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Originally published March 20, 2010 at 7:02 PM | Page modified March 21, 2010 at 9:08 AM

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Morocco's Essaouira lures visitors with desert walks, sea air and camel couscous

Experiencing the laid-back charms and hospitality of the Moroccan port city of Essaouira.

Seattle Times travel writer

If You Go

Essaouira

Where

Essaouira is 110 miles west of Marrakech on Morocco's Atlantic coast.

Getting there

Supratours (www.supratours.ma) runs comfortable, air-conditioned buses between Marrakech and Essaouira several times a day. The trip takes about three hours, including a stop for tea. Tickets are 65 dirham, $7.80 at current exchange rates. Buses leave from Supratours' offices near Marrakech's new train station.

Lodging/tours

Essaouira has many nice hotels and guesthouses in restored riads, traditional Moroccan homes built around an interior courtyard. Prices are less than in Marrakech and usually include breakfast. See www.tripadvisor.com for riads that rate highly with guests who have stayed there. I liked Les Matin Bleus because it was Moroccan-owned (many riads are owned by French, Spanish or Italian expatriates) and well-located within the walled medina. Doubles with private bath cost 430-470 dirham ($52-$57). See www.les-matins-bleus.com/home.htm

Ecotourisme et Randonnée (www.essaouira-randonnees.com) offers half and full-day walks through the argan woods, nearby dunes and villages. Prices range from 200-400 dirham ($24-$48) per person, including transport and a snack or lunch.

More information

See www.visitmorocco.com

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Maybe it was the kebabs smoking on sidewalk grills, or the layer of fog that colored the afternoon sky a pale gray, but when I walked through a stone archway into the walled city of Essaouira, being in Morocco began to feel as mysterious and unfamiliar as I had hoped.

It was a feeling that had eluded me in better known Marrakech, where boutiques and luxury guesthouses are transforming the ancient medina into a chic resort town popular with European tourists.

Rougher around the edges but more authentic is Essaouira, a weathered and windy port city on the Atlantic coast, three hours by bus through the desert from Marrakech.

With its whitewashed ramparts and buildings set off by blue doors and shutters, Essaouira could be a seaside town in Greece or Brittany. Brittany probably makes more sense since it was a French architect who was hired by the sultan to lay out the town's 18th-century medina.

Beaches and cheap hotels lured hippies traveling the North African bohemian trail in the 1960s. Now stalls stocked with leather bags and carpets open early for day-tripping vacationers arriving on the morning buses from Marrakech.

The rewards come to those who linger. Check into a guesthouse and wander the streets in late afternoon, and Essaouira begins to feel less like a shopping mall and more like the small-town fishing village it once was.

Sea salt and spices

At Cafe de France on the Place Moulay Hassan, European expatriates in shorts and Muslim men wearing knitted skull caps share tables on the terrace and talk over glasses of mint tea. Women in flowing robes walk arm in arm. The air smells of sea salt, spices and grilled fish.

Rolling our suitcases along bumpy alleys, my husband, Tom, and I found our guesthouse, Les Matins Bleus, off a street lined with carpet shops, bakeries and small restaurants. The Maboul family — brothers Abdell and Samir and their cousin Youssef — cater mostly to windsurfers who keep the atmosphere in Essaouira relaxed and prices low.

We paid about $50 a night, including breakfast, for a double room built in traditional Moroccan style around an open courtyard. The hotel was a school in the mid-1800s, and later was converted into the Maboul family home. Guests awaken to the sound of seagulls and the Muslim call to prayer sung from the mosque next door.

Nearly every guidebook recommends a meal at one of the outdoor seafood restaurants near the docks. Icy displays of fresh crabs, oysters and sardines were tempting, but prices seemed steep and the sales pitches a little too hard-sell. We wandered instead to the "fish souk," the fresh fish market that takes place each day inside the medina. Sardines are the specialty, grilled on the spot and served with olives, bread and salad for about $4.

Dinner was at a little white-tablecloth restaurant called La Découverte, where we found couscous with camel on the menu and a lentil salad sprinkled with oil from the argan-nut trees that thrive in this part of Morocco.

A desert walk

The restaurant's owners, Frederique Thevenet and Edouard Pottier, also run Ecotourisme et Randonnée, an ecotourism company that specializes in walking tours in the desert countryside.

Olive trees grow here, but it's the hearty and heat-resistant argan tree that's most treasured. Unique to southwestern Morocco, the trees produce a hard wood, called ironwood, used for fuel. The leaves provide food for goats who climb into the spiny branches. But the argan tree is most valued for its nuts, from which the oil is extracted by hand by women working in cooperatives.

Working with a government-run foundation promoting argan conservation, Ecotourisme et Randonnée developed walking tours through the argan forests and Berber villages where locals depend on the tree for their livelihoods.

Our tour started out at a country market where villagers arrived by donkey. We joined a group of French tourists and an English-speaking guide, Todd Casson, a British expat living in Essaouira.

Mingling among the locals was easier than it had been in Marrakech, where a request to take a photo was often met with a request to be paid. Here, permission was usually granted with a nod or a smile. We watched as a barber set up shop in a tent. Other men sat on the ground, using metal scales to weigh piles of apples, onions and potatoes.

A snack of tea and bread dipped in oil fortified us for several miles of walking along flat, desert donkey paths. Eventually we reached the Marijana Cooperative. There we talked with women working assembly-line style, cracking argan nuts between two stones, removing the seeds, roasting them and grinding them into a paste which they then squeeze to extract the oil.

Marketing the oil as a healthy source of vitamins and antioxidants has been an economic boost for desert dwellers such as Fadna Bella and her family, who hosted our group for lunch in their house surrounded by argan groves.

Fadna met us in her courtyard, and led us into a windowless room decorated with pillows and carpets. We sat cross-legged on the floor, sharing a tomato salad, chunks of bread and her homemade tagine, a traditional Moroccan stew made with potatoes, carrots and lamb.

When we finished, she passed around a bowl of pomegranates and glasses of mint tea. She smiled. We smiled. Our appetites make up for our lack of Arabic words to express what a treat it had been to experience authentic Moroccan hospitality. She knew no English or French, but it mattered little. When we left, she blew us a kiss goodbye.

Carol Pucci: cpucci@seattletimes.com

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