JARDIN DES DOUARS,  ESSAOUIRA, MOROCCO

BY XOCHI BALFOUR

BEST FOR: THOSE WANTING A SOLID DOSE OF R&R WITH A HINT OF ADVENTURE
NOT FOR: AN URBAN ESCAPE 

Upon entering into Jardin des Douars, one suddenly bids farewell to the arid dust and dirt of the Essaouira highway and discovers a secret place where pink, white and orange bougainvillea petals float gently on the breeze, large desert succulents populate giant earthen pots, and gentle terracotta domes perch regally above the wind swept trees.

As autumn rains started sweeping through England, the prospect of a little holistic relaxation at Jardin des Douars as I approached my third trimester of pregnancy was one I felt I had to explore. I had only ever been to the medina in Essaouira, and a small deserted beach outside the city, over six years ago. I thought I knew the area and was set for dry flat landscapes and noisy market bustle. To my surprise and delight, upon arrival at the hotel I discovered that a whole new world of vibrant colour, heady aromas and undisturbed peace was hiding just a short car ride away from the hustle of the Atlantic coastal town. 

Arriving from the city, what struck me most as we settled in and explored the tropical gardens was the instantly soothing and uplifting effect to be enjoyed by being so close to a new, exotic nature. The vibrancy of the colours, the fragrance of the citrus, the blossoms and the flowers, the occasional appearance of a very forthright little tortoise in the flowerbed; on a sensory level, life at the Jardin is truly charming, and in a very modest and unpretentious way.

Our room was nestled within the main riad structure, decked out in bright earthy tones with kilims aplenty, beautiful carved wooden doors and a very fun shower which looked like its own Moroccan fortress / giant terracotta tagine pot. I loved it, and had to fight hard not to waste water enjoying it – a precious commodity in such a hot place where the rains come only rarely. Thoughtfully laid out for our use was by far the most original natural spa beauty pack I have ever seen: a custom hammam kit complete with a handmade clay pumice, beautiful woven scrubbing disc, delectable orange flower water, a small bright chunk of crystal deodorant (beyond useful), and luscious pink dried rose petals with which to prepare one’s very own facial steam… No Gillette or plastic bath caps in sight. 

Upon waking in the morning, we were serenaded with a babble of birdsong as huge numbers of plump little winged friends (whose name I do not know) woke up from their night time sojourn in the lime trees that populated the open centre of the riad. A delightful alarm clock, it signalled a new day in paradise and, more importantly, time for breakfast: a feast of home cooked stewed pears, prunes, apples and apricots, dangerously good Moroccan crepes, and of course the coveted mint tea among the usual suspects. Determined to kick back, we spent most mornings by the pool, a very peaceful spot just for grown-ups, with the kiddies’ alternative within adequate distance in the garden beyond. Needless to say, as imminent parents, we relished our last chance to frequent an oasis of such calm and quiet. We also accepted the poolside mint tea and cake offered around at 5pm with no small measure of gratitude and delight.

Keen to drop into full relaxation mode, Moroccan style, I booked myself in for an argan oil face and scalp massage. I know the region is famed for the argan tree and its potent oil, which is deeply nourishing for skin and hair, and was excited to experience a treatment with it first hand. Gentle yet invigorating, the half hour passed in a cloud of relaxation and the argan – thick yet easily absorbed – left me feeling supple and glowy.

In the afternoons, we would venture into the medina (a ten minute drive away) to soak up all the rich flavours, textures and colours that Moroccan life has to offer. While there is an abundance of the usual tourist tat, look hard and you’ll find plenty of beautiful kilims, baskets, leatherwork and art… the search punctuated every half an hour or so by a reviving pot of sweet mint or verbena tea. In fact, though busier and more demanding to navigate than the craft shops, our favourite drag was the food market, where huge swathes of freshly caught fish, mountains of baked bread and great towers of every type of olive you could dream of waited to be haggled over by the locals.

On our third day, we ventured out on a tour with a lovely young local guide named Otman. We started in a market outside the town centre, where everything from hay and donkeys to fruit, chickens and fresh meat cuts were being brought to trade. With not a tourist in sight, it was a pleasing peek into rural Moroccan life and felt good to experience alongside the more predictable medina escapades. We then drove to the coast where huge dunes of remarkable beauty awaited us, alongside a couple of lone fisherman scampering along the otherwise deserted Atlantic shores with their giant reams of line and hooks. Walking barefoot in the endless sand, we found ourselves in complete solitude among the vastness of the coastline and as the cold waves crashed alongside us I was grateful for the chance to really be alone: a true rarity as 21st Century life has us in its clutches, and a deeply peaceful experience.

After a short hike up the dry, stony hill, and a happy encounter with a flock of sheep on the move, we shared a homemade lunch at a house in the nearby village. Simple and traditional, and a far cry from the decadence of the hotel, the lunch was truly delicious: homemade tagine, freshly baked bread and seasonal fruit that tasted just how you hoped it would. The hospitality was genuine and warm, and I left feeling very grateful and nourished.

On the way home we stopped at a local women’s argan oil cooperative and got to see first hand how this precious nut from the region gets transformed into the famous oil, so coveted for its beauty benefits by the rest of the world. Every nut is hand gathered (and must be picked only when it has fallen to the ground: you cannot shake the trees as with olives or it damages them); then it is carefully de-husked and roasted before being mixed with water and ground into a fine paste with a giant stone mill. This forms a thick paste, like marzipan, and with a strength I could surely never muster it is then squeezed to remove the oil, which is gathered and bottled. It’s a slow process and one filled with dedication and care: it takes one woman around eight hours to de-husk 1.5kg of nuts, and for one litre of oil you need 1.5-2kg of nuts. The cooperatives are popping up in many areas and provide a wonderful and flexible way for local women to establish a mode of work, an income and their own independence. The ladies we saw, working at each station on rotation, were masters of their craft and more than happy to show us each stage of this important and fully hand-powered process. Afterwards we tried the oil on our skin, ate some with bread and even had a spoonful of the paste – a bit like tahini – mixed with sweet local honey.

There are many sides to Morocco, and many ways to experience Essaouira. Dipping our toes in both the real world and the secluded luxury and charm of the Jardin, we enjoyed the perfect balance between cultural immersion and quiet relaxation. Simple pleasures abound, and one experience is etched in my memory: picking a perfectly pink pomegranate off the tree, clawing it open with my hands, and padding slowly to the pool to enjoy each little juicy seed as the breeze blew soft white petals over my sun drenched feet.

CONTACT: tel: 00 212 5 24 47 40 03; email: info@jardindesdouars.com
PRICE: From £268 based on two people sharing

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