Married to Menorca

Often dismissed as a poor relation to Ibiza and Mallorca, Menorca is the Balearics' little gem. And the island's easier to get to than ever. No wonder Gerard Gilbert fell for it
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The Independent Travel

Wake up under overcast skies in Menorca and your best option is to head for Monte Toro, at over 1,000 feet, the highest point on the island - indeed the only really high point on the island. From the summit, topped by a statue of Christ and bristling with telecommunication masts, you can see just about every corner of this compact Balearic isle. And such can be the local variability of the weather on Menorca that you are able to spot where the sun is favouring that day, and plan accordingly. It's not uncommon for one coast to be basking in sunshine, while another is stuck under a cloud.

I learnt this trick from my brother-in-law, who has been coming to the family apartment here since the 1980s. Indeed, while I married into Menorca, my wife's family's ties to the island have a more tragic edge.

Her paternal grandfather died of a heart attack while helping his wife, who had got into trouble as she swam off Sant Tomas beach, in 1970. And in 2002, my mother-in-law died in the hospital at Mahon after being taken ill on the aeroplane from England. She had been unknowingly suffering from cancer.

Yet it is the happy memories that mostly bind us to an island often dismissed as Ibiza and Mallorca's mousy little sister: flat, unglamorous and so dull it's almost invisible. In fact, say you're holidaying in Menorca and people will almost automatically understand "Majorca". Not those, however, who know the island - they will give you a warm, conspiratorial smile. Nothing more needs to be said, although it invariably is - soft, sweet words of genuine affection. Menorca is in many ways the Balearics' best-kept secret - a secret just about to become that little less guarded when easyJet starts flying from Gatwick to the island next Thursday, 21 July.

Now I'm not going to pretend that the place is a Cinderella to Mallorca and Ibiza's ugly sisters - that latter pair are glamorous, if at times wildly hedonistic, beauties in their own right. But in its consciously low-rise way Menorca is a small-scale gem whose light is sometimes hidden under a bushel of other people's snobbish preconceptions. Maybe it's to do with the high ratio of British visitors. Three out of five tourists to Menorca are from the UK, compared to three in 10 of Mallorca's annual foreign influx. And Britons tend to come in families, and in their old age. Yes there are nightclubs on the island - indeed in Cova d'en Xoroi, set within the cliff caves at Cala en Porta, Menorca has one of the most spectacularly-sited clubs in the world - but nobody is going to pretend that this is downtown San Antonio on a Saturday night. It's possible to dance away until breakfast but you won't find that many ravers burning up as they chill out on the beaches.

While the British influence on the island is pervasive, it's not in an-all-day-breakfast kind of way. Outside of the handful of hidden-away mega-resorts, there are precious few outward signs of such home-from-home "delights" as egg and chips and happy hours. Externally Spanish - the island's Britishness has more subtle, historical roots, especially in the east of the island, around the capital city, Mahon.

Mao (as it is spelt locally) was instituted as a capital by the British, who ruled here for most of the 18th century. The deepest natural harbour in the Mediterranean, Mahon's strategic importance to the Royal Navy is obvious. While the British built up Mahon, the Spanish grandees and the church decided to remain in the former capital of Ciutadella, on the other end of the island. With its old palaces, narrow cobbled streets and pink-tinged sandstone, Ciutadella feels Moorish, as indeed it once was. The local fiesta here, at the end of June, is considered the most exuberant on the island.

The two cities of Menorca were first joined by the enlightened Anglo-Irish governor Richard Kane, and the highway named after him is now a largely forgotten byway. The Cami d'en Kane is little more than a meandering country road lined with the characteristic dry-stone walls and Menorcan farm gates.

I'm extremely fond of the quiet roads of the interior, with their dairy farms fringed with pine woods and - in spring and early summer - riots of wild flowers, but the real glory of the Menorcan countryside is its coastline.

Many of the best beaches - Cala en Turqueta in the south, for instance, or Cala Pregonda in the north, call for some investment of brute energy. Walking is required to access both - either that or a decent sized boat. Several fantastic Menorcan beaches are only really reachable from the sea. If you're the more social type, then Punta Prima in the east and Cala Galdana offer a backdrop of restaurants, bars and mini-supermarkets. Es Grau is a happy compromise.

But then there are no real duds amongst the bays and coves - and if you prefer walking to frying on a beach blanket, then there are some spectacular hikes along the littoral. Were the plant-life behind Es Grau captured in miniature and presented at the Chelsea Flower Show it would walk away with a gold medal.

Large swathes of the island have been designated a World Biosphere by the UN, and further north, around the lighthouse at Cap Favaritx, exists a weird moonscape of rock and succulents battered by enormous waves.

The south-east corner of the island is flatter, hotter and scrubbier, but particularly rich in prehistoric remains - talyotic settlements from over 3,000 years ago. Torralaba d'en Salort is said to be the most impressive. Stonehenge apart, my imagination has never been fired by the sight of ancient heaps of stones. I prefer the everyday, idiomatic architecture of Menorca: rounded, whitewashed walls, orange tiles and dark green doors and windows. The talyotic-rich area around the town of Sant Luis has been superseded by a different sort of civilisation, being particularly well-endowed with fabulous restaurants - far more my kind of thing.

Don't tell Jacques Chirac, but Spain in general has many more, and far better, cheap-to-medium priced restaurants than France, and Menorca is over-generously bejewelled by restaurants of all types.

Es Cranc in Fornells is the place to eat caldereta de llagosta - the spiny lobster stew that is an island speciality - while Ca'n Olga in Es Mercadal makes good use of the delicious Menorcan cheese by twinning it with local beef. But these are only the tips of a culinary iceberg that ranges from haute cuisine (Pan y Vino and Biniarroca near St Luis) to fresh fish simply grilled. A good spot to enjoy the latter is along the picturesque harbour front at Cales Fonts in Es Castell, with its small, almost Biblical fishing boats bobbing on their moorings in the wake of the swanky yachts, powerboats and ferries heading into Mahon.

Where to stay? If planning an independent short break using a no-frills flight you may find it difficult booking for less than a week in high season, although the later you leave it the easier it should be. Hotels, largely geared to tourists spending a fortnight on the island, are loath to have rooms booked for only two or three nights a long time in advance.

My wife and I spent one night of our honeymoon at Biniarocca near Sant Luis, a very tastefully-converted farmhouse with a lovely garden and even lovelier food. Delightful, but for a more down-to-earth experience try Hotel del Almirante - otherwise known as Collingwood House - the former home of Nelson's second-in-command, Admiral Collingwood. This has the advan- tage of being within walking distance of lively Es Castell. The rooms at Hotel del Almirante are large and airy, the hotel itself is full of naval memorabilia, and a big red parrot squawks at guests splashing in the swimming pool. Slightly old-fashioned, but full of charm, it's Menorca in a nutshell.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

You can fly to Menorca's only airport on Monarch Scheduled (08700 40 50 40; www.flymonarch.com) from Luton; on British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) and easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com) from Gatwick; and on MyTravelLite (08701 564 564; www.mytravellite.com) from Birmingham. In summer there are also frequent charter flights from numerous British airports.

The airport is about three miles west of the capital, Mao, within pleasant walking distance if you have time and not too much luggage; otherwise a cab into town will cost around €7 (£5).

STAYING THERE

Hotel del Almirante (00 34 971 36 27 00; www.hoteldelalmirante.com), Carretera Mahon - Es Castell s/n, Puerto de Mahon. Doubles start at €92 (£66), including breakfast.

EATING & DRINKING

Es Cranc (00 34 971 37 64 42), Calle Escoles, Fornells.

Ca'n Olga (00 34 971 37 54 59), Calle del Sol. Es Mercadel

Biniarocca (00 34 971 15 00 59), Cami Vell, near Sant Luis.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Menorca Tourist Information (00 34 971 363790; www.visitbalears.com); Spanish Tourist Office (09063 640630, calls charged at 60p/min; www.spain.info).

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