A Moroccan Oasis
Tucked away a stone’s throw from the Moroccan port of Essaouira, Le Jardin des Douars is a quite sublime place to escape to
Review by Rupert Watkins
Perched on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, Essaouira is the laid back and less frenetic counterpart to teeming Marrakesh. A mecca for wind and kite surfers with its strong trade winds, the port’s medina is a fun place to wander and absorb the vibrant atmosphere or people watch over a pot of mint tea in one of the atmospheric cafes. A swift 15 minute ride away from the centre of the town lies the tranquil oasis of Le Jardin des Douars hotel.
A hotel since 2004 and from 2009 managed (and part owned) by the engaging and friendly husband and wife team Grégoire and Nanie Aubron, Le Jardin des Douars is a discreet and supremely comfortable complex comprising of 19 rooms, six suites and three separate villas. The heart of the hotel is the main building, the oldest part of the complex, containing the dining rooms and a selection of the traditionally furnished rooms. Since 2012, extra cottages have been built in the grounds, perfectly blending in with their surroundings with their Moroccan interiors and tiling in the large, palatial bathrooms.
Our large double room was well furnished with antique Moroccan furnishings. White walls rather than the traditional ochre gave a slightly more European feel to the room. An open fire was a rather unexpected but hugely enjoyed feature. The large bathroom was colourfully decorated in traditional Arabic tiling with a sunken walk-in shower, overlooking one of two swimming pools at the Jardin des Douars, this pool for adults only. As well as sun loungers around the pools, each room has a small private area with their own chairs and sun loungers.
The huge majority of custom is French or English speaking. Being popular with families, Le Jardin des Douars has space to allow larger families and couples to co-exist peacefully. One pool and the main dining room (where breakfast is also served) are for families with children encouraged to shout and play to their heart’s content. A smaller dining room to one side of the traditional ochre and tiled inner courtyard is reserved for adults only to go along with the second pool. There is also private dining for groups of up to 30 next to the main dining room. Chatting with Grégoire, he remarks that many of their guests are regulars and, with the flexibility of the site, he has seen many loyal guests move from the couples only rooms to larger rooms and then suites as their families have grown.
On the first evening we enjoyed a brace of cocktails on the comfortable sofas in the courtyard in front of the main building. The vodka and apple as well as my guest’s gin fizz were spot on and refreshing before we moved through to the main dining room. A set and à la carte menu is offered, but having just reached North Africa we both went straight for the cous cous dish of the day. Light and fluffy cous cous was served with a selection of marinated lamb, chicken and fresh vegetables. Tangy, spicy and delicious it was wolfed down before we moved to the sunken snug at one end of the dining room in front of the fire to enjoy a final night cap.
After a good night’s sleep in the large and firm bed in our room, we headed back to the main building for breakfast; a traditional Moroccan breakfast is offered with dates, nuts, dried fruit, prunes and goats cheese among the options. Toasted or fresh Moroccan flatbread is available as well as msmen or Moroccan crêpes. After a morning relaxing beside the adult’s pool, we headed back to the courtyard for a spot of lunch. Every Sunday, Le Jardin des Douars offer an outdoor barbeque; with lentil salads, taktouka, cous cous, beef tefta , grilled swordfish and other dishes amongst the spread it is a delicious way to spend a lazy couple of hours. More European deserts such as profiteroles and eclairs are also bought out for those suffering from a sweet tooth. Given that there are only limited flights into Essaouira each week and one of those is a Saturday, the hotel’s barbeque is hugely popular with everyone as they look to relax and settle in on their first full day in residence.
Opting to take one of the hotel’s shuttle buses into Essaouira post lunch, we headed into the bustling port. Formerly Morocco’s principle port sending the goods of the caravan trade throughout the world, it retains an intimate and rather European air – perhaps unsurprising given the Portuguese and French influences on the area. The port is heaving with fishing activity as the latest fresh catch is bought in, whilst the 18th century walled medina, though a labyrinth at first sight, is small enough to be walked around in a few hours. The traders are renowned for being more laid back and less pushy than their Marrakesh counterparts and certainly we found browsing the ceramics and argan oil shops a pleasure.
Le Jardin Des Douars will give recommendations for those wishing to eat out and they proved spot on with the rooftop Café Taros proving a lovely spot to watch the sun slip below the horizon whilst enjoying a drink and Loft was an intimate and delicious venue for dinner. During the day the profusion of cafes and pastry shops provide ample spots for people watching.
The following day before our final dinner, we enjoyed the hotel’s spa. In its own building, the spa offers a range of treatments and massages as well as the traditional hamam or Turkish bath. My sole other experience of this had been many years earlier in Istanbul where the heat in the baths was rather warmer and I was scrubbed within an inch of my life by a burly and enthusiastic Turk. At Jardin des Douars, it is a more relaxing and refined experience. After an argan body scrub was applied, we were left in the gentle warmth for the pores to open and the scrub to soak in. The attendants returning, you are doused in buckets of warm water before you are thoroughly scrubbed down with a loofer and a pumice stone for your feet. After that you are soaped down with rose infused soap before having your hair done. The process ends with further buckets of warm water. There is no need here to brave cold water at any point.
Dressing after this thorough and relaxing cleanse, we took our seats in the adults only restaurant. Small, seating only perhaps a dozen, it is a rather romantic spot to enjoy excellent Moroccan food. Tasty monkfish tagine and marinated lamb were accompanied by an elegant and dry Moroccan white Médaillon from the Ouled Thaleb vineyard. The hotel sources the vast bulk of its wines – both white and red – from Morocco itself. Having also sampled a bottle of de Siroua red on our first night, the wines are certainly balanced, very drinkable and should appeal to the inquisitive wine lover though given the French colonial influence on the country it should be of no surprise the country has absorbed winemaking so well.
On our last morning, we were taken on a tour of one of the villas by Grégoire. There are three self-contained villas sleeping between eight and 12; large, supremely comfortable with the most European inspired interiors at the hotel, all have their own pools, gardens and staff though guests are clearly welcome to come over to the main dining room should they wish. Breakfast is served in the villas and a selection of traditional tagines can be served in the evening – or you can buy your own food and instruct the maid. With prices starting at £500 per night, these are a truly indulgent way to escape for a few days.
Essaouira is currently only served by Easyjet out of Luton with two flights a week. However, with Thameslink offering good services through St Pancras, this should not be allowed to get in the way of enjoying the blissful Le Jardin Des Douars.
Double rooms from £105 per night.
Easyjet flies to Essaouira airport on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Flights approximately £100 per person each way. Have a pencil on you to fill in landing forms at Essaouira.