Having been enchanted by Marrakech this summer, Rosanna Falconer returned to Morocco to explore Oualidia, a coastal village that provided the perfect getaway for a spot of winter sun with some serious sustainable credentials, of course.
After the intoxicating energy of my Marrakech trip this summer, I longed to discover more of this country fast gaining a reputation for its sustainability. Oualidia is a coastal village located three hours from Marrakech. The two could not be more different. Oualidia is a haven of pink flamingos and rowing boats bobbing on its calm waters. A languorous tranquillity pervades (aside from the weekly local market – a must, see activities below!).
Where we stayed
In the 1950s, King Mohammed V built his summer residence in Oualidia, declaring it Morocco’s first royal beach. The palace has since fallen into disrepair and is surrounded by guards, but it can be seen by boat or on a walk at low tide. Either way, the King had good taste, clearly. The lagoon of the village is a unique eco system, rich in biodiversity and thriving with birds. Hotel La Sultana Oualidia overlooks the lagoon. With such a position of beauty comes great responsibility, one that the hotel team embrace wholeheartedly.
Nabil, the hotel manager, beams with pride on our tour of the hotel’s flora and fauna. His enthusiasm is infectious – he has known and loved this area since he was a boy when he would spend summers here and picnic with friends across the lagoon on fresh tomatoes and fish. His love and respect for the lagoon is shared with the team, all of whom are right behind the initiatives. Take plastic, the non-biodegradable pollution that is the plight of our oceans; the coastline here is striking in its lack of litter – and we would know – my husband and I walked for miles over its idyllic golden sands!
How do they combat it? After all, they have the crashing waves of the Atlantic with its cargo of waste to contend with, as well as the area’s droves of tourists in summer (it has gained a reputation as the St Tropez of Morocco). Each Monday, hotel staff litter pick across the lagoon, stopping for a picnic midway (because fighting plastic is thirsty work!). Then in January, when the hotel closes, a full clean-up initiative takes place. Warning signs with fines for dropping litter are placed throughout the resort. Nabil’s 2020 plan? Rent out kayaks to guests in exchange for a bag of collected rubbish, in lieu of payment.
Unfortunately, plastic recycling is in its infancy in the area (and regardless, it’s often ineffective here in the UK too). Instead, the hotel focus on upcycling: the greenhouse is full of water bottles refashioned into plant pots to grow seedlings and add to the 30 species of palm in the gardens.
The advanced water recycling systems are also impressive, meaning all water waste is reused on site across the 6,500 square metres of farmland. The organic kitchen garden is meticulously maintained by seven gardeners and supplies 80% of the hotel’s produce. For the remaining 20%, the hotel ropes in the help of the neighbouring farmers, with whom they have a long-established, mutually beneficial relationship.
What we did
All of these initiatives are admirable but they are particularly crucial in the context of the hotel’s position. The lagoon extends over 12km. It is a renowned ecological site for bird conservation, part of the Ramsar Convention for Wetlands of International Importance. Birdsong enchants from sunrise and the sheer quantity of storks, herons and gulls is remarkable. Binoculars and bird books await each guest in their room, but we longed to get closer, an activity which the hotel provides with a guided bird safari. Hopping into a wooden boat (all of the traditional little boats on the lagoon are painted in primary colours, a style rule which I love), we set off. As a one-time member of the RSPB’s Young Ornithologists’ Club (childhood bird geek!), this differed from anything I had done before in England.
The birds are in complete harmony with their surroundings, unintimidated by the boats chugging past, happily feeding off the rich offerings of the low-tide sandbanks and oyster beds. Sadly, my camera lacks a telephoto lens to do our sightings justice but from the curlew with its characterful extra-long beak to the majestic white stork with its long coral legs, the trip was enchanting. Even coots, birds I see daily splashing about St James’ Park, here take on a magnificence in their vast drifts across the water. And then, the jewel in the crown to end the safari: the flamboyance of flamingos (yes, that’s what you call a colony of these pink kings of the water). They congregate in the salt marshes that lie at the end of the lagoon, migrating from their summer residence of South Africa.
This was a surprise and a discovery in equal measure. Awaking early, we walked up the hill from the hotel into the village, guided by the cries of market sellers urging us to buy their fresh produce. The souks of Marrakech buzz with tourists enticed by their beautifully merchandised pottery, colourful glasswork and handmade slippers. This local market could not be more different, or more authentic to local life. Sellers come by donkey from villages up to 50km away each week. We did not see one tourist but instead, locals focused on their weekly shop: bartering for the best seasonal fruit, smelling for the freshest spices or stopping (briefly) for fresh pastries and Moroccan mint tea.
Our accommodation symbolised just how closely the hotel holds nature to its heart. Nestled atop a tree with panoramic views of the lagoon from its terrace, it was without doubt the most unique place we have ever stayed. The tree’s trunk grows through the centre of the suite, within toe-touching distance of the bed as you wake each morning! Made from wood by local artisans, it is perfectly at one with its surroundings.
What we ate
Guided by the expert hotel chefs, we followed whatever suggestions they had. Highlights had to be the green juice made fresh each morning with cucumber, spinach and mint from the garden – as zingy as a wake-up call as you could find. Then there was amlou – a delicious butter of almonds, honey and Argan oil to spread on hot toast – not forgetting Berber omelettes made from eggs freshly laid by the hens we could see roaming about from our room.
For the evening, our most memorable dinner was set up Berber style in a tent on the beach with a roaring fire. Fresh oysters caught that afternoon, metres from where we were sitting, were followed by rfessa, a dish that mixes the simple ingredients of lentils and semolina pastry, elevated with spices and slow-cooking.
The roar of the ocean could be heard in the distance, the fishermen boated past and the birds picked away happily on the shore for their own dinner. This is a special place indeed, and with the initiatives of locals as impassioned and proud as those we met, long may it stay that way.
For more sustainable travel tips, read our guides With Love from Milan, New York, Brighton and Sri Lanka and see our list of the most sustainable cities in the world to visit.
See the best eco resorts on the planet.