This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
You can order presentation-
ready copies for distribution to your colleagues, clients or customers, please click
here or use the "Reprints" tool that appears next to any article. Visit
www.nytreprints.com for samples and additional information. Order a reprint of this
article now. »
Apri l 13, 2012
Off the Coast of Spain, a Tranquil
By SARAH WILDMAN
MINORCA, the first place in Spain to see the sun rise, is aglow at the end
of the day. As I pulled my suitcase down the cobbled, car-free lanes of
Ciutadella, the island’s ancient capital, an ocher glow bloomed across the
faces of residents who sat on the terraces of back-street bars, their voices
echoing within a canyon of Gothic and Baroque buildings.
The facades of rose and dusty yellow stone, and the narrow streets running
past them have barely changed since 1722, the year British occupiers took
the title of capital away from this town on the Mediterranean island of
Minorca and handed it to the port city of Mahon. Ciutadella, to this day,
remains a paean to unaltered antiquity.
The rest of the island is imbued with the same timeless quality. Though
only 21 miles from the crowds and hustle of its high-profile neighbor,
Majorca, the difference couldn’t be more profound. Unlike Majorca, with
its sprawling hotel complexes, glitzy nightclubs and yacht-filled ports, this
island 250 miles east of Barcelona offers something unusual for a
Mediterranean resort: tranquillity.
The entire 270-square-mile island is a Unesco biosphere reserve, a
designation issued in 1993 for the rich flora and fauna that thrive in
Minorca’s forests, gorges, wetlands, salt marshes and hillsides. In 2004
Unesco expanded its protective reach, including in its definition the
island’s widely scattered prehistoric sites, effectively preventing the
construction of high-rise condominiums and hotels. Instead, rural hotels
called agrotourismos are the hotels of choice outside the towns, and
roughly 120 separate beaches — more than Majorca and Ibiza (Minorca’s
other Balearic island sister) combined — remain largely unsullied by
But there is also a cultural dimension to Minorca’s ecosystem. The island
isn’t Spanish exactly, nor simply Catalan (though Menorquin, a dialect of
Catalan, is the lingua franca). This pocket of old Mediterranean culture
was shaped by an array of colonizers — Romans, North Africans, Spanish
and, for a brief period, the Turkish. Then the island was passed back and
forth for 200 years between the Spanish, the British and the French, until
finally the Spanish claimed the island for good. Architecturally, the result
is a legacy that includes Art Nouveau, Gothic, Baroque and even Georgian
styles. Cuisine ranges from a modified version of meat pies and gin (à la
England) to the potato-and-egg tortilla of Spain, to good old mayonnaise
— ostensibly a twist on a local sauce championed by the Duke of Richelieu
when the French (briefly) conquered Mahon.
Last June, my partner, Ian, our daughter, Orli, then 2, and my parents
arrived for a week, hoping to get a sense of Minorca’s singular identity. We
flew in to Mahon, the island’s biggest town, where we rented a car and
then wove our way to the opposite side of the island, stopping for lunch in
Fornells, a fishing village on the northern coast where old men dried
manzanilla, or chamomile, in enormous piles. A few tourists strolled the
old port, stopping to eat the island’s hearty lobster stew so delicious the
king of Spain is rumored to sail here just for that. On that first day we
quickly discovered the island’s rather basic, but effective, protection
against rampant tourism: though the main highway from Mahon to
Ciutadella is well paved and commodious, many of the smaller roads that
swerve into the countryside are barely wide enough for one car. We
persevered, and drove on, past fishing villages that dot the island’s coves
like pearls — towns that are a riot of color, with magenta bougainvillea
crawling up white limestone, blue-shuttered homes that overlook the sea.
Between the villages, road signs tempt with directions toward hidden
Unlike Palma de Majorca, which, by early summer, is already packed with
vacationers from Germany and Britain, Minorca was still waking from its
off-season slumber. At times, we couldn’t help but feel a bit like
interlopers. While people we met — hoteliers, restaurateurs, shopkeepers,
shoemakers, dairy farmers — were certainly friendly, there was a
protective feel to Minorca, a reticence, which, for us, ultimately resulted in
a deeply authentic travel experience. It was clear that this was not a place
that was preening itself for tourists.
The biosphere designation enhanced the feeling of protectiveness.
Everywhere there were signs indicating natural parks, with careful
instructions on where one could park, camp, even walk. Property
demarcations between farms were not fences but layers of rocks that
formed low stone walls, which have been in place since antiquity. And in
the ancient city centers, there was a sense that modernity had been
purposefully kept at bay.
In Ciutadella we parked at the Plaça del Born, a square marked by 19th-
century buildings carved from that magnificent rose-colored sandstone.
Cars are not allowed in the historic city center without a special pass, so
we walked the four long blocks to our hotel, peering into the bishop’s
garden and glancing up at the 13th-century Gothic cathedral.
It wasn’t long before we found Hotel Tres Sants, an eight-room, year-old
hotel in an 18th-century town house, tucked at the intersection of three
streets named, like many in this city, for saints. Sant Sebastià, San
Cristòfol, San Joseps — each street was protected by a small statue of its
namesake, housed in a glass box above our heads.
Our hotel room was sponge-washed in faint reds and blues, and the bed
was dreamily swathed in mosquito netting. José Carretero, the proprietor,
has lately opened a second hotel, the five-room Marquès d’Albranca, a few
blocks away. Both are family-run. His niece showed us around our hotel;
his nephew worked the desk; his sister managed the housekeeping and
breakfast. True Menorquines, the family dates back to at least the 15th
In the morning, Orli ran gleefully through the cobbled streets. She dashed
into the Pastisseria des Centre, which has sold the flaky Balearic powdered
sugar pastries called ensaimadas since 1881, and, later, was keen to taste
homemade almond ice cream at Sa Gelateria de Menorca. At one of the
ubiquitous sandal shops, with stacks of shoes piled to the ceiling, she tried
on a pair of abarcas, the simple leather shoes Minorca is known for and
which are sold in a rainbow of colors.
One evening we came upon a costumed crowd: women with castanets
wore 19th-century dresses with white, billowing shirts and long, wide
skirts; the men wore knickers. There was a full band of guitars and a
female singer who barked in Menorqui like a square dance caller as the
group performed. The crowd was entirely local; we were the only tourists
observing. The scene was a window, we realized, onto what life has been
like here for generations.
Walking home we stumbled upon Ulisses, a whitewashed watering hole
facing the Mercat des Peix, a 19th-century fish market. Lighted almost
entirely by candles, the bar is known for its dozens of gins. A vestige of the
English domination, gin on ice, we were told, is the island’s drink of
choice. Xoriguer, the best-known indigenous brand, tastes of juniper
José told us that most of his clients stay up to a month with him, but we
were due elsewhere. So, reluctantly, after only two nights, we bade him
Within moments of leaving the city limits, we were surrounded by
unpopulated, wild land. The Minorcan soil seems to revel in its ability to
make things grow, from a bounty of aromatics — rosemary bushes, thyme,
lavender and chamomile — to yucca trees, blackberry bushes and
succulents that shoot up through the rock crevices. Everywhere we saw
trees heavy with fruit, and a robust species of wild olive trees locals call
ullastres. As Ian drove, I read that the island is home to about 220 species
of birds, 14 varieties of orchid and 1,000 species of plants, some 60 of
which are endemic to the island.
Along the way, signs pointed out paths to mysterious prehistoric burial
and prayer sites called talayots and navatas, from the Bronze Age and
earlier, built of stones arranged into T-shaped monuments or igloo-like
structures. There are, I was told, more of these ancient ruins on Minorca
than anywhere else in the world.
Our destination was the village of Es Migjorn Gran for a one-night stay in
the upscale agrotourismo Binigius Vell. The road that led there seemed
unintended for cars of any size, let alone our large vehicle, but the payoff of
that treacherous drive was worth it: an infinity pool, a lovely restaurant,
horses on the grounds and an hourlong hike to the distant sea.
In Es Migjorn Gran we met my friend Baruc Corazón, a fashion designer
from Madrid, who has been coming to Minorca since childhood. His aunt
moved to the small town of Sant Lluis in the 1970s in a fit of hippie anti-
establishment glee and never left. Her friends were a collection of expats:
Spaniards, Germans and Americans.
Baruc told us we must visit a site that we later called the “lighthouse at the
end of the world.” The landscape, he promised, was unlike anything else on
the island. The next morning we did as told, driving back up toward
Fornells, steering our car into the preserve marked “Parc Natural de
S’Albufera des Grau” and navigating a narrow paved road. We passed a
dozen groups with backpacks, sturdy shoes and walking sticks. Within a
few miles, fields filled with cows, and scrubby trees gave way to a lunar
landscape of black and gray slate on one side, wetlands on the other. We
parked and walked out to the edge of Cap de Favaritx, where we found a
black-and-white-striped lighthouse out of central casting, surrounded by
On the way back, we picked up Baruc, who directed us down a side road
toward the sea. “There are two restaurants in this village,” he said from
the back seat of our Citroën. “One has a fantastic view. The other has the
most amazing food. Let’s go there.”
Soon we emerged over a hill and took in a collective breath. Before us lay
the tiny village of Sa Mesquida (“the Mosque,” a nod to the town’s long-
ago North African residents), a handful of whitewashed houses along a
one-lane road that led to a wide beach with fine white sand and a path
stretching off to more coves.
“The British and the French used to hide in this bay, before they attacked
Mahon,” the proprietor of Bar Sa Mesquida said to us, as we ordered a
bottle of crisp, white Galician wine, a whole dorade, grilled and dressed
with lemon and salt, and a tray of fried ortigas de mar, a sort of anemone
with a taste like a burst of the sea itself and eaten only in early summer.
After lunch, we took a short hike. On the beach in Sa Mesquida, paths led
from beach to sandy beach. There were no snack shacks, no beach chairs,
no hawkers. After we wove our way through the marshy path, and then
back to our car, Baruc directed us toward the town of Sant Lluis, where his
aunt was celebrating her 60th birthday.
SANT LLUIS, founded by the French, is a tidy village with a neatly laid out
grid of streets and a photo-worthy windmill. But the roads surrounding
the town were minuscule and haphazard. We were stuck in one lane,
trying to turn around, when a horse-drawn carriage came upon us, its
driver demanding we back up as he cursed us in the local dialect.
Somehow, after 15 sweating minutes, we were able to escape.
That night, in honor of Baruc’s aunt, we ate and danced with a motley
group of expats. An American couple, Dick and Patrick, who have owned
an old farmhouse on the island since 1971, were a font of Minorcan
historical knowledge. “Do you know the history of Admiral Nelson here in
Minorca? Did you know Americans trained here before Annapolis?” Dick
asked. “And that there is a cemetery in Mahon filled with Americans?” I
did not know these things, I told him. He parried with another question:
“Did you know that St. Augustine, Fla., was settled by Minorquines?”
That one I looked up. The Minorcan group consisted of 1,400 indentured
servants brought over in 1768. Those who survived the journey and a
decade of hardship became a vibrant community in St. Augustine that still
celebrates its Minorcan roots.
As we learned the history of the island, we also discovered something
useful for the rest of our stay: an inexpensive underground network of
sublegal rooms for let. We took a gamble and allowed ourselves to be led to
one house that had five gorgeously appointed rooms, a pagoda with lounge
chairs, an endless breakfast, drinks all day, American bluegrass on the
We spent the next morning happily swimming at a municipal beach
peopled by a few tourists and locals. We were content, but Baruc insisted
that we move away from the easy-to-reach shoreline. Soon we were hiking
across parkland, heading for a set of coves in an area called Binisafua. This
time the landscape was flat scrub brush that reminded me of Israel.
With a 2-year-old in tow, I was daunted by the jagged cliffs it seemed we
had to traverse to get to the water. Fortunately, many, many years ago,
someone had cut rough steps into the stone, and as we picked our way
down the rocks, there, spread out before us, was the largest cove we’d yet
come across. The “beach” here wasn’t sand at all, just smooth rock
platforms dotted with tanning locals, most of them nude. Like some of the
other best spots on this island, this corner — which faced a warm, calm
sea that was the most intense blue I have ever seen — was unmarked.
Some locals picnicking there told us we must go to Mahon, the capital, to
make our island tour complete. So the next morning we set out, wandering
the streets, and admiring the Art Nouveau architecture around the
cathedral and the magnificent views of the port.
The enormous port has drawn visitors and traders for centuries. As a
result, Mahon feels more open to the world than Ciutadella. It is still
nothing like the bustle of Palma on Majorca or the crowds in other
Spanish seafront cities. For one thing, as Sandy Larsen, an American
expatriate who helps arrange tours of the island explained to us, yachts
are not encouraged. It is far more expensive to dock a yacht in Minorca
than in other Mediterranean ports, she said, so the yachters don’t come. It
is another way the island keeps its cities for its citizens.
On our last day, we ventured out into the countryside once again. We
steered north, past Mahon, to the park that abuts Es Grau, a tiny fishing
village. When we parked we saw off to one side a marked path that
meandered through the protected salt marshes. In front of us was a wide,
shallow-water cove, filled with that exquisite aquamarine water, perfect
for wading. A few beachfront shacks offered fried sardines and beers. An
eco-tour kayaking outfit offered friendly, and environmentally safe, tours
of nearby coves and deserted islands. We opted for neither swimming nor
boats, just a plate of fried sardines by the sea.
Then we stared out at the landscape, windswept and purposefully,
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
Where to Stay
The eight room Hotel Tres Sants in Ciutadella (Calle Sant Cristòfol, 2,
Ciutadella; 34-971-48-22-08; hoteltressants.com), above, is a dream world
of sponge-colored walls and billowing curtains. A full, delicious breakfast
is included in the high-season rate of 150 euros (about $196 at $1.30 to
the euro). The owners have a few apartments for rent as well.
There are several dozen agrotourismos on Minorca; some encourage
children, others eschew them. We stayed at the (child friendly) Binigaus
Vell (Cami Malagarba, kilometer 0.9, Es Migjorn Gran; 34-971-054-050;
binigausvell.com) outside of the town Es Migjorn Gran, which has horses
on site, an infinity pool, an excellent kitchen and an easy hour-hike to the
beach at the ready. A double room starts at 187 euros in early summer.
Just slightly south of Mahon, there are word-of-mouth rooms to rent and
lots of small boat tours to take for those who don’t want to hike to far
beaches. Sandy Larsen (firstname.lastname@example.org), an expatriate American,
can tell you more about where to go about finding such untraditional
lodging and tours.
Hotel Xuroy (Cala Alcaufar, Sant Lluis, 34-971-15-18-20;
xuroymenorca.com), a 1950s-style family-owned hotel on a gorgeous little
inlet, offers 46 clean and basic rooms and a baby-friendly tiny cove beach
— all for about 50 euros a night, depending on the season.
Where to Eat
A visit to Minorca is not complete without a healthy portion (or several) of
the flaky pastry called ensaimada. Try the ones at Patisseria des
Centre, a staple in Ciutadella since 1881 (Ses Voltes 8; 34-971-38-06-40).
For picnics, Pere and Lola Mosco sell roast chicken with vegetables (6
euros), lentils with ham (4 euros) and croquetas (4 euros) from their tiny
shop Es Gust (Calle de Sant Pere 7, Ciutadella; 34-971-48-17-33).
On the way to the other side of the island, Restaurant Migjorn (Avenida
de la Mar 1, Es Migjorn Gran; 34-971-37-02-12; migjorn-canapilar.es) is
worth a detour for the locally raised lamb and the cod, a Spanish staple,
done well. An enormous lunch for two will run 80 euros.
Bar Sa Mesquida (Calle d’en Fonso, 2. Sa Mesquida; 34-971-18-83-54) is
known for its grilled fish and paella, Josefa Ortuño, the proprietor, runs
the tiny kitchen. Dinner for two runs about 70 euros.
If it’s just good old fried sardines and a pint of beer you’d like, try the
beachfront plastic chairs of Bar Es Moll, in the village Es Grau (Moll
Magatzems. 17, Es Grau, 34-971-359-167).
SIX BIOSPHERES WORTH A TRIP
There are 580 Unesco biosphere preserves in 114 countries, which means
you could spend a lifetime hopping from one to the next and never quite
reach them all.
Last year, the 40th anniversary of the program, 18 new regions around the
globe received the designation, each chosen to promote sustainable
development as well as cultural and environmental protection. Some of the
sites are already highly touristed areas, and it is hoped the designation will
help control, maintain and direct that visitor-based industry. That’s
certainly true of the Baa Atoll, Maldives, which has only 12,000 full-
time inhabitants but welcomes some 350,000 tourists annually, many of
them divers and snorkelers. With the new biosphere designation, the
Maldives hope to continue a tradition of sustainability focused on the
islands’ extensive coral reef system.
Tourists also already visit Mujib, Jordan, in the Dead Sea basin and the
Jordan Rift Valley, which includes the lowest spot on earth (1,370 feet
below sea level) and dozens of indigenous plants.
Mao’er Mountain, China, another 2011 grantee, is a mountain of
gorgeous vistas and home to ethnic groups like the Han Chinese. The area
was chosen for both its cultural and environmental diversity and to
acknowledge a growing cultural interest among travelers to this once
In Africa, Songor, Ghana, is a large swath of coastal land with both
marine and freshwater ecosystems. Ghana is hoping to develop and
enhance the area’s eco-tourism industry, which has only, cautiously, just
In Eastern Europe, the largely agricultural region of Zuvintas,
Lithuania, was chosen for its wetlands and lowlands.
On this side of the world, St. Mary’s, on St. Kitts and Nevis, with its
cloud forests, mangroves and coral reefs, is one of the first biosphere
reserves in the Caribbean.
XML Help Contact Us Back to Top
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue reading from where you left off, or restart the preview.