Go off the beaten track in Ibiza

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After a night on the dancefloor it is time to sample the other side of the island on an 18-mile cycle route of jaw-dropping beauty

Route 19 is not a route in the grand sense of the word. It is not a Route 66, a Silk Route, a Garden Route. In sections, it seems unrelated to logic, twisting, writhing and switching course. But here, two miles beyond Sant Miquel de Balansat, it definitely has its charms.

I'm caught between blazing ahead and stopping to admire the view. The mountain bike beneath me is more suited to the former, but the landscape around me is insistent. On my left, a lazy meadow is acquiescing to the breeze, poppies swaying in the grass. Above them, olive trees proffer limbs to the sun. And in the middle distance, a tractor chews the orange earth, foisting a loamy smell into the air.

Route 19 might not be a wide highway, but as an 18-mile cycle circuit around northern Ibiza, it has no real need for notoriety.

It is certainly different to the scene from which I had emerged, blinking at the dawn, eight hours earlier. At first glance, Amnesia does not look a 21st-century Valhalla – a concrete barn seemingly abandoned on the dual carriageway that links Ibiza's south-coast capital, Eivissa (or, anglicised, Ibiza Town) with the beach-and-bar HQ of Sant Antoni (or San Antonio). Arriving at midnight had felt more like pulling into a motorway service station than heading out for a night of high jinks and house music at a famous temple of dance.

Within, of course, things had been livelier. Five thousand happy souls. Beats that even outside had worried the ground underfoot. A laser show beyond the wit of any rainbow, 24 colours flitting. A wave of sound as powerful as any swell hitting the isle's shoreline.

So why, you might ask, with the morning just departed, am I already five miles into a journey on two wheels? A good question. But a more incisive one might be: "Why not?"

Ibiza divides opinions. And visitors. Those seeking fun and frolics stick to the exclusion zones of Sant Antoni in the west and Platja d'En Bossa in the south. Those who prefer the more peaceful patches of a destination not short on pastoral persuasion keep their counsel in politer resorts such as Santa Eulalia and Sant Vicent in the east – or at the countryside hotels that increasingly dot the island's midriff. And never do the twain meet.

Faced with a week on the island, my plan is a revolutionary one: to sample both sides of this divide. Nightlife and noise on one hand. The soft alternative of chorizo and churches, manchego and museums on the other. Not so much "having it large" as "having it all".

Plans, though, are frequently better in theory than in reality. At least, it feels that way as I remount my bike, and the path jerks upwards. Soon I'm sweating out 4am – dust sticking to my calves, the road dispensing with Tarmac, pines closing in. Tumbledown walls skulk in the shadows, stone skeletons of farmsteads where Ibiza's sons of the soil eked out a living until the tourism boom of the Sixties tore them away to the gold rush on the coast.

Route 19 is part of an attempt to reverse this dash to the water – by ushering visitors into less-seen areas of Ibiza. It is one of 30 or so cycling and hiking trails newly cut across an outcrop that, at 220 square miles, is easily explored by pedal or footstep. Each is colour-coded according to difficulty (following the skiing system of green, blue, red and black), and laid out via roadside signs and downloadable directions on the tourist board website.

However, Route 19 (a mid-paced blue) is the headline act, boasting a jewel worth any amount of leg-ache. I first catch sight of it through the trees as the path whips out of the forest. A hairpin, and there it is: Na Xamena, a bay of such glory that my jaw drops as dramatically as the cliffs. Bare rock. A death-plunge two steps forward. The sea sprayed silver in the mid-afternoon light. And it is all mine. Almost. A dive boat bobs on the water, and a lone hotel hovers atop the far side of the bay. But on the parapet, nothing stirs beyond the lizards scratching in the undergrowth. Ultimately, Route 19 will swing me back to the central village of Sant Llorenc de Balafia via the outpost of Benirras, where Restaurante 2000 serves cinnamon-loaded portions of the Ibizan pudding greixonera on a cove almost as idyllic as Na Xamena. But it is the latter that, at ride's end, I cannot shake from my mind, its sharp flanks giving it the appearance of a bay that Odysseus might have sailed into during his search for Ithaca in The Odyssey.

That idea is not as odd as it might seem. The ancient Greeks knew of the Balearic Islands (even, possibly, mythical Greeks – Es Vedra, a crag off Ibiza's south-west corner, has been mooted as the site of Odysseus's date with the Sirens). Indeed, each major Mediterranean civilisation controlled Ibiza at some point – Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, North African Moors. Only when James I of Aragon "reclaimed" the isle for Christendom in 1235 did the current Ibiza begin to take shape. That most of its towns and villages bear saintly titles – Sant Carles, Santa Gertrudis, most notably Sant Antoni – is an echo of this final changing of the guard, a deliberate bid to stamp a Christian identity on to the map.

These villages, whitewashed pockets, are the keepers of Ibiza's soul. A day after Route 19, its colleague Route 3 whirls me around the heart of the island, wandering heat-baked lanes, and past the villa of the DJ David Guetta (its vastness a reminder that business is still booming behind the decks), before depositing me in Santa Gertrudis – where a sculpture of Manuel Abad y Lasierra, bishop of Ibiza between 1783 and 1787, stares at a square, ringed with chattering cafés, that must have looked significantly different in his heyday.

Or perhaps not. The hawkish cleric would surely recognise Santa Eulalia, where the Puig de Missa rises behind today's resort. Here is the 14th-century kernel of the town, built on a hill half a mile from the shore in an era when attack from the sea was a regular threat. Even now, there are traces of hard times. Tackling the slope, I'm drawn to the church, as much fortress as house of prayer. Its cool interior brandishes statues of a gaunt, bleeding Christ, en route to Calvary or tied to the whipping post. No easy comforts here.

Yet there is brightness too. The cemetery at the summit is packed with stone cabinets that cradle urns in compartments – flower-laden bookcases of the dead. They gaze on to fields, tucked behind the new hotels, crowded with bales of hay. A fine place to spend eternity.

Each of these villages shelters a culinary gem ideal for long lunches. In Sant Carles de Peralta (tied to Santa Eulalia bicycle Route 20), Bar Anita's unpromising name gives on to a courtyard where the village's PO boxes are lined against a wall, and the gazpacho (€6.70) is thick and fruity. Just beyond town, Can Curreu, once a post office, is a spa hotel where the suckling pig with cava and apples (€29.50) is a delight. And I could stay for hours at La Paloma, a family-run eatery at Sant Llorenc, where bread is made in situ and the Brazilian moqueca, a heavy fish stew (€21), prods me into satisfied drowsiness.

For all this play, there is also work. It had seemed a quirky idea: fly to a suntrap known for hedonism, and re-enter the classroom. The Instituto de Idiomas Ibiza is a language school that pushes Spanish on an isle where the expat population makes for a Tower-of-Babel babble. But while most classes are held at the Instituto's base in Ibiza Town, the school also offers tuition in less formal locations. Which is why I spend seven hours over five days, all of them outdoors, trawling the basics of Spanish: on the terrace at Can Lluc, a rustic hotel near Sant Rafael, my home for the week, where the only disturbance is the wind in the vines; by the door of Bar es Canto in Santa Gertrudis, where I slowly request a café con leche and the waiter smiles patiently – but brings milky caffeine nonetheless.

Do I learn anything? Maybe. The next afternoon, I'm on the ramparts of Ibiza Town. A party of schoolchildren is wreaking merry havoc, and their teacher, increasingly frantic, is shouting orders. "Calme-se! Tranquilo!" she cries out over the din – and I find that her words filter through to me in Spanish, even as they fail to filter through to her charges. She is right in calling for calm.

This high citadel demands reverence. In the cathedral, it is hard to miss the memorial to those who died defending the building from Republican attack in 1936 as the Spanish Civil War raged – 113 names set in marble. Down the hill, the San Ciriaco Chapel, hardly more than a hole in the masonry on Calle de San Ciriaco, marks the supposed point where Aragonese forces pierced the battlements as the city was retaken from the Moors.

It is left to a third religious structure, just below, to talk in less blood-stained tones. The entrance hall to the Convento de San Cristobal bears a message, etched in tiles, more in tune with the hippie vibeV C and the fraternity of the dancefloor for which Ibiza is renowned: "Here we pray for everybody. We are all brothers and sisters."

The labyrinthine streets of Dalt Vila (the Old Town) hold enough facts and fictions to fill a fortnight: Madina Yabisa, a museum that opens a window on to the city of the Arabic era; the Museu Arqueologic, alongside the cathedral, which takes the story back to the start; the Museu Puget, a gallery that celebrates two Ibizan artists, father and son, who conjured watercolour images of island life on to canvas throughout the 20th-century.

But even in the capital, the glitzier side of Ibiza shines through. Outside El Palacio Ibiza, an ex-hotel on Calle Conquista (now apartments), the handprints of celebrity guests attracted by the isle's aura are frozen in cement – including, from 1997, Penelope Cruz's petite digits. And on the opposite side of Talamanca Bay, the two worlds collide at Sa Punta – a restaurant loosely affiliated to the super-club Pacha that keeps an eye on Dalt Vila from its seafront address. It is a chic spot, where you can gorge on roasted wild seabass (€28) and local Ibizkus wine as yachts sleep in the marina, but also retire to linen-draped flat-beds and nod your head to the chill-out mix that oozes from the speakers until 3am.

If Sa Punta straddles the border between culture and club, then the Platja de Ses Salines sunbathes on the wall – as I discover when I cycle to this curving beach that lies south of Ibiza Town and the shimmering majesty of the Ses Salines salt flats.

This is Ibiza encapsulated: the bold and brash (the phalanx of bars at the edge of the sand, basslines battling the whoosh of the tide for supremacy; the occasional nudist cooking to brown) grinning at the beautiful (the hazy bulk of Formentera five miles away; the graceful movements of a group of yoga students as they throw poses on the sand). Once I'm settled, back against a boulder, iPod deployed, I ponder whether I can stay for good.

And yet, the siren call cannot be ignored. Sant Antoni is unavoidable, its existence proclaimed at every junction and roundabout, its clubs advertised on every billboard.

Es Paradis, another giant of a venue, will provide a conclusion to my week of contrasts. But first, there is a tradition to uphold. It is curious to witness applause for an "event" that occurs somewhere on the planet each second. But the daily curtain call in San Antonio is special, a sunset Odysseus might have espied – orange orb bowing to Homer's wine-dark sea. The difference is that here – with the conversational buzz of clubbers washing over the waterfront, and the clink of €11 mojitos as waiters buzz around the iconic Café del Mar – unlike the lost Greek warrior, there is little chance of me mistaking where I am.

Travel essentials: Ibiza

Getting there

* British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies to Ibiza from Gatwick and London City; Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from Birmingham, Bournemouth, East Midlands, Glasgow, Leeds-Bradford, Liverpool and Stansted; easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com) from Belfast, Bristol, Glasgow, Gatwick, Liverpool, Luton, Newcastle and Stansted; and Monarch Airlines (08719 40 50 40; monarch.co.uk/flights) flies from Gatwick, Manchester and Birmingham.

Staying there

* The writer stayed at Can Lluc, near Sant Rafael (00 34 971 198673; canlluc.com). Double rooms start at €160, including breakfast.

Cycling there

* A full list of cycle routes with downloadable PDF maps and directions can be viewed via the official Ibiza tourism information website at ibiza.travel/en/rutas.php. *Mountain bikes can be hired from Ibiza Sport (00 34 971 348949, ibizasport.com), from €16 a day.

Learning Spanish there

* Five private lessons over a week cost €210 via the Instituto De Idiomas Ibiza (00 34 971 303815; ii-ibiza.com). Twenty group lessons over a week cost €225 per person.

Visiting there

* Madina Yabisa (Calle Major 2, Ibiza Town; 00 34 971 399232). Open 10am-2pm and 6-9pm, Tuesday to Saturday, and 10am-2pm on Sundays – in July and August).

* Museu Arqueologic (Ibiza Town; 00 34 971 301231; aamaef.org). Open 10am-2pm and 6-8pm Tuesday to Saturday, Sundays 10am-2pm, April to September).

* Museu Puget (Ibiza Town; 00 34 971 392137). Open 10am-1.30pm and 5-8pm Tuesday to Saturday and 10am-1.30pm on Sundays, from May to September.

Eating and drinking there

* Bar Anita, Placa de la Iglesia, Sant Carles de Peralta (00 34 971 335 090).

* Bar Es Canto, Placa de la Iglesia 17, Santa Gertrudis (00 34 971 197 060).

* Café del Mar, Sant Antoni (00 34 971 396 464; cafedelmarmusic.com).

* Can Curreu, Sant Carles de Peralta (00 34 971 335 280; cancurreu.com).

* La Brasa, Calle de Pere Sala 3, Ibiza Town (00 34 971 301 202; labrasaibiza.com).

* La Paloma, Sant Llorenc (00 34 971 325 543; palomaibiza.com).

* Restaurante 2000, Cala de Benirras (00 34 971 333 313; restaurante2000.es).

* Sa Punta, Talamanca Bay (00 34 971 193 424; sapuntaibiza.com).

Clubbing there

* Amnesia, Sant Antoni Road, Sant Rafael (00 34 971 198 041; amnesia.es).

* Es Paradis, Salvador Espriu 2, Sant Antoni (00 34 971 346 600; esparadis.com).

* Pacha, Avenida Ocho de Agosto, Ibiza Town (00 34 971 313 612; pacha.com/ibiza).

More information

* Ibiza tourist information website: ibiza.travel

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