It’s the surprises that make Western Menorca special – the secret is knowing where to look.
We’d just drained the last of the wine when our friendly waiter passed us a pair of binoculars and invited us to take in the view. Sitting on a restaurant terrace looking down on the hills may seem an odd way to appreciate an island best known for its beaches, but it’s when you get away from the sand that you reveal another Menorca.
Often lumped together with its sister Balearics of Mallorca and Ibiza, it’s perfectly possibly to settle for a typical Mediterranean holiday of sun, sea and sand on Menorca, but that would represent a missed opportunity. Even without a hire car it’s possible to find places where you can escape the throng for half a day and appreciate not only splendid isolation, but also other aspects of what makes this compact island tick.
A Green Ocean
Back to that restaurant terrace. Coffee had arrived at the Restaurante Binisues (Cami dels Alocs, Ferreries 971 373728, www.binisues.com), and we were still feasting ourselves on the rolling hills and scattered farms round about, an ocean of green after blue seas and skies on the coast. The meal had been perfect. It being lunch we’d started by sharing a Surtido de Embutidos, finely sliced locally sourced cooked meats served with a selection of breads, beautifully presented on a slab of black marble. This had been followed by a mixed seafood and chicken Paella topped with an impressive langoustine, served up to us at the table and again shared. With desserts of apple Tarta Tatin (one each this time!) the bill came to only 50 euros, including coffees and drinks.
The meal was the conclusion to a fascinating morning. The restaurant is attached to the Casa Solariega, a Menorcan stately home painted a deep egg yolk yellow which serves to highlight its position in the middle of nowhere. We’d got there through a combination of bus to Ferreries (less that 2 euros each) and taxi (8 euros through Radio Taxis, 971 367111), to find not only a well preserved insight into how a landed Menorcan family lived a hundred years ago, but a series of eccentric museums. The first of these told you anything you might ever want to know about Menorcan mushrooms (yes, really), whilst others displayed a collection of insects and entomological curiosities put together over 30 years by local naturalists the Torrent brothers. Throughout our time there we were alone as we browsed the cabinets, but left before we became an exhibit ourselves.
Crowds and Crowds
Ferreries is worth a visit in its own right, although it can be combined with a trip to Binisues. The fifth largest town on the island, Ferreries exists independently of tourism and this is part of its attraction. Visit on a Saturday when there’s an ‘Artisan’s Market’ in the morning. Food, drink and the local speciality, shoes, are all sold here, along with handmade jewellery. Whilst the market isn’t large part of the fun is sitting with a coffee and watching the world go by. If you’re lucky a local band may also start up and whilst you may be part of a crowd, it will be a crowd of locals, out for a family gathering.
Closer to the coast this feeling is less easy to attain. Make no mistake, Menorca is a favoured destination for those in search of guaranteed sun and white sandy beaches, especially young families. The British account for the majority of visitors and, understandably perhaps, many local businesses respond to this, with British pubs showing Sky and supermarkets selling Frosties.
We stayed at five star, eighty room, La Quinta Resort Hotel and Spa (Carrer des Port, 971 055000, www.laquintamenorca.com) in Cala En Bosc on the south western tip of the island. The hotel is a place of unashamed luxury which we treated ourselves to as we are now at an age where we prefer to go ‘kids-free’. As part of what appears to be a growing trend, La Quinta also has a spa, but it’s main attraction is probably its high levels of service and its excellent restaurant.
Here we were treated no only to a wide selection of dishes, including suckling pig, bacalao (cod) on lentils and lovely dense chicken breast, roasted and drizzled with berry jus. There was also an extensive salad bar and the unexpected extra of a fruit sorbet before dessert. Food here was always delicious, elegantly presented, and presented with a theatrical flourish, which added to the sense of being pampered.
Almost next door to La Quinta was the Grupotel Macarella (Gran Via Son Xonguer, 971 387818, www.grupotel.com), a much larger family-orientated four star hotel offering suites as well as a spa. This was at the higher end of a wider phenomenon towards ‘aparthotels’ which tend to dominate the resort.
Outside of hotels restaurants tend to cluster around the harbour, or Lago. The trick here is to be selective and avoid restaurants displaying flags on their menus. The two best options are probably the Ristorante Avanti (Avda Portixol 11-12, 971 387438), where we lunched on a light crisp pizza for around 10 euros, and the nearby Café Balear (Avda Portixol 16, 971387366, www.cafe-balear.com), which specialises in fish caught by their own boat. Expect to pay around 30 euros a head here for good seafood and wine in the evening (closed Mondays), and if you’re prepared to spend more go for the local speciality of spicy lobster stew.
In peak season the Lago can get busy and the call for some kind of respite may recur. Ciutadella, once the island’s capital, is the main nodal point for roads and therefore buses on the west of the island. Most visitors will be pulled towards the town at some point during their stay, not least because it’s so easy to hop onto one of the frequent buses (less than 2 euros from Cala En Bosc).
The bus stops in the Placa des Born, where there’s a small Tourist Information Office, and a good tip to escape the crowds is to pick up one of their self-guided walk leaflets and lose yourself in the myriad of small narrow alleyways. Within minutes you will soon be alone, but to really retreat into yourself head for the small cathedral and pay the minimal 3 euro charge to attend one of the daily organ recitals from 11am every day (except Sunday). Here you can not only escape the heat and the crowds but also luxuriate in the psychedelic colours thrown against the stone walls through the stained glass windows. Afterwards enjoyed a tapas lunch of patatas bravas and fish at the Bar-Restaurant Aurora (Place Ses Palmeres, 971 481994), where the tapas range in price from 4 to 10 euros – order as many as you think you need, but expect ‘manana’ service!
Become a Caveman
Buses also leave from Ciuadella for Cala Morell on the northern coast of the island, but these are infrequent and it is worth paying the 12 euros for a taxi to get you there, more or less the same as four adult bus fares. Here you will find an attraction almost completely ignored by most official guides to the island: the cuevas, a series of fifteen caves dug into the rock overlooking the harbour which date back to 2000 BC.
These remarkable features, with their niches for storing the bones of the dead, central pillars and clearly definable doorways, offer another opportunity to escape the crowds and again we were left totally alone to explore, as if the caves had been left for our personal enjoyment. The rest of Cala Morell offers little to the casual visitor, being largely a high class gated community of elegant villas, a sort of modern day equivalent to cave dwelling, but less sociable.
For us this contrast epitomized Menorca. From five star luxury to British pubs, from chips to tapas, from busy throngs to moments of total seclusion. As a destination, it is what you decide to do with this raw material - you can sit by the sea or the pool or seek out something a little bit different. Alternatively, its size means you can do a bit of both and what more can you ask for from a holiday destination? We look forward to returning and seeing what else the island has to offer, perhaps venturing to the capital Mahon and the east next time.