Less is more in the Balearics

Menorca is full of hidden delights. Jonathan Bennett reports

Say the word Menorca to most people in Britain and the usual response is thanks, but no thanks. On the list of desirable holiday destinations it ranks somewhere between Torremolinos and Skegness. Which is odd, because for discerning Spaniards - and for Brits in the know - Menorca is a carefully guarded secret.

Say the word Menorca to most people in Britain and the usual response is thanks, but no thanks. On the list of desirable holiday destinations it ranks somewhere between Torremolinos and Skegness. Which is odd, because for discerning Spaniards - and for Brits in the know - Menorca is a carefully guarded secret.

Often lumped together with its Balearic sisters Ibiza and Majorca, Menorca is very different from both, and not just because it has managed to escape the worst ravages of mass tourism. Most of Menorca is still very rural, criss-crossed with stone walls and rolling pastureland. Partly it's to do with the island's rich heritage. Stand in front of one of the many mysterious taulas, prehistoric T-shaped altars that stand more than three metres high, beside the ruins of stone watchtowers, and you can still feel a certain calm energy emanating from them. Or visit Calescoves, a beautiful, forked bay, with neolithic tombs carved high in the cliff-face, where you can drink from the same spring as the Romans did. Look inland, up the overgrown gorge you will have walked down, and you see a view that has changed little in the intervening two millennia.

In the 18th century the English occupied the island, recognising the strategic importance of the port of Mahon, the second largest natural harbour in the world. From there they were able to dominate the Mediterranean for almost 100 years; if it hadn't been for the treaty of Amiens in 1802, Menorca, like Gibraltar, might still be British.

In fact, Mahon, the capital, still has a certain English feel to it, not least because of its ubiquitous bow windows. Friesan cows, red clover and colonial architecture are other reminders of English occupation, as is some vocabulary: you can still find the children's game mérvils (marbles) and boil water in a quítil (kettle). Gin is still made locally and drunk during local celebrations, the most famous of which is Ciutadella's Festes de Sant Joan in June.

Where Mahon has hidden delights, Ciutadella is most people's immediate favourite, with its small, quaint harbour lined with fish restaurants and its two dramatic squares, one pine-filled and shady, the other an elegant stage set lined with colonial buildings and palaces of pinkish sandstone. The area behind is a delightful labyrinth of cobbled streets, brightly painted townhouses with wooden shutters and the carved façades of tiny churches that deepen to red with the evening sun.

So why does Menorca enjoy such a poor reputation among the English? The answer is a combination of laziness and lack of information. Most package tourists end up at one of a handful of resort ghettoes. But escape is simple: rent a car. Most roads are excellent these days, and from as little as €20 (£14) a day, paradise awaits.

Sant Tomas and Son Bou in the south have the longest beaches, with white sand and clear, turquoise waters. Both have a handful of large hotels, but a five-minute walk will take you to areas of beach backed by dunes and woodland. Other beaches in the south tend to be smaller, at the end of short bays wedged between high cliffs: Cala en Porter, for example, or Cala Galdana. Less spoilt, though harder to get to, are the beaches of Macarella and Cala en Turqueta, which are small and charming, but there's a long drive along narrow lanes to endure as well as parking fees. The north coast is more rugged and less developed, and access can be more difficult, though Cala d'Algairens, Arenal d'en Castell and Cala Mesquida are all pretty and easy to reach.

Beaches, though, account for only about 10 per cent of the coastline. The rest is rocks and cliffs, which is what makes Menorca such a good place for scuba diving. "The rugged landscape of the coastline continues below the water," explains Ali Lee of Ulmo Diving in Addaia, one of 10 authorised dive centres on the island, though about 20 more "pirate" outfits spring up in the summer. "Every year we're noticing an increase in the quantity and size of the marine life we see here," she says.

One of the delights of Menorca is not just looking at sea life, but also eating it. The island has some excellent seafood restaurants, particularly in Mahon and Ciutadella, as well as Fornells in the north, famed for its spiny lobster stew, a simple dish that used to be eaten by fishermen.

Menorca also has several restaurants serving haute cuisine. Andaira, in Mahon, is a sensual treat of flavours and textures that defy description, created by young chef Carl Borg and served by his partner Ariadna Belloch. Two miles south, the tiny villages of Torret and S'Ullastrar between them have at least half a dozen gastronomic restaurants along a single stretch of country road, no more than a mile long. La Caraba is probably the best, with Sa Parereta d'en Doro a close second. In Ciutadella, Café Balear serves excellent fish and meat in elegant but unfussy surroundings.

With so much to see and do (and eat), Menorca, known as "the lesser Balear", has far more to offer than its larger neighbours. Perhaps that's why it's such a well-kept secret.

The Facts

Getting there

GB Airways flies to Mahon four times a week from £155 return. Book through British Airways (0845 773 3377; www.ba.com).

Being there

The Hotel Port Mahon (00 34 971 362 600, www.sethotels.com) offers doubles from €63 (£45) per night.

Car hire is available from Autos Menorsur (00 34 971 36 56 66; www.menorsur) from €65 (£46) for three days.

Further information

Spanish Tourist Office (020-7486 8077; www.tourspain.co.uk).

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