Peace and Paradise – Morocco’s Jardin Des Douars
April 17, 2020
Riley Contributor Gina Baksa finds peace and quiet in the paradise that is Jardin Des Douars in Essaouira Morocco
Drive three hours west of Marrakech and you’ll reach the infinitely more relaxing city of Essaouira. Formerly known as Mogador, this erstwhile fishing village was once Morocco’s largest port. Today, while its fishing industry is still an important part of local culture, the main income here comes from tourism.
A smaller and less frenetic version of Marrakech, Atlantic-facing Essaouira is a photographer’s dream with its compact blue-and-white Medina, golden ramparts, and stone gates, known as ‘Babs’, completing the aesthetic charm. This port city has powerful trade winds, making it one of the best places to visit in Morocco for kitesurfing, windsurfing, and surfing, as well as the lure of its beautiful beaches and argan oil-rich hinterland.
I’m staying at the beautiful Belgian-owned Jardin des Douars (the name means ‘collection of dwellings’ in Arabic), nestled in a peaceful river valley just 10 minutes from the centre of Essaouira. The hotel is an homage to local crafts and aesthetics with pierced metalwork, plaster filigree, rich woollen Berber rugs, and zellige tiling. There’s a sophisticated shabby chic feel to the rooms and public areas with their African artwork and original heavy wooden rustic doors.
A collection of suites, bungalows, and rooms, Jardin des Douars looks part desert fortress, part South Western adobe with mud-baked ochre-coloured buildings set amongst a divine terraced garden stocked with succulents, palm trees, bougainvillea and other species – a riot of colour against the deep cerulean blue sky. It is beautifully designed and laid out by caring hands who obviously love the local flora and fauna. The air is fresh, thanks to the Atlantic breeze and scented with the plant aromas. The only sound is birdsong… I only heard one plane the whole three days I was there.
Sunny Days, Stunning Sunsets at Jardin Des Douars
My room – the Beldi – is on the ground floor of the main building that also houses the restaurant. It’s large and cool with high ceilings, red ochre plaster walls, terracotta tiled floors with colourful Berber carpet, and a spacious bathroom equipped with shower and a mini Hamman kit loaded with argan oil products. The large French doors open out onto a small terrace with table and chairs and surrounded by vegetation, and which gets the sun all day as well as the most stunning sunsets.
A deliberate decision not to provide phones or televisions in the rooms means guests can enjoy a partial off-grid experience, which is heavenly. It’s also an attempt to encourage visitors to mingle more with each other, which certainly works. During my stay there was a mix of loved-up couples, young families, and older couples. I was the only singleton but felt completely comfortable and was looked after especially well by the attentive staff.
The design of Jardin des Douars lends itself to being ideal for families with young children who have their own superb pool just below the main house, while couples and friends have use of the adults-only pool, fringed by palms at which we were served tea and cake every afternoon.
For extra quiet and privacy, choose the Romantique suite on the first floor with its own private terrace. Even larger and more impressive is the Mogador suite with the most spectacular roof terrace I have ever seen, along with superb 360-degree views over the surrounding countryside. All told, there are 11 categories of room and even three villas to completely retreat to.
Discreet and Excellent Service
There’s a generous sunken lounge area with cosy cushioned seating and a large fireplace adjacent the dining room, which looks out onto the hills across the river and boasts beautiful sunset views. Perfect for an apéro on colder evenings. Otherwise, head out to the terrace and the lounge area just above the outdoors restaurant. Service here is discreet and excellent.
There’s a Thousand And One Nights feel about Jardin des Douars, with its adobe-like red-baked walls – almost castle-like. To think there was nothing but scrubland here back in 2000 is astonishing. The Belgian-French owners have created a haven of peace and tranquillity set amongst the most beautiful hotel gardens I have ever seen.
Again, thoughtfully, the menu at Jardin des Douars caters for European palettes, so there is a mix of Moroccan and Western choices with meat, fish, and veggie options, along with a varied menu for children. I enjoyed a relaxing lunch on the shady terrace, accompanied by birdsong, savouring a delicious freshly caught dorade with salad and couscous, followed by a zesty lemon meringue tart. I could also have chosen beef tenderloin, a linguine with clams, or a vegetable pie among the many other options. The wine list here is extensive too… I loved the Boulaouane Gris Moroccan rosé.
Dinner can be served à deux in the romantic side restaurant with its low Berber seating and candlelight ambiance, or in the main dining area which also hosts the fabulous breakfast. Here, too, the à la carte menu is a superb mix of main (non-Moroccan) dishes and local specialities. From beef wellington to duck breast via salmon make to chicken, veggie, or monkfish tagine, as well as the most fabulous desserts. Ile flottante with caramalised almonds was heaven on a plate, accompanied by excellent coffee.
Fun Things to Do in Essaouira
Ideally situated away just a 10-minute drive from the buzz of Essaouira, this luxury Morocco hotel is best visited using the Jardin’s own shuttle, 175 MAD, or your own rental car (the complex has gated security so your vehicle will always be safe). Head down to the town or drive farther afield and explore the area with its undulating sandstone-coloured hills peppered with Argan and olive trees.
The Atlantic breeze is powerful down on the coast, which you won’t feel too strongly at the Jardin. But the wind is ideal for all manner of watersports at Essaouira and farther south. There’s a popular windsurfing school, Kite Paradise, at Rue Lalla Hasna just 100m from the beach, and the cool Gypsy Surfer surf shop at 1 rue Tetouan in the medina. The hotel can organise riding trips and dune buggy riding as well as one-day surf trips to Diki Kaouki. Ocean Vagabond is the cool beach bar-restaurant hangout which also rents SUPs, windsurfers, and surfboards. And you can take lessons here, too.
Of course, the Medina is Essaouira’s main attraction. Smaller and thankfully much quieter than the Medina in Marrakech, you’ll find foreign-owned businesses alongside local tradespeople. Walk left from the shuttle drop off towards the Skala du Port fishing boat area where the catch of the day is displayed on trestle tables: sardines, eels, monkfish, dorade, and more. Climb the fortified walls for spectacular views out over the bay to Mogador Island, then walk under the archway into the Medina, the oldest part of Essaouira, where you’ll find creativity in full flow, from trendy galleries to street artists burning images into cork using just a magnifying glass and the sun’s energy.
The souk has everything: clothing, jewellery, pottery, musical instruments, glassware, slippers, herbs and spices… but be prepared to bargain hard. And check carefully that you get what you’ve paid for. One spice seller tried to fob me off with a bag of green tea when I had specifically ordered vervain. My advice is to stay calm, smile, be polite, and both parties will benefit. Decide exactly how much you want to pay for an item and don’t budge. Sellers will often ask at least three or four times what they expect to receive, so play the game and have fun.
The Medina and Mellah
As well as the myriad stalls along the central Medina street – start at Bab el Minzah and walk straight until Bab Doukla (Souk Jedid lies towards the end) – there are no end of side streets to explore. While much easier to navigate than Marrakech (you won’t get lost), but pick up a map from reception to guide you.
There’s the Nouvelle Kasbah adjacent Square Orson Welles, and the aptly titled Bistro in the Mellah area (corner of Tara and Ave Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdallah) is a find, as is Taros café and restaurant on Place Moulay Hassan – a rambling elevated building with gorgeous views over the ocean. For a combined food and shopping experience, visit l’Atelier on Rue Mohamed Ben Masoud. And if you’re tempted to invest in Essaouira real estate, head for Jemaa el Fna Immobilieron the Place 11 janvier, opposite la maison gourmande.
One area of the Medina you must explore is the Mellah. The now-derelict Jewish quarter is being revitalised by artisans, but much of it lies in ruins. The restored Synagogue de Rabbi Haïm Pinto is open to the public, and as I wandered around the rundown building, now populated by feral cats, the odd dog and mounds of rubbish, I wondered at the lives lived here. You can learn more about Essaouira’s history at the Sidi Mohammad Ben Abdellah Museum.
The morning of my departure, I enjoyed a heavenly hot stone massage with pure essential oils at the fabulous Jardin des Douars spa. Other treatments from the extensive menu include facials, manis and pedis, and algae wraps. The eucalyptus-scented Hamman offers a selection of pampering treatments, including traditional skin exfoliation with perfumed black soap, as well as a salt and argan oil scrub. Truly sublime.
I cannot remember feeling so at peace. In just three days I felt renewed, re-energised, and refreshed, with a huge appreciation of Essaouira and the charms of the magical Jardin des Douars. It’s Riley recommended!
To learn more of what is regarded as one of the top Essaouira hotels, visit their website at www.jardindesdouars.com.
Contributor Gina Baksa is a freelance lifestyle and features journalist with a focus on luxury brands and experiences. You can follow Gina’s travel adventures on @Travelscriber (Twitter), @ginabaksa (Instagram), www.ginabaksa.com, and www.ginabaksa.journoportfolio.com.