Magnificent Menorca has it all for sun seekers
Forget the costas – if you want to get away from it all on a Spainish holiday that offers sun and sea along with peace and quiet the Belearic island of Menorca has it all – and it's breathtakingly beautiful too, writes Gail Bell
SILKY white sand, seas fifty shades of turquoise and tiny coves just big enough for two make a beach holiday in Menorca a Spanish experience like no other.
Unspoilt, under-developed and unchanged for centuries… just about every cliché in the tourist book is actually true when referring to this less flamboyant Balearic island, a designated biosphere reserve since 1993.
Everywhere you look things are noticeable by their absence: high-rise hotels, ‘happy hour', high jinx... In fact, Menorca is so quaintly preserved and picture postcard-beautiful, it almost feels wrong to let more people into the secret.
It seems unlikely, though, that the Benidorm crowd will be flocking here any time soon.
Too quiet, too reserved and too low key – a happy trinity of reasons to – hopefully – keep the masses sun-sprayed to their sun loungers elsewhere for another decade or two at least.
Of course, the main beaches on Menorca – our nearest during a week-long stay in June was at idyllic fishing village resort, Binibeca – still make some concessions to tourism.
Paid-for sun loungers with parasols, toilets, beach bars and some water sports are available, but if you want to escape to a sandy strip devoid of artificial extras, there are plenty dotted along the coastline to choose from.
The best way to find them is by car, with driving comparatively easy by Mediterranean standards, Menorca having just one major road connecting twin cities Ciutadella and capital, Mahón.
Although we had use of three inviting swimming pools at the four-star Sensimar Eden – our base for the week – my husband and I took an uncharacteristic notion to take a deep-water dip in the picturesque harbour adjacent to the hotel.
Temporarily forsaking the complex's luxurious Balinese beds – and the unseemly scramble to ‘reserve' one at dawn – we found a simplistic contentment in stretching out on hard, clean concrete, with the lulling lap, lap, lapping of crystal-clear seawater just inches away from our ears.
It was a brief departure from the beach and the pools of the Sensimar Eden, an adults-only resort, popular with couples of all ages and enjoying its first season flying under the Thomson flag. Rising no higher than two storeys (a regulation across the island), the complex is a meandering maze of pretty, winding paths and gardens linking three main accommodation areas to the excellent restaurant and bar which also serves up al fresco nightly entertainment.
Bordered with blazing purple bougainvillea and overlooking the sea, the hotel enjoys a spectacular setting and exudes a stylish, laid-back air – a casualness, unfortunately, not always observed in fellow guests during our stay.
There may not be any children here, but disputes over the limited number of Balinese sunbeds led to minor squabbles and formed the bulk of complaints to ever-patient staff.
The problem is that while there are more than enough ordinary (and perfectly comfortable) loungers, the appeal of a premium pool-side four-poster with muslin curtains flapping in the breeze proved too tempting for some.
And so we witnessed a subtle, silent stampede: towels drawn at dawn by guests who happily ignored notices banning reservation to bag their bed long before the rest of us had wakened up and smelled the coffee.
I'm not sure what the solution is – a booking system? A daily draw? A prize bed for good behaviour? Or you could just pay extra for a top suite which comes with is own balcony overlooking the sea – sunbeds and outdoor jacuzzi included.
Moving on, there is much more to do and see in Menorca than lounging around the pool all day, anyway. The Thomson team has drawn up a commendable excursion list, with 'taster' trips available to all the main places of interest, but for those who don't want to be tied into a rigid time-table of stops and starts, there is a reliable local bus service, while reasonably priced taxis can be booked in advance at hotel reception.
In addition to the 1,600 prehistoric monuments, 46 sandy beaches (plus a few rocky ones), the island boasts one of the world's largest natural harbours at its capital, Mahón, and a 115-mile medieval 'Camí de Cavalls' coastal path which is popular with all year-round hikers.
Head north to the harbour of Fornells fishing village where the king of Spain reportedly goes to eat lobster stew (Langosta Menorquina) – a mere €160 a bowl – or visit the highest point on the island, Monte Toro, which rises 1,175 feet above sea level.
Known as the spiritual centre of Menorca due to the 17th century church at the top, legend has it that Monte Toro – El Toro to the locals – takes its name from a bull which led a group of early monks to a statue of the Virgin Mary etched in the rock.
Also a firm favourite on the tourist trail is Son Martorellet, one of Menorca's most historical and traditional estates and home to the elite 'Somni' equestrian shows. The dressage demonstrations from the distinctive black horses are as close to horse 'ballet' as you'll get: graceful leg-crossing patterns alternating with dramatic rearing up on hind legs – and skilful riders somehow managing to remain in the saddle.
Mahón is well worth an extended visit, whether or not you're interested in its colourful markets and shops – mostly famously supporting a shoe industry dating back to the 1850s.
Hand-crafted Menorcan sandals – originally made in rubber and worn by telluric peasants – now come in a vast range of coloured leather, having evolved into something of a fashionable footwear souvenir over the past decade.
But while the city is famous for its overload of stylish shoe shops, Mahón's buildings themselves spark interest, with many dating from the period of British occupation (1713-83).
Attractions of note include the Town Hall (Casa Consistorial), the Church of Santa Maria and the Church of San Francisco, while the British influence (there are currently around 9,000 'ex-pats' living permanently on Menorca) can be seen in the city's 18th century gin factory, Xoriguer gin distillery, where tourists can pop in and knock back a thimbleful of 'pomada' (gin, ice and lemonade) any time of day.
Despite a long and colourful history of disparate invaders which, as well as the British – interestingly, the first governor of Menorca was Northern Irishman Richard Kane – have included the Arabs, Romans, Turks, French and Barbary pirates, Menorca has still managed to carve out a character all of its own.
This can be seen in the neat stone walls that criss-cross fields of yellow ochre, in the curved olive-wood gates marking the environs of every villa and especially in the scene-stealing mock fisherman's village, Binibeca Vell.
Built in Binibeca in 1972 by Spanish architect Antonio Sintes, the sprawling, white-washed complex rises like a sparkly, sugar-coated Christmas cake in the sunshine – and everyone wants a taste.
Originally designed to foster neighbourliness among the Catalan community, the privately owned higgledy-piggledy cottages, bars and restaurants, all linked by narrow, cobbled alleyways, have become a major magnet for tourists.
Luckily, the laid-back locals are more bemused than annoyed at having cameras pointed at their kitchen windows. It's an attitude we'd all do well to emulate. Time is too precious on this beguiling, beautiful island with its one working windmill, its native tortoises and rare blue lizards, its shoes and its Somni, to get heated up over a sunbed (no matter how posh).
:: Thomson operates weekly flights to Menorca over the summer period direct from Belfast International Airport and offers a range of accommodation across the island. Visit www.thomson.co.uk for more information.