Wednesday 17 July 2019

Forget Mallorca: Chill out in charming and less crowded Menorca

Tom Sweeney chills out in charming Menorca, the little island with a growing reputation for laid-back holidays

Menorca Cala en Porter beach
Menorca Cala en Porter beach
Ciutadella de Menorca marina port at sunset. Ciutadella is a pristine harbour town with beautifully maintained historic buildings
Menorca island
Menorcva Cova d'en Xoroi
Casas del Lago
Bodegas Binifadet
Binibeca cheese

Tom Sweeney

In daytime bar and night-time club Cova d'en Xoroi, which occupies a natural cave in the side of a 100 metre-high sea cliff, the DJ often plays The Only Way Is Up.

For marooned 15th-century Moorish pirate Xoroi, the only way was down when villagers followed some footprints during a rare fall of snow and discovered the concealed entrance to his hideout.

As they stormed the cave, the man who had for years been stealing their chickens, hurled himself into the waves far below, leaving behind the local girl he had abducted and their three small children.

There's no record of what he cried as he plummeted to his death, but as he was a pirate, it was probably: 'Aaarrrrrrr!'

Cova d'en Xoroi (covadenxoroi.com) is one of the more unusual of the many attractions on family-friendly Menorca, which has avoided the mass tourism scourges of over-development and marauding bands of boozed-up morons.

Holidays on the second-biggest of the Balearic Islands, which is small enough (50km by 17km) to allow plenty of rewarding excursions, are all about chilling - though ice cream melts at an alarming rate in the July and August average highs of 29˚C.

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Ciutadella de Menorca marina port at sunset. Ciutadella is a pristine harbour town with beautifully maintained historic buildings

Menorca has changed hands more times than a parcel in a children's party game, having variously been conquered and ruled by the Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Moors and Christians.

Beginning in 1708, the British, French and Spanish fought like cat and dog over the place, until 'Mad' King George III's government permanently handed it over to Madrid under the Treaty of Amiens in 1802.

Unhappy about having to surrender such a strategically important naval base, Admiral Nelson said he would give his right arm to keep it, until someone reminded him he'd lost that particular limb at the Battle of Santa Cruz five years before.

Every invader left their mark, with Moorish architecture and place names much in evidence throughout Menorca - the Arabic prefix "Bini" in Binibequer, Biniarocca and Binifancolla means "property of the sons of".

However, it's the British vestiges that have most endured, and a few English words have even found their way into the local version of Catalan.

Stroll around the old town of the capital, Mahon, and you'll hear the bells of Santa Maria church play the Big Ben hourly chime, while in the narrow streets little bois (boys) play marvels (marbles) or hopscotch on a grid drawn with xoc (chalk).

When their mothers call them in for their dinar (lunch), she might ask if they want grevi (gravy) on their bifi (beef) while they pour themselves a trinqi (drink) from a botil (bottle) of milk from the Fresian cows introduced to the island by the Royal Navy.

If they've been naughty little boys, they won't get any pudin (dessert).

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Menorcva Cova d'en Xoroi

The trinqi of choice for adults is gin, especially the Xoriguer Mahon brand that comes in brown ceramic or green glass bottles with the distinctive windmill label (Xoriguer is so ingrained in the local psyche that lovers of gin and tonic ask for an X&T). British sailors taught the islanders how to distil gin, then marvelled at their ingenuity when they added generous measures of freshly-squeezed lemon juice and lemonade to make pomada - the perfect long drink on a hot day.

The people of Menorca's second city, Ciudadella, in the west, look on their counterparts in Mahon, in the east, with the same suspicion that Corkonians reserve for Dubs.

Only two things unite them - their shared love of gin and contempt for anything to do with neighbouring Mallorca (if a Menorcan weds a Mallorcan, it's called a mixed marriage).

Ciudadella has a much more Mediterranean look and feel to it than Mahon (which gave its name to mayonnaise), reinforcing the sense that you're on holiday.

Both cities are well worth a visit, with plenty of shopping on offer.

Popular buys to take home include handmade Menorcan leather sandals, called avarques; various liqueurs, some infused with up to 40 island-grown herbs; charcuterie, including local speciality sobrasada; and the famed artisan cheeses, made from the milk of those blow-in Fresians.

More adventurous holidaymakers can sign up for liqueur and cheese tastings, run by Farmers & Co (farmersandco.es) and gastronomic events organised by restaurants association Eat Menorca (cometemenorca.es).

For a foodie experience in beautiful surroundings, working farm Son Vives (sonvivesmenorca.com) operates a classy B&B in the hills north of Ferreries and produces its own cheeses.

The breakfasts, with everything on the plate produced on the farm, are alone worth booking in for a couple of starry, starry nights - there's no light pollution, making for spectacular nocturnal skies.

Menorcan wines are little known outside of the Balearics, but they're remarkably good, especially those produced by Bodegas Binifadet (see panel below).

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Menorca island

Guided tours of the vineyards and winery are a tantalising prelude to getting down to the real business of tasting what's in the bottles, and it doesn't disappoint. Many visitors stay on for lunch or dinner, which, as is always the case in Spain, turn into marathon sessions.

For a comparatively sleepy island, there's a lot going on - if that's what you're after.

Cycling, sailing and horse trekking are popular pursuits.

There are hundreds of well-preserved prehistoric monuments to marvel at and coves and caves to explore.

The 186km Cami de Cavalls hiking trail goes all the way round the island.

Then again, there are beautiful beaches and poolsides to populate. Decisions, decisions.

How to get there

Leisure airline Jet2 (jet2.com) flies from Belfast International (a two-hour drive from Dublin) to Mahon every Tuesday and Saturday during the summer. Package holidays are also available, including a choice of two to five-star hotels, Jet2 flights, transfers and a super-generous 22kg baggage allowance, plus 10kg hand baggage.

Where to stay

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Casas del Lago

Tom stayed at the adults-only Casas del Lago Hotel, Spa and Beach Club, which is a favourite with couples and gets a lot of repeat visitors. Situated in Cala en Bosc, close to Ciudadella, the resort offers a mix of modern studios, rooms and suites, set around a pool that overlooks the marina. (lagoresortmenorca.com)

Where to eat

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Bodegas Binifadet

Ciudadella: Restaurante Cafe Balear, fish specialities, in the port; and Pins 46, meat and fish, in the centre (both cafebalear.com)

Mahon: Passio Mediterranea, great eight-course tasting menu, in the port (passiomed.com)

Sant Climent (near Mahon):

Restaurante Casino Sant Climent, typical Menorcan rustic dishes (casinosantcliment.com)

Sant Lluis (near Mahon): Bodegas Binifadet, restaurant on a terrace in a vineyard. (binifadet.com/en)

For more information on Menorca, see menorca.es

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