Spanish island of Menorca a taste of the Caribbean only closer to home
The summer holidays may officially be over, but there's still time to book an October half-term beach break. After a recent visit, Lisa Salmon recommends Menorca
WITH crystal-clear turquoise sea, soft white sand and baking heat – it feels like we've stepped foot on a Caribbean island. But this little patch of paradise is much closer to home, on the lovely Mediterranean island of Menorca.
The quieter of the Balearic Islands, Menorca is well known as a family hotspot. It's only 270 square miles, but has 134 miles of coast and more than 70 beaches and coves. Most of them are great for kids, with warm, clear, (fairly) shallow water and either white or reddish-gold-coloured sand.
The easily accessible beaches are packed with tourists in the summer months, although if you choose to travel at the end of the season, during October half-term, there are less people but it's still wonderfully warm.
Sandy strips like Son Saura and Es Talaier are virtually deserted year-round because they're only accessible by foot or boat. But with two kids in tow, it's not feasible to walk to beaches without facilities, so we stick to the more popular spots at Cala en Bosch, Son Xoriguer and Cala Galdana, which are packed – you really need to get there early, or in late afternoon, if you want a sunbed.
As well as the simple pleasures of sand and sea, at Cala Galdana we find pedaloes with slides (from €15 per hour), plus beach bars and restaurants selling standard fare like paninis, pizzas, burgers and salad, that are just a little more expensive than in the UK.
Best of all, there are several lovely shaded areas beneath the pine trees, meaning we can avoid forking out €14 for two sunbeds, and €5 for a parasol.
But despite being spoiled for beautiful beach choices, the truth is that my kids – particularly the youngest, Cristian (11) – would be quite happy to simply stay at our villa all day, every day. The detached single-storey property, Jasmin Villa, is about 1.5 miles from the centre of Cala en Bosch, on a short but wide seaside street full of similar villas.
Our private, hedged garden is perfect for barbecues beneath the Roman-style arches next to our illuminated pool. The pool itself, which measures 7m x 4m, is also Roman-style, with steps leading into it. It's big enough to swim – or play – properly in, and absolutely makes the holiday for both the kids and me. Because if there's one almost universal rule for kids, it's that if there's a swimming pool, they're happy. And if it's their own private pool, you can double the joy.
My two spend hours playing in our villa's pool every day – and I enjoy doing some serious daily swimming too. Recovering on a sunbed under the palm tree in the garden isn't bad either.
It's great to spend family time here. The villa is roomy enough to escape the kids when necessary, but my husband and I are keen to explore Menorca.
First stop is the marina in the modern little town of Cala en Bosch, on Menorca's south-east coast. It's just a 15-minute walk from our villa, and nearly all the island's best bars and restaurants can be found here. So on the rare occasions we're not barbecuing, this is where we choose to dine out.
There are several fish restaurants like The Aquarium and La Marina, but I'm vegetarian and they don't cater for me, so we keep ending up at the cheery Fiesta restaurant, which sells tapas, Mexican, Spanish (including the obligatory paella) and even Brazilian barbecue food, as well as pizzas, pasta and burgers to keep the kids happy. Mains courses start at around €8.
There are shops and stalls offering henna tattoos and hair braiding, as well as leather goods and souvenirs, all surrounding the flashy boats bobbing around on the marina water.
It's a very family-friendly, chilled atmosphere – illuminated by kids (mainly mine) shining newly purchased laser pens at every conceivable target.
We do, however, manage to travel further afield than the marina, and drag the kids round the lovely former capital Ciutadella, which is just a 15-minute drive from the villa. This historic town is nicknamed Vella I Bella, which means 'the old and beautiful', because of its Baroque and Gothic churches, terracotta-painted buildings and pretty squares.
There's also a quay with a variety of waterside restaurants offering freshly-caught fish, and a great market with a vast amount of leather goods, particularly handbags, on offer.
We also explore the narrow streets of Menorca's present capital Mahon (Mao), on the other side of the island to the villa, but still only about three quarters of an hour's drive away. It boasts one of the largest natural harbours in the world, nestling below narrow pedestrianised streets, shady squares, and historic buildings including the serene Church of Santa Maria, which was originally constructed in 1287, and the Arch de San Roque, the only remnant of the wall that once encircled the city.
And if all that history gets a bit much, particularly for younger members of your party, there are plenty of pavement cafes and bars for refreshment.
But there's nothing better than cool water for refreshment, and after Mahon, the kids go especially wild for Splash Sur Menorca, which claims to be the best water park on the island, at St Lluis (€20 for adults; €12 for children).
Splash is certainly a good size, with rivers, pools, Jacuzzis and six slides of varying sizes, including the Black Hole, where you can drop into darkness (if you dare), and the big green Multipista, where you race on adjacent slides. In fact, my 13-year-old son Joel (not known for his effusive praise of anything) grudgingly admits slides like the Kamikaze, where there's an almost sheer drop into the water at the end, "aren't bad".
Me? I just about manage to summon enough energy to float around on a ring on the Slow River. My husband, on the other hand, can't resist the slides and comes away with a huge lump and bruise on his elbow. Not the sort of thing you get on the Slow River, I smugly point out.
Adventure dad does, however, leave the go-karting, at Castillo Menorca on the island's main Me-1 road between Cuitadella and Ferreries, to the kids (I don't think he would've fitted in one, to be honest.)
Our two have a whale of a time trying to overtake each other, and a few other kids, on the track (€15 Euros for 10 minutes in a medium powered go-kart). And as they career round, I go handbag shopping in Castillo's handy retail outlet, which is another part of the attraction, clearly designed with mums like me in mind.
It sells a vast selection of bags, both designer copies and others, ranging in price from about €15, and there's also a Lladro outlet selling beautiful ornaments.
Horses for courses... That's the phrase that sums up Menorca for me. Party animals aren't the right horses for the Menorca course, but if you're a family 'horse', you're on the right track. And if you've got kids and can get a villa with a pool, you're on to a winner.
:: James Villa Holidays (jamesvillas.co.uk; 0800 074 0122) offer a week at the Jasmin Villa in Cala en Bosch, Menorca, from £498 in spring/autumn and from £1,200 in summer. To book, email email@example.com