The vagabond spirit of Mirleft, Morocco’s surf nook

A mile past the sleepy little town’s dusty high street lie cliffs of California proportions — with swells to match

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At first, the sleepy little town of Mirleft looks like all the others on the 600-mile trek through the sands of the Sahara: half-gravel, half-concrete sidewalks, faded paint, brightly painted schools and the minaret of a new mosque jutting up toward the sky. But a mile past Mirleft’s dusty high street lie cliffs of California proportions — with swells to match. The cliffs arch down at a near forty-five-degree angle and into meaty waves rolling toward a point break. It’s here that a group of ten French and German surfers have joined up with Issam…

At first, the sleepy little town of Mirleft looks like all the others on the 600-mile trek through the sands of the Sahara: half-gravel, half-concrete sidewalks, faded paint, brightly painted schools and the minaret of a new mosque jutting up toward the sky. But a mile past Mirleft’s dusty high street lie cliffs of California proportions — with swells to match. The cliffs arch down at a near forty-five-degree angle and into meaty waves rolling toward a point break. It’s here that a group of ten French and German surfers have joined up with Issam Surf School, heading down to Plage Sauvage, the beach below, in a 4×4.

It’s a welcome break from the desert — and a six- or seven-hour nonstop drive from Mhamid, where the paved road ends and there is nothing left but enormous sand mountains and large drifts that range in color from caramel to milk chocolate. There, about a seven-hour drive from Marrakech, tour groups abound, every other mile or so along the N9 lined with chipped or fading, eccentrically spelled signs, “Sahara Aventures,” “Excursion Tomboctou: 49 Jours” or “Zbar Travel: Camel, Trekking, Bivouac, Sand Boarding.” These pop-up desert guides, promising a romantic glimpse of the place where Lawrence of Arabia set his sights a century ago, are just one part of Morocco’s tourism revitalization.

Morocco gets surf year-round — its curvy coastline lands nearly perfect waves from the southwest and the northwest — but for perfectly lined-up, grinding kick outs, the Christmas holiday (and the period through March), bear witness to the Atlantic’s most powerful swells and least annoying tourists.

Since gaining independence from France in 1956, Morocco has been on a steady postcolonial trek toward self-sufficiency. With a king who is as fanatical about fighting terrorism in the Sahel as he is about creating luxury gambling resorts along Agadir’s corniche, tourists have flocked to Morocco in winter for everything from skiing the high peaks of the Atlas Mountains to surfing Saharan sand dunes to landing 360-degree turns on the Atlantic beaches — all just a day’s drive away. Because of this, Morocco, especially around Christmas, has become one of the world’s top tourist destinations, welcoming around 11 million visitors in 2022, according to the ministry of the interior — many of them headed for the souks, the riads and the culture of central Morocco and the Sahara.

The 6.8-magnitude earthquake that struck Morocco’s Marrakesh-Safi region on September 8, 2023 was expected to stem the tide of tourists. However, more than 960,000 people visited this past fall, up 7 percent from the previous year. Although the region still faces the difficult task of rebuilding, the government has pledged $11.7 billion to help more than 4 million people affected by the earthquake.

“It is crucial to communicate to the world that the situation is more than under control, that we are back to normal life,” says Fatim-Zahra Ammor, Morocco’s minister of tourism. “What was also great is that the tourists that were in place at that time in Morocco started sharing on social media their testimonials about the real situation and that really helped us a lot to convey what was really happening in Marrakech.” But what about the underdeveloped territory along Morocco’s 1,500 miles of coast? As part of the Azur plan launched in 2001, the Moroccans have created six seaside resorts across the country, as well as investing millions of euros in the Taghazout Bay surfer village. Taghazout, just north of Agadir, was once a small fishing village that has become a bustling mini-town full of cafés, family-friendly beach hotels and surf shops to accommodate the influx of European tourists — and the 15 percent of Moroccan surf guys looking to teach them how to hang ten.

With all this in mind, my girlfriend and I chose Morocco for a two-week break from England during the last two weeks of the year. The Atlas Mountains, the Sahara and the South Atlantic coasts were our top three points of interest — with an eye to enduring as few tourists as possible. After landing in Marrakech, we realized that although it’s home to gorgeous mosques, Jewish cemeteries and the Yves Saint Laurent Museum and Jardin Majorelle, the city’s snake charmers, deluge of winter holidaymakers and its constant thrum of traveling salesmen would send us to the Atlas ahead of time.

Three days after arriving we had landed in Mhamid, our car full of local ceramics and pottery purchased after exploring the kasbahs that mark off the territories of one marauding desert army from another. We had taken in the capital of Moroccan movie-making, Ouarzazate, and spent a night in a cushy riad before our planned desert excursion. After we parked our car, we pulled out the essentials and gave ourselves over to a turbaned man driving a twenty-year-old Toyota SUV, booming the desert blues of Tuareg band Tinariwen on repeat. Despite the promise of desert surfing, the closest we came was running up the dunes and sliding down as we lost our feet in the ocean of sand. After pulling our legs from its sucking undertow, we found our camels and our made-to-order campsite for a night of glamping under endless stars.

The next day, we bid adieu to the dozens of tourists headed to the Sahara for New Year’s and drove nearly non-stop toward the coast. As we stopped every so often to allow a camel crossing, each small village looked more or less the same — a gravel soccer pitch with a small group of lively girls and boys running to-and-fro in a pick-up game, and a couple of squat amenity stores for a Coca-Cola and pistachios. But as the coast grew closer and the sun set over the Atlas the sea air started to drift into our nasal passages.

Lesser known than Agadir and Taghazout are the towns on Morocco’s south coast, which not so long ago skirted a bit too close to Western Sahara for safe surfing. However, after Morocco largely squashed Western Sahara’s independence uprising and gained the West’s sovereignty rubber-stamp, those looking to avoid the crowded swells of Hawaii or Australia can catch any commercial flight to Agadir, rent a car and drift from beach to beach, from Sidi Ifni to Mirleft to Tifnit — its curvy coastline lands nearly perfect waves.

Just before midnight, we arrived in the sleepy village of Mirleft, the unassuming star of Morocco’s southern beach scene. Here most everything, including the town’s only bar, shuts well before midnight. In the morning, we strolled past arts and crafts stores brimming with Aragon oil products; cheap beach toys peer out from faded pink-and-blue arches. We ordered a coffee and set our sights on Mirleft Beach, where an array of orange tables, orange chairs and blue umbrellas awaited. Each café, of about a dozen or so, is linked to some sort of hostel and run by an enterprising young man who has usually escaped a dead-end village life for something more fun and lucrative. In Mirleft alone there are plenty of surf shops including Karim’s Surf School, Biscou Surf School and Spot-M, a British-owned outfit with a fully equipped gear shop.

We sought out Issam Surf School, run by a collection of young Moroccan men with a decent array of surfboards scraped together from the bigger surf school outfits. We circled the minarets of a new mosque, finding another hostel just a few blocks from the beach where Issam and two twenty-somethings waited in yet another SUV with just enough surfboards and wetsuits to accommodate the ten or so victims ready to venture into the soup.

With beginners and intermediates separated, we were handed over to Kareem, who firmly holds the surfboard to the top of our rental car when the lash straps don’t quite keep it steady. Judging both Mirleft and Atlas beaches too tame for the day, we followed another Landcruiser to the Plage Sauvage and into meaty waves rolling toward a point break. Two miles south of Mirleft, Plage Sauvage is a wide, rangy plain featuring caves, cliffs and crashing waves. Kareem was ready to get us on the boards, trying a number of techniques: we practiced standing on the beach, while the water lapped the boards; he brought us into a subtle wave, telling us in broken English to paddle out a little bit farther; he gave us endless opportunities to practice “pop-ups” and turn the board in toward the beach. At the end of our half-day, however, I had managed to stay up only for thirty seconds before mullering. But the beach was gorgeous and ocean still relatively mild, so Kareem took us to visit a friend of his who has lived in the cliffs for the past twenty years. He attempted an introduction, but my poor French and his broken English result in little more than “bonne journée.”

That night Kareem instructed us to drive even farther toward Legzira Beach, where a mammoth stone arch naturally formed after years of erosion juts out into the perpetually crashing waves. There were once two, but the smaller one collapsed in late 2016, thanks to… perpetually crashing waves. The sea continues to wear away at the fragile red sandstone of the remaining formation, marking time.

We drove down rollercoaster roads with hairpin turns until we reached Sidi Ifni, a former Spanish protectorate. After dinner at a small seafood restaurant in the center of town, we made our way back to Mirleft and our last nights with the sound of lapping waves.

The next morning, on our way to Agadir, we saw the hollow hulks of new-build homes outlined in concrete. These were closer to the shore, reminding us that Mirleft isn’t going to keep its secret much longer. Already, Plage Sauvage is littered with plastic bags and cans washed ashore from the Atlantic. Moreover, 80 percent of Moroccans now work in informal employment, making these villages Meccas for new beginnings. Airbnb, kicked out of New York and facing trouble in Europe, has been sponsoring coastal rentals, and new investment has brought in the first modern conveniences like streetlights and an ATM, to a town where the preferred modes of transportation are still donkeys and rusted-out mopeds. In addition to encouraging the building of new homes and the remodeling of former shacks, Morocco has pledged millions in road infrastructure projects, both to make the roads safer and to reduce travel time from the north. The earthquake has only strengthened the government’s resolve.

“The worst thing that can happen to those communities… is if tourism stops,” says Hala Benkhaldoun, the general manager of Intrepid Morocco, a tourism operator. “Small parts of the Marrakech have been affected but life is back to normal here. Tourists visiting… didn’t decide to leave the city — they didn’t run to the airport to get out; they continued their trips.”

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s February 2024 World edition.