Menorca is a destination that floats largely below the tourist radar screen. Decidedly calmer than its flashy Balearic sisters, Ibiza and Mallorca, Menorca is, for the most part, an island of pastoral farmland rimmed with untrammeled beaches. Menorca has the physical allure to play in the big tourist leagues, but is quietly, deliberately, charting a more thoughtful path.
Historically, Menorca has been passed around more than a paisley necktie at a Chinese gift exchange. Colonized by Romans, North Africans, Spanish and Turks, then volleyed back and forth between the Spanish, French, and British, Menorca finally found a permanent home as a part of Spain. All that outside influence could give an island a psychological complex, but Menorca is a place with a very firm sense of self.
Menorca does not have endless rows of high-rise, all-inclusive hotels stacked on its shores. Instead, Menorca has the Cami de Cavalls. An ancient horse trail, originally created for the purpose of defensive patrols against pirates, the Cami de Cavalls has been reclaimed at great expense and effort from its largely private owners for public use. The path is now a 116-mile hiking, biking and equestrian trail circling the entire island. The Cami de Cavalls gives Menorcans, and visitors, an intimate and active way to explore Menorca’s dramatic coast.
On the far west side of Menorca, the seaside town of Ciutadella exemplifies Menorca’s tenacious embrace of its past. Ciutadella’s venerable center, off-limits to cars, is a maze of narrow, cobbled streets winding through earth-hued 19th century facades. A bustling port, primeval piazzas, leafy squares and lively outdoor markets, invite ambling and idling. Ciutadella is a place where it is hard to be in a hurry, and easy to forget what day, even what century, it is.
As one might expect of a people who have been repeatedly conquered by outsiders, Menorcans are a little reticent in nature. But during the summer months, Menorcan boldness is on full display during the island’s annual fiestas. The stars of these traditional street parties are the magnificent Menorcan horses and their proud cavallers. The horsemen charge through surging crowds of spectators performing daring, and often dangerous, maneuvers. It is a practice that could only survive the scrutiny of public safety officials in a community with an extraordinary commitment to cultural continuity.
Among Menorca’s most striking features are the ancient rock walls that line virtually every road, save the main highway connecting Ciutadella with the capital city, Mahon. The term ‘road’ is used loosely, as most of the rural byways are little more than alleys, barely wide enough for a single car to navigate. Historically, the stone walls performed the dual functions of clearing the land for agricultural use and corralling livestock. But today, the intricate, imposing stone structures serve another purpose. The prolific walls are barriers to traffic, and thus, to rampant development in Menorca.
One road which connects the thriving seaside town of Cala’n Porter to Menorca’s main highway was recently, perhaps begrudgingly, widened. The process required removal of the mammoth rock walls adjoining the road. Rather than replace the massive stone borders with billboards and roadside trinket shops, the walls were painstakingly reconstructed by hand on the perimeter of the expanded road.
No doubt, the task of moving the walls was immensely difficult, profoundly costly, and wildly impractical. But Menorca’s course is not dictated by outside forces; neither by foreign rulers, nor the tourist dollar. Menorca is moving through time at its own resolute pace, and in its own remarkable fashion.
Menorca: When You Go
Hotel Tres Sants, Ciutadella: reminiscent of the stylish riads of Marrakech, Hotel Tres Sants, has 8 languorous rooms, a seductive Turkish bath, and a tranquil rooftop terrace, all wrapped in the comforting embrace of attentive family service
Hort Sant Patrici, near Ferreries: with a traditional country house exterior and a contemporary white-on-white interior, Hort Sant Patrici features a winery, cheese factory and sculpture garden, all within a privileged compound
Binigaus Vell, near Es Migjorn Gran: a rural retreat complete with stables and an infinity pool, Binigaus Vell is a great base for exploring the nearby Cami de Cavalls.
Eat, Drink, Do
La Cayena, Ciutadella: creative takes on the bounty of Menorca’s sea and shore
Cova d’en Xoroi, Cala’n Porter: perhaps one of the world’s most unusual bars, a cliffside cave turned watering hole