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Reviews of Holidays and Hotels in Morocco - Follow The Flamingoes

This is London, 17 August 2001

Follow the flamingoes...

Nick Redman

Oualidia ... wah-li-dear. The name moves like waves on a glassy cresting Atlantic. A Moroccan beach town not so far, as the migrating flamingo flies, from the plastic loungers of charmless Agadir, or the Gallic chic of blue-shuttered Essaouira, both south down the coast, yet a world apart from those clamoured-for Euro resorts in most every other way.

The first glimpse astounds. A butter-coloured beach sweeps far around a breezy lagoon. Windsurf sails whip across it. Oysters thrive in it. Arrivals are mesmerised by it - its ethereal light and space. The latter is at a premium come August, when Rabat and Casablanca empty en masse, spilling into its millpond waters, while serious surfers venture beyond the natural breakwaters in search of the rough stuff.

October brings flurries of flamingoes from Spain and the Camargue, pit-stopping in flocks to overwinter on its tide-rippled strands; spoonbills from the Netherlands; black-winged stilts on spectacular legs; and lesser spotted fashion photographers, down to shoot a season's collections by Burberry or Jil Sander, framing them surreally against sands that turn an image Calvin Klein-ad monochrome in the bleached light. Spotted off duty: Bruce Weber. And David Sims, drinking in the surfer's-paradise peace of the place on a board rented off resident Laurent, with his surfing school and surfing dog, Spot.

Unmanicured and laid back, the cluttered cubic town offers few concessions to package-sunseekers, apart from sun. Sure, beach inflatables flap along the storefronts, among the flybuzzy butchers and grand-taxi queues. But eateries sizzle with fish kebabs and beef-and-prune tagine. Search high and low for lasagne and chips. It's a real Moroccan resort, after all.

Not that its beauty has eluded the grand: Sultan El Oualid fell for the spot in the 17th century, setting up camp to fend off the Portuguese hogging the coast further north. His kasbah remains, crumbled, high on a promontory looking out to sea.

Royalty also loved it, despite - or for - its dishevelment. King Mohammed V (1909-1961) decided on a grand summer palace, which still stands above the sands, now rust-red and ruined, its pool dry, its ballroom grandeur locked teasingly behind tall, blistered doors. Wander the grounds at your peril - guards stand sentry, there to scare camera-wielding intruders away.

No fear, we were just happy to be here. August refugees from Marrakech's latest designer resort. Poolside Prada and flat, fake Warner Bros masonry - anaesthetised. Finding Oualidia on a crinkly map, we fled.

Our escape, in an airconditionless taxi swinging with kitsch, took us through endless brown Biblescapes murmuring in the furnace heat. Lonely stone homes, asses coat-shuddering below wilting palms, no sign of man against the ancient jagged horizon, only the flash of peeling pastel towns squiggled with Arabic, then the empty road again, dissolving into quicksilver mirages, pulling us ever on. When, after three hours, the molten sky cooled to blue and a squillion sunflowers in fields gazed heavenwards, we smelt the sea and smiled.

We checked in at hotel Hippocampe, propped with Day-Glo surfboards, draped with cozzies and neoprene. It couldn't fail to seduce: a salty memory of sandy seaside holidays; stepped rows of bungalows sunk in gardens mad with fuchsia, dahlia, grape trellises and geraniums; the lagoon, through palm fronds, curving away in both directions.

Pi???ce de r???sistance was the restaurant, surveying the bay: a crazy cross between a ship and a ski lodge, all spruce panelling, ferns of Triffid dimensions, a hog's head over the flue and two fake pet parrots dangling above the Nestl??? ice-cream cabinet.

Staff-wise there was Ali, with his keys and improbably toothy grin; and Miloud, the main man in a mint shirt, who never tired of spelling out the menu with the aid of a handy fish chart dragged in from the kitchen. "Vous voulez pageot? Rascasse? Ou huitres de Oualidia (douzaine): 78 dirhams?"

I tell you, we fell in love. The midday ritual of iced Cuv???e du President ros???, uncorked, alongside fried calamari on the terrace as the cobalt bay shimmered, heaving with fully veiled mothers like black bags of suet, feeding infants under parasols, muscles in boxers scrunching by for errant beach balls. Day upon day, obligatory sand between toes, thinking of taxiing up the coast while sinking dinky Flag lagers straight from the bottle until the light drained from the sky, leaving the lagoon suddenly a hot black unknown somewhere out there, not even moonlit, though giving sporadic breeze all evening as we dined beside lovers, surfers and drifters.

One night, pulsing rai woke me, booming late beyond the bedroom door. I thought a ghetto blaster was pounding, so clear and loud was the sound. But, stealing out, I realised it came from further away, down round the bay, and followed a swelling crowd along sandy, pine-edged ways to a giant marquee, glowing amid a vast gold and amber universe of candlelit stands.

Inside, a riot of multi-generations high on cola was jigging, hogging the floor as the band romped on, the lead singer contorting sweatily for crescendos still, not long before dawn. Exhilaration came off that night like an electric charge, wherever you moved, the antithesis of anaesthetised five-star Marrakech. There and then I decided. Designer isolation, you can keep it, all to yourself.

Way to go: Nick Redman travelled to Oualidia with Best of Morocco