Will you do anything for a quiet life? Then visit Formentera

Just a short ferry ride from its brash big brother, Ibiza, this relaxed little island has been long overlooked by British tourists. Yet it offers those crucial holiday essentials: space, time, fresh air and natural beauty. Alex Leith hires a bicycle and goes exploring

So what do you think?" I'm asked by Francisco, who runs the tourist office in Formentera, the smallest inhabited island in the Balearics. He's taken me to a rocky mound on the spit of land that points northwards to Ibiza. To the right we can see a stretch of fine beige sand lapped by deep blue waves. To the left, another beach, sheltered from the current, with the most inviting-looking water I've seen in Europe: crystal-clear, turquoise-tinged, still as a mirror. It's mid-morning, but there's only one bather in sight. What do I think? I've only been on the island an hour, is what I'm thinking, but I'm already pondering the logistics of moving here for good. "I think I'm in love," I say.

So what do you think?" I'm asked by Francisco, who runs the tourist office in Formentera, the smallest inhabited island in the Balearics. He's taken me to a rocky mound on the spit of land that points northwards to Ibiza. To the right we can see a stretch of fine beige sand lapped by deep blue waves. To the left, another beach, sheltered from the current, with the most inviting-looking water I've seen in Europe: crystal-clear, turquoise-tinged, still as a mirror. It's mid-morning, but there's only one bather in sight. What do I think? I've only been on the island an hour, is what I'm thinking, but I'm already pondering the logistics of moving here for good. "I think I'm in love," I say.

I felt good about this place from the moment I stepped off the 25-minute ferry from its brash big brother Ibiza; there's a relaxed mood, everyone has a smile on their face, there is no hustle, no stress. The only serious-looking folk are those queuing up to leave.

Francisco tells me about Formentera's patchwork history. Megalithic monuments signal an Iron Age inhabitation; the Phoenicians and Carthaginians and Romans were here, followed by the Visigoths and the Moors. The Normans came, killed everyone they found, and left again. The Catalans took over in the 13th century: their legacy includes the dialect in which the locals communicate. From the 14th to the 17th century the island was used as a base for pirates: the inhabitants fled to Ibiza, then eventually returned.

In the 1970s Formentera was invaded by hippies, who found the islanders' laissez-faire attitude matched their own. You still see a few around the place, with long grey beards. Nowadays 95 per cent of the 7,500 population makes a living from tourism. Forty per cent of the foreign tourists are German, most of the rest Italian. There's hardly a Brit to be seen. Tourist intake, however, is restricted. The government is careful about preserving the island's beauty (much of it is designated national park) and has prohibited the building of new hotels and high-rise buildings. No camping is allowed.

Francisco, a Madrileño who visited 15 years ago and never left, has a passion for his job. "There are no secrets about Formentera. My advice to you? Get a bicycle and explore the island. You will have many pleasant surprises."

So I hire a sturdy mountain bike and head south, through the island's capital, San Francisco, with its street market and its pleasant white-fronted, 18th-century church, and into the scratchy interior, all dry-stone walls and majestic fig trees, their lazy branches supported by vertical sticks. We're two days shy of May, but it's hot. Formentera enjoys a warm climate, rarely dropping below 15C, rarely going over 30C. It's approaching that now, and I'm unprepared. No suntan cream, no water, no open shops. What's more the road is an uphill struggle for an unfit man and I'm dehydrating and burning fast. Finally, the terrain changes, gets more rocky, there's bracken and dandelions. And, thankfully, I'm going downhill. Then my destination reveals itself, the Cap de Barbaria lighthouse, perched on a cliff. The colour of the water, a rich greeny-blue, is alone worth all the effort. I manage to find a drop to drink: a couple give me a glug from their bottle and I feel refuelled.

The next three days I dedicate to a thorough investigation of the island's charms, applying my city-bred urgency to this idyllic setting. I see megaliths and windmills, lighthouses and salt lakes, secluded coves and mile after mile of dune-backed beach, sparsely populated with seriously tanned bathers, some of whom are not naked. My favourite beach is a cove on the west of the island, Cala Saona. When I arrive there I'm saddle-weary and hot. I haven't got any bathing shorts. "What the hell," I think. I stroll past several naked sunbathers, take all my clothes off, and march into the sea. A first.

This is what Formentera is all about, I come to realise, as my city self evaporates. It offers commodities that are scarce in most people's modern-day urban lives. Space, time, fresh air, breathtaking unpolluted natural beauty. Above all, it offers liberty.

Both land and the sea are incredibly clean. Posidonia is a type of seaweed that thrives in the clean sea around Formentera, and is vital to the island's ecosystem. A diving school takes me in a dinghy on a snorkelling trip, which allows me to have a good look at the sea-bed. Posidonia, which has therapeutic qualities, is what lends the sea its turquoise tinge. It also keeps the sea clean, and, because it washes to shore and leaves a silver residue on the shoreline, it protects the beaches, making sure the precious white sand isn't washed away in storms.

On the way back, I am allowed to sit on the platform in front of the helm. The pilot behind me goes full throttle as we belt up the side of the island. I hold on for dear life, sea-spray and a big grin on my face. One of many perfect moments in three days which seem like a week. You can reverse the old adage about time and fun in Formentera: time is suspended, like it used to be when it was summer holidays and you were a child.

One of the memories you take back with you is the fishing boats perched in wooden shacks on the rocks, ready to be pulled down to sea on ramshackle rails. This adds a third-worldly Caribbean look to the place. They say the fish has a unique taste, a debatable theory I will do nothing to quash. Fresh fish is what to order in any restaurant . I spend the penultimate night in a Michelin-starred place, Caminito, in the only touristy part of the island, the village of Es Pujols. The highlight of an imaginative multi-course meal is the sirloin steak smeared with goat's cheese and doused with cherry sauce. I'm introduced to the chef afterwards. He is 20. Somehow it sums the whole place up.

The only bad thing I have to say about Formentera is that you have to leave. I realise I had meant to indulge in a bit of reading, but my book has not left my bag. As I wait to get on to the ferry I envy the people coming the other way, their adventure just beginning. But there is a consolation. I know that I will be in their position again. Although I'm still not sure how I'll be able to make a living.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

EasyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com) offers return flights from Stansted to Ibiza from £118. A number 10 bus connects the airport to the port with tickets costing €1.20 (82p) each way. There are regular ferries operated by Mediterranea-Pitiusa SL (00 34 971 322 443; www.medpitiusa.com) and Balearia (00 34 971 310 711) to La Savina in Formentera, from 7.15am to 8pm. The journey takes 25 minutes and a ticket costs around €30 (£21) return.

Where to stay

The author stayed at Hostal Bahia, on the port-front of La Savina (00 34 971 322 142; www.guiaformentera.com/bahia). A double room costs from €68 (£46) to €105 (£71) with breakfast. It is better to avoid peak season (July-August) when prices rise and it's difficult to find beds.

What to do

Vellmari (00 34 971 192 884; www.sportextreme.com) in La Savina offers snorkelling trips from €23 (£16) and €35 (£24) with a dive master.

Further information

Tourist Information, La Savina Port (00 34 971 322 057; www.formentera.es). Spanish National Tourist office (020 7486 8077; www.spain.info).

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