Traveller's guide: Menorca

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With a newly completed coastal path and more beaches than Mallorca and Ibiza combined, this Balearic island is ideal for walkers and families, says Mick Webb.

Much smaller than Mallorca and less noisy than Ibiza, low-key Menorca is the Balearic island that can easily slip under the holiday radar. Apart from two very attractive towns (Maó and Ciutadella) the island's main draw is its beautiful, mainly undeveloped coastline, with more beaches than Mallorca and Ibiza put together. It is a good destination for young families, thanks to its small resorts and mid-range hotels, and increasingly for walkers, since the Camí de Cavalls, the path around the island's coast, is now complete. Walk Menorca (0161 408 1399; walkmenorca.com) is a new company which offers guided walks along selected stretches of the path during the mornings and a hire car for exploring the island after lunch. A week in September starts at £540 per person, for bed and breakfast, excluding flights.

The capital, Maó (formerly known as Mahó*), is on the island's eastern end, perched above one of the world's great natural harbours. Fifty kilometres away, at the western extreme is beautiful Ciutadella. The road between them (the ME1) is the island's spinal cord, and connects its three small rural towns (Alaior, Es Mercadal and Ferreries). Turnings to the north and south lead to the handful of resorts and coastal villages. The ME1 also marks a geological divide between Menorca's ancient top half of red sandstone and its limestone southern half. You can appreciate the contrast in landscapes from the top of Monte Toro, a short drive from Es Mercadal and the island's highest point. It may only be 358m above sea level but the views encompass the whole island.

Menorca wears its prehistory on its sleeve, with a scattering of interesting and accessible sites. Talatí del Dalt is 4km from Maó, next to the main road to Ciutadella (00 34 902 929 015; menorcaweb.net/talati; admission €4). It was built by the Talayotic people, whose culture existed from 1500BC until the arrival of the Romans here in 123BC. They owed their name to their Talayots, cone-shaped stone structures, possibly watchtowers.

The enduring skills in working stone are also celebrated in the island's most unusual museum, Lithica, just outside Ciutadella. The sculptural spaces of a worked-out quarry have been planted with a sequence of striking gardens (00 34 971 48 15 78; lithica.es; €4).

For three separate periods during the 18th century the island was in British hands, which has given it some quirky legacies. On the grassier fields of the interior you'll see herds of black and white Friesian cows, while in Maó you'll find elegant Georgian-style mansions, as well as a gin distillery which was introduced by the first British governor, Sir Richard Kane.

The holiday resorts are dotted around the 200km shoreline. The largest north coast resort is Arenal d'en Castell, with several large hotels around a perfect shell-shaped bay, while neighbouring Son Parc has the island's only golf course. In the south, where the beaches are longer and mainly fine white sand, Cala'* Porter, San Tomàs and Cala'* Bosch are similar purpose-built resorts, with Cala Galdana, backed by cliffs, enjoying the most attractive setting. Direct Holidays (0844 800 7576; directholidays .co.uk) has a week's all-inclusive for a family of four at the Hotel Playa Azul in Cala'n Porter for £726 per adult and £464 per child, including flights from Stansted on 20 August.

Mick Webb visited Menorca as a guest of Walk Menorca (0161 408 1399; walkmenorca.com).

Dining out

When in Maó, you should definitely try the mayonnaise, which was invented here, as well as the local cheese and, of course, the fresh fish and seafood. Good value lunch menus (about €15 for three courses and wine) are available pretty well everywhere, though the island's signature dish caldereta de langosta, "lobster casserole", can cost up to €70. It's a speciality of the many waterside restaurants in the fishing village of Fornells, and in nearby Playas de Fornells, where the Café del Nord at Local Comercial 5 (00 34 971 37 66 97; cafedel nord.com) provides a very tasty €20 caldereta as well as a lovely sea view.

Other restaurants worth going out of your way to find are Maó's seafood specialist, S'espigó, at Moll de Llevant 267 (00 34 971 36 99 09; sespigo.com) and Ciutadella's cave-like La Guitarra at Carrer Dolors 1 (00 34 971 38 13 55) for traditional Menorcan meat dishes.

City culture

Maó's centre straggles along a cliff above the prized deep-water harbour with its bars and restaurants. In the old town there are small plazas with striking 18th-century buildings, and a market. The monastery of San Francesc houses the Museum of Menorca (00 34 971 35 09 55; illesbalears.es, €2.40). Ciutadella has an exquisite old town of cobbled, arcaded streets and churches and a harbour. Don't miss the Gothic cathedral and museum (00 34 971 481 297; €2.50).

Beaches and water activities

The white sandy beaches of the south have attracted development but there's usually an unspoilt bay close by. Cala Macarelleta, west from Cala Galdana resort, is a study in white and turquoise. The north coast is more rugged but has beautiful bays such as Cala de Algaiarens, near Ciutadella. The Bay of Fornells is an almost enclosed body of shallow water ideal for learning to sail and windsurf. Wind Fornells (00 34 971 188 150; windforn ells.com, two two-hour windsurfing sessions cost €136). For diving and snorkelling, S'Algar Diving (00 34 971 15 06 01; salgardiving.com) is in S'Algar's Paseo Marítimo, near San Luis. A two-hour "try dive" cost €75pp.

Walking and wildlife

The whole island has been classified a biosphere reserve by Unesco because of its striking flora and fauna which include booted eagles, red kites, Egyptian vultures and the occasional osprey. The best place for serious birding is the natural park of S'Albufera des Grau, between Maó and the lovely bay of Es Grau (00 34 971 356 303; menorca.es). It has a reception centre, a couple of hides and marked trails. The historic trail El Camí de Cavalls (elcamide cavalls.cat) follows the coastline and is suitable for horses and mountain bikers too. Its 20 sections average 10km. Those in the south are flatter than the more dramatic, challenging northern options.

Accommodation

The Hotel Port Mahon at Fort de l'Eau 13 (00 34 971 36 26 00; sethotels .com) has high-season doubles with breakfast from €140. It's a 10-minute walk from the centre, as are the nearby Royal Apartments at Carrer Carmen 131 (00 34 971 36 95 34; aparta mentosroyal.com, apartment for four costs from €125, breakfast €5pp). The Hotel Tres Sants, pictured, at Carrer San Cristòbal 2 is in the heart of old-town Ciutadella (doubles with breakfast from €110; 00 34 971 48 22 08; grupelcarme.com). North east of Ciutadella is Biniatram, a 500-year-old farm-cum-country hotel with pool and tennis court. It's a 20-minute walk to the pretty bay of Cala Morell. High-season doubles start at €118 per night, with breakfast an extra €8pp (00 34 971 38 31 13; biniatram.com).

Private villas and flats are available for rent across the island (Owners Direct 020‑8827 1998; ownersdirect.co.uk).

Travel Essentials

Getting there

The most frequent flights to Menorca's only airport, 4.5km south-west of Maó, are from Gatwick. Monarch (0871 940 5040; monarch.co.uk) and easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com) compete. The latter also flies from Bristol and Newcastle, while Jet 2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com) flies in from Glasgow.

From Menorca's airport, bus 10 runs to the city every 30 minutes between 6am and midnight and costs €2.

A taxi will cost about €10.

Getting around

A bus network connects the major towns and resorts.

The red and yellow coaches of TMSA (00 34 971 360 475; transportesmenorca.net) run between Maó and Ciutadella (70 minutes, €4.75) and also to the south coast resorts.

Autos Fornells (00 34 971 154 390; autosfornells.com) links Maó with the resorts on the north coast, including an hourly service between Maó and Fornells, for which the fare is €3.10.

More information

00 34 902 929 015; menorca.es.

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