We had all but purchased our airline tickets from Barcelona to Mallorca before a friend intervened, spouting the virtues of the smaller, less-traveled sister island of Menorca. Honestly, I had to pull out my map to find it. I didn’t realize how many Balearic islands are sprinkled off the east coast of Spain. I just knew I had no business bringing a toddler to the thumping, DJ mecca known as Ibiza. Without gathering much more information than the island being “off the beaten path”– a phrase that I’m a total sucker for — we booked tickets to stay one week on Menorca.
The charm of Menorca sneaks up on you. It’s not like Hawaii or any of those places that pop up when you Google search an image of “paradise.” Menorca is content with what it is. No need to go shouting it from the rooftops.
On the 45-minute drive from the Mahón Airport to the southwestern side of the island, we surveyed a landscape of dry fields and spotted cows. Then, clusters of white-washed homes with pink-tiled roofs came into view. Olive trees and purple bougainvillea spilled over low rock walls that bordered the roads. Finally, we caught sight of the Mediterranean Sea crashing on the rocky coastline. Tanned, locals were jumping from the cliffs and scrambling back up barefoot for more. Waiters at lazy beach cafes were serving pans of paella and perspiring bottles of cervezas.
I could feel all of the pent-up anxiety that comes with navigating airports, rental car agencies and Spanish-speaking GPSes melting away like a popsicle on a summer day.
We stayed on the south side of the island for the quiet, lagoon-like beaches. Each sandy nook we visited was crammed with Europeans in swimsuits (or not in swimsuits…) on their August holidays. We heard Spanish, Italian and French spoken the most, with a smattering of German and British accents in between. It felt as though we were the only Americans around, which is secretly a thrill for me.
We enjoyed the two beaches that sandwiched our hotel, but took a few mornings to explore others for variety. We encountered no traffic, no parking meters and no stress when it came to Cala Bosch and Playa de Sant Tomás.
We rented bicycles one day to visit the port city of Ciutadella — which was a flat, two-mile ride from our hotel. Of course, it took us longer than the projected 20 minutes because we kept stopping to take photos of the centuries-old forts that still guard the craggy coastline.
We locked our bikes on Plaça de Senplaxada and took off on foot to explore the colorful city. The varied architecture is a visual history of the different nations that governed the island — from the Moors in the 4th century to the Turks and Brits in 17th and 18th centuries, until Spain re-claimed ownership in 1782. We wandered around the open air markets and read menus in front of cafes. I’d recommend having a meal in one of the restaurants bordering the port. It’s fun to watch the boat traffic and try local seafood dishes (like grilled mussels and caldereta de langosta), but don’t get too relaxed like we did and miss the shopping around Cathedral Santa Maria. Stores in Ciutadella observe siesta hours from 2pm to 5pm.
When booking our trip we toyed with whether we should stay in Ciutadella or on a beach close by and I’m happy that we chose the latter. For me, the real draw of Menorca is its natural beauty. It’s the red cliffs hanging over turquoise waters. It’s the buzz of cicadas and the wild olive trees. It’s the pink clouds that come with the evening sunset.
If you take a vacation in Menorca, I’d recommend you:
Stay at Prinsotel La Caleta — Our hotel had all the amenities you would expect from a large chain, as well as extras like a children’s club (with childcare from the age of 4), shallow swimming pools, bicycle rentals, nightly entertainment and a fantastic breakfast and dinner included.
Rent a car — There is so much to see on this tiny island (driving from one coast to another is about an hour) that a car is really necessary. Europcar‘s desk is inside Mahón Airport and they offer carseats and GPSes.
Take a boat — In a previous, baby-free life, I would have spent a week sailing around Menorca because this island is most impressive from the water. If you can’t do that, take a boat trip with Amigo’s Boats. You’ll see most of the southern coast and then take an hour swimming break at a remote beach that is only accessible by water.
Try a bicycle — Bike lanes on Menorca are well-marked and drivers respect them. We saw cyclists all over the island — from the Lance Armstrong crowd to people like us — so I’d highly encourage you to rent one.
See other beaches — Our favorites were Cala Bosch and Playa de Sant Tomás, where we had the best calamari of the trip at Restaurante Es Brucs. Parking a the most popular beach on the island, Cala Galdana, is virtually impossible in August unless you are staying in a hotel on the beach or you hire a taxi to drive you.
Explore Ciutadella — Mahón is a lovely city, but because it is larger than Ciutadella it is more commercialized. Visit Ciutadella for charming architecture and more local culture. Try to go during the San Juan Festival to see the famous Menorcan horses.