HomeTravelSecret Balearics: an insider’s guide to the lesser-known islands

Secret Balearics: an insider’s guide to the lesser-known islands

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Spain’s magical Balearic Islands rank among the Mediterranean’s most popular destinations, pulling in 16.5 million visitors in 2022. Mallorca and Ibiza are the busy headliners, but look beyond for a duo of bewitching, smaller islands where life still moves to a mellower beat.

Menorca, the archipelago’s easternmost island, was declared a Unesco Biosphere Reserve back in 1993. More than 100 beaches are sprinkled along its glittering 200km coastline, many only accessible on foot; wild, rust-red strands hug the northern shoreline, while the south has pine-fringed, white-sand coves. Inland, sun-bleached farmhouses, stone-built walls and mysterious Talayotic monuments dot the rural landscapes.

Then there’s salt-kissed, sand-dusted, barefoot-loving Formentera, one of Spain’s loveliest corners, off southeast Ibiza. The only way to get here is by ferry from Ibiza (30 to 60 minutes) and, in a bid to protect natural spaces, there are restrictions on summer vehicle numbers (something Menorca is also considering). Formentera’s heavenly beaches are feather-soft, salt-white sweeps washed by turquoise water that gets its translucent sparkle from the oxygen-producing posidonia seagrass. Timber boat shelters, ancient windmills and glinting salt flats await along dusty paths.

Formentera offers untouched beaches

(AETIB)

Both islands have fabulous food-and-drink scenes, too, with Balearic staples such as bullit de peix (fish stew), seafood arrossos (rice dishes), caldereta de llagosta (Menorcan lobster stew) and Formentera’s ensalada payesa (country-style salad with peix sec – dried fish).

Here’s how to discover these under-radar isles for yourself.

Read more on Spain travel:

Menorca

Cova d’en Xoroi in Menorca

( Sarah Sergent)

What to do and see

Mahón and Ciutadella

All Menorca adventures should start in the elegant capital Mahón, set on a 5km-long natural harbour. The pedestrianised old town retains a splash of British architectural flavour, left over from British rule in the 18th century. Cutting-edge art gallery Hauser & Wirth landed on Mahón’s Illa de Rei in 2021, while the history-focused Museu de Menorca occupies a centuries-old convent. Over on the west coast, Ciutadella (the former capital) has more of a classic Balearic feel, with its tangle of narrow streets and Catalan Gothic cathedral.

Wander the Camí de Cavalls

One of Menorca’s greatest joys is hiking, horse-riding or mountain-biking along the restored Camí de Cavalls. Dating from the 14th century, this ancient path roams 185km around the island.

Menorca has countryside for rambling as well as pristine beaches

(AETIB)

Explore Talayotic relics

A collection of mystery-wrapped megalithic monuments is the only remnant of Menorca’s prehistoric Talayotic culture. Highlights include the Naveta des Tudons burial chamber and the Torre d’en Galmés, Son Catlar and Trepucó settlements.

Learn about local culinary traditions

Cómete Menorca runs hands-on cooking classes (from €45) and tours to wineries, cheese-makers, olive oil producers and more.

Best beaches

Cala Macarella, Cala Mitjana and Cala en Turqueta are deservedly popular southern coves, with bottle-green pine forests trickling down to sandy white bays and aquamarine waves. Among the jewels of Menorca’s secluded north coast are Cala Pregonda, Algaiarens and Platja de Cavalleria.

On the eastern side of the island, there’s great lagoon kayaking and paddle-boarding within the protected Parc Natural de S’Albufera des Grau.

(AETIB)

Where to eat and drink

Both Mahón and Ciutadella have wonderful fresh-produce markets, where lively tapas bars mingle with counters of Mahón cheese, just-caught fish and local vegetables.

Overlooking Mahón’s port, El Rais specialises in lightly inventive seasonal menus, including signature rices such as arròs del senyoret; it’s led by the team behind creative Menorcan tavern Ses Forquilles. Just south, respected Binifadet winery (tours €12) has an elegant vine-shaded restaurant; pair a Menorcan-mushroom rice or a jamón-filled ensaïmada with the superb wines.

Go for a dip in Menorca’s turquoise seas

(AETIB)

Ciutadella’s Smoix is one of the island’s top restaurants, loved for its seasonal, organic-rooted menus (lobster rice, crayfish ravioli). But the city’s buzzy food world ranges from seafood haven Café Balear and popular tapas spot Pins46 to ambitiously reinvented Menorcan flavours at smart Mon. Opposite the market, Ulisses does craft cocktails, Balearic wines and market-fired seafood plates.

Menorca’s unmissable bar is Cova d’en Xoroi, built into cliff caves on the south coast – perfect for a sunset pomada (Menorcan gin with lemonade).

Where to stay

Cristine Bedfor

Vintage furniture, local crafts, boho-chic design and a romantic pool garden await in Mahón’s historic centre, where a string of townhouses has been reimagined as a soothing boutique hideaway. cristinebedforhotel.com

Agroturisme Son Vives

Escape into the rugged heart of the island at this enchanting 12-room farmhouse-hotel, whose own organic vegetables and cheeses fuel some of Menorca’s best breakfasts.

Doubles from €138, B&B; sonvivesmenorca.com

Menorca Experimental

Arty styling, Mediterranean hues, creative cocktails and a cabana-lined pool meet a sensitively converted 19th-century farmhouse near Son Bou on Menorca’s knockout-pretty south coast.

Formentera

Formentera’s Calo de Sant Agustí

(AETIB)

What to do

Village life

Formentera’s lively ‘capital’, Sant Francesc, has a pretty square with a fortified 18th-century church, as well as buzzing restaurants and boho-chic boutiques (Muy, Alma Gemela). Neighbouring Sant Ferran was once a hippie-trail hub and still has a low-key feel.

Hit the trails

A network of 30 Rutes Verdes (hiking, running and cycling routes) has been developed across Formentera, including the ancient Camí de Sa Pujada, a tough 4km climb up to La Mola plateau.

Lighthouses and markets

Drink in the Mediterranean’s never-ending blues at La Mola lighthouse, built in 1861 at the distant eastern end of the island (and grab a drink at Codice Luna). Just west, peaceful El Pilar de la Mola bursts into life for its artisanal market on Wednesday and Sunday afternoons in season. Or walk out to the 1970s lighthouse on otherworldly Cap de Barbària.

Savour Formentera wines

At the pioneering Terramoll winery, near El Pilar de la Mola, you can taste organic wines and learn all about autochthonous grapes such as malvasía (tours €22).

Best beaches

Top of the list is the Trucador peninsula, on Formentera’s northernmost tip, whose two dreamy sugar-white beaches (Illetes and Llevant) are part of the protected Parc Natural de Ses Salines.

Go horseriding through Formentera’s rugged landscapes

(AETIB)

On the west coast, Cala Saona is a cream-sand beauty wedged between dusty-red cliffs. Platja de Migjorn, a series of seductive blonde coves and strands, stretches all along the southern coast. There’s a wild feel to Ses Platgetes, the rocky coves around Es Caló de Sant Agustí, which have good snorkelling. Es Pujols, Formentera’s main resort village, has a silky sweep of sand, too.

Where to eat and drink

By the beach

Platja Llevant’s long-running Restaurante Tanga is known for its seafood-laced rices, fresh-fish platters and Formentera-style ensalada payesa. Over in Es Caló, Can Rafalet has been making exquisite rice dishes since the 1970s. There are inventive seafood dishes and rices at Es Còdol Foradat on Migjorn, led by Catalan chef Nandu Jubany (also behind La Savina’s Can Carlitos).

Kiosko Bartolo, Blue Bar and Piratabus are all lively sundowner spots along Migjorn.

In town

Grab breakfast (perhaps a tomato-topped tostada) under the bougainvillea at Ca Na Pepa, overlooking the church in Sant Francesc. Nearby Ca Na Joana serves local-inspired menus in a romantically converted 17th-century house, and Can Carlos does Italian-Balearic cooking in a fairy-lit garden. Get a taste of Formentera’s bohemian past at Sant Ferran’s Fonda Pepe.

Sant Francesc, Formentera

(AETIB)

Where to stay

Gecko Hotel and Beach Club

This serene Migjorn escape evokes everything that is so irresistible about Formentera. Mornings start with alfresco yoga; laidback-luxe plunge-pool rooms channel a beachy Balearic vibe; and freshly simmered rices are served overlooking the water.

Es Marès

A family-owned, adults-only haven of understated Formentera-inspired design, in the heart of Sant Francesc, with 15 calming rooms, an intimate pool and a local-rooted restaurant.

Casbah Formentera

Laid-back, finca-style Casbah has sandy-toned rooms among the pine groves just inland from Migjorn. Dine under the stars at Martina Cacheiro Alonso’s creative-Mediterranean restaurant.

Read our Mallorca hotel reviews

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