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Marvels of Menorca: The least populated Balearic island has amazing hotels, beaches and bars

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The shopkeepers tend to rows of colorful leather sandals and the streets buzz with merry chatter and clinking glasses.

Without the masks hiding bronzed faces, life in the Menorcan capital of Mahon would feel almost normal, albeit quieter than usual.

Pre-pandemic, the island (population 90,000) is said to welcome 1.7 million tourists annually (with British visitors making up the largest market), but it is still waking from its locked slumber. And what a joy that is.

All bases covered: Cala Mitjana Beach in Menorca, popular with tourists and locals alike

The town of Mahon, pictured, is where Georgian buildings 'displace with Baroque, Gothic and Art Nouveau houses,' Harriet Sime reveals

The town of Mahon, pictured, is where Georgian buildings ‘displace with Baroque, Gothic and Art Nouveau houses,’ Harriet Sime reveals

I manage to explore this small island, only 30 miles long and ten miles wide, from top to bottom and side to side in just three days. The roads are quiet and lined with dry stone walls, in which striking gates are made of twisted olive sticks.

There is ample parking and the 33c heat and the smell of salty sea air hit me every time I step out of the air conditioned car.

The least populated of the Balearic Islands, Menorca is made up of two charming towns, a collection of whitewashed fishing villages, small farms producing olive oil and nutty Mahón cheese, and some of the best beaches in the Mediterranean – most of which can only be accessed after a trip on foot.

Harriet struck up a conversation with a local named Maria, who told her that Cala Mesquida, pictured, is one of her favorite Menorcan beaches. However, she feels like she is fidgeting. The locals like to keep some spots for themselves

A bedroom in the Can Alberti hotel, located in a mansion with a salmon-pink facade from 1740

A bedroom in the Can Alberti hotel, located in a mansion with a salmon-pink facade from 1740

In search of the clearest water I go to Calo Blanc on the south coast of the island.

Just a narrow tongue of sand, no more than three meters wide, it may be Menorca’s smallest beach, but has plenty of quiet spots for sunbathing on the sheer cliffs that surround the amazingly translucent water. After a quick swim, I drive five minutes west to Calo Binidali and find myself on a patch of sand between French children—eating cheese baguettes bigger than their arms—and a local nudist family watching their German Shepherd cool off in the water.

My base is Mahon, Spain’s easternmost point, where the sun rises first and sets fastest. The buildings reflect the rich history of an island conquered by the Romans, North Africans, British and French.

Creamy, lemony Georgian buildings with bottle-green shutters jostle with Baroque, Gothic and Art Nouveau houses, many of which have been converted into charming boutique hotels.

Can Alberti, a 1740 salmon-pink mansion on one of the city’s best streets, is a prime example of this, with rustic tile floors and artwork on the walls.

Hotel Cristine Bedfor, pictured, 'feels like a Menorcan version of Soho House,' writes Harriet

Hotel Cristine Bedfor, pictured, ‘feels like a Menorcan version of Soho House,’ writes Harriet

Cristine Bedfor is 'one of the most stylish places I've ever set foot', says Harriet enthusiastically

Cristine Bedfor is ‘one of the most stylish places I’ve ever set foot’, says Harriet enthusiastically

Harriet says of Cristine Bedfor's decor: 'Clashing prints, colors and fabrics mix with wicker furniture and kitschy crockery, but somehow every room works incredibly well'

Harriet says of Cristine Bedfor’s decor: ‘Clashing prints, colors and fabrics mix with wicker furniture and kitschy crockery, but somehow every room works incredibly well’

One of the Cristine Bedfor bedrooms.  Harriet's room has a free-standing bath and a terrace overlooking the garden

One of the Cristine Bedfor bedrooms. Harriet’s room has a free-standing bath and a terrace overlooking the garden

However, the most recent opening is arguably the city’s most exciting. Cristine Bedfor, a 26-room hotel five minutes’ walk away, feels like a Menorcan version of Soho House and is one of the most stylish places I’ve ever been. Clashing prints, colors and fabrics mingle with wicker furniture and kitschy crockery but somehow every room works incredibly well.

My bedroom is on the ground floor and has a free-standing bath (as well as a shower in the en-suite) and a terrace overlooking the garden, full of palm and cypress trees, local shrubs and a small walk-in pool.

Menorca has managed to keep its soul despite the demands of mass tourism. Spanish dictator General Franco unintentionally had a lot to do with this: from 1939 until his death in 1975, he was determined to deprive the island of public building funds in order to punish it for resisting his rule. So while sprawling hotels, nightclubs that never close and concrete promenades were built with public money in Mallorca, Ibiza and mainland Spain, Menorca has remained more or less untouched by modernization.

The spectacular Cova d'en Xoroi bar, pictured, is carved into a rock face in Menorca and offers stunning views of the Mediterranean Sea

The spectacular Cova d’en Xoroi bar, pictured, is carved into a rock face in Menorca and offers stunning views of the Mediterranean Sea

What you need to know…

The Balearic Islands are currently on the UK’s ‘orange list’ meaning fully vaccinated travelers are not required to go into quarantine on return (but must undergo a lateral flow test before departure before returning to the UK and a ‘ day two’ PCR test to the UK).

British tourists are not required to self-isolate on arrival, but must show proof of vaccination status or a negative PCR test.

There are direct flights to Menorca until the beginning of November.

The Balearic Islands Tourism Office has extended its free Covid-19 insurance for all travelers until the end of the year (safetourism.illesbalears.travel).

The island is known for the second largest natural harbor in the world and the birthplace of both avarca leather sandals and mayonnaise.

Legend has it that the chef of the Duke of Richelieu could not find the cream he needed for the victory meal after Menorca was conquered by the French in the 18th century, so instead whipped up an egg and oil sauce and ‘mahonnaise’ called honor of the capital.

But I am more interested in the wine, which has been produced on the island since the 13th century. The old tradition was almost lost to a catastrophic wine disease in the 19th century, but vineyards have re-emerged all over the island.

I head to Torralbenc, a former farm with acres of vineyards and herb-scented hills, for an evening of wine and exceptionally good food (the culinary scene is vastly underrated here).

Whitewashed walls smothered in climbing bougainvillea glow orange with the last scorching sun of the day as inventive plates of avocado cream with sweet apple cubes are brought to my table.

And of course there is the vino. And a lot of it. I go for the farm’s Chardonnay, which dances in the mouth with its buttery richness. It’s so good that I refuse to taste other wines.

Later that evening, while sipping a glass of Aperol spritz filled with giant ice cubes and orange slices, I have a chat with a local named Maria, who sums up what makes Menorca different from its Balearic sisters.

‘We have a saying here; people go to Mallorca to party, Ibiza to party and be seen, and Menorca to listen to their thoughts and enjoy themselves.’

We sit at a table in Cova d’en Xoroi, a labyrinth of terraces, bar areas and dance floors carved out of the steep Menorcan cliffs. A light breeze trickles in from the sparkling Mediterranean stretching out in front of us, as groups of ridiculously handsome locals and savvy tourists, mostly French, sip cocktails while playing along to the beat of the DJ.

I ask Maria for tips on her favorite beaches. “Cala Mitjaneta or Cala Mesquida,” she tells me. I’ve heard of them and I have a feeling she might be lying. The locals like to keep some places to themselves. And I can’t blame them.

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