Menorca, the shy beauty of Spain’s Balearic Islands, is a model of low-key, sustainable luxury that’s ideal for our times.
Lean, tanned, wearing bright orange board shorts and a brave face, the young man steps to the edge of the rock ledge and sizes up the drop. Six metres? Eight metres, max. He inhales deeply and leaps into the air, arms thrown high above his head, body straight as a pin as it enters the rippling blue Mediterranean. Seconds later another body flies through the air then another. A constant cycle of euphoria.
Cala en Turqueta is not easy to reach, nor easy to forget. A sunbaked hour by motorbike from the Menorcan capital of Mahón, a quick cooling dip at the resort beach of Cala Galdana then a 30 minute hike along a dirt trail to arrive at this enchanted cove. Cradled by limestone cliffs, crusted with pines, the beach studded with colourful umbrellas and tanned Europeans, it’s a bit crowded by Australian standards but so utterly lovely that I’m just delighted to be here.
My friend and I have staked our towels on an outcrop in the shade of a wild olive. A prime viewing spot for beach theatre and those youthful leaps of faith from the far side of the cove. Cicadas sing of summer. The air is scented with pine and salt. Totally mesmerising.
This is the rhythm of my days on Menorca, shifting from one idyllic beach to the next, seeking the twin remedies of sunshine and saltwater. Drifting off to the metronomic lap of sea against sand and stone. The setting changes daily but the sentiment stays the same.
Of all the Balearic Islands, this one is the most laid-back – and underrated. Touristy Mallorca is home to one of Spain’s busiest airports and hordes of visitors from posh to package. Ibiza’s the dance party island and Formentera is its much smaller, more tranquil sister.
Menorca is for Goldilocks. The justright destination for this moment in time, when we’re being urged to travel more sustainably, both for the sake of the planet and the communities we visit. And post-COVID-19, perhaps we also yearn for simpler pleasures.
History explains how Menorca has managed to remain so true to character. The islanders’ opposition to Spanish dictator Francisco Franco’s fascist regime (1939-1975) meant they were denied the government largesse that fuelled Majorca’s tourism boom from the 1950s. After Franco’s death and before developers had a chance to storm in and ruin everything, UNESCO declared Menorca a biosphere reserve, a designation committing the island to maintaining its delicate balance between humans and nature. Franco’s spite inadvertently preserved Menorca’s Arcadian spirit.
That spirit is best tasted on the Camí de Cavalls, a 185-kilometre coastal trail originally used by soldiers on horseback (cavalls) to patrol the island. Without really trying, I cover quite a bit of the Camí hiking between beaches, traipsing through groves of mastic, olive and pine and dodging the occasional wild goat.
The trail starts officially in the port city of Mahón, the modern capital and former British stronghold, then passes through the old Arab capital of Ciutadella and many charming fishing villages en route.
It’s a window into the island’s timeworn character, passing lighthouses and Martello towers, the odd windmill, drystone walls (more than 11,000 kilometres of them subdivide the island), faded farmhouses and many cows, the unsung stars of Menorca’s flourishing dairy industry.
The island might be low-key but it’s not without glamour. Last July the venerable Swiss gallery Hauser & Wirth opened an outpost on Isla del Rey in Mahón Harbour, transforming an 18th-century naval hospital into the continent’s hottest new art destination with eight galleries, and gardens by Piet Oudolf, the cult Dutch designer behind New York’s High Line.
Reviving Menorcan history is a recurring theme in its tourism, largely because the strict conservation mindset forbids new buildings. So the best hotels are found in heritage conversions, such as Can Faustino in Ciutadella, where three 16th-century palaces now house 37 rooms, nine suites and one selfcontained villa. Likewise Cristine Bedfor in Mahón, which opened last year, is a row of historic mansions reconfigured as 21 luminous rooms with catering by Ses Forquilles, one of the island’s top restaurants.
In the interior, farmhouses or fincas now boast private villas or singular country hotels such as Torralbenc, a property draped in bougainvillea near the hilltop town of Alaior. Its complex of whitewashed, red-tiled farm buildings have been painstakingly restored into 27 guestrooms, a restaurant fusing Basque technique and Menorcan produce (much of it sourced from the farm) and a winery producing red and white blends as well as a gorgeous rosé.
The 77-hectare Torralbenc estate also contains Iron Age Talayotic ruins. Hardly surprising when you realise there are more than 1500 of these stone buildings, burial chambers and assorted ancient human structures scattered across the island.
And then there’s Menorca Experimental, the latest outing from the French hospitality collective behind hip bars and hotels in London, Paris and Venice. Menorca seems an odd choice for the Experimental Group, known for its focus on sharp design, gastronomy and indulgence, but the founders fell for the island just like everyone else.
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“Menorca is a jewel,” says co-founder Romée de Goriainoff. “It’s been impossible in the Med to find an unspoiled piece of land… except for Menorca. What made it a ‘forgotten’ island became the reason to go in the eyes of many travellers. It’s the most beautiful Mediterranean island.”
Set on a 30-hectare rural plot of stone walls, wild olives and pines, Experimental’s renovated 19th-century finca has 43 rooms and villas, a wonderful restaurant, bar and pool, and activities including horseriding and boat trips to secluded coves (calas). The hotel’s interiors, by the French designer Dorothée Meilichzon, typify minimalist Menorcan chic.
“We tried to bring a modern vision to Menorca while respecting what makes it so attractive,” says de Goriainoff. “If you play by the rules and respect the island, locals welcome you very warmly.”
Menorca will, uncharacteristically, be in the spotlight this year when it begins its reign as European Region of Gastronomy in recognition of its unique cuisine – a harmonic blend of Arabic, Spanish and British influences – and its sustainable, zero-kilometre approach to produce.
The pleasures of Menorcan food can be enjoyed at the likes of Sa Llagosta restaurant (Carrer de Gabriel Gelabert, 12; +34 971 37 65 66) in the fishing port of Fornells. It’s renowned for caldereta de llagosta, the island’s signature lobster bouillabaisse, though chef David de Coca’s seafood repertoire extends to a tartare of rockfish with samphire foraged from the coast and a scallop salad laced with Beluga caviar.
Or there’s Salitre Restaurant, with its alfresco terrace anchored above Cala Torret on the island’s south-eastern tip. Chef Zoltan Polgar’s classic Spanish plates feature organic fruit and vegetables grown on a nearby farm, local eggs and dairy products, charcuterie made at Trebalúger and seafood from the Mahón market.
But if there’s one must-do experience on Menorca – besides acquainting yourself with as many beaches as humanly possible – it’s cocktails at Cova d’en Xoroi. This bar, set spectacularly on cliff ledges and caves above Cala en Porter, is the island’s most popular attraction and deservedly so. Come for a sunset pomada (local gin and lemonade) and if the mood grabs you, stay for the DJs and dancing ’til dawn.
The Menorcan coastline is riddled with caves. For centuries they were used to hide people, or treasures, from a constant barrage of invaders. Now, thankfully, Menorca hides no more. Its treasures are laid bare for all to see. And like the tanned youths at Cala en Turqueta, it’s set to make quite a splash.