TRAVEL: Calm and capers for couples in Menorca
On the surface, Menorca seems like a good place to spend a few days relaxing on the beach with a book.
But actually, this small island, the quieter sister of its Balearic neighbour Mallorca, has so much more to offer than lazy days building sandcastles.
Venture away from your hotel or villa and you discover a mesmerising world of unspoiled white beaches, panoramic vistas, rich history and mouth-watering local delicacies.
Our base is the tranquil resort of S’Algar: situated on a sleepy bay just to the south east of the bustling capital of Mahon, which imbues an immediate feeling of relaxation on weary travellers.
Although families love Menorca, it’s an attractive destination for couples, too. Our hotel, the four-star Hotel S’Algar, is in the Thomas Cook Style Collection, which means a lower age limit for guests of 16; that makes life a bit quieter in the pool during the day, and dinner time is calm and relaxed too.
Our hotel room looks out at one of the island’s six black-and-white painted lighthouses which guard the bay at night, while by day the turquoise sea glimmers resplendently in the sun.
A short jaunt in sandals along the coastline takes us to the unspoilt beach of Cala d’Alcaufar, where tiny boats bob in the water between steep cliffs and sunbathers stretch out or enjoy a cana or glass of sangria at the nearby beach bar.
In search of adventure, we trek north from S’Algar towards the island’s modern capital, Mahon, and its busy harbour.
Strolling down the promenade, we admire the array of cruise ships and private boats moored in the mouth of Menorca’s busiest bay.
Hundreds of Catalonians arrive here daily in search of sun, following an eight-and-a-half hour ferry ride from Barcelona, and we soon slip into the throng to soak up the atmosphere.
Seafood is the speciality of the day in the many fine restaurants that line the harbour. Waiters proudly serve up bacalla, a dried and salted cod dish, while we sup xoriguer gin with lemon, produced using the plentiful juniper berries of the region.
If you make the trip to Mahon, it’s essential to call in at the beautiful old port of Es Castell, just two miles to the east.
Founded as Georgetown by the invading British in 1771, the Catalan name of Es Castell (The Castle) reflects the presence of the large fort of St. Philip’s Castle which guards the harbour.
But nowadays the town allows you to let your guard down, and we amble along the water’s edge, enjoying another bite of the famous local fish dishes - this time merluza (hake) is on the menu - as well as picking out some pieces of fine locally-crafted jewellery.
Legend has it that Lord Nelson conducted his affair with Lady Hamilton at The Golden Manor on the north side of town, and romance still lingers over the bay, as the moon shines serenely across the water at night.
We catch a glimpse of Menorca’s military history as we gaze out to the bay’s headland, La Mola, where the magnificent Fortress of Isabel II dominates the skyline, presenting a fine example of mid-18th century Spanish architecture.
The open road snakes up the east coast past Es Grau (The Step). This tiny village boasts a stretch of beach so beautiful that the yearly population of 167 swells to the several thousand during the summer months.
A secluded strip of white sand frames one of the most precious areas of natural beauty the island has to offer, the Parc Natural de S’Albufera des Grau.
The largest wetland area in the Balearics is home to more than 10,000 species of animal all year round.
North of the nature reserve lies Fornells, where we hoped to make a royal appointment.
King Juan Carlos of Spain famously weighs anchor at this former fishing village, where he dines on caldereta de langosta, a lobster soup exclusive to this part of the island.
Indeed the Spanish monarch has been known to enjoy his soup so much that, rumour has it, he treats all present in the restaurant at the time to a bowl, at an estimated cost of €75 per head.
Sadly, the king’s yacht is not moored to its jetty when we arrive, but nevertheless we unwind by absorbing the stunning views over Fornells Bay and its high surrounding hills.
Restaurants spill out onto terrazas on the charming town squares. Notably, the village is styled in Catalan terracotta colours rather than the uniform whitewash of the south.
Back on the road, we pass Monte Toro, the island’s highest point at just 1,175 ft above sea level.
The kestrel, or xoric in Catalan, circle the summit, which offers a spectacular panoramic view of the island.
You might even fool your family and friends into thinking you had visited Rio de Janeiro as ‘El Toro’ boasts its very own Cristo Redentor statue.
Soon, we near Ciutadella, the cliffs of Mallorca clearly visible 22 miles to the west across the Mediterranean.
The former capital of Menorca until the British moved to Mahon in 1722, Ciutadella retains a Catalan look and atmosphere, with winding cobbled streets leading you to an imposing cathedral in the town centre.
The Turks invaded in 1558, capturing 3,000 Ciutadella dwellers, and the Arab influence remains in the shape of the Ses Voltes, a covered walkway which joins the Gothic cathedral to the main square, the Placa Nova.
Next, we head inland, passing through the old iron mongering town of Ferreries on our way to see the famous stallions of Son Martorellet.
In the hills above the stunning Santa Galdana bay, pure-bred stallions are schooled in the ancient art of Menorcan dressage.
We enjoy the chance to meet the horses up close before their proud riders treated us to a spectacular show, where three stallions danced in a tightly choreographed routine.
Our trip to the south coast would not be complete without taking in the breath-taking miradores, two panoramic views across the Mediterranean from an exclusive enclave of villas above Cala Galdana.
After, we return to the south east to call in at Cala’n Porter and see its legendary Cova d’en Xoroi.
This labyrinthine network of natural caves offers an unparalleled window to the sea. As we work our way through the ancient tunnels, we marvel as the caves suddenly yawn onto the sparkling sea.
With cocktails in hand, we sit and gaze out towards the sunset, before dancing the night away with locals and tourists in truly magnificent and unforgettable surroundings.
Key facts: Menorca
:: Best for: Endlessly discovering secluded beaches and areas of natural beauty.
:: Time to go: Early September. Sunny, cloudless skies by day and cool, tranquil nights.
:: Don’t miss: The unique Cova d’en Xoroi. A stunning sunset leads to an all-night party.
:: Need to know: Mahon’s harbour is the second deepest natural harbour in the world.
:: Don’t forget: To hire a car and set off for the far-flung corners of the island.
James Cann was a guest of Thomas Cook Adult Style, which offers seven nights’ half-board in the four-star Hotel S’Algar from £572, incl return flights ex-Gatwick and transfers, and available until late-Sept.
Reg deps incl Manchester (from £446) and Glasgow (from £482), available until early-October. Thomas Cook offers a wide range of UK regional deps to Menorca.
Holidays for summer 2013 at the Hotel S’Algar are already on sale.
Thomas Cook Adult Style reservations: 0844 412 5970 and www.thomascook.com, or nearest Thomas Cook, Going Places or Co-operative Travel stores.