Being whipped away from 32 C in hot Marrakech to the quieter, cooler seaside town of Essaouira was not a hardship, as we knew we would be returning a few days later. The three-hour drive was scenic, giving us a chance to delight at some inspiring sights that varied from goats in the argan trees to brightly coloured street stalls, all viewed whilst interrogating our wonderful driver about everyday living in Morocco.
It may have looked like just a doorway in an alley, however, when we saw the sun glinting on the telltale Relais & Châteaux sign of Heure Bleue Palais we knew we were to be welcomed warmly into another unique property on our Route du Bonheur. This traditional Moroccan house is built around a courtyard filled with greenery and a fountain. Our bed had ‘marhaba’ written in rose petals, meaning ‘welcome’.
After welcoming mint tea we dropped our bags, grabbed jackets and set off into the souks to see what this coastal town, known as the windy city, offered. Starting with the local artists’ co-operative, we bought beautiful hand-made silver jewellery after watching the artisans at work. Stalls were smaller than in Marrakech, salespeople far less insistent and some of the prices lower, giving us a good excuse to shop wildly. We walked along the alleyways in and out of the shops, admiring the architecture and mosaics glinting in the gentle sunshine, then headed to the harbour, filled with blue fishing boats, seagulls circling overhead. The pungent aroma of spices alternated with the smell of the sea. Respite at a rooftop bar provided a panoramic view of the Atlantic Ocean, where the Portuguese influence and flavour of the city, from years gone by, was evident.
Dinner at local restaurant, Les Alizes Mogador, where the food and décor were typically Moroccan, was authentic and delicious. An array of olives, salads and lentil soup were followed by a chicken and lemon tagine for me, and lamb and prune tagine for Michelle, both accompanied by a fragrant couscous, savoured with a glass or two of local wine in the dim and flattering light of Moroccan lanterns.
The highlight of our stay was to spend time with Heure Bleue Palais chef Ahmed, who welcomed us into his kitchen to prepare some Moroccan specialities. He had asked us the day before of our preferences, and my reply was – anything fresh from the sea! After donning our aprons, he deftly showed us how to scale, clean and gut the sardines to make a tagine and seafood pastilla. After an informative and inspiring afternoon we posed for our photographs with him, he noticed that his gleaning Relais & Châteaux pin was slightly skew, so we had to start again. Such pride of a brand is impressive.
After our day of cooking we visited the fish market and ended off at the spice shop that Ahmed had recommended. Arriving during prayer time, the shop was closed. How did we know? Two broomstick handles gently crossed in front of the store indicated closure, a show of the level of respect and honesty in this town. When Soufiane, the owner of the spice store returned we bought harissa, rose tea and chamomile tea, saffron, argan oil and Ras el Hanout. This is the combination of up to 35 spices that create the distinctive flavour of Moroccan dishes, known as ‘top of the house’. He invited us to join him in a cup of royal tea, his treat after being called to prayer. Soufiane studied law and then informatics, and is a qualified herbalist. We watched him carefully infuse green tea with a wide variety of herbs, flowers and spices, explaining why each was being added. The scents of rose, star anise, cloves, rosemary, chamomile, lemon verbena and saffron gently married in perfect harmony. He then excused himself for a moment, and returned with warm pastries filled with honey, almond, cinnamon and dates for us to enjoy together. Almost an hour and a half later we parted company.
That night we donned our glad rags for dinner in the Salon Anglais. After Moroccan bread and hummus and a beetroot carpaccio soup with citron we were served the food that we had created that afternoon with Ahmed. Sardine tagine with courgettes in tomato sauce flavoured with tomato, garlic, soy, harissa, preserved lemon, salt and pepper – naturally the best dish we had eaten in Morocco so far, second to the seafood pastilla that came straight after it. The royal chocolate dessert with Amlou, and the caramel cake with salted butter and saffron spices were a fitting climax to an unforgettable day.
An early morning walk to the beach and then a stroll along the ramparts before a delectable breakfast in the lush courtyard of the hotel, and then some more shopping before having mint tea with Maître de Maison François Laustriat. This gentleman has Relais & Châteaux tattooed in his heart, having grown up with parents who owned a R&C property. He has been at Heure Bleue Palais since 2008, before that on Tahoe Island at a R&C property. He proceeded to tell me more about the Moroccan people, how they like to work and learn, how they like to facilitate happiness, to try each day to progress and give something good. Their clientele is predominantly European, not a surprise as direct flights from Paris, London and Brussels make this an ideal seaside escape. We had an animated, informed discussion about brand, luxury hotels and his impressive property where each and every member of his team had made us feel like part of the family. Our visit drew to a close with lunch of pickled peppers with goats’ cheese and beef carpaccio with Parmesan and capers. In dappled sun on the terrace we took a last look at the sweeping views of the town and choppy sea. After quickly squashing our shopping into now-bulging bags for the return trip to Marrakech, last leg of our Route du Bonheur, we could claim to truly understand its meaning – road to happiness.