I am ashamed to admit that before we were invited to spend a night in Essaouira, I’d never heard of it. In fact, I could barely even pronounce it. As our taxi takes us through desert, I discover that my companion cannot only pronounce it perfectly – ‘es-sooo-weera’ with a stress on the ‘weer’ – but she was there 15 years ago. And recalling it to be rather windy, it has a delightful onomatopoeic ring to it. My Ms Smith is curious about whether it will have changed, having arrived last time in a limping coach and found accommodation by entrusting herself to the least seedy-looking guy offering a put-up in his mum's house. I assure her that from what I’ve heard of our stylish stay, Madada Mogador, we’re in for an altogether different experience.
After a couple of hours heading from Marrakech in the direction of a very pink sunset, through small towns and huge swaths of dessert, our first sign of Essa civilization is indeed a hotel with ‘Mogador’ in its name. Yikes. Surely this faux castle isn’t meant for Smiths. (My companion who slept in a closet and had to dress in full chador-like garb at mealtimes at her last abode here, still considers this modern-day concrete beast an improvement.) Thankfully, the taxi driver knows better and hurtles past, explaining that Mogador was the name for Essaouira when the Portuguese occupied it in the 16th century, so we’ll see it a lot. Having been assured our designated Mogador-mantled retreat is not only chic, but in a unique setting, we perk up again.
The approach to the old town, where we’re headed, is along a coastal road, and we’re disappointed that we’ve arrived in the dark, fearing an underwhelming introduction. We couldn’t be more wrong. Moonlight only enhances the incredible impact of miles of white sand and iridescent sea. While the modern buildings that line this road here aren’t as charming as what we were hoping for, as soon as we spy the medina and harbour in the distance, we realise that we’re bang on target for a fantastically unique destination.
Dropped off in a carpark by the port, I’m worried for a millisecond that we might end up in the same situation as my backpacking pal all those years ago. That’s quickly dispelled as a helpful soul with a cart appears from nowhere and swiftly ushers us towards the high walls of the medina. A few inches within the ancient city, and we’re at the stairway to our abode. Up a narrow, zellij-tiled flight of stairs, it feels a bit more flat-above-a-shop than North African boutique bolthole. Just as our rollercoaster-inclined expectations are poised to take a dip, the dark wooden door to Madada Mogador opens. ‘Bon soir’ – an elegant French blonde welcomes us into her incense-infused enclave of beige-hued contemporary cool. It’s just what we’d hoped for.
With a built-in wooden bookshelf acting as reception desk, hotel shop and concierge, Madada feels more like an enormous private Parisian apartment. Five of the bedrooms are here off the central sand-coloured salon, with a staircase leading to two more. As it’s uncustomarily quiet tonight (the only other folk we encounter are a young American couple sat at one of the four little tables arguing about the rules of backgammon), we’re given a choice of where to sleep.
Had it been a summer escapade with a lover, there’s no doubt the rooms upstairs with the massive Balearic-style terrace would have been the ones to earmark (the uninterrupted sea view must be the best in Essaouira); but as two friends who’ve made their way here in winter, we fancy the cosiness of the main floor. Having admired the Ralph Steadman-esque art, the Asian-accented layout of the bedrooms, the huge cream tadelakt bath and twin sinks in my open-plan room, and the tub armchairs in her red-hued den, we embrace our seaside destiny and head off to get a fresh-fish supper.
While the hotel has its own chic sister eatery below, the owner also recommends, Les Alizés Mogador, so we decide to continue on the Mogador theme. A few minutes walk away, right on the ramparts, we discover it’s shut, so we stroll through the small main square, past the fishermen’s stalls, towards the harbour. Wonderfully peaceful on this Sunday evening, we’re lone silhouettes wending their way past the postcard-perfect blue-hulled wooden fishing boats to Chez Sam, on the edge of the water.
You know you’re getting older when you revel in the ghost-town effect of being on holiday off-season, although my friend assures me that this is somewhere not thin on action most of the year. As we sit down at a checked tablecloth by the window, she toasts the fact that this taverna-like blue shack hasn’t changed one bit since she last pounced on squid and sardines all those years ago, having eaten nothing but oranges and peanuts for weeks. I make my own pact not to leave it so long before I return again myself. Still, I reckon if I do, mon amour Mogador, so rich in history and with its air of insouciance, will be the same place that I’ve so quickly fallen in love with.