Morocco's rugged oyster capital Oualidia is an overlooked treasure
More Blue Lagoon than Creature from the Black Lagoon, Oualidia is slung away down Morocco's southern coast. About 175km - a good two-hour drive - south of Casablanca, where I live, or about the same north from Essaouira, Oualidia is an oft-overlooked little town home to around 6,500 people. Between us, I'm secretly quite happy that Oualidia is but forgotten as it manages to conserve its unblemished air. This town with a village ambience curls her pretty scattering of houses around a calm blue lagoon, apparently unaware of the enormous Atlantic pounding at the rocks behind. It is Morocco's oyster capital, as famous for its crustaceans as it is for the sapphire lagoon that cultivates them.
A comfortable bed
La Sultana (www.lasultanaoualidia.com; 00 212 5 2438 8008), overlooking the lagoon, offers a bed that isn't simply comfortable - think more along the lines of monarchical. The suites (and there are only suites) cost from 3,500 Moroccan dinars (Dh1,482) per night, and are fit for a sultan, with a fireplace and private outdoor Jacuzzi (the water is recycled, thanks to the hotel's eco policy). The traditional breakfast is to die for: crispy Moroccan crêpes, tea, homemade yogurt with local fruit, farm eggs topped with cumin, and rustic bread. La Sultana does the whole pampering bit, as one would hope, offering luxurious spa treatments - hammams and massages and so on - as well as a Moorish-tiled indoor pool. If you need to get out a little farther, surfing or diving lessons can be arranged.
Jardins de la Lagune (www.ianforbes.org.uk/oualidiavilla; 00 44 798 0049 898), a quiet and pretty flower-ridden collection of houses and flats, offers cosy accommodation. There is a lovely pool next to Le Comptoir Bar and Tapas Place. Ian Forbes' Place, also known as Villa P12, has three good-sized bedrooms, a lovely pergola and a terrace overlooking the bay and lagoon (from 8,310 dinars [Dh3,519] per night, including taxes). If you're not in the mood for cooking, meals can be prepared for you there.
Find your feet
Head up from the main beach and around the vast lagoon. Not far along are the remains of the summer palace of Sultan Mohammad V. It is guarded and photographs aren't allowed, but you can peek over the barriers at the ruined interior. In the waters opposite, fishermen and divers dexterously pull out spider crabs and lobsters while others stack oysters. If you can get your feet into pedalling mode, there are some glorious bike rides to be had. The area around the lagoon is quite flat and lined with either woods or local agricultural plots, with a few salt mines farther north. Keep the lagoon at your side and you won't lose your way.
Meet the locals
Because Oualidians mostly earn their keep from the sea, wherever you walk, wandering salesmen will offer seafood, often in a bucket or slung over an elbow, all freshly caught with bare hands. You can also buy giant sea-snail shells and other pretty marine objects. A number of residents keep their colourful boats on the beach and are often to be found sorting their nets.
Book a table
There aren't many sophisticated restaurants here - Oualidia isn't that kind of place - but La Sultana's is worth every dinar. Book the lone table at the end of the wooden jetty on the lagoon and dig into John Dory fillet tagine with saffron and lemon confit (200 dinars; Dh85), or the royal seafood platter (1,000 dinars [Dh115] for two). On a more basic note, order a soothing bowl of harira (120 dinars; Dh51) and a pungent Berber vegetable tagine (200 dinars; Dh85). The Comptoir de la Lagune is a great place to grab a juicy salad (50 dinars; Dh22), tasty fish dish (120 dinars; Dh52), or chocolate fondant (45 dinars; Dh19).
The simplest way to eat out entails a stroll along the beach, where fresh fish is grilled right on the sand. Just wait to be approached by a fisherman, who'll pull a grill and hot coals out of his hat in seconds (100 dinars; Dh42).
On Saturdays, Oualidia plays host to a cacophonous, gigantic souq that attracts people, horses and traps, and donkeys and battered carts from miles around. As is unfailingly the case with genuine souqs, just about anything can be purchased here. From camel meat to sandals, fabric to herbal medicines, you're sure to see and buy something unthought of. Wear sturdy footwear.
What to avoid
Swimming anywhere in the area without checking the current, which can be dangerous.
A trip to "The Island". This false island, an almost uninhabited delight, protects the town from the irate waves of the Atlantic. The magnificent beaches, practically devoid of humanity, are home to renowned surf spots. Call one of the licensed boatmen, who will drop you off and pick you up in his little wooden dinghy. Karim Essaidi (00 212 6607 0086) offers such transfers; his wife will provide you with a divine hamper full of homemade Moroccan food.