A short stay in... Menorca

If you prefer whitewashed cottages to high-rise blocks, charming locals to lager louts, quiet coves to packed beaches, and lobster casserole to fish and chips, this is the side of the Balearics you will enjoy, says Tony Kelly
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The Independent Travel
Why go there?

Menorca has some of the most unspoiled coastline in Spain. The few mass- market resorts are mostly low-rise and low-key, while elsewhere there are pine-fringed coves that can be reached only on foot or by boat. Since 1993, the island has been a designated Unesco biosphere reserve, which has helped it to preserve some of its most important wetland habitats, and to avoid the over-development which has blighted its neighbours Mallorca and Ibiza. Of the three main Balearic Islands, Menorca is the least dependent on tourism.

Between the towns at either end of the island, Mao (Mahon) and Ciutadella, lies a landscape of meadows, Friesian cattle and dry-stone walls.

When to go

More than 99 per cent of visitors arrive between April and October, when the weather is reliably warm and sunny. In winter, the tramontana wind can almost blow you off the cliffs, but on calm winter days, it is still mild enough to picnic on the beach, alone with the sand dunes. If you want to avoid the crowds, go in October, when the sea is still warm, or between February and May, when the slate cliffs and limestone gorges are carpeted with orchids and other wild flowers. Menorca's big party, Festa de Sant Joan, takes place on 23-24 June in Ciutadella, with fireworks, jousting tournaments and costumed riders.

Getting there

Monarch Airlines (tel: 01582 398333) has direct flights from Luton to Mao three times a week in October (fewer in winter), from pounds 106 return plus tax. Iberia (tel: 0171-830 0011) has several flights daily from Heathrow or Gatwick via Barcelona or Madrid, from pounds 196.50 return plus tax.

Getting around

The network of bus services between the main towns extends to the resorts in summer and makes getting around the island both easy and cheap. To get to the remoter destinations, including some of the best beaches and ancient sites, you need a car. Europcar (tel: 00 34 971 360620) has offices around the island and at the airport - current rates are around pounds 20 a day including full insurance. Mao and Ciutadella are both easily explored on foot.

Where to stay

Almirante, Carretera Mao-Es Castell (tel: 00 34 971 362700). This fine Georgian villa, overlooking Mao harbour, once belonged to the British Admiral Collingwood. The rooms are filled with antiques and other reminders of British rule. Singles pounds 19, doubles pounds 30. Open till 31 October.

Biniali, S'Ullestrar, near Sant Lluis (tel: 00 34 971 151724). This restored country mansion, with a swimming pool in the elegant gardens, pioneered the latest trend towards rural tourism in Menorca. It is just a few minutes from the airport and the south-coast beaches. Singles from pounds 43, doubles pounds 59. Open till 31 October.

Binibeca Club, Binibeca Veil (tel: 00 34 971 188360). Apartments in a south-coast "fishing village", designed by an award-winning Catalan architect. Built in 1972, this village paved the way for a new coastal architecture in Menorca, based on whitewashed cottages rather than high-rise hotels. Two-person apartments from pounds 40 per day until the end of October.

Playa Grande, Carrer Bisbe Juano 2, Ciutadella (tel: 00 34 971 382445). Small, simple hotel looking down on Ciutadella's tiny beach, within walking distance of the town centre at the end of the seafront promenade. Singles pounds 21, doubles pounds 34. Open all year.

Port Mahon, Avinguda Fort de l'Eau 13, Mao (tel: 00 34 971 362600). The smartest hotel on the island, in a colonial-style building above Mao harbour. In winter, pounds 30 for singles, pounds 47 doubles. Open all year.

What to do and see

Mao The city is built on a cliff above the world's second largest natural harbour, with the houses almost growing out of the sea walls. The first British governor, Sir Richard Kane, moved the capital here in 1722, and you can still feel the British influence today in the grand 18th-century houses with their fanlights and brass knockers and the Georgian clock adorning the facade of the town hall. The Museum of Menorca (open mornings and evenings from Tuesday to Friday, plus weekend mornings), housed in the cloisters of a Franciscan monastery, contains archaeological finds, while another set of cloisters, those of the church of Carmen, has been turned into the city's covered market.

Ciutadella The nobility and the clergy stayed behind when the capital moved to Mao, with the result that Ciutadella remains a pure Catalan city of Gothic churches and Renaissance palaces. Menorcans tend to think of Ciutadella as the soul of their island. This is a city for strolling, in the maze of narrow streets around the cathedral with their golden- stone mansions and speciality shops, or along the new seafront promenade as the sun goes down and the mountains of Mallorca turn pink on the horizon.

Beaches The biggest beaches are on the south coast, at Son Bou, Sant Tomas and Cala Santa Galdana, but make the effort to seek out some of the smaller and quieter bays. Cala Macarella is just a 30-minute walk from Cala Santa Galdana across a headland, yet it rarely gets crowded and, out of season, you can have it to yourself. Other attractive coves are at Cala En Turqueta and Arenal de Son Saura on the south coast, and Cala Pregonda and Cala del Pilar in the north. You can take a car close to all of these, but only on bumpy farm tracks, and you will need to walk the last bit of the way - which keeps the vast majority of tourists away.

Ancient Sites Menorca has a wealth of Bronze Age monuments from the Talaiotic culture, most of them standing undisturbed in the middle of fields. None has been developed as a tourist site and access to all of them is free.

Fort Marlborough The British-built fortress at the mouth of Mao harbour has recently been restored and opened to the public. You can walk along underground tunnels while explosions ring out around you. A film tells the story of Menorca's numerous invasions by Arab, British, French and Catalan conquerors. Open from Tuesday to Sunday mornings, admission free.

Monte Toro The convent situated at the summit of Menorca's highest mountain (350m) has been a centre of pilgrimage since the 13th century. The mountain stands right in the centre of the island and the views from the summit stretch out to the sea on all four sides.

Food and drink

Menorcan cuisine is based largely on seafood. Other specialities include charcoal-grilled meat and various local sausages. Spanish staples like paella and tapas are widely available, along with French, Italian and British food. The British introduced a dairy industry to Menorca, and mature queso de Mahon is one of Spain's top cheeses. There is no longer any wine to speak of (though wines from neighbouring Mallorca are good value), but Menorca does produce the excellent Xoriguer gin, best drunk neat and chilled or washed down with lemonade.

Caff Balear, Port de Ciutadella (tel: 971 380005). Fishy tapas and more substantial dishes like steaks and carpaccio of veal served beside Ciutadella harbour in the shadow of the old city walls. The three-course set menu is good value at around pounds 8.

Ca N'Olga, Pont Na Macarrana, Es Mercadal (tel: 971 375459). People come especially for Sunday lunch at this traditional Menorcan restaurant, in a charming town house with a vine-covered terrace. Expect to pay around pounds 12-15 per head, plus drinks. Open evenings only during the week; booking is advised.

Es Cranc, Carrer Escoles 31, Fornells (tel: 971 376442). The classic Menorcan dish is caldereta de langosta, a spiny-lobster casserole served at numerous restaurants in Fornells on the north coast. King Juan Carlos sails his yacht over from his summer palace in Palma to eat caldereta at Es Pla beside the harbour, but the locals tend to stick to this restaurant in the back streets. A dish of caldereta will set you back at least pounds 20, but there are plenty of cheaper seafood options and set menus available.

Pa Amb Oli, Carrer Nou de Juliol, Ciutadella (tel: 971 480489). This trendy new restaurant specialises in charcoal grills, as well as pa amb oli - toast with olive oil, and tomatoes and garlic to rub on to it. The parrillada de verduras, a chopping-board of grilled vegetables, is out of this world. From pounds 5-15 per head, plus drinks.

Pilar, Carrer des Forn 61, Mao (tel: 971 366817). Innovative "new Mediterranean" cooking in the back streets of Mao. Open only in the evenings and booking is advised. At least pounds 20 per head.

Entertainment

Menorca has none of the riotous nightlife of Mallorca or Ibiza, and what there is is concentrated around the late-night bars in the harbour areas of Mao and Ciutadella (which also has two salsa clubs, including El Mosquito). Don't bother going before midnight. Menorca's most unusual nightclub, open only in summer, is Cova d'en Xoroi in Cala En Porter, set in a natural cave on a platform overlooking the sea.

Deals and packages

Menorca does not feature in short-break brochures, and remains almost exclusively a summer-holiday destination. The best deals in summer are available through high-street travel agents or through villa specialists like Meon Villas (tel: 01730 230370), PCI Holidays (tel: 01202 591890) and Travel Club of Upminster (tel: 01708 225000). Sunworld has seven-night trips in October, staying in self-catering apartments near Fornells, from pounds 224 per person based on two sharing and flying from Gatwick. Book on 0990 550440 or through any travel agent. Vintage Travel (tel: 01954 261431) has availability throughout October at Can Bepis and Casa Faronati, two traditional villas with pools near Ciutadella, at pounds 295 per villa per week (shared between up to five people) plus flights.

Currency

There are currently around 235-240 pesetas to the pound.

Further information

The tourist office at Placa de S'Esplanada in Mao is open on weekdays and Saturday mornings. Roqueta, an English-language magazine published monthly between April and October, is a useful source of up-to-date information and events. For walking, cycling, watersports and rural tourism, check the Menorca Activa website on: www.menorcaactiva.com

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