About 45 minutes into the drive south from Casablanca, the landscape starts to change. Fertile agricultural land gives way to firm red earth and barren rocky soils. Waist-high stone walls of marine limestone punctuate the empty rolling hills. You turn off the new tollway for the old coastal road, beginning at the unattractive port town of Jorf Lasfar, to continue heading south. Abruptly, the drab port landscape transforms to rocky cliffs, blocking the Atlantic waves from an extensive wetland system comprised of marshes, channels and sandpits. The road takes you past salt-pans that attract dozens of migratory bird species, and past lush farmland which produces the colourful array of peppers, onions, tomatoes and squash which are sold on the side of the road in simple palm-thatched shacks.
Normally this would be my segue to launch into the praise of one of Morocco’s unsung destinations and lavish you with reasons why you should visit. But today things are of course different. I still want to wow you on Oualidia [Wah-Lid-Iya], but also to describe about my recent experience of travel in Morocco, post-lockdown, in the middle of the pandemic.
For the last several years, my wife and I have made an annual tradition of spending a few nights in Oualidia to commemorate our wedding anniversary. There really is but one place to stay here – La Sultana, a well manicured 12-bedroom boutique hotel set on the edge of the Oualidia lagoon. Twice a day, the ocean floods the lagoon and its channels, up to a depth of nearly 4m at high tide, then emptying out almost completely at low tide. La Sultana with its architecture of local stone, lush gardens, and privileged position at the end of a dusty road surrounded by fields, presides over this natural phenomenon. It is the perfect kind of place, unique in Morocco, to disappear for a few days on a high-comfort but low-key romantic break, cooled by the Atlantic breezes, and salinated by the region’s famous oysters (harvested sustainably near the hotel). Local fishermen pluck fresh lobster, crab, razor clams and mussels from the rocky outcrops of the coast, often grilling it up for you right on the beach or at a couple of humble eateries in town.
There is little else to do here but enjoy a beach picnic, ride horses, relax by the pool or soak in your private jacuzzi (each room has one), or go for a scrub or massage in the hotel’s hammam. In the late afternoon, aperitifs by the bonfire, beachside under the hotel’s Berber tent or out over the lagoon at the hotel’s oyster bar, are where you want to be to enjoy the sunsets of the kind that leave you in wonder at the beauty of this world.
This year though was not going to be like past years. La Sultana had been shut, as had all hotels in Morocco, since March when the government closed its international borders and issued shelter-in-place orders, making for one of the strictest and longest lockdowns in the world.
All things considered, Morocco did well during its confinement period, with much lower case and death rates than most countries in Europe. As part of a gradual loosening of restrictions, hotels were allowed to re-open at 50% capacity at the beginning of July which was when we’d normally be visiting. The question of whether or not to go this year was a tough one: what would a hotel experience be like with the limitations and regulations in place, and were we risking infection or being irresponsible by leaving home to go away for a weekend? We thought long and hard, but ultimately my curiosity to “get back out there” and see how hotels are dealing with post-lockdown reopening got the better of me. And let’s face it: after a solid 100 days shut in our apartment with little more outdoor time than taking out the garbage, we had serious cabin fever. Birthdays, baptisms, and weddings had all been cancelled this spring, but virus be damned, this anniversary we were not going to spend at home. Taking confidence in the sanitary measures laid out by the Moroccan Health Ministry, we packed our weekend bags, donned our masks, and drove south.
I would be lying if I said our stay was just like our past three visits. Upon arrival our bags were unloaded from the car and whisked away for disinfecting before they were deposited in our rooms. Our temperatures were taken before we were allowed inside the garden grounds. And at check-in there was no paperwork to sign or credit cards to hand over (we had given this info ahead of time). Staff were as welcoming and as friendly as ever, but each member were required to wear masks at all times.
At 50% occupancy, all six rooms were booked on our arrival night. We only saw one family and one other couple while we were there, and the following night we were completely on our own. This is actually not all that different from the norm at La Sultana, and one of the reasons why we love the place. Even when full, you feel like you have it mostly to yourself.
Our room had “touchless” menus for room service, hotel info and activities, in the form of a Q-code to scan on a smartphone, and hand-sanitizer to take with you. Rooms were left empty for a minimum of 24-hours for a deep clean by the housekeeping team before new guests could check in, but that being said, I realized that at a hotel there are so many potential surfaces to touch that it is practically impossible to ensure every single last one of them is disinfected. The take away from this was to maintain the advice we’ve all been hearing now for months: wash hands frequently, practice social distancing, and avoid touching your face.
Once we settled in to this new reality, the truth is we had a very satisfying, deeply relaxing visit. We made ample use of the infinity pool, went for a boat ride on the lagoon and a beach picnic, and visited the hotel’s organic farm nearby. We enjoyed sleeping in late and having our breakfasts brought to the privacy of our patio to enjoy the scenery while tucking into fresh local fruit, home baked pastries and Moroccan pancakes. We also did a hammam scrub and massage under the stony columns of the hotel’s excellent spa, our first since the start of the pandemic. No request was too much for the staff, and one thing that has remained consistent is La Sultana’s wonderful team who are eager to please. We spent more time than in the past speaking with the staff, sharing stories of the lockdown and how things were in Oualidia (which registered very few actual cases). Most of the team at La Sultana have been there for years, so it was good to know that our dirhams and gratuities were also helping keep not just the hotel but the families that depend on them afloat.
And let’s not leave out the oysters. Heading out by boat, we visited one of the local producers that supplies the hotel, right off the lagoon. The oysters spend the first few years of their lives in the tidal waters, and the last six months or so in salt-water tanks before being sold. Oyster farming requires a zen patience, as they can take around three years to mature. Patience has become my mantra in these days of uncertainty, and I take great comfort in knowing that when the day comes when international travelers are welcome back to Morocco, there’s a wonderful little spot in Oualidia that will be welcoming them and capturing their hearts, as La Sultana has captured ours.
Sebastian was not hosted by La Sultana or any other entity for this article, in case you were questionining the sincerity of his praise. He’s also feeling fine weeks after his first foray into the outside world. Morocco remains closed to international tourists, but feel free to reach out to him to talk about the best Moroccan wine to pair with oysters, bird-watching, or future Morocco trip planning.