Friday, February 24, 2012

My Perfect Day Alone in Essaouira, Morocco

As a working mother, I get very little time alone to do as I wish. However, that doesn't stop me from dreaming of my perfect day alone. And I can't imagine a better place in the world than Essaouira to enjoy that day.

First, I would want to wake up in a traditional Moroccan riad (guesthouse). There are many beautiful ones at a range of prices in town. I'd probably choose to be in the Orientale Suite at Riad Chbanate. (Which just so happens to be right down the road from my Mother-in-law, Saadia.) After a bath in that amazing powder room, I'd go up to the riad's rooftop terrace for a traditional Moroccan breakfast. Freshly squeezed orange juice and amlou (made with culinary Argan Oil, almonds and honey) are always the highlights for me.

After breakfast, I'd wander through the medina (old maze-like part of the city contained within ancient walls) and enjoy some of the shops. I love looking at home decor in Morocco. The colours and textures are amazing.

Eventually, I'd find myself at the beach. Essaouira has an enormous beach that can be walked for miles. It's often windy, but beautiful just the same.

By then I'd be ready for lunch. I've written about the seafood in Essaouira before. It's utterly amazing.

After lunch, I'd be ready to hit the hammam. On a normal day, I'd just go to one of the local ones which only cost a few dollars (including gommage and massage). But on My Perfect Day Alone, I'd go here. Azur Spa is phenomenal. And I'd get the works. The prices are reasonable and the experience is truly unforgettable.

After enjoying a blissed-out afternoon at Azur, I'd want to just rest with a book on another rooftop terrace.

As the sun went down, I'd probably be able to find it in me to go for dinner. I might be on the hunt for an excellent pastilla. However, there are more and more restaurants in Essaouira all of the time that are getting good ratings. Our old favourite is Le Patio. We ate there the night before our wedding and on several other special occasions. The decor is beautiful and the menu has some good variety on it.

After dinner? I'd probably just find my way back to the riad and would look forward to seeing my family. There are bits and pieces of low key nightlife in Essaouira which I've enjoyed in the past, but I'm getting to the time in my life when I like to end my perfect day alone quietly. If that makes me old, then that's ok with me. ;)

Tell me about YOUR perfect day alone. Any city, any country.

xo, j~

Saturday, February 11, 2012

7 Must-Haves for Your Moroccan Vacation

One question that I often get asked is: "What should I pack when I go to Morocco?"

In my experience, most of the time, this question is asked by women. And being a woman, this list will definitely have a feminine slant. Of course, this list is not exhaustive. It just hits what I think are the 'must haves' in addition to your regular necessities.

#1. Pack an awesome carry on.

My first trip to Morocco was in 2002. My flight from Vancouver to Heathrow left on time, and technically arrived on time. But there was no runway available to land on. So we flew around London for over an hour. Then finally we were allowed to land. However, there was no gate available to taxi into. So we sat on the plane for an extra couple of hours. Of course, I missed my connecting flight and was put on a Royal Air Maroc flight later that evening. (Remind me to tell you that story sometime.)

So I arrived in Marrakech at 1 am. (Remind me to tell you that story sometime, too.) Of course, my checked bag did not arrive. And? I had a very poorly packed carry on. One extra shirt. One extra pair of underwear. My makeup, toothbrush and some hand lotion. That's *it*. Yes, I took my makeup off with hand lotion that night. And moisturized with it. It wasn't nice.

I was only in Morocco three weeks that trip. My bag did not arrive for ten days. (And checking if it had arrived or not was nothing short of a nightmare. Could I just call and ask? NO. I had to go there and talk to the guy in person. Multiple times.)

However, I made do. I bought a bottle of Pert Plus in the medina. It worked as shampoo, conditioner, hand soap, body wash and laundry detergent. I dug through mountains of Matronly Moroccan Underwear in the souq and found two pairs that I could tolerate wearing. I found one little shop that had Nivea face cream (I used it as a makeup remover, too) and a Nivea toner (praise the Lord) and I started to feel a little better about my predicament.

Then guess what? I had a little surprise. (Stay tuned for #2...)

So please. Pack a *real* carry on. I actually plan for at least one of our bags NOT to arrive whenever we go to Morocco now. (My husband was the lucky guy last time. He waited about 5 days... And had to take an all day trip to Marrakech to get it.) Have all of your necessities. A few changes of clothes. All of your medications. If you can't live without it for several days, it needs to be in your carry on.

#2. Tampons.

Ladies, if you are ok with pads, you will have quite a few to choose from if you get caught in Morocco during those first few days of your cycle. I, however, am not a fan, and was on the prowl for tampons. I had a couple in my purse that first ill-fated trip, but I knew I had to find some supplies ASAP. After searching for hours, all I could find was pads. I bought some, as I couldn't go back to the hotel with nothing.

But then I saw it. A hair salon. It had a fair bit of retail space in front and I just had a good feeling about it. So I scoured the shelves. Then I saw a couple of boxes of my favourite brand of tampons hidden on the lowest shelf in the corner behind the counter. (What are the chances that my favourite brand was the only brand there? Ha!)

I was so happy I wanted to cry. I gestured to the lady working there that I wanted some. She smiled really big, gave me the thumbs up and grabbed me a box. I was so thrilled to find them, I asked for a second box. Then I passed her the pads I'd just purchased still in their bag and said "Find them a good home" in what was probably very poor French.

So why the limited variety of feminine hygiene products? Well, I'm guessing it has something to do with preserving the modesty of the girls. I, for one, find tampons a lot more modest, but those in more conservative cultures would disagree.

#3. Stomach meds. Lots of them.

Let's continue with the semi-blushworthy items, shall we?

I've never had a problem with the water in Morocco. (I drink bottled, but I cook and brush my teeth with tap water.) I've never had a problem eating in someone's home.

But restaurant food is another story.

I'll never forget that shrimp thing I ate in Essaouira on Christmas Eve. It was delicious. A few hours later? I wanted to DIE. That feeling lingered for about 10 days. And remember! I was without my luggage! I had to go to the Moroccan pharmacy and get whatever they would give me! (It was ineffective!)

I can also tell you the story of a rotisserie chicken in the Djemaa al Fna in Marrakech. But I'll spare you the details.

Please. Bring Immodium to Morocco. And Pepto. And Tums. Even consider a prescription from your doctor for antibiotics that you fill before your departure to take in your.... You guessed it! In your carry on! I did that once and was so glad I did. (My doctor gave me Cipro).

I always do the same for our young daughter whenever we go away somewhere with potentially dodgy bugs in the food and/or water. (We used the antibiotics in Mexico, but got really lucky with her in Morocco last year... For which we are thankful. Other kids traveling to Morocco aren't nearly as lucky.)

#4. Ereader.

Even if you have a very busy itinerary planned and don't normally like to read, I really suggest you bring an ereader full of good books. There can be a lot of down time in Morocco. While traveling from town to town... or just during the evenings after a long day of walking, you might just want to relax with a book.

Buying English books in Morocco is very frustrating. I started going there in the dark ages before Kobos, Nooks and Kindles even existed. I hated hauling a lot of books in my luggage (that probably wouldn't show up anyway.) So I'd often not have enough reading material. A few shops had some selections, but were always really expensive. Even used books were overpriced. I remember bursting out laughing at someone who was trying to charge me 200 dirhams for a tattered copy of _Bridget Jones' Diary_. And it wasn't just the rough equivalent of $20 that he wanted, he also wanted the brand new hardcover Alice Hoffman that I was attempting to trade in order to sweeten the deal.

So yeah. Bring books. You often find yourself waiting around in Morocco, so it doesn't hurt to have some entertainment.

#5. Hammam kit.

One of my favourite things to do in Morocco is go the hammam. I love love love it. There are two types of hammams: the ones that Moroccans go to and the ones that tourists go to. I like both. If you're going to the latter, you don't need to take anything. But you really should visit the former, too. And for that one, you need some supplies.

You can and should buy savon noir and a kessa in the medina before you go to a public hammam. But I like to have a few more things along with me. A toiletry bag that can get drenched, my own shampoo and conditioner, nice smelling body wash, shaving gel, a razor and a face cloth are some of my hammam essentials. Also, be sure to have a towel and a hair brush for afterward!

I want to go to the hammam now.

#6. Modest-ish Clothing.

The Moroccan population is 99% Muslim. No, the women don't have to dress a certain way. They are free to wear as much or as little as they like. But when visiting, I like to dress a little more on the modest side as to respect the faith tradition of the vast majority. No that doesn't mean a djellaba or hijab. But for me, it does mean 3/4 length sleeves and pants or skirts most of the time.

I have no problem wearing bathing suits and tshirts at the beach. But the thought of strutting through the medina in a tube top and hot pants just doesn't seem right. (And now that I'm thinking about it... I personally wouldn't feel right wearing such an outfit anywhere. Trust me. You'd be glad to avoid such a sight.)

#7. A 10 ml Bottle of Saadia Organics Argan Oil.

So you're going all the way to Morocco. The land where Argan Oil flows like a mighty river. Why in the world would you get some from a business based in Vancouver?

Well, our company makes the best Argan Oil on the planet. It's authentic, eco-friendly and ethical. An 'impossible-to-find-elsewhere' combination.

My Mother-in-Law, Saadia, and some of my other relatives manufacture it for us in Essaouira. Then Saadia ships it directly to us here. There are a lot of fakes in Morocco -- and everywhere. Spend your money on a brand you can trust.

Argan Oil is ideal to take on any vacation. It's just so multipurpose. Any little quirks with your skin, hair and nails can be easily fixed with this stuff. And it's amazing for any kind of rash, cut or scrape you might get. It also works wonders on blisters, bug bites and sunburn. It has anti-bacterial properties, feels so soothing once it's on, and all of that Vitamin E heals whatever ails you right quick.

So there it is, friends. My List. I hope it helps!

xo, joèl~

PS Stay tuned for my next entry: "My Perfect Day Alone in Essaouira, Morocco"

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Hungry in Essaouira

There are few things I love more than seafood. If it were more affordable, I swear I'd eat it every day.

However, while in Essaouira it can be very affordable and it is out of this world delicious. The crab, the shrimp, the million and one different kids of fish. Divine. All of them.

Let me tell you a secret. One of the major factors in deciding to marry my husband was after I noted how well he knew his way around fresh crab. He knows the man who sold it, so he could get it for insanely low prices. (He called him "The Crab Man". No, he doesn't get points for creativity, but we'll forgive him for that.) He also knows EXACTLY how to cook crab to extreme perfection. He even adds a crazy looking bouquet of dried flowery herbs to the pot making the meat so delicious that it makes butter, lemon, garlic or any of the other things typically used on crab entirely useless. But I digress...

If you ever visit Essaouira, be sure to enjoy some seafood. You won't be sorry. The cute little fish grills near the beach and port are pretty good. But if you REALLY want something incredible, go into the medina to the fish market. Buy yourself a few things, then take it to one of the (scary looking) "BYOF" (Bring Your Own Fish) restaurants adjacent to the market. There they'll grill it for you and bring you salad, bread and the soft drink of your choice. Pure bliss.

For more about seafood in Essaouira. Check out this blog post/photo essay. It's definitely worth a look!

xo, j~

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Yes, it's winter in Morocco, too!

When some people think of Morocco, they think of hot, dry weather all year round. However, that's not the case. It gets pretty cool there in the winter time! Especially at night. And many homes and guesthouses have no heat in them.

My first trip to Morocco was in December 2002-January 2003. During the day I remember temperatures of 16-20 degrees C. (Agadir was a treat, as it was a bit warmer there.) At night it could drop below 10 degrees, however, and I remember wearing light gloves, a scarf and a jacket when out in the evenings. And I'd definitely be very chilly sliding into bed at night.

But even on the coolest days in Morocco, you will always see hints of the warm (and even the HOT) days to come. Oranges in the trees, brave souls willing to kick off their shoes and get their feet wet walking along the shore.

And I'm so pleased to have discovered this lovely blog post of a little bit of summer one riad owner in Marrakech found in Essaouira recently.

I know that stall. And that beautiful cerulean door with the bouquets of fresh herbs wired on. I know that warm sunny days are never far away in Morocco.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Forget our wedding anniversary, forget Christmas...

THIS is the day we celebrate.

Nine years ago today I arrived in Essaouira for the first time. I had no idea how to get to the cute little 'riad' I'd booked. And I felt like I needed the "right" person to show me the way. Many friendly people offered help, but I refused. Until HE came by.

My now husband Greg pointed me to the entrance of the medina and told me to go straight-left-right-right-left-left-right-left right-straight. I was sorry I waited for this young man. Sure, he was polite. But? His directions left a lot to be desired. So I took the plunge and entered the maze of the Essaouira medina feeling a little grumbly.

Just a few minutes later he returned. Asked my forgiveness for being so rude and offering to take me directly to the riad.

Within that 10 minute walk for some reason I knew he'd be my best friend. I pictured myself writing letters to him when I was an old lady.

When he dropped me off at the front door he again asked forgiveness for being rude, but he said wanted to ask me to his aunt's house for tea later that afternoon. I accepted the invitation. And the rest, they say, is history.

xo, j~