Unimpressed by its busier Balearic siblings, Liz Edwards gives Menorca a whirl. It’s beautiful, it’s below-the-radar and it’s a breeze to get to. Could this be the isle to finally win her heart?
I can already hear the gasps of horror at the confession I have to make, but here goes anyway: I’ve never really ‘got’ the Balearics. Like any good holiday-maker, I’ve tried, but somehow we just haven’t clicked. These islands should have been perfect dates for a committed Hispanophile like me, but Mallorca — beautiful, yes, its capital a charmer — had felt a bit well-trodden. (Or well-pedalled; blame the men, mid-Lycra-crisis, clogging the roads with their bikes.) Ibiza was fun, sure, but the clubs and the yoga all seemed a bit sceney to me. I’d not even made it to Formentera, put off by flight ’n’ ferry faff. It certainly wasn’t that I disliked the Balearics, and rave reviews from friends and colleagues made me reluctant to write off the islands altogether, but what can you do when there’s no chemistry? Well, apparently, you, er, see if you’ll hit it off any better with sibling number three.
Would Menorca be The One? I very much hoped so, because I’d signed up the family — husband, son and me — to 10 days’ holiday there. Those rave reviews and relentless enthusiasm had persuaded me to give the Balearics another chance. And I must say, between optimism and actual research, my expectations were dangerously high: it sounded like a more natural, sleepier sort of place than its neighbours, with little nightlife, fewer visitors and beaches as good as you’d expect on an island that’s been a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve for 25 years. There were historic twin cities to explore, Brit-influenced Mahón and Italianate Ciutadella. It was greener than arid Ibiza, and smaller than Mallorca (45 minutes’ drive end to end) so we could move around, doing the island justice, without car time eating into holiday time.
Key industries, besides tourism, were shoe- and cheese-production — some of my favourites. So, on paper, it looked pretty good. So how would it fare in the flesh?
First impressions matter, of course. And Borja, the smiling car-hire guy at the airport, aced it, airily telling us to just leave the keys in the glove compartment on our return, maintaining his smile even after a local woman reversed her car into ours: ‘Sure, have another!’ We drove off happy to believe that ‘delightfully relaxed’ might be the default Menorquin mood.
Mahón, the capital and our stop for the first couple of days, did little to undo Borja’s good work. High above the huge natural harbour that made the island quite the catch among Europe’s naval powers (its dance card was marked by the Brits for much of the 18th century) we found a chilled, well-groomed city of green-shuttered Georgian buildings and chunky, fortress-like convents. One is now a museum; another, the Claustre del Carme, a food market downstairs, the island’s music conservatory upstairs. We sat outside in the sun eating La Menorquina ice creams, Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No 5 galloping allegro out of the rehearsal-room window above.
Wandering through the pedestrianised centre, we passed grannies gossiping on benches beneath orange trees, and watched a band of folk musicians and dancers entertain the late-afternoon crowds. At Can’Oliver, a 19th-century mansion turned gallery-museum, gorgeous frescoes on ceilings and the double staircase were the backdrop to blessedly succinct displays on the island’s history, including one panel on the Brits’ linguistic legacy. Such pride.
A family of suckers for a shoe shop, we were helpless in the face of one store’s floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall rainbow of traditional avarca sandals. Mallorca’s native shoe is the Camper trainer; from Ibiza I could recall only sequins and boho tassels. But this was authentic summery heaven — window shopping was not enough. Waltzing on, freshly shod, we found in Plaça Bastió a handful of inviting cafés and bars ranged around a fabulous kids’ playground — the absolute, why-does-every-town-not-have-this dream combo. The four-year-old scarpered to make new amigos; we grown-ups sighed, delightfully relaxed, over tapas and glasses of the local lemonade. It was early days, but I was starting to feel a bit swoony about Menorca.
Day three: time to get to know each other better and take off some clothes. For the beach, of course. Mahón’s almost as far east as you can go on the island so off we went west, along the road built by the Brits when they moved the capital from Ciutadella at Menorca’s opposite end. And crikey, it was lovely. Beyond verges nodding with poppies and daisies, we saw windmills, hay bales, pines and palms, farms bounded by dry-stone walls with wooden gates so wiggly, they looked hand-drawn. Unlike the other Balearics, Menorca has cows, which means it has cheese — salty, paprika-bathed, moreish. We could only pass so many ‘elaboracio de formatge’ signs before stopping to buy some. We had bread and robiol pastries from a master Mahón baker’s — beach picnic complete. But which beach? Menorca has more than a hundred. I asked the farmer selling us her formatge if she had a favourite.
‘The holiday romance continued, days rolling on as gently as the waves tickling the shore’
‘It all depends,’ she said, possibly a little too delightfully relaxed. But in fact, she had sound advice. ‘If there’s a southerly wind, we go to the north coast. If the Tramuntana is blowing from the north, we go south.’ What if there’s no wind? ‘Have you seen how many windmills we have?’
Fingers in the air… south it was to Cala Mitjana, a clear-water cove of pale sand carved into pine-topped limestone cliffs; just one in a succession of pin-up-phenomenal beaches we saw on the island. It was all going so well — even better when we made it to second base. Hotel number two was in Ferreries, a snoozy little hill-cupped town of ochre, pink and white houses with window-boxes, cats and residents ready with a cheery ‘hola’. Inland, it seemed to be bypassed by most visitors, but it was brilliantly handy for exploration — within easy striking distance of Ciutadella (good for its gargoyled cathedral, tiled market and lavish nobles’ mansions), and both the north and south coasts.
Cala Macarella was another knockout southerner. On Mallorca, this beach would be swamped. On Ibiza, it’d be a beach club with daybeds. Here, the council banned parking because it was too busy, and you can’t even hire a lounger. It only endeared Menorca to me more. You can bus it, but we walked there along the clifftop path from Cala Galdana — a glorious half hour in itself, even before we got to the tantalising slow-reveal from the 200-plus steps down to the sand. We swam, bought cold drinks from Bar Susy at the back of the beach and lolled by the shore under a pine tree. Bliss.
‘We sighed, delightfully relaxed, over tapas and glasses of the local lemonade’
And so the holiday romance continued, days rolling on as gently as the waves tickling the shore. In the north, we discovered the red-sand of Cavalleria Beach and, from the lighthouse at its northern tip, watched the sun set over Connemara-rugged Cap de Cavalleria. A morning’s kayaking round the sheltered bay at Fornells gave us appetite enough for a caldereta, the Menorcan lobster stew that brings the king of Spain to town. I hope he gets the full side-table, finger-bowl and bib treatment we did.
Moving east for our last few days, we added to our list of greatest beachy hits: the dunes and shallow bay of Es Grau and the cove at sleepy, write-your-novel Alcaufar.
Did my smitten-ness know no bounds? Well yes, it did. Google pictures of Cova d’en Xoroi and you’ll see why I insisted we go — you’ll either get a cluster of thatched-parasol bar tables clinging to a cliff above the peacock- blue sea, or the rose-gold sunset that lights up the bar each evening. And it is a wowy setting, no question, out at the end of quietly resorty Cala en Porter. But as with all the best profile pictures, the reality was a bit different. Those ledges with their billowing white-fabric canopies were for cash-flashing VIPs only. As the sun dipped, everyone else — the world and his selfie-stick — was squeezed onto the rock-cut steps and little corners of the cave-bar. Besides the crowds, the dress code was definitely more smart than casual. None of it terrible, but still, it all felt a bit… Ibiza. Swipe left.
Nor was I quite convinced by one meal we had in lazy, low-key Sant Climent. Es Moli de Foc came highly recommended and its food was fabulous — the vast pans hanging in the kitchen a clue to its rice prowess. Inside were antique chairs, modern art and colourful fan lights; we sat in the pretty, high-walled courtyard and it should have been perfect. Perhaps the spark that was missing here was a local feel. Rather than the Spanish buzz we’d found elsewhere, here the clientele was resolutely baby-boomer British, including one minor celeb in his ‘don’t look at me’ bright green blazer. It all felt a bit… Mallorca.
It was down to our last lunch to restore faith, rekindle love, relight my fire. On a corner by the main road in Sant Climent, all plastic chairs and wall-mounted TVs, Es Casino was an unlikely cupid. But — how strange the change from Mallorca to Menorca — a houseful of Spanish-speaking Sunday lunchers boded well. So did the golden-anniversary granny serenading her assembled family. We asked the waitress for local specialities; she brought calves’ liver, tongue with capers and rosemary. Tender, flavourful delights the lot of ’em, not half as challenging as they sounded. Even the patatas we ordered for the fussy four-year-old came with a proper brava sauce.
We felt content, delightfully relaxed. And there it was. Not that the other Balearics are ugly sisters, but it had been worth that third shot with the glass slipper. This was the true love island.
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