October 21, 2011

Menorca… more than just beaches

Cala Macarella, south shore of Menorca
Sigh. Menorca is… lovely. I've travelled around a lot of Spain, and I have to say that this island really has it all, and certainly much more than just beaches. The Spanish journalist Josep Pla once said:
"cuanto más pequeño es un país, más largas son sus distancias." [The smaller a country is, the longer are its distances.]
Menorca is a fairly small island. It is easy to get from one point on the island to another in under 45 minutes by car. Despite this, it is chock full of things to do and easily yields itself to each visitor's specific itineraries or traveling tastes. Good food, wonderful scenery, historical sites, quaint towns, and a quiet, relaxed feel to it that makes it a great place to get away from it all. And, yes, it also has amazing beaches.

Of the four Balearic Islands, Menorca is distinctive for being the quietest (i.e. less clubs, less development, and less beach party tourism) and the most remote. In 1993 the island was declared a UNESCO biosphere reserve, and perhaps for this reason has more to offer nature lovers than the other three islands. Beaches are its principal natural resource. The most iconic beach is Cala Macarella, the one most likely to appear in photos of the island (because there is a cliff nearby from which you can photograph it). It is located on the southern coast on the western side of the island. If snorkeling is not great in Macarella (due to algae blooms or waves), then you can always walk 5 minutes further along the cliff shore over to Cala Macarelleta, where snorkeling will be good since the two calas are at cross currents to each other. For those looking for it, Cala Macarelleta also has the attraction of being a nudist beach. Not far from Macarella (about a 30-minute hike) is Cala Galdana, a very large, clear beach that is much more accessible and has plenty of hotels, places to stay, and dining options. Another good beach in the vicinity is Cala en Turqueta. On the north coast the beaches are very distinctive and breathtaking due to the reddish hue rocks and sand. Among those I would recommend is Cala Cavallería, which is slightly more complicated to get to, but for the same reason not so crowded as the other beaches. And there are many, many more. Amazingly enough, Menorca has more "calas" (beach coves) than any of the other Balearic Islands, even more than Mallorca which is five times larger in size.

The nudist beach Cala Macarelleta, a 5-minute walk from Macarella

Cala Galdana, a good beach to book a hotel at

Cala Cavallería, on the northern coast where the rocks and soil often have a reddish tinge

A "Camí de Cavalls" post marking
the many nature trails around
the island
The other distinctive natural resource of Menorca are its "camí de cavalls," 186 km. of horseback riding trails which run along the coasts of the island and make for great nature hiking. There is a strong horse tradition here. There is one horse for every 30 inhabitants, the island has its own local "Pura Raza Menorquina" breed, and there are regular horse festivals in the island's towns. (Here you can find a great Spanish blog post on Minorcan horse culture.) For this reason I highly recommend you try horseback riding here. Many stables will offer tours which run either through the interior (through the agrarian pastureland and with hillside views of the island) or down to beaches (sometimes even entering the water).

As if beaches and horseback riding weren't enough, Menorca also has a large number of ruins and archaeological sites. The Torre d'en Galmés site is the largest and is really quite impressive. You are able to walk through the ruins, into the remains of the houses. And it is located on a hilltop so that you have views of the sea and can even make out the mountains of the nearby island Mallorca. We arrived to the ruins around sunset, which added an extra level of enchantment to the visit.

A house in the Talayotic (i.e. Bronze Age megalithic) site, Torre d'en Galmés

Menorca only has 90,000 regular inhabitants, and about one third of them live in the capital Mahón, another third in Ciutadella, and the rest in smaller towns. Mahón is the main entry point for the island by boat and airport, and its main tourist attraction is its large, picturesque port, which lies at the base of a cliff upon which is seated the town. Besides this, it is a good place to go shopping since it has a lot of venues and markets. I will confess that I found Ciutadella, which is located on the opposite side of the island, to be a much more enjoyable town to walk around in, though both are quaint and reasonably more lively than the rest of the island, providing more dining and shopping options than elsewhere. Two other cute towns to visit are Alaior, located in the interior, considered the birthplace of the island's famous cheese, and which has a really excellent non-tourist small-town vibe, and Binibequer, which is famous for its all white buildings and iconic seaside, Mediterranean look. And for what has to be one of the most incredible clubbing experiences on earth I highly recommend a visit to the Cova d'en Xoroi, located in Cala en Porter. The club is built inside a cliffside cave, raised several hundred meters above sea level, with views out onto the sea. Visiting this club is like stepping into one of those fantasy clubs that appear in movies, but it's actually for real.

Sunset view of Ciutadella's quaint port

The picturesque town of Binibequer, on the southeastern corner of Menorca.

 Enjoy breathtaking views of the sea while sipping your mojito at the Cova d'en Xoroi cliff-side cave club.

You'll see a lot of people carrying these
boxes back with them on the plane.
Despite the island's modest population, there are several local artisanal traditions which make for great gifts. The _classic_ gift, which you will see many Spaniards bringing back with them in the airport, are "ensaimadas," a sweet pastry originally from the larger neighboring island Mallorca, and which is package in an iconic octagonal box. Menorca is specifically known for its "menorquinas" sandals, footwear that was traditionally worn by field workers but are now quite popular throughout Spain for lounging or the beach. Among local food traditions, Menorca is famous for its local cheese, "queso Mahón," and also the soft sausage spread "sobrasada," the latter also originally from Mallorca, both worth sampling. (Might I recommend a "bocadillo de sobrasada y queso," sobrasada and cheese sandwhich, as a great meal for budget travelers.) And one can also try the classic Minorcan dish caldereta, a local version of fisherman's stew.

Minorcan horses performing "el blot" a traditional dance
staged at the island's many horse festivals
By the end of my visit there all I could think was, how can I find a way to settle here and never have to leave? However, upon talking to the locals, I quickly discovered that Menorca is, perhaps, not the perfect place to live, and better left for visits. It is an island of migration. Many of its few steady residents are originally from elsewhere and came to live there to work in the huge tourism industry. Most residents desperately seek to leave the island for several months throughout the year in search of "culture" and population. As one tourism guide put it:
"¡es difícil vivir en una isla tan pequeña y limitada!"
This partly owes to the fact that the end of the beach tourism season is marked by a sudden, dramatic drop in island population and activity. Everything becomes a ghost town, many venues simply close. I visited in September and a recurring comment by local inhabitants and tourism staff was about how the island becomes _very_ quiet starting October. (They called October the start of "winter season"!)… And that people needed to escape this oppressive quiet by finding life on the continent or abroad.

Still, Menorca is a magical place, and a wonderful destination for those in pursuit of relaxation, meditation, or a place to recharge and reboot.

The quiet, pastoral interior of Menorca with its characteristic stone fences.


pattaya villas said...

Spain has a lot of beautiful and interesting places. Plus their easygoing culture made life there seem so relaxed. I love staying there!

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