Last summer, Olympic rower Katherine Grainger took up some new challenges in Morocco, including paddleboarding and kite surfing. She recently wrote about it for The Telegraph.
The world of Essaouira runs at a different pace. People sit in the wooden doorways of their whitewashed houses watching the world go by. Even the shopkeepers and craft workers in the walled medina are encouraging rather than pushy; if you say no, they shrug and move on rather than persist.
Photo: Getty Images/ Loic Guillou
I was staying a short taxi ride from Essaouira at the Sofitel Mogador. It is a beautiful hotel complete with spa facilities and an swimming pool where I spent many hours either enjoying the cool waters or soaking up the sun alongside it. The golf course, designed by Gary Player, looked impressive as well but as much as I admire the rolling greens and immaculate vegetation, I have yet to master the skills of golf, so instead I took the opportunity to walk through the eucalyptus and mimosa and along the sand dunes to the quiet beach. My room looked across to the Atlantic Ocean; sitting on the balcony as the sun dipped under the horizon was a joy.
The weather was superb throughout my visit, but most days I experienced the famous local wind, or taros as it is called in Berber. It takes some of the sting out of the hot summer sun but it can also make relaxing on the beach a little more challenging by stirring up the sand, blowing away anything that isn’t secured and whipping up a wild and angry sea.
Boats at Essaouira harbour (Flickr RF)
That wind is also the very reason that many people come to this area – it creates perfect conditions for windsurfing and kite surfing. I went along to meet Martin at Mistral, one of the outdoor activity places along the beach, to discuss learning the basics of kite surfing. As a result of my years of rowing I generally feel comfortable on the water, although much of that time has been spent mainly on rivers and lakes. The pounding waves were going to be a bit more of a challenge, but instead of my rowing boat, I would have other options.
Having windsurfed over the years, I was keen to try something new, although watching the kite surfers leaping over the waves and flying through the air, I wasn’t sure my earlier days of repeatedly falling into Scottish lochs while windsurfing would be of any use to me. Martin and the rest of the welcoming staff at Mistral reassured me that anybody could learn to kite surf. The place had a feel of a friendly local club with people ambling in collecting surfboards or paddleboards and negotiating their way past the indifferent camels on the beach.
Katherine in Essaouira
My timing turned out to be a little less than ideal as the planned days for my lessons had, first, too strong winds for a beginner, and then too little. To the vast credit of the staff I wasn’t turned away but enthusiastically encouraged to attempt other water activities in the meantime. So I tried surfing, sea kayaking, paddleboarding and flying a surf kite – while standing safely on the beach.
As far as the kite surfing was concerned, my instructor, Rachid, offered the perfect mix of encouragement, enthusiasm and gentle teasing – as, quite frankly, my attempts deserved. He began by asking if I wanted to “just fly the kite” or “be patient and learn”. My “learn?” was more of a question than an answer – but he looked relieved.
The Sidi Kaouki coast, Morocco (Alan Keohane )
We took things steadily, learning about the mood and direction of the wind through drawing simple diagrams in the sand on the beach. I heard about predicting the changes in the wind speed, strength and direction and adapting as necessary. The kite is powerful even in the light wind but there was an amazing sensation of rhythm and control once I got the basics right. I can see why people adore the sport.
There was also time to try paddleboarding, and I made my way across to the closest island. I fell in quite a lot, especially when paddling across the rolling waves, but the cool water was a welcome relief from the heat of the sun. Falcons soared above as I paddled around the rocky limits. It certainly offered a different perspective from the double sculls at the Olympics!
Back on the beach, the sun was starting to set and the beach clubs were firing up their barbecues. A band began playing. Everyone was relaxing with a drink in hand, happily tired from a day of sea, sun, sand and activity. Just for now, kite surfing could wait.
Katherine in Essaouira
The Ultimate Travel Company (020 3051 8098; theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk) offers a week in a superior room at the Sofitel Essaouira Mogador Golf & Spa from £1,173pp including breakfast, BA flights from Heathrow and transfers. A two-hour kite-surfing lesson with Club Mistral (club-mistral.com) costs from €75.