Traveller's Guide: Ibiza

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There is more to this island than its vibrant clubbing scene – rugged beauty and a charming capital city are just the beginning, says Chris Leadbeater

This pearl of an island, rinsed in millennia of history, has many dimensions besides its reputation as the most vibrant clubbing venue in the Mediterranean. The third-largest of the Balearic isles is a fascinating mix of up-all-night hedonists in the west, rugged beauty and isolation in the north, a string of attractive resorts in the east and a splendid capital in the south – although each of these disparate flanks is decorated with stretches of sand perfect for lazy, sun-soaked days. And the interior is different again, awash with pastoral prettiness, all olive groves and swaying cornfields.

Records suggest Ibiza was first settled by Phoenician seafarers as long ago as the seventh century BC – and it has been deeply coveted since: by the ancient Greeks who came after, coining the term pityussai in reference to the island's dense pine coverage; by invading Carthaginians, Romans and North African Moors; by Spain, into whose grasp Ibiza effectively fell in 1235, when James I of Aragon wrested it from Moorish control.

Today, the capital Eivissa (or Ibiza Town, to use the name more recognised than the official Catalan version) clings to the crag that, in medieval times, made it a citadel of real strength. It is a defiantly Spanish entity, and fabulously cosmopolitan with it. The lively resorts of Platja d'en Bossa and Platja de Ses Salines are close by, their beaches festooned with bars that waft chill-out mixes into the breeze.

Ibiza Town's sublime charms are counterbalanced by the clubs strewn around the resort of Sant Antoni (San Antonio). It sits above a crescent bay where the never-to-bed can doze away the daylight – though the west coast's finest beach may well be the quieter Cala d'Hort, near the village of Es Cubells.

More visitors base themselves in the east, in whitewashed towns of rich character, such as Santa Eularia – which plays host to twin beaches, separated by a rocky bluff, and dotted with cafés and ice-creameries.

The north provides dramatic land- and seascapes, such as the plunging, sheer-sided form of Na Xamena Bay, and lovely coves at Benirras and Portinatx.

The three big tour operators take thousands of holidaymakers to Ibiza every week. Each of the packages listed here is a seven-night break in May, at a three-star hotel on a half-board basis, with flights from Gatwick: the Paraiso Beach Hotel in Es Cana, from £451, via Thomson (0871 231 4691; thomson.co.uk): the Hotel Presidente in Portinatx, from £277, with Thomas Cook (0871 895 0068; thomascook.com); the Nereida Aparthotel on Sant Antoni Bay, from £421, through Monarch (0845 351 0072; monarch.co.uk).

For travellers who prefer to organise things themselves, flights are in good supply. The two main low-cost airlines have the most choice: easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com) flies from Belfast, Bristol, Glasgow, Gatwick, Liverpool, Luton, Newcastle and Stansted, while Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) flies from Birmingham, Bournemouth, East Midlands, Glasgow, Leeds-Bradford, Liverpool and Stansted. British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies from Gatwick and London City, and seats are also available on Monarch, Thomas Cook and Thomson aircraft.

More information can be found via the tourist board, at ibiza.travel/en, or via the main tourist office in Ibiza Town (Passeig de Vara de Rey 1; 00 34 971 301 740).

Capital class

Though they mainly date to the 16th century, the fortifications of the capital's Dalt Vila (Upper Town) hint at their Phoenician and Arab past. Indeed, even in summer, when its alleys are madly busy, there is a palpable sense of history to the quarter that has been recognised with Unesco World Heritage status.

Santa Maria d'Eivissa, at the summit of the hill, is a sandstone block, as much defensive bastion as cathedral – though you cross the threshold into a respectful hush and a whiff of incense. On the slope below, culture abounds: in the Museu Arqueològic (Placa de la Catedral 3; 00 34 971 301 771; aamaef.org), which takes the Ibizan story back to the first settlers; in the Madina Yabisa (Carrer Major 2; 00 34 971 399232), which investigates the Moorish era; and at the Museu Puget (Carrer Major 18; 00 34 971 392 137), which celebrates two local artists, father and son, who crafted watercolour images of their home island.

Further down, the Ibiza of yore gradually bleeds into the modern town – though there is pleasing Hispanic ambience to the likes of Carrer de Sa Carrossa and Placa de la Vila, where small restaurants and shops come in clusters. El Mercado Viejo, on Placa de la Constitución, sees fruit and vegetables sold in a joyfully antiquated manner. And Placa de Parc seems to be on permanent siesta.

In this context, Ibiza Town is a fine place to stay. Hotel Mirador, at Placa de Espana 4 (00 34 971 303 045; hotelmiradoribiza.com), is the flagship, a stately five-star with just 13 rooms. Doubles from €290 per night (not including breakfast). Similarly luxurious, but more contemporary in style, the Ibiza Gran Hotel, at Passeig Joan Carles I 17 (00 34 971 806 806; ibizagranhotel.com), has double rooms from €270 a night, including breakfast.

At the other end of the price bracket, the three-star Hotel Cenit, on Carrer Arxiduc Lluis Salvador (00 34 971 301 404; hotelcenit.com), does doubles from €52, with breakfast.

In the club

Sant Antoni is the key pilgrimage point for those seeking after-dark adventure on Ibiza. Though surprisingly small in scale, the town is the site of two of the island's most famous clubs: Eden, on Carrer Salvador Espriu (00 34 971 803 240; edenibiza.com), and Es Paradis, which lies directly opposite on the same road (00 34 971 346600; esparadis.com).

However, there is more to this west-coast enclave than post-midnight mayhem. Its main promenade is home to two pre-club institutions – Café Del Mar (Carrer de Lepant 4; 00 34 971 396 464; cafedelmarmusic.com) and Café Mambo (Carrer de Vara del Rey 40; 00 34 971 348 012; cafemamboibiza.com) – where crowds congregate at the end of the day to watch the sun set over moderately pricey cocktails and a merry burble of conversation.

Less dancefloor-focused music blasts out on Carrer de la Estrella, where, as well as offering swish accommodation, the Ibiza Rocks Hotel (00 34 971 573 979; ibizarocks.com) hosts major bands in its courtyard. Gigs take place on Wednesday evenings over 17 weeks each summer, with previous participants including Arctic Monkeys, Florence and the Machine, Vampire Weekend and Kasabian. The 2011 programme starts with rap-soul act Plan B on 1 June.

Elsewhere on the isle, the south coast also has two sizeable clubs: Pacha, on Avenida Ocho de Agosto in Ibiza Town (00 34 971 313 612; pacha.com/ibiza), and Space, at Platja d'en Bossa (00 34 971 396 793; spaceibiza.com).

Amnesia, meanwhile, is something of an anomaly – a concrete barn just off Carrer d'Eivissa-Sant Antoni (the "motorway" that links Ibiza Town and Sant Antoni) near Sant Rafael (00 34 971 198 041; amnesia.es).

Although Amnesia is forgettably unimpressive from the outside, it opens up into a hands-aloft arena that holds 5,000.

While the precise opening and closing dates vary from venue to venue, the clubbing season generally begins in the first flush of June, and shuts down at the end of September.

Meet the neighbour

Often overlooked, Ibiza's sibling isle Formentera lingers two miles south of its big brother. Largely flat, this 32-square-mile outcrop is easily explored by bike, and projects a calmer Balearic vibe beyond the peak months of July and August.

Formentera markets itself as "the last paradise in the Mediterranean", a reasonable point as, while the other inhabited Balearic islands (Mallorca, Menorca and Ibiza) all have airports, Formentera does not.

Plenty of people use their yachts to get here, but having your own boat is not essential. Ferries set sail from the Estacion Maritima (on Avenida Andanes) in Ibiza Town, docking at La Savina on the north coast of Formentera. The journey takes between 25 and 35 minutes depending on the operator, but there is otherwise not much to choose between Balearia (00 34 96 642 8700, balearia.com – single fares €22.25), Trasmapi (00 34 902 314 433; trasmapi.com – single fares €22.25) and Mediterranea Pitiusa (00 34 971 322 443; medpitiusa.net – single fares €21.80), whose competition along the route ensures regular departures.

The island has a network of paths, based on ancient tracks, and now adapted for bikes and hikes. These 20 "green circuits" allow you maximum opportunity to see Formentera with minimum impact.

Most visitors come for the beaches (such as Platja Llevant in the north, Platja Migjorn in the south) – which are frequently less packed than their counterparts on Ibiza. But there is also a noteworthy elegance to Formentera's villages – La Savina, Sant Francesc and Sant Ferran in the centre, the tiny El Pilar de la Mola at its south-eastern tip.

Designs on the interior

While the Ibizan shore is alive with sun-seekers, the interior might be another world – a rural realm that deals in small farms, the hum of tractors and the occasional vineyard.

It is worth an afternoon or three, on either two wheels or two feet, especially as would-be wanderers are given plenty of assistance. In the last three years, an army of signposts has appeared along lanes and at junctions, marking some 30 cycling and hiking trails that have been created to showcase the best of the island's scenery. The tourist board website also lays out these routes in downloadable PDF format – see ibiza.travel/en/rutas.php.

Of the 30, Route 19, a mountain-biking trail with mildly tricky sections, is arguably the pick, chiefly because it spears through pine forests to the dramatic lip of Na Xamena Bay. Bikes can be hired from Ibiza Sport in Sant Antoni (Carrer de la Soledad 32; 00 34 971 348 949, ibizasport.com) for €16 per day.

Trawling the back roads in this fashion allows you to get under the island's skin – Route 19 also scythes through the villages of Sant Miquel and Sant Llorenç. These outposts are sometimes so sleepy as to be catatonic, but can also spring surprises. Puig de Missa, a hillock tucked behind Santa Eularia, pictured above, is a mini version of Ibiza Town in its sharp gradient, 14th-century church and long-distance views. It also has the Museo Barrau (00 34 971 330 072), a museum dedicated to the early 20th-century artist Laurea Barrau, who lived here.

Elsewhere, the Las Dalias Hippy Market (00 34 971 326 825; lasdalias.com), near Sant Carles, is an unconvincing ghost of the Bohemian swirl that engulfed Ibiza in the Sixties – but there are bargains to be bought amid the tie-dye, trinkets and hand-made jewellery.

For those who like to wake up to the swish of leaves rather than the whoosh of waves, the interior also proffers a hotel or two. Can Lluc (00 34 971 198 673; canlluc.com), slotted into a vineyard near Sant Rafael, is delightfully rustic – double rooms from €180 a night, with breakfast.

Can Curreu, just outside Sant Carles (00 34 971 335 280; cancurreu.com), plays a similar card, but ups the ante with a spa – from €220 per night, with breakfast.

Gourmet grub

Drop a pin on a map of Ibiza, and it will land somewhere near a commendable culinary concern. Almost every village comes equipped with a restaurant that mixes the traditional and the new with aplomb.

Sant Agusti, in the west near Sant Antoni, is scarcely a hamlet, yet still offers Can Berri Vell (00 34 971 344 321) – a farmstead eatery that does slow-cooked suckling pig for €17.50. Sant Llorenç has the family-run La Paloma (00 34 971 325 543; palomaibiza.com), where a heavy Brazilian moqueca (fish stew) costs €21.

Sant Carles has an institution in Bar Anita (00 34 971 335 090), unpromising of name but hearty of atmosphere and gazpacho (€7). And at Santa Gertrudis, at the dead centre of the island, several cafés, ideal for coffee and tapas, are strung around the Placa de la Iglesia.

Ibiza Town has numerous options, but La Brasa, at Carrer de Pere Sala 3 (00 34 971 301 202; abrasaibiza.com), is special, its outdoor tables caught beneath thick branches.

Sa Punta (00 34 971 193 424; sapuntaibiza.com), meanwhile, might be an emblem of Ibiza as a whole. A restaurant on Talamanca Bay, loosely affiliated with Pacha, it basks in an understated trendiness, but does not neglect the food – basslines rolling discreetly as you eat wild roasted seabass (€28) while gazing out across to the yachts that are bobbing at the marina.

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