In ancient times, Morocco's Atlantic coastline was the farthest west known to man. These were shores rarely ventured to, and only after the great European maritime nations began their exploration of the world in the 15th and 16th centuries did the area receive regular visitors. Settlements along this seaboard have included Roman, Portuguese, French, and, of course, Berber and Arab, and their influences can still be seen today. A classic example is Rabat, the nation's relaxed capital, which boasts a history that reads like an adventure novel, including occupation by a notorious band of pirates, along with other tribes and nations. Its combination of an Andalusian-influenced kasbah, distinctly Moroccan residential medina, and French-designed centre ville -- all lying within 12th-century Almohad walls -- is perhaps the best introduction to Morocco for first-time visitors.

Rabat's big sister to the south, however, is another matter. Casablanca is Morocco's economic and industrial heartland, a new modern city that in 200 years has grown from an abandoned village to a heaving metropolis, and is still expanding thanks to a continuous wave of rural migrants hoping to make a better life in the "big smoke." Casa, as it's known, was the showpiece for colonialist France, and its town planners were at the forefront of nouvelle architecture. Some fine examples can still be seen in the city center today.

South of Casablanca is a seemingly uninterrupted stretch of beach that goes to Essaouira and beyond. This is the country's summer holiday coast, where Moroccans pitch tents for the whole month of August, playing beach football by day and loud music by night. For the traveler, this coast can be enjoyed at any time of the year, with the various seasons bringing opportunities for bird-watching, surfing, and relaxation.

Oualidia is one such place that is heaving in August and deserted for the rest of the year. This small fishing village offers a natural, sheltered lagoon and a wild, deserted beach, along with a small selection of hotel-restaurants serving up the country's freshest and cheapest seafood. Perhaps the finest (and definitely most popular) of this region's settlements is the alluring port town of Essaouira. With a special combination of a quaint walled medina; quality maison d'hôte accommodations; a wide, crescent-shaped bay; and exceptionally relaxed and friendly townsfolk, the Essaouira of today is a result of both past and present influences. Here you can see craftsmen plying their traditional trades on streets that were designed as recently as the 18th century. This mix of ancient and modern can also be seen during the town's world-renowned Gnaoua & World Music Festival, when hundreds of thousands of visitors come to listen and dance to the trance music (fused with jazz and pop music) that was brought here by West African slaves.

At least a fifth of the country's population lives along this section of the Atlantic (from Essaouira to Rabat), which brings about the advantage of a good network of public transport, but also confronts the traveler with a perhaps more cosmopolitan Morocco than expected. With a little further exploration, however, I feel that of all of the regions covered in this guide, it's the Atlantic coast that truly portrays the Morocco of today -- sometimes conservative yet often liberal, and yearning to be modern while respecting tradition.