A sea change for Menorca

This alluring Mediterranean island is reinventing itself as a top kayaking destination. Andrew Eames paddles off to find out why
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The Independent Travel

Later this month, a group of kayakers will set off from a beach on the north coast of Menorca for a two-day journey through some of this Spanish island's rarely paddled waters – no doubt surprising cormorants, shags, and the occasional bunch of nudists as they go.

There will be around 150 paddlers out on the water each day, taking part in what Menorca describes as a kayaking Concentración. With a combination of remarkably wild and spectacular coastline, pristine water and what is likely to be fine weather, the waterborne event should be a diverting day out – and there's still time to sign up if you want to take part.

The fact that this Balearic island is promoting kayaking is a sign of the times. Traditional package tourism has declined here, especially from the UK. According to the Menorca Tourist Board, there were 650,000 British visitors a year in 2001, representing more than half the island's tourism; last year, that number fell to 390,000. Spanish and German visitors have picked up the slack a bit, but it is clear from the profusion of closed street-corner restaurants and bars that the economy has suffered. The proliferation of new sunshine destinations, lack of flexibility on prices and, finally, the economic crisis have all played their part.

The island has had to come up with some new ideas to attract tourists, both on land and on sea.

Kayaking has long been an option here – this is the third such Concentración. But it hasn't been seen as a significant part of Menorca's tourism offering, certainly not to the extent of becoming one of the reasons for coming here in the first place. So to see why a fuss is being made of it, and to get a foretaste of what the members of the Concentració* will experience, I decided to embark on my own two-day journey.

I based myself in the resort of Santa Galdana, a substantial place in a big protected cove on the island's south coast. Here I benefited from the expert leadership of Ben Dumont, who runs Surf and Sail Menorca – one of the kayaking companies that will be involved in this month's event. Together, we made two trips – one of 10km, the other 15km – along the southern shore. From previous visits, I already knew that it is the coast that makes Menorca special, and not just in the usual combinations of sun, sand and car parks.

Elsewhere in the Mediterranean, beautiful shoreline is slathered in Tarmac and honeycombed with concrete, for the convenience of people in vehicles. Here, though, the shore has been left well alone. Historically, this was because General Franco had the island low on his list for development – reputedly a punishment for failing to fall into line during the Spanish Civil War. Latterly, the lack of progress has been for admirably conservationist reasons, and Menorca remains a subtle, understated place.

There are superb natural harbours in Ciutadella and the capital Mahón, both of which have elegant honey-coloured old town centres where you'd be forgiven for thinking that nothing had changed for a century. The island also has its fair share of marinas, but there are practically no skyline-breaking hotels, and most of the beaches require some effort to reach, which saves them from becoming spoilt.

That first morning, within 20 minutes of paddling away from Santa Galdana, Ben brought me into a bay where the sea was translucent and idle, and the quiet air was rich with the smells of myrtle, thyme, wild olive and Phoenician juniper. I could clamber out of the kayak to leave my Robinson Crusoe-like footsteps in the virginal white sand. This was Macarelleta Beach, in Ben's opinion one of the best (although several others also proved, reasonably enough, to be "one of the best" as well). No buildings, no roads, and usually no swimming costumes, either – although there was nobody there yet to demonstrate that fact.

Just in case I started to think that it was all too perfect, he started to tell me about "water tornados": mini whirlwinds that could lift a canoeist and his craft out of the water, but which – reassuringly – apparently happen only a couple of times a year.

In fact the day was fairly windy, producing a chop that bounced my kayak playfully. I learnt how the offshore breeze funnelled down the calas (a cala is a beach between cliffs), and could make life tricky for man-powered boats. Ben described the currents around slabs, and how a beach's size depended on the winter storms. He also told me about Menorca's hippy tradition, and how hippies still colonise some beaches in summer – although these days they apparently have dogs and credit cards.

Over a picnic lunch on Son Saura beach, we talked about weed: not the hippy kind, but the kind that spreads itself across the sand. True to its conservationist goals, the island authorities had been leaving the dead Neptune grass, washed ashore by local storms, to lie there as nature intended. But it smelt and attracted flies, and bound the sand together to form ridges, destroying the smooth architecture of the perfect beach as depicted in the brochures. So, without fanfare, the authorities have started to bring tractors in to take it away. "They wanted to leave everything to nature," said Ben, "but there comes a point where nature is working against the interests of the island."

That first day's trip ended at the island's most south-westerly point, after paddling a distance of around 15km. To have rounded the point and continued on to Menorca's second city of Ciutadella would have been to risk rough seas, so instead we came ashore at the resort of Cala en Bosc, a low-level development that rose discreetly from the back of the beach, but which turned out to be surprisingly extensive if you walked any distance inland.

Back at Santa Galdana the following morning, conditions were much quieter, eminently suitable for an east-bound cave-crawl. In calmer water, we could skirt along the bottom of cliffs that sucked and roared impotently as we danced insolently around promontories and slid between rocks and shore. With head torches on, we slipped into the Dragon's Cave, so called because of the roaring noise the sea makes whenever there's a decent swell. A fungus coloured the walls an otherworldly purple, but down at the far end of the tunnel our head torches suddenly picked up swarms of mosquitoes and we beat a hasty retreat.

Then Ben took me through the "side door" – a gap in the rock so small you had to lie back to get through – into Cathedral Cave. The effect was dramatic as we emerged into a huge limestone nave, lit by sunlight flooding through the main Cathedral door.

And then, before the last long haul to the journey's end at the resort of Santo Tomas in the middle of the south coast, Ben led me to a complete surprise: a Menorcan river that hardly anybody knows about. From behind the beach at Cala Trebaluger, it leads inland in a corridor of bulrushes, where surprised turtles slipped hurriedly into the water at our approach.

As for nudists, we saw a sprinkling of early-season specimens of those, too. But that's the thing about kayaking around Menorca; it allows you to go places and see things that not many others do.

Whether the island's watersports infrastructure is sufficiently developed to attract hard-core kayakers interested in whole-island circumnavigations remains to be seen, but day-trips such as mine certainly add a powerful incentive to visiting the island. And Menorca is a place where fresh ideas are vital.

Travel essentials



Getting there

Monarch (08719 40 50 40; www.flymonarch.com) flies to Menorca from Birmingham, Gatwick, Luton and Manchester; Jet2 (0871 226 1737; www.jet2.com) from Edinburgh, Leeds-Bradford and Newcastle; easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com) from Gatwick and Manchester; Bmibaby (0871 224 0224; www.bmibaby.com) from East Midlands.



Kayaking there

Surf and Sail Menorca (00 34 971 387 105; www.surfsailmenorca.com) offers kayak hire from €10 per hour. Guided group tours for a half-day cost €25 in the morning with breakfast, or €35 for the afternoon with champagne at sunset.

The Concentració* Popular Kayak Menorca ( www.kayakmenorca.menorca.es) takes place 28-29 May. The price of €35 per day includes equipment, a guide, picnic and transfers. Registration closes on 24 May.

Experienced kayakers can make round-the-island journeys, which typically take around nine days; wild camping is allowed on isolated beaches, provided your tent is gone by sunrise.



More information

Visit www.menorca.es

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