Journeys: Riad Radical

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Wind-whipped, the wave rises, heaves, and churns as it rushes toward the shore and spits out a man in a black neoprene wet suit. His arms and legs flail as he sputters for air and struggles to his feet. It is, says Azzedine, his instructor from the Explora surfing school in Essaouira, Morocco, an improvement. "Only next time, don’t fight the waves," he advises. "Crawl up to your knees on the board and hold your arms out to the sides to balance."

I wade back into the shallow surf, dragging the board behind me like a reluctant knight lugging his escutcheon back to the fray. Close by, my fellow neophyte Julia, a young model from Paris, offers a smile of encouragement. Or is it condolence? Either way, I am certainly not the first foreigner to be dashed against the Moroccan shore. As the nearby wreck of a centuries-old wooden ship attests, sailors have long feared this stretch of coastline where the Atlantic washes over the sands of the Sahara.

An ancient stomping ground of North African pirates and nomadic Berbers, Essaouira owes its forts and battlements to the medieval Portuguese and Moors. The inner city, not far removed from the beach, today brims with boutique hotels, cafés, and artisan shops daubed chalk white and traditional purple. (Roman emperors once demanded that their robes be dyed in purple from Essaouira.) The harbor remains a busy fishing port, and the dawn sky is streaked with orange as the fishermen ride the tide out to sea each morning. Come midafternoon, the seabirds’ chorus announces the boats’ return, nets heavy with sardines, mackerel, shrimp, and octopus. Camels move slowly along the shore, bells jingling from their harnesses. It is all—as Jimi Hendrix, Cat Stevens, and Bob Marley, visitors from the 1960s, may have observed—far out!

Of course, people have been saying that about Morocco for decades. But they traditionally were not talking about the surf. "There was a time when tourists came to Morocco just to see the sights," says Mohamed Bouskri, the proprietor of Riad Kniza, a posh hotel de charme in Marrakech. "The palaces, the souks, the shops, the riads."

Now, says Bouskri—who has escorted the likes of Presidents Nixon, Carter, and Reagan through Marrakech—the sights and sounds of the medina are just the beginning. "Our guests want to be active," he explains. "They want to play golf and tennis or go horseback riding and camel trekking into the Sahara. Or they go mountaineering and glacier climbing. Even skiing."

If sports and adventure are what travelers want, says Bouskri, Morocco is the place to go: "Morocco is a sportsman’s paradise. We have some of the world’s finest golf courses, and there are tennis courts everywhere. It is always sunny on the seashore, and there is always snow on Mount Toubkal. If a guest desires, we can take him surfing in the Atlantic one day and skiing in the High Atlas mountains the next."

Indeed, for those who know where to look, Morocco offers adventure at any altitude. About three hours east of Essaouira, the road begins its serpentine ascent into the High Atlas mountains. All around, waterfalls tumble down hundreds of feet from barren volcanic ledges to nurture the Ourika Valley, whose floor is lined with walnut trees and fruit orchards. The terra-cotta cliffsides are riddled with balcony-like dwellings overlooking the valley for miles in all directions.

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