The tiny island of Menorca is perfect for families and sea monsters, writes Louise Levene
Wednesday 16 July 1997
Stick a chicken in the air
The main carriers are Airworld, Air UK and Monarch - bookable through agents such as Menorca Travel (01625 586337). Monarch flies there very cheaply (for example, a return ticket from Gatwick, leaving on 19 September, costs pounds 135) but there is a reason for this. The airline has recently trimmed back to an austere, no-frills service. Even soft drinks are charged for, and the food usually includes something that many travellers will have presumed to be extinct: chicken supreme with mixed veg. Among the many tour operators offering packages to Menorca are Thomson (0990 502580), Airtours (0541 500479), First Choice (0161-745 7000) and Unijet (0990 336336).
Where am I?
The airport is a short drive from the capital but, frankly, everything is a short drive. The place is tiny. Roads are well signposted and most people speak excellent English - indeed, if you go in high season most people are English.
Not now, darling
Menorca, like all such places, is full in August, with every third person of school age. From January to March, the dank, bitter Tramontana wind blows down through the Pyrenees and makes early spring cold, damp and unpleasant; in a bad year it can be chilly and rainy as late as Easter. May and June are ideal, with the roadsides carpeted with wild flowers. Late September and October, when squashes lie ripening on the roofs, are also a good time to go.
As you would expect from an island that is patronised by the English bourgeoisie, there is a rigid dress code: faded shorts will be worn at all times. Shoes should either be terminally tatty espadrilles, mildewed Docksiders or similarly sand-blasted Menorquin shoes. These are a strange, open-toed, sling back affair, worn by men and women alike. The aim of the game is to look as though you are just in town for the day while they regrout your yacht. A large cork key-ring placed casually on your table as you lunch at the Club Maritime, and an old Captain Watts/Force 4 carrier bag, should do the trick. If you do acquire a boat, it should have wood visible on the superstructure. Menorquin boats are ideal.
This need not prevent you from accepting lavish hospitality on a vast white glass fibre Sunseeker that berths 12, and has en suite showers and a sun deck the size of Venus - as long as you always remember to refer to the boat afterwards as "Brian's gin palace".
Where's the beach?
The emphasis on boating culture is understandable on an island whose highways criss-cross the pretty landscape efficiently, but which has no coastal road as such. The loveliest beaches can be reached only by yomping some distance. If you have small children you will presumably be encumbered by a beach umbrella, a coolbox and a shocking-pink, inflatable sea monster, which can make journeys across country impractical. Fortunately, there are plenty of charming developed beaches for people who need to know where their next plate of mejillones con patates is coming from.
A little Spanish town
The main towns of Mahn and Ciudadela are both very beautiful, but become virtually off limits during high season. Unless you are prepared to spend at least an hour driving round and round small Spanish squares desperately waiting for someone to free up a parking space, do not bother trying. Mahn has an excellent fish market and covered fruit and vegetable market (currently in the throes of redevelopment). It also has one of the longest and deepest harbours in the world, which explains its huge strategic importance during the Napoleonic wars. The various ghastly-looking harbour boat trips are in fact rather interesting, whether it's the old quarantine hospital, or one of Richard Branson's harbourside homes.
Well, if you insist. Menorquin shoes come in all colours, and Spanish ceramics are everywhere, the best value being in the large, rather grim factory shops. Most street markets sell lace tablecloths, but these are made in China. The island has a thriving dairy industry and produces countless varieties of delicious cheese. Local bakers sell kilos of extremely moreish, gooey macaroons called amargos, which travel surprisingly well. Nelson's fleet was based here for some time, and when the gin ran out they did the only sensible thing and started a gin factory. Cheeses and deliciously dry local gins all come in handy gift packs, and can be bought at the airport on the way out.
Ready to order?
Generally speaking, the really good restaurants tend to have Soho prices, although the pain is eased considerably by a currently favourable exchange rate. Most restaurants will have several set menus, but it's best to avoid anything with photographs of the food displayed outside, particularly in high season. It's well worth trying Catalan dishes such as the Hispanic bouillabaisse, caldereta. A word of warning: never have anything with lobster in it. It is seldom nice lobster, and your nagging annoyance at the absurdly inflated price could well spoil the rest of your holidayn
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