for their seaside sequel, rather than the hippie city Essaouira, 150km to the south and far more established on the tourist trail. Yet it also makes sense: designed like a modern Moorish fort, 12-room La Sultana Oualidia has clearly been built to amplify and mirror the surrounding town’s particular tranquillity. That’s truest of its cathedral-like stone spa, whose snoozy heart is a column-framed heated pool. In marbled rooms just off it, slumberous treatments such as cinnamon body scrubs and argan-oil massages staunchly use Moroccan products, and they are best followed by a drink on one of the hotel’s many water-facing terraces or gardens. Consider practising mindfulness or meditation while you visit, too: with its lapping waves, birdsong and chugging boats, Oualidia is an ideal location for getting present.
Within Morocco, Oualidia is most famous for its superlative oysters. Some 200 tonnes of the shellfish are produced here each year at a farm to the north of town called Maison de l’Ostréa. The farm also contains an acclaimed restaurant, Ostréa II, where you can taste the huge, succulent molluscs over some white wine. L’Hippocampe’s own terrace and beachside bistro L’Araignée Gourmande has earned equally rave reviews from gourmands for their oysters. Actually, though, seafood in general is fantastic here: especially the bass, bream, urchins and fresh crabs sizzled on the beach at brightly hued shacks. Every critter will have been caught that same day, possibly only a few hours previous. Other certainties are that plates are large and the prices astoundingly low. For the best atmosphere, don’t arrive at your chosen restaurant before 10pm, and always try for a patio seat.
There are more adrenaline-packed ways to spend time in Oualidia, and they come with royal backing. Though that old summer palace of Mohammed V lies empty – besides the security guards – current monarch Mohammed VI still sends his children here to learn to surf. Many other Moroccans and foreigners do the same, all of them lured by the handy combination of gentle lagoon breakwaters and the fierce, wild Atlantic waves of the external shoreline. The typical model is to learn basics at the former and then graduate to wilder breaks in the sea proper. Surfland, a camp run by veteran French boarder Laurent Miramon, is the place where most choose to learn, including lots of families. You can stay there, dormitory-style, or just book in for lessons. Kitesurfing is also popular out on the ocean, and Surfland covers that too.
SOURCE: Lonely Planet