The promise of flamingos and oysters enticed me to visit Oualidia, a coastal village in Morocco that is as laid back as Marrakech souks are bustling with wares. I was in the midst of a longstanding seafood phase when the invitation came in to celebrate the 10 year anniversary of La Sultana, a 12 room luxury boutique hotel, and simultaneous launch of its oyster bar. Before long I was in the hotel’s hammam scrubbed raw, by a lady I had just met, and wearing nothing but paper underwear designed for sumo wrestlers – all in the name of my favorite birds and bivalves.
Feisty birds woke me up on my first morning in Oualida. At 6 AM I drew back the thick curtains of my room and was greeted by tufts of green and sand-hued stone walls lit golden by the day’s early light. I spotted the salt water lagoon that sits between La Sultana and the Atlantic ocean and witness over the course of three days that its tempo is dictated by the time of day.
At daybreak fishermen, taking advantage of the quiet hours, prepared to head out for the day’s catch equipped with nets and fishing poles. It seems Oualidia is a pescetarian’s dream because among the fishermen’s daily bounty are octopus, spider crabs and sea bass. By late afternoon activity reaches to a crescendo where residents and tourists alike wade in the lagoon. Men on horseback trot alongside the beach and further afield near the mouth that leads to the Atlantic Ocean surfing lessons are in session.
La Sultana hotel, Oualidia
As life happens on the lagoon time takes on a different pace at La Sultana. A young family of five favored the hotel’s infinity pool complete with daybeds while an elderly couple took their coffee on the patio overlooking the salt marsh where fishermen pick snails to use as bait. In between pescetarian meals I took advantage of other hotel amenities on offer.
Still tense from the shock of Brexit I surrendered to a two hour spa treatment which included a thorough scrub down in the hammam. My prudish American sensibilities melted away on the warm marble slab underneath my bare skin while the masseuse methodically exfoliated around the useless paper underwear. When I couldn’t possibly be any cleaner we proceeded to the next room for a full body massage aided by the distinct nutty scent of argan oil.
The whole experience would have been less amusing (and perhaps a touch less awkward) if my fellow travelers and I didn’t misunderstand the situation and decided to take our treatment two at a time. It turned out there is only one hammam in the hotel which means if you’re looking for a private room book solo treatments! Other services on offer such as arranging for cooking classes in the hotel or shopping excursions to nearby towns can be organized by the attentive staff. Tempted as I was to hunt for Moroccan ceramics and tiles I opted to take a soak in the private stone jacuzzi (that’s fitted in each guest room with salt water pumped from the lagoon) on my room’s balcony during down time.
Oualidia’s famed oysters & seafood
Oyster farming in Oualidia started shortly after Morocco gained independence in 1956 using Japanese oysters with methods learnt from the French. Now rows of oyster beds are spread along the lagoon and are separated according to size. At La Sultana’s newly opened O Bar on the hotel jetty we sampled locally grown oysters which were smaller, firmer and more delicate than the Horses’s Hoof oysters that hailed from Daklah, southern Morocco. It was a first for me to try oysters larger than the size of my hand with a bulbous tail that explodes with briny juice.
While the area is most famous for oysters other finds from the sea, such as leggy spider crabs and sea urchins, also take prominence on La Sultana’s menus. For two consecutive days this culinary traveler favored grilled lobster and a lightly seasoned sultana salad studded with calamari, octopus, prawn and vegetables. Depending on your preference you can choose to lunch via picnic by the hotel’s private beach during low tide or on premises at the hotel deck.
The highlight of my stay was dining under a Berber tent at sun set. Our starter of baked spidercrab with cheese was rich and indulgent and reminded me of my cousin’s sumptuous crab dip without the heat. Salt-crusted Atlantic sea bass baked until tender was just light enough to balance out a heavy cheesy appetizer and our flaming baked Alaska dessert. While chicken, lamb and beef options are available on the menu it was certainly the delights of the sea that made an impression on me.
Getting to La Sultana, Oualidia
From the Casablanca airport it was a 2 1/2 hr drive which was almost as long as the flight from London to Morocco. The good news is that a newly built highway, set to be completed by the end of July, will shave an hour of travel time which will get you to the sanctuary that is La Sultana even faster. While enroute don’t forget to look out the window, while I didn’t see any flamingos at the hotel we caught a glimpse of a flock of pale pink flamingos at a distance in the car.