Menorca, Spain: Wander or Relax

The beach at Calamitjaneta, Menorca, Spain. CN Traveler photo.
The beach at Calamitjaneta, Menorca, Spain. CN Traveler photo.

Menorca, Spain's Sunny, Relaxing Island

By John Coyne

With 100 beaches, it's a perfect place to wander or people watch

Archway of Medieval Stone Walls in Menorca, Spain.
Archway of Medieval Stone Walls in Menorca, Spain.

Where in the world is Menorca?

The island of Menorca lies in the Mediterranean, 130 miles off the coast of Spain. It is the northernmost island of the Balearic archipelago.

Less than 32 miles long and only nine miles wide, it has more than 100 sandy beaches, rocky coves, and tiny inlets. The abundance of warm blue water beaches is the island’s greatest, but not, it’s only attraction.

Mahón/Maó

The capital, Mahón (Maó in Menorcan), is a city of 28,000, nearly half the island’s population. Mahón is an ancient fort-city, built by the Carthaginians high up on steep cliffs.

Prize of the Med

Mahón has one of the finest deep-water anchorages in the world. The U.S. maintained a naval base in the Port of Mahón from 1822 to 1847 where midshipmen trained prior to the founding of Annapolis. A number of sailors married Menorcan women and America’s first Admiral, David G. Farragut, was of Menorcan descent.

A number of sailors married Menorcan women and America’s first Admiral, David G. Farragut, was of Menorcan descent.

In and around Menorca

Mahón has Georgian townhouses and tight, narrow cobblestones streets that twist and turn through the hills, leading from one plaza to the next.

And herein lies the town’s real pleasure — to wander aimlessly about, discovering accidentally the eccentric collection of historical sights. In the Plaza Generalísimo Franco, for example, is the Baroque church of Santa María, built in 1748.

Farther along a cobblestone side street is the city’s most famous ruin, a section of the medieval stone fortification walls that were erected around Mahón during the reign of King Alfonso III, who conquered Menorca in 1287.

Beyond Mahón

Most of the island’s interior is farmland. The gentle, rolling hills are dominated by large red-tile-and-whitewash houses built to overlook hectares of fields. The land has been squared off with long walls of rock, built up through centuries of manual labor.

These walls stretch to all horizons in checkerboard fashion, and when you drive the narrow roads, you feel caught in an endless maze until quite suddenly bright blue water comes into view. Every road in Menorca leads eventually to the sea and the sand.

100 + Beaches

Within 30 minutes of Mahón are dozens of beautiful rock coves, such as Cala Mitjana, where it is said part of Lina Wertmuller’s Swept Away was filmed. For long stretches of sand, there’s Santo Tomas or Cala Santo Galdana, which can be crowded, or Son Bou, that has, year after year, the whitest sand.

I favor the secluded coves or calas with their small beaches. They are fewer tourists, and the coves form natural and deep swimming pools. While the larger beaches have bars, it is not difficult to pack a picnic lunch and when you’re tired of swimming just step back into the shadow of pine trees that on the island hover at the water’s edge. People linger till dusk at these beaches, as the Mediterranean summer evenings are long.

Outdoor museum

Sant Joan, Menoroca. Fundacio Foment del Turisme de Menorca photos
Sant Joan, Menorca. Fundacio Foment del Turisme de Menorca photos

Menorca’s history, like that of all the Balearics, reaches back into prehistory, as is evidenced by the extraordinary number of well-preserved religious megaliths on the island. Bronze Age Celts erected megalithic monuments as complex as Stonehedge.

More than 100 stone burial sites, altars, and astronomical observatories are scattered across the southern coast. The best example is on a back road just beyond Binicalaf. You’ll see signs for it. Because of these wonderful ancient sites, I’ve often had the feeling of being in an open-air archaeological museum while driving along the southern coast of the island.

Second city

Across the length of the island — forty-five minutes from Mahón —is Ciudadela, the second largest city and the ecclesiastical capital of Menorca. Ciudadela, which means fortress in Menorquin, was once a Phoenician city. It has, however, some typical Catalan architecture from the 15th and 16th centuries, as well as Italian and English buildings of more recent vintage.

The city was constructed out of stone — notably limestone — and it has a reserve about it that is reminiscent of an elderly, aristocratic Spanish woman.

Ciudadela

Go to Ciudadela for no other reason than to have a harbor-side lunch at Casa Manolo. Go early and make a reservation — this outdoor restaurant is very popular. Manolo is perfect for boiled crayfish, lobster, fried squid, mussels marinated in sherry, baked oysters or clams and all sorts of grilled white fish.

For dessert (here and everywhere else on the island) there are Spanish fruits — oranges, lemons, or pineapple — all stuffed with orange, lemon or pineapple ice cream. (Lemon is my favorite

Fornells

North on the island, and at the other side of a high woodland road, is the quiet village of Fornells and another waterside restaurant, Es Pla (Telf: 34-971-37-6655). But Es Pla is no ordinary restaurant.

The specialty here is calderate de langosta, a mountain of crustaceans toppling from a bowl of lobster broth. After lunch take in the nearby spectacular caves of Cavallería.

Other towns

Cala’n Porter, which is a British holiday location, doesn’t have much to offer except for the discotheque, Cova d’en Xoroi, which is carved out of megalithic caves and clings to the side of a cliff. Legend has it that the caves, perched high up on a steep cliff, were once the secret hideout of a Berber pirate who has washed ashore on Menorca.

Using the caves as a refuge, he stole food, goods, and then a young girl — who bore him children — from the town of Alayor. He was finally caught when the island experienced a rare snowfall and armed farmers tracked him to the unknown caves — which are now home to the discotheque. Here, overlooking the sea, you can dance under the light of the full moon.

Punta Prima beach in Menorca.
Punta Prima beach in Menorca.

An ordinary day

I usually start my day in Mahón with café con leche and a huge sugar-dusted pastry called an ensaimada in the Place Reial in the center of town and read yesterday’s New York Times while watching the small cobblestone streets fill up with British tourists.

Then I wander off to have lunch down on the port or drive to nearby Cala Fonts, an inlet in Es Castell (Villacarlos), where I can stare at the water and enjoy a meal at one of the half-dozen inexpensive seaside restaurants.

Later in the afternoon, when the sun is less menacing, I’ll drive to the new Son Parc golf course (Club de Golf Son Parc) and play a round. The course, carved out of farmland and pine groves, is lovely. Afterward, I might go for a swim at nearby Son Saura, a smooth arc of sand in a glorious cove.

Returning to Mahón. I stop at sunset in Cala Fonts. There, in the mouth of the harbor, I watch the fishing boats glide silently out to sea in the early evening.

Returning to Mahón and head first for the port where new shops and restaurants have turned the harbor area into the center of the island’s nightlife. Two new bars which get started after midnight are Café Baixamar and Akelarre.

If you can’t stay up that late, go back to Es Castell and find Gabriel’s Bar on Cala Corb. Owner Gabriel has been singing Spanish standards and folk songs here since the Sixties. It’s a wonderful way to end an evening.

Hiking Menorca

Camí de Cavalls

First built in 1330 when King James II had all settlers create a path around the island to defend it, the path was reconstructed in 2010. It is separated into 20 daylong walks now. Don’t forget your lunch and bring plenty of water.

What to buy

Shoes with a history: The best buy in Menorca is quality shoes. The island’s reputation for fine footwear began when a Menorcan cobbler set up shop on an island in the West Indies in 1838. He went on to fame when a pair of his boots won the grand prize at the 1852 Exposition of Arts and Industries in Havana.

By the beginning of this century, most of Menorca’s population lived off the cobbler’s business, and today footwear shares the commercial limelight with costume jewelry, a relatively new cottage industry on the island.

Sauce, cheese, and Gin

Island food is light, uncomplicated, and immensely satisfying. Fish is one of the staples, and meat is also readily available. Local spices (and olive oil) are used on almost everything, a lot of Menorcan food doesn’t differ greatly from that of the mainland (especially Barcelona and all of Catalonia, whose influence is evident everywhere on Menorca).

Cheese is the island’s chief export. It’s still made in the traditional manner on farms throughout the island, and one of the best-exported cheeses, Coinga, is produced in Alayor. It is one of the great Spanish cheeses, as good as any you'll find on the mainland.

The island, however, is most famous for creating one of the most basic culinary ingredients. In 1756 the Duke de Richelieu, a nephew of Cardinal Richelieu, was on Menorca and engaged in battle with a British fleet. One day he wandered into an inn for a meal.

The owner had only a slice of meat and a local sauce made of a little oil, egg whites, and garlic. The duke liked the sauce, noted the ingredients, and took the recipe back to France, where he introduced it to his countrymen as salsa de mahonesa —mayonnaise.

When to go

The best off-season periods are May, September, and October when temperatures are in the mid-70s. I like the last weeks of September after the crowds of summer are gone from the island. The Mediterranean stays warm late and one can swim into autumn. The second best time to visit Menorca is the spring when the island is green and covered with flowers and the nights are brisk.

However, it is “Junio, Julio, Agosto” when the festivals take place.

In late June is the first, Fiesta of San Juan, staged in Ciudadela. This is the most spectacular festival when el Jaleo takes place with horse racing, jousting, dancing in the streets, fireworks, and everyone stays up all day and all night. It has been happening this way since the reign of Alfonso III in the late 13th century.

The last fiesta of the season is in September and is in Mahón. The summer is over. The tourists are gone. Menorcans build a huge bonfire, and after having to deal with tourists all summer, they burn one in effigy.

You can’t say Menorans don’t have a sense of humor.

John Coyne
John Coyne

A best-selling novelist and travel writer, John Coyne has lived in Africa, Spain, and the United States. A former college dean at SUNY Old Westbury, he has also taught creative writing and served in the Peace Corps.