Having already sampled the charms of Majorca and Ibiza, The Editor pays a visit to Menorca, where he finds a Balearic beauty blissfully untainted by mass tourism with plenty of cool activities for both spring and autumn.
“I had a friend whose family owned a villa in Cala en Porter and we were lucky enough to have a few holidays on the island,” reminisced my mother when I told her I was jetting off to Menorca.
“There were some great caves, one of which was turned into a nightclub. We had some good times there! My first trip was in the late ’60s and there were very few hotels, only a scattering of villas. We had to get a bus to Mahon for supplies and no-one spoke English….I expect it’s very different now.”
“My first trip was in the late ’60s and there were very few hotels, only a scattering of villas. We had to get a bus to Mahon for supplies and no-one spoke English…”
Well actually no. Despite nearly half a century passing since my mother’s Menorcan adventures, the island I discovered in May 2016 hardly differs from the one she nostalgically describes in her email. This Balearic beauty appears for the most part blissfully untainted by the type of mass tourism associated with its big sister Mallorca, and party-loving little sibling Ibiza, with an unspoiled coastline, quiet pretty towns, and – in spring at least – hardly a foreigner in sight.
A number of factors have helped make this so, starting with politics. After the Spanish Civil War, General Franco vengefully denied the island building funds for nearly four decades, as the residents had declared for the Republicans (unlike Mallorca and Ibiza who supported Franco’s fascist right). This punishment in hindsight seems propitious to say the least as it stopped tourist development in its tracks. Perhaps this happy accident also gave the islanders pause for thought, as even after the ban was lifted the local authorities continued on a path towards “sustainable tourism”, long before it became a fashionable catchphrase. Since the mid-1970s it has been forbidden to construct buildings over three floors high anywhere on the isle – making the Menorcan equivalent of a Magaluf, Sant Antoni or Benidorm completely unthinkable. Whilst in the early 1990s Menorcan authorities applied for and received the status of UNESCO biosphere reserve, meaning that since 1993 some 40% of the island has been protected from development.
General Franco vengefully denied the island building funds for nearly four decades, as the residents had declared for the Republicans. This punishment stopped tourist development in its tracks.
The result is that, amongst Spain’s Balearic islands, Menorca is undoubtedly the most serene, making it the best choice for those looking for a bit of tranquility on holiday. And whilst it can boast over 130 sandy beaches – many of exceptional beauty – it is also a much more diverse destination than people imagine, especially for those travellers who are happy to visit off season when cooler temperatures mean that outdoor and sporting activities compete with beautiful towns, great gastronomy and some fascinating prehistoric sites for great ways to spend your time. Keep reading to discover some of the more interesting things to do in Menorca in the off peak seasons of spring and autumn…
Getting Active On The Island
– Sea Kayaking
It was fitting that the very first Menorcan bay I lay eyes on was the same Cala en Porter where my mother had holidayed 50 years earlier. It was quite a wondrous sight in the warm May sunshine: the clear calm sea turned from milky white, where it was shallow above the sand, to dazzling turquoise, under craggy limestone cliffs, to deep blue on the horizon – no Photoshop required. The rocky headlands on either side sported bushy green scalps, and upon the left sat several villas (was one the very same in which my mother stayed?) with what must be spectacular views over the bay. The pale and wide stretch of clean sand that breached the bay was smooth and unmolested, tempting me to lay down a towel and close my eyes for a pre-lunch nap… but we were here for another purpose. To pit our wits against the Mediterranean waves – man vs. ocean – in a bout of sea kayaking.
…the clear calm sea turned from milky white, where it was shallow above the sand, to dazzling turquoise, under craggy limestone cliffs, to deep blue on the horizon – no Photoshop required.
Ok, I exaggerate, there were no waves, despite the wind whipping strongly in from the south, and we clove the sea with relative easy striking out of the bay. This was my first time sea kayaking, and whilst I usually prefer my water sports in a more controlled environment (ie. lying on a lilo in a 1m deep swimming pool with three trained lifeguards watching over), this was a good work out for the shoulders with little fear of actually getting wet, making it a viable activity even for poor swimmers like me. The kayaks are sturdy on the surf, plus of course you get a life jacket just in case.
The main boon of this particular form of exercise though is the chance to explore the island’s exciting coastline at sea level. It’s quite a thrill to navigate your kazoo-shaped vessel into crevices and caves and shallow bays and to peer from close range into the mesmerising translucent waters of chrysoprase and emerald greens.
It’s quite a thrill to navigate your kazoo-shaped vessel into crevices and caves and shallow bays and to peer into the mesmerising translucent waters of chrysoprase and emerald greens.
We entered one cave where the waters glowed fluorescent blue, and in warmer months you wonder if it would be allowed to dive out of kayak and bath in this calming sapphire womb. (As it was May I was not so tempted).
Overall the “Route of the Caves” excursion that we took with tour company Menorca en Kayak was just about perfect for beginners. The route took us past one or two headlands and then into a shallow bay where we clambered up some rocks to check out some ancient caves – and also discovered a beautiful wild tortoise – before then heading back to Cala en Porter.
– Hiking The Cami de Cavalls
If kayaking is one keep fit option for the active adventurer, no trip to Menorca would be done justice without hiking at least some way along the celebrated Cami de Cavalls. This 186km coastal path stretches around the circumference of the entire island and has quite a history. The path dates back to medieval times when local farmers would be responsible for posting mounted guards to patrol along the route (hence then name which means “Way of the Horses”), looking out for would-be pirates and invaders.
This 186km coastal path stretches around the circumference of the entire island and dates back to medieval times when local farmers would be responsible for posting mounted guards to patrol along the route.
Naturally over the centuries it became overgrown and unusable, but since 2011 it has been restored, this time for public use, and it’s now possible to walk along the entirety of the island’s coastline along this path.
I only had time for a short morning hike during my stay, and so I set off from my hotel in Cala Galdana to what I’d heard were two of the most beautiful beaches in Minorca, Macarella and Macarelleta. The great coastal views started with a glance back over the bay I’d just left, with its villas, hotels and catamarans gleaming brightly white, in contrast to the decidedly moody and dull weather, before the path – a wide dirt track flanked with bushes, trees and the island’s emblematic stacked stone walls – veered inland. In this more enclosed environment we came across a group of wild goats, some with magnificent curling horns. However, despite my coaxing, the majority didn’t want their portrait taken.
Rejected by this herd of herbivores, I marched on, ignoring the tempting side paths that led to coastal look outs to concentrate on my final destination. Macarella beach is a delightfully wild cove, windswept and a little rough, but with clean clear waters and a crescent moon of fine beige sand. There’s a restaurant and lifeguard tower, so it’s not completely “untouched”, but it was a fine sight even under a grey sky, and one I might well return to in warmer months (Menorca is only two hours from London and less than one from Barcelona after all!).
Macarella beach is a delightfully wild cove, windswept and a little rough, but with clean clear waters and a crescent moon of fine beige sand.
On the far side of the beach were a number of caves that has been fenced off with iron bars. There are a few such sites dotted around the island, which were used a burial places as far back as the Bronze Age, before more recently being squatted by hippies, hence the need for iron bars (to prevent them being reoccupied and denigrating these historic sites).
Beautiful though Macarella was, I had been tipped off that Macarelleta was yet more striking, so I pressed on further along the Cami de Cavalls, up and down over the craggy coastline, until it came into view. Wedged deeper and further back than its bigger sister, this pristine beach certainly feels more sheltered than the wider and more exposed Macarella – which perhaps also explains how it became Menorca’s first nudist beach. Indeed a grey-haired German holidaymaker was taking advantage of the liberal clothing policy to take a skinny dip, and so I figured what the heck.
Upon emerging from this most natural of baptisms I may have whooped victoriously. Until I saw the swarm of small jellyfish I had somehow plunged into, and beat a hasty retreat out of the water.
Not wishing to do the undignified “how cold is it?” dance in the nod, I dashed at full pelt into the fresh May Mediterranean, feeling the cold – but hardly glacial – waters envelop my whole body. Upon emerging from this most natural of baptisms I may have whooped victoriously. Until I saw the swarm of small jellyfish I had somehow plunged into, and beat a hasty retreat out of the water. How I hadn’t been stung I had no idea, but I wasn’t going to give them a second chance. Especially when my vital parts weren’t even sporting the basic protection of a pair of trunks.
Dried and dressed, I was hastening back across the Cami under a glowering sky when a wheeling shadow caught my eye. I looked up to the left to see the distinctive wing span and forked tail of a red kite in flight. This magnificent bird of prey is native to the island (as are Egyptian vultures, booted eagles, buzzards and peregrine falcons), so keep an eye out if you visit.
Megaliths & Brits: A Unique History
– Remnants of the Bronze Age
There’s an air of mystique about Menorca’s history, which millennia ago gave rise to at least three unique megalithic cultures: the “proto” or pre-Talaiotic people, the Talaiots themselves and the post-Talaiotic people. Not much is known about any of these cultures, but the first of them are thought to be the island’s original settlers and to have arrived in the Bronze Age around 2100 BC, possibly from Sardinia. Their main legacy on the island are the wonderful Naveta tombs, named “little boats” because they resemble an upturned hull in form.
Their main legacy on the island are the wonderful Naveta tombs, named “little boats” because they resemble an upturned hull in form.
I went to the most famous, the Naveta des Tudons, which was build around 1200 BC and used during the following 450 years as a burial place. The size of a small barn, excavated remains of over 100 people were found here, interred with belongings such as bronze bracelets, bone buttons and pieces of pottery.
Around 1000 BC the islanders began to build the Talayots, after which they would be labelled by history. These were squat conical stone towers that served as both look outs and fortifications. In addition to protecting the area from potential invaders, these hardy structures formed a focal point for communities: it is likely that in or around these towers people gathered for ceremonies and festivities, as well as to solve disputes.
The post-Talayotic era began around 650 BC and heralded the most enigmatic structure of all: the taula. These “tables” were erected in a T-shape using two vast polished stone slabs. They remind one strongly of stone henge, not only in their form, but also due to the fact we haven’t got the foggiest how and why they were made. I visited the Torralba d’en Salort Talaiotic settlement, which contains one of the largest taulas, a 4-metre-high monument set in a horse-shoe shaped enclosure.
Legend states that these vast erections were the work of giants who used them as tables, whilst more credible theories posit that they were sacrificial altars, or some kind of sundial or astronomical instrument.
Legend states that these vast erections were the work of giants who used them as tables, whilst more credible theories posit that they were sacrificial altars, or some kind of sundial or astronomical instrument. Rather more boringly some have said they may just have been the supporting column of a roofed structure. Archaeological work has revealed the remains of fire, and wine vessels, as well as evidence that animals were ritually killed and eaten here. At this particular taula historians also discovered a terracotta image of the Punic goddess Tanit, a bronze figure of a bull, plus the bronze hooves of what was presumably the statuette of a horse (these are on display in the Museum of Menorca in Mao), indicating a strong religious and ceremonial significance.
There are literally hundreds of prehistoric sights dotted over the island (as well as some in Mallorca), and 25 of these are currently being considered by UNESCO for World Heritage status.
– The British Influence
The other part of Minorca’s history that can be considered unique is the near century of British rule that the island “enjoyed” throughout the 1700s (give or take a few French invasions). Undoubtedly the biggest impact the Brits had on the isle’s history was to shift the capital from Ciutadella to Mahon, one of the world’s biggest natural harbours, and a natural place for a naval power to settle its ships. Also called Mao, in the local Menorquin dialect, today’s capital is full of British buildings, such as the navy dockyard and naval storehouse & clocktower and governor’s house, and you’ll also see plenty of the bow-fronted houses and sash windows favoured by the English at the time. Whilst on an island in the harbour you can visit the old Military Hospital of Illa del Rei.
Undoubtedly the biggest impact the Brits had on the isle’s history was to shift the capital from Ciutadella to Mahon, one of the world’s biggest natural harbours.
Outside Mahon and the curious traveller can explore more about the history and conflicts of that time by paying a visit to the likes of Fort Malborough, impressively hewn into a rocky hill in Es Castells, the circular Fornells Tower and the underground remains of Saint Phillips Castle. This article on British Minorca is a good place to start your research.
Oh yes, and there was one more thing the Brits left behind. The gin. But more on that in the next section…
Balearic Bites: Lobster, Gin & Cheese!
Expect to eat well in on this little island. Just as with anywhere in Spain, the necessity of eating everyday is elevated into one of life’s great pleasures. The food veers more towards the traditional than the avant garde, and in addition to many of the classic Spanish dishes you’ll find on the mainland, there are several typical Menorcan dishes and delicacies that you’d be a fool to miss.
Top of the list is the Mahon cheese, which has been Denomination of Origin protected since 1985.
Top of the list, as you might well be aware, is the Mahon cheese, which has been Denomination of Origin protected since 1985. It’s a dry cheese, made mostly from cows’ milk, a little bit similar in texture to manchego, and has a sweet nutty taste, sometimes with citric notes. It is also a little bit salty, which they say comes from the sea air on the grass that the cows graze on. Your Spanish friends won’t forgive you if you don’t bring them back a portion when you come back from holiday, so that should be all the assurance you need that, even amongst Spanish cheeses, this is top class stuff.
Next up is sobrasada, which is cured very moist pork meat made with red peppers, so that it is sweet and spicy. Sometimes it comes in a paste, which is smeared over bread as sandwich base, or it can often be used as a filling for pastries. Don’t stop at the sobrasada though, the botifarro and camot are less well-known but also excellent. Your best bet is probably to order a cured meat platter when you dine out, or drop by one of the artisan product stores that dot the streets of Mahon or Ciutadella towns.
The magnificent crustaceans are cut in quarters with an extremely sharp hatchet knife and tossed into an earthenware pot with onion, green peppers, tomatoes, garlic, parsley, toasted almonds and a dash of cognac…
Being an island, no surprise that seafood finds itself on the menu at every restaurant going. This space is too small to give you a run down of the diverse Menorcan seafood dishes on offer, but one I simply have to highlight is the caldereta de langosto or lobster stew. I was invited to see it prepared in the kitchen of Cafe Balear restaurant, and it was quite a spectacle, starting with the selecting of the live lobsters from their containers. The magnificent crustaceans are then cut in quarters with an extremely sharp hatchet knife (poor Pinchy!) and tossed into an earthenware pot with onion, green peppers, tomatoes, garlic, parsley, toasted almonds and a dash of cognac (theatrically set alight) before being left to stew. The result is a regally rich soup, lent a subtle sweetness by Balear’s secret ingredient (I would tell you, but I was sworn to secrecy). Each portion was served with one quarter of lobster, which of course was eagerly devoured as well. Aside from Balear, they say the best place to enjoy a caldereta de langosto is at one of the many portside restaurants in Fornells.
Finally I have to mention the gin, and not just out of patriotic duty. A pomada (one part gin and three parts lemonade) is practically the official drink in these parts, and you can bet your bottom euro that yours was made with Gin Xoriguer, the famous Menorcan spirit made according to a secret recipe using local juniper berries and distilled in copper vats in Mahon. It was of course the Brits that popularised gin drinking on the island, and it was demand from the many sailors stationed here that prompted entrepreneurial locals to import juniper trees and start production using wine alcohol. It wasn’t until early in the 20th century however that the brand Xoriguer was born though, established by Miguel Pons Justo who named his creation after the family windmill, which still features on the bottles’ labels today. It proved immensely popular, enabling the family to eventually buy out the other local brands and start exporting around the world. Not that it has gone mainstream: much of the production process is done by hand, qualifying it as an artisanal product.
Now that I’ve whetted your appetite, I think it’s only fair if I recommend some of the best places to try the above, which I discovered on my island escape.
This super posh family restaurant is where I tried the caldereta (lobster stew)… but it comes at a price – €70 to be precise! So not for those on a budget. Also brilliant were the swordfish carpaccio dressed with olive oil, lemon, salt, pepper and parsley, and the flavour-bursting spherical squid croquettes. The “warty venus” clams may not sound like something you want to put in your mouth, but if you’re into oysters you’re likely to love these more delicate, fresh-tasting cockles.
Moli D’Es Raco
My first meal of the trip was also one of my favourites. Situated in a wonderful old windmill, highlights of the Moli’s menu included the cured meat selection (sobrasada, morcilla, botifarro), breaded mussels, pan amb tomaquet (the simple but effective tomato bread that is the region’s de facto side dish) and other Spanish classic tapas like battered squid rings.
Es Mosset de Fornells
This is where I discovered the joys of boquerones fritos, which are deep-fried breaded anchovies that you eat skin, bones and all. Crunchy and delicious. I also loved the combination of honey and sobrasada on toast. The only miss for me was the stuffed squid, which was a bit mushy, and not a Menorcan specialty I’ll be going back for.
For a port side feast with a bit of flair, I’d recommend this upmarket restaurant in Es Castells. The fish platter, with cod, panga, swordfish, prawns and more, was great, but the winner for me was the artichoke and squid starter. Frozen pomadas and delicious local liqueur, hierbas, are a splendid way to round off a meal.
A cheesemaker, a wine bodega, restaurant and (adults only) agrotourism hotel in one, take your pick for reasons to visit. I went along and tried some of the local wines. Catavino will tell you that I’m no expert in these matters, but they tasted pretty damn good to me, especially their Hort Cupatge which was well balanced and tasted of blackberries and leather (according to my tasting notes). To stop us from keeling over we were able to nibble on their farm cheese in between sips, pressed and produced on the premises.
Gin Xoriguer Distillery
Alcoholics Cultured drinkers, will be pleased to know that the famous Xoriguer distillery is open to the public for tastings. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to tour the premises, just the shop and the tasting rooms, but hey the main thing was to get my lips around the diverse drinks they dispense here, which includes not only the classic gin, but also several other liqueurs and at least two varieties of hierbas (my favourite Spanish drink). In fact the Xoriguer hierbas is amongst the best I’ve tasted: each bottle is literally stuffed with the herbal grasses that not only give the drink its flavour, but also create the desired rough natural texture – not like the overly sweet and polished mass production stuff.
For a closer look at the artisanal side of Menorca check this excellent post by Two Monkeys Travel.
The Legendary Caves
Before I leave Menorca there is one more place I’m desperate to visit. The Cova d’en Xoroi nightclub is set inside a meandering complex of natural caves, several of which open up to look out from sheer cliff faces over the silver and blue Mediterranean sea.
The Cova d’en Xoroi nightclub is set inside a meandering complex of natural caves, several of which open up to look out from sheer cliff faces over the silver and blue Mediterranean sea.
It’s an absolutely stunning location, which perhaps explains why firstly it managed to survive as a venue for half a century, and secondly why it’s here that I encounter the largest concentration of tourists I’ve seen to date on the isle. I can’t complain too much as I too stroll around in shorts and flip flops taking photos of every possible view angle with my DSLR.
I’ve rocked up in the afternoon, just before my flight home, and eventually I stop taking photos long enough to order a pomada and to sit back and enjoy the sun streaming in through the cliff opening along with the salt air from the gentle waves breaking below.
It’s during this moment of reflection that I amuse myself by imagining my teenage mother and her friends swinging their hips right here in this cave during the 1960s. It’s fair to say quite a lot has happened in the world since then.. but it’s great to see that Menorca at least hasn’t changed.
Duncan travelled as part of a #MustSeeMenorca blog trip organised by the Menorca Tourist Board and The Travel Mob. He stayed at the excellent Artiem Audax Hotel in Cala Galdana. All views are his own. For more great things to see and do check out this video by The Travel Vlogger.