It isn't a drive that makes me believe heaven is around the corner. Casablanca's suburbs spew crumbling concrete, the stone-walled landscape is dust-dry, my first glimpse of coastline is framed by the smokestacks of El Jadida's potash factories. Then magic happens. Tidy farmland appears, then apricot blossoms and boys in striped djellabas riding donkeys. The countryside falls away to a purple patchwork of saltpans and the ocean beyond.
A guard swings back a wrought-iron gate and my car inches up a driveway between walls overhung with trees. A great pile of turrets and terraces looms: a crazy sandstone palace from an updated Arabian Nights. My luggage vanishes. No need to loiter at the reception desk, monsieur; why not pause in the garden to fill in my hotel form? I'm led between palm trees, down a path confetti-ed with fallen bougainvillea, to a terrace table overlooking a shimmering lagoon. A waiter pours mint tea the Moroccan way, in long dramatic spurts. I've slipped through a warp in the universe and into La Sultana, hotel extraordinaire, tucked amid the gorgeousness of Oualidia.
You need insider knowledge to find such a place. Moroccan tour expert Carol Prior mentioned it in passing ("Sheer heaven, it's where I go to chill out when I'm soooo stressed; the general manager Khalil is a dear friend, quite charming") and I nod, and it's organised as easily as if I'd rubbed a lamp. Hotel staff might actually be genies, never in-your-face but always attentive. I retire to my suite to find my shoes lined against the wall, rose petals scattered in the bathroom. A straw hat and a beach towel suggest pool flopping. Instead, I slip on pointy-toed babouche slippers and head onto my geranium-draped terrace for lovely views of farmer's fields and lagoon. That night, I hear the Atlantic ocean from my vizier-sized bed.
Breakfast is local yoghurt, cumin-sprinkled eggs and harcha flatbread as I watch staff haul seaweed off the beach and rake sand to Zen-like perfection. After a week's frenetic sightseeing, I'm pleased there's nothing much to do. Snooze and read, swim and walk. Time seems to slow. Some guests retreat to La Sultana's hammam, but the landscape is too beautiful. I watch the lagoon's changing colours, morning silver to blue, sapphire to evening purple. Then lamps are glimmering in the garden as tiny frogs chirp in the lily ponds.
Oualidia is a three-hour drive from Marrakesh, less from Casablanca, but discovered only by well-heeled Moroccans who weekend in modernist hillside villas. It's otherwise a simple fishing town of kindergarten colours: red-sand cliffs, blue sea, white houses, yellow boats. There are no carpet shops, beach bars or street hustlers; none of Morocco's city intensities; none of the tour coaches that swarm Essaouira further down the coast. Cubist houses tumble towards the lagoon, cannon rust in a crumbling fortress, a 1950s royal palace lies in ruins at the water's edge. Only on Saturdays does the town burst into market activity, as country folk arrive on donkeys and in battered Renaults to trade flyblown camel meat and plastic bags of plump olives.
The lagoon meanders for 11 kilometres and is full of curlews, spoonbills and migrating flamingos. There's nobody on Oualidia's beaches except for a few local families making sandcastles, and Casablancan couples negotiating sightseeing tours in gaudily-painted fishing boats. Men in white robes sit on seaside walls, dangling their feet. Fishermen will grill their catch for you right on the sand over charcoal: spider crab, lobster and John Dory at absurdly low prices. You can buy oysters from buckets off young men who drift around town on mopeds, producing quartered lemons from their djellabas.
In the evening I like to dine at La Sultana, where dishes are a hymn to Oualidia's abundant seafood: paella, fish tagines, bouillabaisse. I indulge in a whole sea perch cooked in a salt crust; the waiter debones it on a silver platter with practised flicks of his wrist. The Moroccan white wine is a revelation. The lagoon is gold and then pink, and I never want to leave.
Qatar Airways flies from Melbourne and Sydney to Doha (14.5hr) and onwards to Casablanca (7.5hr). Phone 1300 340 600, see qatarairways.com
La Sultana Oualidia has a swimming pool, full-service spa, private lagoon beach and 12 suites. Rooms from $415. Phone Small Luxury Hotels on 1800 219 010, see lasultanahotels.com
Australian-owned tour company By Prior Arrangement specialises in handcrafted historical and cultural itineraries in Morocco that might focus on food, gardens, architecture, interiors or shopping. Phone 0415 637 985, see bypriorarrangement.com
Brian Johnston travelled as a guest of By Prior Arrangement.