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How to spend a weekend in Menorca, the quiet beauty of the Balearics

Serene coastal hiking trails, rich gastronomy and an intriguing history — this stunning Spanish isle offers plenty beyond its dazzling beaches.

Published 1 May 2022, 06:06 BST
Steps between Cala Macarella and Cala Macarelleta, part of the Camí de Cavalls hiking route.

Steps between Cala Macarella and Cala Macarelleta, part of the Camí de Cavalls hiking route.

Photograph by Getty Images

At the summit of Mount Toro is a statue of Christ, his arms outstretched as if embracing the island. Comparisons between him and his Brazilian counterpart are easy to draw, but this is a more modest affair — a fraction the size, with a fraction of the visitors. After all, Menorca is hardly one to shout about its charms. The second-largest of the Balearic Islands is a relaxed affair, where agricultural traditions hold sway and life moves to a gentler beat than that of its party-loving sisters, Majorca and Ibiza. Venture inland and you’ll see that quiet, rural beauty at its best: juniper and pine trees circled by red kites; pretty, whitewashed villages; and dry-stone walls crisscrossing a landscape that feels like it hasn’t changed for centuries.

Not that it’s always been a peaceful sanctuary in the sun. Menorca has seen its fair share of conflict and conquest, having been controlled by a host of Mediterranean powers, including the British, who occupied the island three times between 1708 and 1802. This succession of occupants has left rich relics to explore, from the mysterious towers of the prehistoric Talaiotic people to military fortresses looming over brilliantly blue seas.

This year, Menorca is one of two European Regions of Gastronomy: a seal of approval for a land that draws heavily on its natural bounty, from honey to seafood. The island has also been a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve since 1993 and, as a result, resort development is limited, which makes it a refreshingly low-key escape. Sometimes, it seems, the partying is best left to the neighbours.

Day one: history and headlands


Morning
Mahón, the island’s capital, makes an excellent base. You won’t be the first to think so, either — a three-mile-long natural harbour made the city a strategic stronghold for the British in the 18th century. You can learn about the island’s British connections at Fort Marlborough; built in 1726 to see off French and Spanish flotillas, it’s now open for visitors to explore. If art’s your thing, hop on a boat to Illa de Rei in the harbour. The small island is home to Hauser & Wirth Menorca, which opened last summer. The Spanish outpost of the Swiss-based international art gallery is housed in a former military hospital and is home to beautifully landscaped gardens as well as compelling modern art exhibitions. Book ahead for lunch at its excellent restaurant, Cantina.

Afternoon
Just outside Mahón, you’ll find Talatí de Dalt, a prehistoric settlement built by the Talaiotic people, who inhabited Menorca and Majorca between 1500 BC and the second century AD. This scattered collection of dwellings, towers and taulas (huge, Stonehenge-like structures) is one of the best examples of Talaiotic culture on the island. A short drive away is the Parc Natural de s’Albufera d’Es Grau. The heart of the island’s Biosphere Reserve, its dunes, marshland, tamarisk shrubland and olive groves — all wrapped around a lagoon — offer some of Menorca’s best walks and birdwatching. Afterwards, drive up to the Favàritx Lighthouse to enjoy the peace of the headland’s calm waves and black-slate landscapes, roamed by a handful of hardy goats.

Evening
There’s no finer place for dinner than Torralbenc, a former farm whose terraces are surrounded by lavender and cypress trees. The restaurant-hotel — the epitome of Balearic style, all minimalist white walls and rickety beams — offers an outstanding tasting menu paired with its own wines. Nearby, the Cova d’en Xoroi is a live music venue-cum-club set in cliffside cave overlooking Cala en Porter. Alternatively, the tapas bars at Mercatapas, housed within Mahón Fish Market, are packed six nights a week, serving the likes of goat’s cheese croquettes and cones of fried anchovies. There’s also live street music all over the city centre on summer nights (from around 9pm onwards), so be sure to arrive early to nab a kerbside table. As for what to drink, gin de Mahón is one of the only gins in the world to enjoy a protected regional designation. Xoriguer is the best-known brand; try it in a pomada granizada, a frozen, thirst-quenching tipple of gin and lemonade. 

Gardens at Hauser & Wirth Menorca. 

Photograph by Daniel Schaefer

Day two: waves and caves


Morning
Greet the day from the top of Monte Toro, Menorca’s highest point (1,175ft). From up here, the island spreads out below like a glorious green cloak, with rugged fringes of land protruding into the sea. Call into Finca Binillubet on the way — one of many farms on the island where visitors can learn about and buy the delicious, semi-hard Mahón-Menorca cheese straight from source. From there, follow the road north to Fornells, a palm-fronted resort strung along an inlet. Set within the North Menorca Marine Reserve, this is one of the island’s best dive sites, offering tours from several dive centres along the waterfront. Otherwise, rent a kayak to explore the bay’s secluded beaches. Back on dry land, head to Es Port for caldereta de llagosta, a decadent lobster stew. 

Afternoon
Edge west along Menorca’s north coast and you’ll reach Cala Morell. The highlight here is the pre-Talaiotic necropolis: a honeycomb of chambers and caves used up until the second century. Exploring the complex is free of charge, and it’s possible to climb in and around the caves, admiring ancient pillars, windows and apses. Afterwards, follow the road to Cala Morell’s scenic cove — backed by red sandstone cliffs — for a swim. Nearby is the Naveta d’Es Tudons, the island’s best example of a naveta (a type of boat-shaped ossuary unique to Menorca), built around 2000 BC. Excavations here in the 1950s unearthed numerous artefacts (some on display at the Museu de Menorca in Mahón), but the stone structure is an arresting sight in itself.

Evening
Menorca’s second city, Ciutadella, is the stuff of postcards: a maze of quiet and narrow streets, pretty squares and showers of bougainvillea. This was the island’s principal port before the British moved it to Mahón in the early 18th century and it’s retained much of its picturesque, small-town feel. Get your bearings amid the fountains and mansions of Plaça des Born, where, each June, the two-day Fiestas de Sant Joan kicks off with characteristically Spanish flair. Elsewhere, don’t miss the buzzy bars set beneath the arcades around the fish market, the peaceful courtyard of the Bishop’s Palace, and Carrer de Santa Clara’s chic boutiques. The waterfront is the place to be after dusk; grab a table at Café Balear for delicious seafood rice.

Top three historic marvels


Mola fortress
The fort commanding a strategic spot above Mahón harbour is so sprawling it’s almost a city in itself. Built in the late 19th century to fend off the French and British, the golden-stoned garrison buildings, batteries and fortifications are an excellent introduction to the island’s martial past. Set aside a good couple of hours to explore it all.  

Torralba d’en Salort
Another of Menorca’s stirring Talaiotic sites, this vast settlement is a sort of open-air museum. Constructed by Menorca’s early inhabitants, some of the structures here — which include quarries, silos, funeral chambers and the island’s best-preserved taula — are 4,000 years old and are still in remarkable condition today. 
 
Menorca cathedral
A striking mismatch of Catalan gothic, baroque and neoclassical styles, this great church in the heart of Ciutadella’s old town is the island’s architectural showpiece. It was commissioned by Alfonso III in the early 1300s on the site of a former Moorish mosque; the former minaret is now the cathedral’s bell tower.

Street life in Ciutadella, overlooked by Menorca Cathedral.

Photograph by Alamy

Three of the best coastal hikes

Tracing the island’s coastline is the ancient Camí de Cavalls — a circular, 115-mile mule route dating to the 14th century. It can be tackled as one long ramble or broken up into several fairly unchallenging sections. Here are three of the best to get you started. 

Es Grau to Sa Mesquida (3.5 miles)
This peaceful ramble starts in the little resort of Es Grau, huddled around a sheltered bay. From here, follow the road south before veering onto the path of the Camí and across a dry, thorny landscape ringing with the sound of cricket song. From the beach at Binillautí, the trail then generally follows the coast, past the windswept cove of Macar de Binillautí and towards the village of Sa Mesquida, where a sandy beach is accessed by a boardwalk through the wetlands. Keep your eyes peeled for the rustic wooden gates on your hikes — a symbol of the island (they should be closed after passing through, as they’re there to stop cattle straying too far).   

Cala Galdana to Cala Turqueta (4 miles)
From this lively beachside hub, twist up a rocky track through pine and olive trees for around half an hour, before plunging downhill again to the idyllic Cala Macarella. Reward yourself with a swim or carry on uphill towards the smaller Cala Macarelleta, just around the cove. At the top, take time to perch on one of the shady boulders overlooking both beaches — the views are spectacular, and it’s quieter up here, away from the beach hubbub at ground level. If you’re set on ticking off the holy trinity of southwest Menorca’s beaches, then trek on for 45 minutes to Cala Turqueta, a similarly breathtaking beach with little to do except take in the heavenly blues and greens of the landscape.  

Ciutadella to Punta Nati (6.5 miles)
Start off in Ciutadella and head west through the popular resorts of Cala en Blanes and Calapiques, which hug the island’s westernmost edge. The highlights here are the sandy slivers of beach, squeezed in between cliffs. You’ll want to fuel up here, too, as the rest of the route is rural and windswept, with only grazing sheep and fellow walkers for company. Set off north with the sea on one side and countryside on the other, passing old shepherds’ huts and crumbling dry stone walls, before stopping to admire Pont d’en Gil, a dramatic sea arch in a headland. From here, carry on for a few flat, rocky miles to the lighthouse at Punta Nati for sublime sunsets. 

Hikers tackle the Camí de Cavalls, near Es Grau.

Photograph by Alamy

Top five beautiful beaches


Platja de Cavalleria
Two crescents of perfect, amber-coloured sand are the main draw at this gorgeous beach on the island’s northernmost peninsula. Afterwards, be sure to drive up to the Cap de Cavalleria, a dramatic headland overlooked by a lighthouse since 1857.

Cala Tirant
This pretty, family-friendly beach near the village of Fornells has plenty to while away an afternoon with: shallow water, golden sand with loungers and parasols, plus kayaks for hire. Blessed by the Tramontana (a northerly wind), it’s also a popular spot for sail-based watersports, too. 

Cala Macarella
With a sweep of white sand and neon-blue waters, this pine-sheltered cove is a poster child for beachy Balearic bliss. The car park is a good 20-minute walk away, but it’s well worth the trek for sun, swimming and sea kayaking beneath soaring limestone bluffs. 

Cala Algaiarens 
Split in two by a sandbar, this beach near Cala Morell is backed by cliffs and offers calm, bright-blue shallows. A short walk over the cliff takes you to Cala Des Bot, another sandy beauty fed by a small river.

Cala Pilar
Fortune favours the determined: at the end of a long road north of the town of Ferreries is one of the island’s wildest, most remote beaches, promising near-deserted sands and gentle waves. It’s a 45-minute walk from the car park and has no facilities, so be sure to plan accordingly. 

Essentials 


More info: Menorca Tourism

How to do it
Several UK airlines fly nonstop to Menorca. Off-season flights require a change, usually in mainland Spain. A car is essential for exploring the island. Rentals are available at the airport, and in Mahón and Ciutadella.

Where to stay
Jardí de Ses Bruixes, in central Mahón, has rooms from €143 (£121). 

Torralbenc, around a 15-minute drive from Mahón, has rooms from €215 (£179), B&B. 

Published in the May 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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