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Isle be back

With beautiful uncrowded beaches, coastal trails and monuments galore, Menorca is the Med's best kept secret, writes Isabel Conway

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Calasfonts Cales Fonts Port sunset in Mahon.

Calasfonts Cales Fonts Port sunset in Mahon.

Calasfonts Cales Fonts Port sunset in Mahon.

White sandy beaches and idyllic coves, spectacular walks through green meadows divided by dry stone walls reminiscent of Connemara and just as empty, so many shades of blue in the sea you'd need a Farrow & Ball paint chart to identify colours - I'm like a travel brochure on steroids.

Yet, in truth, no other Mediterranean destination knocked me for six like Menorca did on a first visit to the second-largest and least-populated of the Balearic Islands.

It began like every traveller's nightmare - missing not one, but both connecting flights, arriving at the dead of night, minus our luggage, which had been offloaded in Barcelona and didn't arrive until halfway through our stay.

But there's nothing like putting your make-up, swimsuit and a beach cover-up that doubles as a nightie or dress in the hand luggage. A cheap-as-chips T shirt, sandals and shorts from a market stall in the charming old capital of Ciutadella saw me through my holiday wardrobe crisis.

Now for some good news: direct flights between Ireland and Manorca unavailable for the past few years, have resumed.

Ryanair is operating twice-weekly flights between Dublin and Menorca throughout September and October, when temperatures have cooled down but remain comfortably warm, and when the more crowded family-geared resorts have emptied out, with hotel prices cheaper too.

The island is a UNESCO biosphere reserve, with more beaches than both Majorca and Ibiza combined. Menorca was already encouraging sustainable tourism long before it became fashionable, battling the type of overdevelopment that has marred coastlines of Spain and beyond.

As a veteran of Majorca's and Ibiza's high-octane package holidays in younger days, I had visualised a pared-down version of all-night, party-loving tourism. Menorca turns out to be super low-key and, if you love quaint, laid-back towns, affordable organic food and wine, plus uncrowded beaches and deserted coastal trails, here is nirvana.

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Isabel Conway enjoying a walking trail in Menorca.

Isabel Conway enjoying a walking trail in Menorca.

Isabel Conway enjoying a walking trail in Menorca.

The island excels at active holidays, from cycling to hiking and snorkelling to kayaking, all of which we tried and loved.

Menorca's Camino walking trails took us over the Cami de Cavalls path that spans the entire coast, crossing splendid beaches, dipping into ravines and winding across vineyards and olive groves. The complete path (long-distance walking route GR 223) takes up to a week to complete on foot, horseback or by mountain bike. Our last morning was spent on an equally spectacular walk, squeezing through a narrow chasm, scrambling over boulders on a path that wound below cave dwellings clinging to a cliff face.

More than 200 species of birds are found on Menorca and we ticked off a sighting of the impressive Egyptian vulture, a pair of red kites flying above an escarpment, booted eagles, hoopoes and small song birds.

Strategically placed in the western Mediterranean, Menorca has been inhabited from the third millennium BC onwards. Nowhere in Europe boasts so many ancient monuments per square kilometre. About 1,500 are listed, dating back thousands of years, and are all the more remarkable as the island is a mere 30 miles long and only 10 miles wide.

Among them are megalithic rocks, balanced on top of one another in the form of a 'T', like a Stonehenge for Lilliputians. After a while, your eye becomes so accustomed to all the prehistoric monuments that you miss some of them. But you can't but notice Naveta d'Es Tudons, one of Menorca's most intriguing sites.

Under a fiery noonday sun, we hiked down a rough track, arriving at a construction of large stones. Built without mortar in the shape of an upturned boat, it served from about 1400BC to 900BC as a communal burial chamber.

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Remote Favaritx, dominated by a lighthouse and gaunt, dark-coloured earth and slate-like rock, eroded by centuries of storms, is another outstanding landmark on the edge of Menorca's Parc Natural de s'Albufera des Grau.

Let's not forget a further attraction that has nothing to do with archaeology - shoes. Menorca is renowned for its shoemaking, from Avaracas - comfortable, soft leather sandals - to Pretty Ballerinas, whose trademark classic ballet-style pumps are universally loved. You may even pick up a bargain at RIA Avaracas and Pretty Ballerinas factory outlets in Ferreries.

Menorca's largest centres of population, Ciutadella and Mahon, lie on opposite sides of the island and both have their own distinct charm and atmosphere. A bit overshadowed by Mahon in the past, Ciutadella is blossoming thanks to lots of new boutique hotels opening in old mansions and former church buildings found along winding laneways and shady squares.

On the rooftop terrace of highly recommended restaurant Ses Voltes, we enjoyed a memorable lunch of local specialities after exploring the city's historic walls and a tour of the vibrant fish market. A waiter standing outside one nearby restaurant explained: "Tourists can buy their own fish at the market and bring it to us; we cook it for a few euro. It's a cheap meal and everyone is happy because customers usually order chips, salad and drinks as well."

Mahon (Mao), Menorca's buzzy commercial capital has one of the world's longest natural harbours that brought it much prosperity in the past, boosting shipping, trade and naval activity. An hour-long glass-bottomed catamaran trip from the port that takes you across the bay to the former key defence fortress La Mola is well worth doing before you check out all the atmospheric harbour-side restaurants.

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Cova d’en Xorai bar offers incredible views of the Balearic Sea and Menorca’s coastline.

Cova d’en Xorai bar offers incredible views of the Balearic Sea and Menorca’s coastline.

Cova d’en Xorai bar.

Cova d’en Xorai bar.

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Cova d’en Xorai bar offers incredible views of the Balearic Sea and Menorca’s coastline.

The island's favourite home-distilled spirit, Pomado (gin), is mixed with cloudy lemonade instead of tonic. The perfect spot to savour this concoction is at Cova d'en Xoroi, one of the most photographed bars in the Med that literally hangs suspended over the cliffs at Cala en Porter. Watching a spectacular sunset flowing below the horizon, you will realise that Menorca may indeed be the Med's best kept secret.

 

Travel factfile: Menorca

See menorca.es and spain.info

  • Rural tavern two-course lunch with wine around €15; a little more expensive in town. A rental car for traversing the uncrowded highways is the best option for getting around.
  • For further information on Menorca, plus practical advice on travelling to the island during Covid times, see menorca.es and spain.info. See also ryanair.com for direct flights.

 

Tavel Competition

WIN two nights away with the Flynn Hotel Collection to celebrate their BeLeaf autumn sale. Falling leaves means falling prices at this collection of independent, family-owned hotels nationwide as they announce their 'big treat, no tricks' seasonal sale.

For just seven days from August 31 to September 7, savvy savers can snap up a luxury break with breakfast for 20pc less at the Imperial Hotel in the heart of Cork city, at the 18th-century Old Ground Hotel in the centre of Ennis, Co Clare, at The Park Hotel in the harbour town of Dungarvan, Co Waterford, and at The Newpark Hotel in Kilkenny, set on 40 acres of beautiful parkland.

And while you pay less, you'll get more, as guests will also receive a .21 food credit per stay to use in the hotel.

The autumn sale will go live at 11am on Tuesday, August 31.

Go to flynnhotels.com to book. To celebrate the 2021 BeLeaf autumn sale, now the Flynn Hotel Collection is giving one lucky Magazine+ reader the chance to win a two-night break in one of the four hotels. Or you can stay one night in two different hotels.

To be in with a chance to win this amazing prize, send your name and contact details to competitions@sundayworld.com, with 'Flynn Hotel' in the subject line. Competition closes Friday, August 10. Usual T&Cs apply. Booking is required and subject to availability over the next six months.

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Isabel Conway takes in the scenery.

Isabel Conway takes in the scenery.

Isabel Conway takes in the scenery.

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