Majorca’s less developed neighbour was slower to embrace tourism and has retained its spirit, says Ben Barnett.
It was like wandering onto the film set of an old Western, only people were pausing to shoot photographs with their mobile phones and there were cars and horse trailers parked in the cobbled streets.
Men stood on corners, under trees and on roadsides clutching the reins of their Menorcan horses which sport majestic black coats as locals wearing the island’s trademark avarcas sandals wandered by or stood sharing in conversation and sipping pomada – the natives’ traditional party drink – out of plastic cups.
It was fiesta day in Mahon, the capital of Menorca, the Balearic island that was slow to catch on to this corner of the Mediterranean’s tourism boom and still retains an authentic local atmosphere.
City folk were out in force for the annual Fiesta of La Virgen de Gràcia, in honour of its patron saint, during which the island’s beautiful native horses are the focal point of four days of celebrations.
There’s a procession through streets decorated with brightly coloured bunting to Santa Maria church where revellers await and national TV cameras are trained on the scenes from surrounding balconies. A band plays after the riders leave the service, then the horsemen return to the packed square. As each one enters there are cheers as they rear their horses onto their hind legs.
Some revellers dance into the horses’ paths, trying to glimpse their reflections in decorative mirrors the horses wear on their foreheads. Those who succeed are said to be granted good luck.
Health and safety officials back home would have a field day. There’s not a barrier in sight. The only visible precautions are wooden boards arranged to shield some of the shop windows facing the square from inadvertent damage.
The slightly wild style of the festivities typifies the traditional nature of the island.It jumped on the tourism bandwagon 20 years later than neighbouring Majorca and so it’s not overrun with development. It retains an authentic, natural heart; a spirit evident in the passionate Catalan-speaking populace as much as it is in its landscapes – ravines, forests, cliffs and more than 70 beaches. Menorca was declared a Biosphere Reserve by Unesco 20 years ago.
In the north, golden beaches lay between slate and red clay rock formations. The area is inhabited by hundreds of fish and cormorants, making it ideal for snorkelling. In the south, the beaches are a softer, white colour and the water is clearer.
The whole coastline can be traversed via a single route. Inland, a lofty lookout for some stunning panoramic views can be found at El Toro, the tallest hill on the island at 1,175ft and home to the Sanctuary of the Virgin. From here the Menorcan countryside, dotted with prehistoric monuments, stretches out. We visit an ancient burial site from which archaeologists are learning about early inhabitants of the island, which was under British rule for most of the 18th century.
My hotel, the Barceló Hamilton Menorca, is in Es Castell in the south east of the island and just over a mile from the island’s capital Mahon, in an area founded by the British that originally went by the name Georgetown.
The four-star hotel, described in its literature as an adults-only “Urban Beach” concept, underwent a major refurbishment last year to the tune of more than 5.5m euros. Furnished in a plush, modern style, it boasts a sky bar on the fifth floor where there are jacuzzis overlooking Mahon’s natural port.
The 155-room hotel is run by Barceló Hotels & Resorts group, Spain’s fourth largest hotel chain. Rooms come with flat screen televisions, king-sized beds, “raindance” showers and free wi-fi. The hotel also offers a spa with a sauna, a Turkish bath, bucket shower and treatment rooms, three pools, restaurants, bars and a gym.
The hotel was a comfortable and quiet place to relax and so too was the Cales Fonts fishing wharf, a five-minute stroll along the waterfront where there is a row of restaurants serving fresh seafood in an atmospheric setting.
Menorca is also a great place to taste wine and the Binifadet and Hort Sant Patrici vineyards are worth visiting. The Binifadet winery is a barrel-shaped building set in serene gardens where visitors can relax beneath a trellis roof entwined with grape vines, while Hort Sant Patrici also makes cheese and olive oil.
Menorca’s restaurant scene lives up to its great wine. Moli d’es Raco, a restaurant run on a family farm and specialising in traditional Menorcan cuisine in Es Mercadal was the highlight, particularly the enormous, slow cooked leg of lamb.
Before dinner, head to the cool hangout that is Cova d’en Xoroi on the south coast for dramatic sunsets over the sea and cocktails in a cavern bar carved into a sheer cliff face.
For such a small island there’s plenty to see; Ciutadella in the west has an old- fashioned charm and popular fresh food market while the quiet area of Binibeca with white-washed residences on the south coast has a quaint labyrinth of narrow walkways.
Renting a car is a wise shout and at only around 30 miles from one side to the other, getting around the island is perfectly manageable.
Monarch operates year round flights to Menorca from London Gatwick and Leeds Bradford airports and flights during the summer season from London Luton, Birmingham, and Manchester airports. Fares, including taxes, start from £39.99 one-way and £73.99 return.
All customers are allocated a seat at check-in; however seats can be pre-allocated on scheduled Monarch flights for £5.99. Extra legroom seats are also available offering up to six inches of additional space from £11.99. Passengers can also check-in online, which is available between 18 days and four-and-a-half hours prior to departure.
As well as flights, Monarch also offers a huge range of holidays, accommodation options, car hire and travel insurance.
For further information or to book Monarch flights, Monarch Holidays or Monarch Hotels, visit www.monarch.co.uk