The Ultimate Surf Adventure on Morocco’s Atlantic Coast

We scout for breaks, hammams and couscous royal with Vancouver–based travel outfitter Beach Travellers.

The sky is clear, the water glossy and the white–sand beach, pretty much empty – unless you count a pair of camels lying by the shore, bright boucherouite rag rugs strapped over their humps. “A lot of people think a windy day is great for surfing, but off–shore wind is what you want,” says Graeme Barker, peering out over the Atlantic Ocean. “You couldn’t ask for a better spot to learn.”

We’re in Sidi Kaouki, Morocco, 30 minutes from the fortified port city of Essaouira, and a five–hour drive south of souk–soaked Casablanca. It’s my first time in this resort town made up of surf shops and fast–food restaurants, the sparse crowds comprised of wetsuit–clad locals. It’s Barker’s first time, too, and that’s crucial: Today he’ll decide whether or not Sidi Kaouki is worth returning to – along with hundreds of clients.

January 16, 2018
A pair of surfers survey the waves in southern Morocco
Taghazout, you’re it: A pair of surfers survey the waves in southern Morocco.

The 33–year–old is CEO of Beach Travellers (BT), a Vancouver–based travel and surfing camp outfitter that takes adventurous twentysomethings on 10– to 40–day tours of Bali, Costa Rica and Thailand. “We go to places where you can’t just roll up and grab a rental car,” he explains. “It helps to have a person on the ground you can trust.” Now he’s adding Morocco to the mix, a process that requires three visits over 18 months, and a lot of relationship building. As I tag along on his journey, I see those connections come to life, beginning with Momo, the surf instructor he’s hired for the morning. His instructions are clear, his English is strong (as is his French, Spanish, Arabic and Berber) and, most importantly, he keeps me from giving up the first time I wipe out. As I’m drying off an hour later, Barker asks me for my feedback, but I can tell he’s already gone through a mental checklist, and noticed the would–be teacher’s ability to balance a formal lesson with the feeling that we’ve been friends forever. We both agree: Momo’s made the grade.

Krutzfeldt and Barker put their cart and soul into running Beach Travellers

Krutzfeldt and Barker put their cart and soul into running Beach Travellers.

Like a secret shopper or restaurant critic, I get to weigh the pros and cons alongside Barker and his wife, Whitney Krutzfeldt. A professional photographer who surfs occasionally, Krutzfeldt keeps her keen eye on what dry land has to offer: What’s there to do when you want a break from the breaks? In Essaouira, for instance, a hammam is a must – but our first visit is a blur as they scramble to locate our reservation and free up a treatment room. The black–soap scrub is invigorating, though (as Krutzfeldt points out), if they had trouble with three of us, BT couldn’t trust the spa to satisfy a group of 15 people tired from a long day of surfing. On day two, Spa Azur has the same TripAdvisor sticker in the window as the first hammam, but inside, the service is as polished as the black–tiled treatment rooms. From the owner’s personal greeting to pre–treatment mint tea to a finishing spritz of rosewater, it’s the sort of thing you Instagram immediately – then talk about for years.

Moroccan archways
Archways, architectural details and good vibes.
Architectural details against a pale blue wall

Barker will return to Morocco, to fine–tune an itinerary for the trip’s soft launch this spring, which should appeal to “BT superfans” – repeat customers who want a sneak peek of a new tour, even if there are a few rough patches. “They get a discount,” he explains, but the dozen or so testers will also get boasting rights when the region is added to BT’s official roster.

While Barker maintains that his clients are a laid–back bunch, he knows a lot of them save up all year to travel and for much of his demographic, this is their first big trip. “We had one guy in Thailand spend all day trying to catch a wave, and when he finally got it, he started sobbing. He was from the Prairies and it was his first time seeing the ocean.”

Most of Barker’s core clientele is looking for something that can’t be bought – authentic memories, not cheap souvenirs. In return, they give BT the kind of advertising money can’t buy: thousands of social media posts documenting their every adventure for an online audience of 64,000 followers. If Barker does his job right, the trips he’s curating now will be the #FOMO fodder of the future.

A mother and her daughters posing by a wall
The scene (and a bit of surf) along Morocco’s Atlantic coast.
A group of women sit on a wall overlooking the ocean while taking a break from surfing

It’s appropriate, then, that I’m taking a selfie on a cliff overlooking Imsouane – a tiny fishing village and secret surf spot 90 minutes south of Essaouira, with a faded lighthouse just this side of millennial pink – when we meet up with Larsen Jahid. The reedy 31–year–old with a wide smile and mop of curls is the reason Barker came here. The design of Jahid’s website for his own business, Cli Surf Morocco, was oddly similar to BT’s, and when Barker called him out on it in an e–mail, he didn’t get a defensive reply – he got an invitation. Jahid promised to take care of Barker if he ever came to Taghazout, an unassuming town of about 5,000 farther south still, whose point break and barrel waves draw world–famous surfers like Kelly Slater. Barker visited for a week in 2015, and experienced a relay race of recommendations: Jahid suggested a surf school back in Essaouira, whose instructor told them about a good riad, whose owner made them dinner reservations, and so on. No upselling, no scams, no tourist traps.

Dromedary disclosure in Sidi Kaouki
Dromedary disclosure in Sidi Kaouki.

Jahid is Barker’s “inside man” for practical advice and cultural etiquette – when and how to haggle, for example – but his presence is also a sign to locals that BT is worth doing business with. As we make our way to Taghazout Bay, Jahid insists we slow down so he can hop out to buy a bunch of tiny, bright bananas from a roadside vendor in Aourir, a transaction that takes maybe 30 seconds. “Organic, just using river water,” he promises to a carful of skeptics. (How good can a banana be?) But I take a bite and it’s a revelation: dense and sweet, like it’s been caramelized inside the peel.

The old ways live on with new amenities – hello, air conditioning – at Cli Surf Morocco, housed in a simple four–storey building (somewhere between a youth hostel and a beach house) a few hundred metres from the Atlantic Ocean in Taghazout. On the top floor, Jahid’s mother cooks couscous royal in the open kitchen, his brother helps lay the table and everyone serves one another from massive tajines.

Plates of pita and olives
For pita’s sake.
Graeme Barker going for a surf
Barker, unleashed on a Moroccan beached on a Moroccan beach.

We’re joined by a group of six German and Dutch tourists and a yoga instructor who teaches twice a day on the roof – the connection between warrior pose and a surf stance is apparent after my first lesson. They tell us about the storm we missed the day before, moods split between wishing they’d been able to surf and being grateful for some downtime to read and catch up on e–mails. Mostly, though, they’ve already picked up on that laid–back surfer fatalism, hoping for good weather but knowing it’s ultimately out of their hands.

We head inland for a hike, wending through the dusty High Atlas Mountains until we stop at a palm grove: the Valley of Paradise, a literal oasis. The park is popular with families during the day, but now, thanks to the cooler weather and setting sun, we have it all to ourselves.

Barker surfing in Imsouane
Surf and turf: Barker catches a break in Imsouane.
Larsen Jahid, founder of Cli Surf Morocco
Founder of Cli Surf Morocco and self–proclaimed hippie, Larsen Jahid.

Jahid leads us down the narrow trail, around rocky cliffs and over wooden bridges, until we get to a small freshwater pond. He declines to take a dip with us, a bit surprised by how readily we slip in (it’s positively balmy to us Canadians). By the time we start to make our way back, all we’ve got to guide us is the moonlight, an iPhone screen and Jahid. He helps us over stepping stones and through a thin pine forest. By the end, we’re just following the sound of his voice.

Later, Barker will confess he wasn’t sure if Krutzfeldt and I were enjoying ourselves, we were so quiet. But then, when we emerged at the other end of the trail, smiling, he knew that we were just drinking it all in. He made a mental note. This was the story we’d be sharing for years.