Friday 6 December 2019

Menorca: Nothing minor about this quietly beautiful Mediterranean island

Sun holidays in Europe

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

Aine O'Connor

Áine O'Conner kicks back on a beautiful Balearic island that has a holiday character all of its own.

Once upon a time, a friend with no discernible sense of humour cracked a joke.

Having been dumped by a long-term girlfriend, he took a solitary holiday and his joke was that it was a measure of his despondency that he went to Minorca (as it is in Catalan) instead of Majorca.

Geddit? The clue is in the title and Menorca is the smaller of the two central Balearic Islands, and while it is about the same size as Ibiza, which lies further south, there the similarity ends. This quietly beautiful Mediterranean island has a lot to offer on its own terms.

While many Spanish resorts are living to rue their haste to become cheap holiday destinations, Menorca has been practising its own brand of eco-friendly, sustainable tourism for decades. We arrive in the capital, Mahon, in under three hours from Dublin. The 40-kilometre trip to the Binimar Complex on the west coast takes as many minutes. The route is via the island's one main highway, a mostly good, single lane road that branches off for some of the bigger towns, but otherwise the gems of Menorca are reserved for those willing to walk or cycle.

Our base, Cala en Blanes, is a tourist town, and, like Binimar, caters largely for English speakers. It is mainly pitched at families; there are three pools, activities and games, and nightly entertainment in the bar area, but silence does descend at 11pm. It's two-star, so the apartments are small, simple and clean. There is no air con, however, which might be an issue when temperatures rise, as they did last July, to 40-odd degrees.

There are half- and full-board options available within the complex, and although the local restaurants and shops are a little steeper than normal Spanish prices, there are lots of good value options to eat and drink and self-cater outside it. The Forum restaurant was our first taste of what's on offer. The menu is huge and the food is great but what we notice most is something that will be a feature of the entire trip, the locals are just incredibly nice. It can be an issue in touristy places, a kind of rudeness from staff who seem to resent tourists, but in Menorca we met one cranky bugger who was remarkable simply because everyone else was so nice.

Cala en Blanes is a largely purpose-built extension of the island's old capital, Cuitadella, which is easily accessible by a regular local bus service (€1.80 adult single) or taxi (€8.50); there's a coastal walk to it too. A harbour, Ciutadella is a pristine town with beautiful and beautifully maintained historic buildings, there is no neon, few chain stores, even the Burger King whispers rather than shouts that it is the home of the Whopper. There is virtually no litter and absolutely no begging, or busking. A taxi driver explained that this is because the rules against it are strictly enforced, anyone found breaking the rules is arrested and immediately deported to whence they came and banned from re-entering the island. I ask what happens if they're locals and he tells the story of a man, a local, who was convicted of domestic violence. With several previous convictions behind him the judge sentenced him to exile, had him sent to Barcelona and banned from re-entering Menorca for five years.

It seems a curiously arcane, if effective, system that ties in with the island's varied history. It is full of prehistoric monuments; ten minutes drive up the coast from Ciutadella, in a village called Cala (cala means 'cove') Morell, there is a 14-chambered necropolis which dates from the pre-Talaiotic period and was in use up to the second century AD. While many of the best spots, like Cala en Turqueta, are accessible by walking, bikes (approx €12 per day) or boat tour, my cycling legs weren't up to anything too strenuous, so we hired a moped which, at €30 a day, is roughly the same price as car hire, necessary to do the longer journey up to Fornells in the north east.

A fishing town, all painted white like everywhere on the island, it has a five-kilometre harbour, some extraordinary views and, again, some great restaurants. On a rooftop terrace in the restaurant Sa Taula, they did twists on local cuisine like courgette carpaccio, and back in Ciutadella El Hogar del Pollo was a local bar that served fantastic tapas, boquerones, chorizo en vino, almejas, pimientos del padron, tortilla de patatas, all that good stuff beautifully done and for a good price. Indeed, all over the island the food was fantastic, fresh, clean, simple. The local hard cheeses are excellent and the menus often come, thanks to the Spanish tradition of getting your kid to do the translation, with some odd enough things on offer in English, hen instead of chicken, knives instead of clams, marinara sauce can be "to the nautical" and on one extreme occasion grilled monkfish was translated as "rape on the board."

Anyone disinclined to drive can use the regional bus service to get around, the local markets always prove popular and in bigger towns stalls open all evening in summer. There are day tours as well. We went to Mahon which, with the world's second deepest natural port, is worth seeing. It isn't as beautiful as Ciutadella but it has good shopping and the glass-bottomed catamaran trip out into the harbour, included in the day trip, was interesting and informative. Menorca has been passed around between many a conqueror, Cretan, French, English and Spanish all of whom left traces. But it retains its own identity and was gearing up for the big festival, San Juan, on June 23. A relic of its time as a British colony is the local gin and lemon juice cocktail Pomada. The day trip includes a trip to the the Xoriguer gin factory and shop where you can sample and buy the different variations on the local tipple.

The weather in early June was really nice, chilly in the evenings and occasionally a little windy but during the day perfect for lying on the many, varied beaches and for swimming, although there were quite a few little jelly fish. But jelly fish aside, Menorca proved a really nice surprise.

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