Smaller, quieter and a little Less developed than Mallorca or Ibiza, the island of Menorca is no less interesting, as Tim Magee discovered. dreaming of a sun-drenched, low-key summer getaway? look no further …
STAY: In the charming Cristina Bedfor guesthouse, a 21-room boutique hotel
SWIM: Cool off by exploring the coves in and around Sant Lluís
EAT: Catch of the day at Mercat de Peix, the excellent fish market in Mahón
SHOP: At the Hauser & Wirth gallery and shop
Toni’s, beside the great empty military square in Es Castell near Menorca’s capital Mahón, is another of Latin Europe’s legions of zinc-gilded gems. Each morning, every outside table is taken before 10am with locals drinking coffee and local beer. The atmosphere inside is a Catalan Cheers and phones are generally holstered, certainly not on the table. Getting an hour alone early to walk foreign streets and start the day with old men and short coffees, regardless of what comes next, is one of those things that I once considered a between-travel bonus but now realise might actually be my destination. The first coffee of the day is a sacrament. I care less about what comes after but a bad first move and the day will be arse over kettle before it begins – so a coffee corrective in advance. You yoga. I coffee.
So I sit early morning like a crap spy, with a newspaper that may as well be upside down for all that I tend to understand in it, outside cafés, markets, stations and kiosks, perched between older strangers flooring espressos, bicas, pingados, cafés aux lait, crème, solos, cortados, con leche. Or patiently waiting further east for the Greek and Turkish slow boils with their sandy bottoms and cardamom noses, or even just nodding fair play to ye at the ice-cream sandwiches at dawn in Palermo or the breakfast beer with bocadillos the size of your head across Spain. And that’s just short haul.
Although the Balearics seemed to be the definition of sun holidays where I grew up (Santa Ponsa to be said with a strong Limerick accent, and a town that could have been twinned with Kilkee) Menorca was tricky to reach until recently, when Ryanair added a flight to Mahón to the roster. I’ve been trying it.
Flanking one of the largest natural ports in the world, Mahón was, like many places, created by the Royal Navy, the heavily armed internet that held the largest empire ever seen together. In my hotel room was a map of Menorca’s winds which, unlike the British, or the Romans, the Greeks or the French, still rule the island. Menorcans don’t need to check the sun much but will always note if the Tramontana or Migjorn are blowing before heading to the beach.
Which way the wind blew in the past meant changing the owners of Port Mahón’s batteries, the teeth in the jaws of this spectacular setting for so long and whose guns would’ve been the arrivals and departures boards of their day. The guns are long silenced and the town is quiet, bar the manic lunch rush around the brilliant indoor food market, but sails still decorate the water between the two shores, from regattas to flotillas of learner sailors at their lessons, small ornate one-hander fishing boats to the occasional giant yacht.
Boat traffic still sails by Illa del Rei, where the 18th-century naval hospital is now home to the latest, ambitious and gorgeous outpost from megagallerists Hauser & Wirth. Depending on where you board your water taxi to the island gallery you can see the intact Illa de la Quarantena beyond, the original Llatzeret where incoming sailors and passengers were quarantined for infectious diseases, itself feeling like a prescient standalone installation in 2021.
I was mostly staying at the Cristine Bedfor in the old town. In a world that needs to get smaller fast, this sort of 21-bed guesthouse boutique hotel is as good as I’ve seen, managing to squeeze in most things leisure or business peeps look for – good food and wine, spendy soft things to sleep on chilled with air-conditioning, local smellies. A teeny gym. A dinky pool. It’s tiny but you can spend hours hanging out in its nooks and crannies with a rate I paid that was comparable to local business hotels. Arriving that evening after a brutal airport experience and being minded from kerbside in, I knew within a minute that the service was as classy as the fitout. The best thing a place like this can do is make you not want to leave. A late supper in the courtyard, a dip in the pool the following morning and they were setting up for a moonlight movie with dinner in the gardens. In twelve hours they had me hooked.
Mahón was mostly full of French and Spanish, lots apparently buying up property on the island as Menorca is the new … somewhere. Maybe the Hauser & Wirth tide will be lifting the more expensive boats but I wasn’t on the island for the coffee, the history or the real estate – I actually came to talk some people out of buying property there. I thought I was being reasonably successful with my mission until the last couple of days when, after my secret solo coffee walkabouts, I rented a car to do some exploring. I learned to drive on back roads outside Shannon and this motorway-free island feels a lot like West Clare with green fields and familiar stone walls but, you know, in 30 degrees, with olive trees, bougainvillaea, pine and a glassy bath-warm sea. No-one had mentioned that just ten minutes outside handsome Mahón is Greece – well, a version of the elusive Greece of the past so many of us have been missing. I found one Greek island Big Blue cove after another in and around Sant Lluís, small coves with locals snorkelling, spearfishing and living in whitewashed houses with gnarly curving olivewood gates that don’t get given to Airbnb. Where had this been all my life?
I was 20 years younger than the average age in Alcaufar – a rare occurrence. There were groups of ladies speaking in impossible Catalan, rearranging their foldup chairs for the chats while some men were cleaning just-caught fish. After a swim of a lifetime, with all the fishes and the cast of Cocoon beetling about the clearest green water like friendly U-boats with their snorkels, I stretched out like a salamander on a roasting rock snug to my back that heated my spine in the late summer sun, to the happy background chatter of old folks and the smell of morning coffee wafting over the water.
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