A holiday for high-flyers
An opportunity to ride North Africa’s waves brings STEPHEN WHITE to the pretty coastal town of Essaouira
LIKE a bolt from the blue, an unexpected sunbeam of an invitation to visit Morocco lands in my inbox and instantly brightens up my ever-darkening September. It promises sun, sea and sand, alongside the sights, sounds and tastes of the ancient port city of Essaouira.
Oh, and the chance to learn kitesurfing... Yes please.
But as the date nears, I began to wonder how I, now the wrong side of 60, grey of hair, carrying more pounds than I’d like to admit, and more in the habit of drinking oceans than surfing them, would cope with it all? After a smooth-as-silk three-and-a-half hour flight from Luton, we touch down at Essaouira’s beautiful airport (think mirrored walls and palm trees). A minibus carries us past the beach where a line of camels is silhouetted perfectly against the sun just beginning to dip below the Atlantic, before dropping us outside the old maze-like medina, close to our home for the next couple of nights, Kiteworldwide’s Riad Essaouira. Here, we enjoy our first experience of Moroccan hospitality; an impressive and delicious dinner prepared in the tiny kitchen by locals Zahira and Reguraguia.
It’s a beautiful smorgasbord of traditional tagines – mixed vegetables, aubergine, lamb with prunes and apricots and, my favourite, chicken with tangy olives and lemon.
In a flash, it’s 5.45am the next day and the still-dark silence has just been shattered by the piercing voice of the muezzin from a nearby mosque, calling the faithful to prayer, as he will five times every day. After breakfast, we enjoy a 15-minute walk in the sun to the wide undulating beach south of the city, to meet Nasser, owner of the Explora Surf School, and his team of instructors.
We change into wetsuits and head barefoot across the animal-packed beach – there are horses, camels and dogs everywhere. I soon realise that the small, round, dark brown objects strewn everywhere, some of them shiny and new, aren’t pebbles...
It turns out the wind is too light for the kites, so how about a bit of surfing?
Our instructors are expert and keen. They demonstrate how to position ourselves on our boards, how to catch a wave, then slide to your knees, then up to your feet, while at all times adopting the correct posture...
It sounds easy. It isn’t. And it’s exhausting.
These mini Atlantic rollers don’t look much but they pack a punch and, combined with the frantic paddling, quickly sap your energy. But most of us make it to our feet at least once or twice and experience the thrill of being pushed along by nature.
By 3pm, the wind has strengthened enough for us to experience flying a small kite.
Harnesses that fit around your lower back and hips keep you connected to the kite. Control comes from your core. Helmets save your head from bangs on the ocean floor or against other kiters – once you’re good enough to mix with them.
Early instruction is all about how to set up the kite (inflating the leading edge and struts, fastening the lines), how to secure it to your harness, and what to do if things go wrong, as they inevitably will...
It’s also about learning how to control the kite – understanding the wind and the ‘safe’, and ‘power’ zones.
Our instructor insists kitesurfing is for people of all ages and abilities (even me!). He tells us we are all doing well – giving us confidence to allow relaxation and ‘feel’ take over from tight, tense grips and strength.
Meanwhile, the experts are flying their huge, colourful kites and flashing about the ocean, many of them doing intricate tricks, jumping waves and sailing through the air. It looks impressive, effortless and great fun.
Dinner at the no-alcohol Mega Loft, a multi-floored restaurant with a lovely roof terrace, is memorable. A guitar duo sings a mixture of Moroccan standards and Bob Marley classics as I sample crunchy gambas (battered king prawns) and a lovely main of chicken pastilla; layers of thin, crispy pastry filled with savoury saffron chicken and spicy omelette, with a crunchy topping of toasted almonds, sweetened with orange flower water and dusted with icing sugar and cinnamon. A carrot and ginger juice matches it perfectly.
Next morning, the stiffness and ache in my shoulders tells me I probably took to the surfing a tad too enthusiastically.
There’s still little wind, so I decide to explore the narrow alleys of the medina, wondering at the quality (and low prices) of the lovely spices, fresh fruit, vegetables, ceramics, leather goods and fine woodwork. You could spend hours here just wandering and looking, and unlike some Moroccan cities, you will suffer little pressure to buy.
There’s also the picturesque harbour filled with bright blue fishing boats, and the impressive 18th-century ramparts.
Film buffs will love Essaouira. Scenes from Orson Welles’ 1951 Palme d’or-winning Othello, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits, the epic Lawrence Of Arabia and, more recently, Game of Thrones were all shot here.
Back at the beach, the wind has still not shown up. We should be taking in more practice with a kite, then moving on to the alarming-sounding body dragging, ie letting the kite, under control, pull you through the water.
Then we might, just might, have been capable of connecting with a board and taking our first tentative steps on the water.
Like all skills, it takes time, but we are told after a week of lessons, everyone would be out there among the waves. Not bad for something that could lead to a lifelong passion and take you all around the world.
Stephen ready to take to the high seas with his surfboard Getting to grips with kite flying in Essaouira
Flight of fancy: An expert shows how it’s done
The walled city of Essaouira
Stephen enjoying a tasty lunch with his group