x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Surf's up in Morocco

Ten years on from the writer's last visit, the country's beaches are attracting a new kind of visitor.

Fishermen enjoy a chat in the late afternoon on Taghazout beach, which attracts surfers from all over the world.
Fishermen enjoy a chat in the late afternoon on Taghazout beach, which attracts surfers from all over the world.

The cross-section of passengers for Agadir took me by surprise. The last time I visited Morocco's most popular international seaside resort, I was encumbered with small children and desperate for winter sun, so we barely moved from the hotel swimming pool. I came away with the impression of a soulless place, where fly-and-flop tourism ruled. Frankly, we could have been anywhere in the world.

Fast forward 10 years, and I'm headed there again, but this time my companions on the flight are a mixture of tourists, Eastern Europeans, well-heeled Moroccans returning from shopping trips in Europe, and a clan of international 20- and 30-somethings, iPod-ded, stubbled, and bearing large, gaudily wrapped outsize baggage. These travellers are wiry and balanced, with feet instinctively a couple of hands' widths apart, as if they're expecting the plane to tumble and turn, in which case they'd ride it all the way. Surfies.

I'd no idea that Agadir was their kind of place, but then I was beginning to suspect that my previous experience of the Moroccan resort didn't count for much, a suspicion that was confirmed as we descended towards the new airport and the creamy gold of the Atlas Mountains was suddenly muscled aside by carpets of iridescent green.

"Fruit and vegetable farms," explained the man sitting next to me, who turned out to be Polish, and the manager of one of them.

From the taxi, Agadir's outskirts were unrecognisable from my previous visit, too. Car showrooms, bathroom shops and interior design outlets lined the boulevard. Plainly, Morocco's fifth-largest city was prosperous and growing fast. So if the orchards were where the Eastern Europeans were headed, and these marble showrooms were the home turf of the Moroccans who'd just been shopping overseas, where did the tourists and the surfies belong?

It took a couple of days to get the complete picture. Agadir comes in layers, mixing European tourism with Arabic authenticism, with a soupcon of French colonialism thrown in. Tourism occupies centre stage along the length of the town's finest asset, a sumptuous sandy beach - broad, generous and many kilometres long. Here, the hotels are in pole position, and they've spread a long way south towards the king of Morocco's seaside palace, as I found when I tried to jog to the end, only to be flagged down by security and instructed to retrace my steps. There are plenty of big names among them - Sofitel, Kempinksi, etc - and they've got a whole lot classier in recent years. Where once there were donkey carts, there are now stretch limousines. Plus three golf courses, soon to be four.

The nightclubs, restaurants and bars along the beach promenade are inevitably of the pricey and glitzy variety, with international clientele, but move a couple of streets back into town and prices drop substantially, because this is where the locals do their socialising, in an alcohol-free environment. On the terrace of the Verandah cafe on Avenue Hassan II, for example, gents in djellabas gather after work in the evening, chatting over pots of mint tea. Here you could get a lamb tajine for US$3 (Dh11) and a green salad for less than $1.

A bit further inland I found the rambling walled souq, with mile upon mile of every kind of shopping imaginable, and a nest of al fresco fish restaurants at Gate 7, where the local speciality is sardines the size of trout, grilled over charcoal. It was delicious.

So that's what the tourists and the locals were doing, but I didn't finally discover what the surfies were up to until a visit to Agadir's ruined kasbah, which sits on top of a hill above the giant port. In fact there's little left of the kasbah and the original town within, which was destroyed in an earthquake in the 1960s, but it is worth coming here for the view of Agadir's beach and its port, heaving with fishing fleets of all nationalities and with a giant cruise ship terminal at the far end.

But more importantly the view also revealed more of the coast, particularly where it stretched out to the north. That way lay Taghazout, explained a local guide who was trying to sell me a ride on his camel. "Where the surfers go," he said, adding that it was just 10km away. I knew instantly that I needed to go there, too.

Taghazout couldn't have been more different to Agadir. A Berber fishing village, it is composed of a cluster of pastel-coloured houses that tumble down to a sheltered beach where a fleet of wooden fishing boats gather. These blue-painted boats would set out to sea as evening fell, and as they returned in the morning, to be hauled manfully up the sand, they would change places with the first of that day's surfers, paddling out into the waves.

The history of Taghazout's tourism dates to the 1960s and '70s, when hippies discovered the big rollers here, and Jimi Hendrix is even supposed to have ridden a couple of boilers on a trip south from Essaouira. Of its armoury of waves, its most famous is at Anchor Point, a half-mile walk up the road, which boasts one of the most powerful right-handers in the northern hemisphere. Here there's an almost religious silence among the spectators and surf widows watching from the shore.

Of course these days the hippie era is just a fashion hangover, although you can still find a couple of chilled stalls in Taghazout's alleyways where barefoot Australian girls serve fruit smoothies and banana bread. Otherwise the cuisine in Taghazout is largely local, with the cafes and restaurants offering couscous and tajine; and the internet cafes and the gear shops are also locally run.

The same can't be said of many of the so-called surf camps, where most of the surfers stay. These are usually run by veteran surf enthusiasts who first came here a decade or more ago and haven't been able to leave. Typical of these is Surf Maroc's Auberge, which combines simple rooms and a waterside location that could so easily be on Mykonos or Santorini.

But there are also more upmarket camps, the surfing equivalent of ski chalets, in waterside villas that come complete with swimming pools, five-course dinners, chalet hosts and yoga pavilions on the roof. The surfing demographic has gone upmarket since the Hendrix days, and certainly there's nothing remotely "camping" about this.

Many of the so-called camps also offer a half day or full day of surfing for people based in Agadir, and this is where I came in. With the help of Surf Maroc, I enjoyed a (fairly incompetent) surf on Banana Beach, so called because it is backed by banana plantations. On relatively gentle waves I tried my best to rise, in stately fashion, on my legs, and most of the time made a complete hash of it. But it was good fun.

Afterwards I moseyed around the main road of Taghazout, sat for a mint tea on the terrace of the Café Tenerife and watched the mixture of djellabas and sarongs mooching up and down the street. Then I jumped in a taxi back to Agadir, just in time to rejoin the chic brigade as they emerged for a sashay along the prom before dinner. As I walked amongst them, I felt smug knowing that I knew of a parallel universe, half Berbère, half surfère, just up the coast.

travel@thenational.ae

If you go

The flight

Return flights on Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) from Abu Dhabi to Casablanca cost from Dh3,155, including taxes. Return flights on Royal Air Maroc (www.royalairmaroc.com) from Casablanca to Agadir cost from 744 Morocco dirhams (Dh340), including taxes

The stay 

The Sofitel Royal Bay Resort (www.sofitel.com; 00 212 528 820088) is the plushest of the hotels in Agadir. Double rooms cost from MD1,975 (Dh880), including taxes. Just across the road and a bit up the hill is the very reasonable Hotel Timoulay (www.timoulayhotel.com; 00 212 528 234 220), compact and comfortable, mixing Berber and cosmopolitan design. Double rooms cost from MD913 (Dh418), including breakfast and taxes

The surfing 

Taghazout is 10km north of Agadir, served by taxis and buses, and most surfing organisations will arrange a pick-up from Agadir airport. Surf Maroc (www.surfmaroc.co.uk; 00 44 1794 322 709) offers surf camp packages starting from US$300 (Dh1,102) per person per week, based at the Auberge, including transfers, breakfast and lunch, transport to beaches, and guides. A two-and-a-half-hour lesson including equipment, lunch and transfers costs $80 (Dh294) per person