A vacation requiring long treks leading to lots of people was not what we had planned.
Hidden beaches backed by limestone cliffs, temperate waters and an under-the-radar status (at least for now) were the lures of Menorca, a small island in the Mediterranean off the coast of Spain.
Not that we have anything against walking — or people. The trip in June with my husband and 12-year-old daughter had begun in Barcelona, one of Europe’s great walking centers.
We spent hours and hours over four days strolling the city’s famous Ramblas, branching off to meandering streets to sample tapas, see great art and, occasionally, get a little lost.
Once on Menorca, an hourlong flight from Barcelona, we anticipated a respite from the urban experience, one that would include swimming, tennis and kayaking.
Menorca is one of the Spanish Balearic Islands and the more subdued sibling of look-at-me Mallorca (the dreamy locale featured in “The Night Manager”) and flashy Ibiza.
We had rented a spacious apartment on a hilltop perched above glorious Cala Galdana (cala is Spanish for “cove), the centerpiece of a town, also called Cala Galdana, catering to tourists. After settling into our whitewashed abode, we descended the stairs next to the apartment.
Hundreds of stone steps later, we reached the beach, an arc of white sand cupping a cerulean sea, skyscraper-tall cliffs framing the picture. Hundreds (or seemingly so) would also describe the number of people on beach. Clearly, this was not one of the “nearly empty” beaches I had read about.
But the cove was big enough to share, and the warm water was a liquid playground: Fathers tossed kids into the air, kayakers skimmed by and teens cannonballed into the blue from rocky outcroppings.
We rented what is perhaps the most ingenious water toy ever made, a combo paddleboat/slide. The cost for an hour was 20 euros, or about $24; the easygoing vendor, hearing we had only 15 euros on hand, shrugged and waved us toward the contraption.
The density at Cala Galdana deepened our resolve to sniff out the isolated and idyllic coves I knew existed. We drove to Algaiarens, touted as one of Menorca’s best-kept secrets, on a remote stretch along the island’s north side.
Mostly empty two-lane roads cut through fields and gentle hills of green, with miles of rock walls flanking the roadsides. Finally, we reached a dirt road wide enough for little more than a car, which, oddly, took us to a parking lot brimming with vehicles.
After a moderately long walk we took in the windswept but stunning beach bordered by craggy rocks and dense, tall grass, as if Massachusetts’ Nantucket and Greece’s Mykonos had been artfully grafted. We agreed the water was ideal for bodysurfing; so, apparently, did the dozens of others bobbing and diving, with many more watching from the sandy sidelines.
The “secret” was out.
Another day brought tennis in the morning, a stroll to get a cappuccino in town and a desire to see what was around the rocky corner from Cala Galdana. We rented kayaks for the 30-minute excursion.
Nearly an hour later (a pattern had emerged), we paddled into Macarella. Gorgeous? Yes. Loved by many others? You bet.
By this point, our appreciation for Menorca’s natural splendors and casual ambience far outweighed our preconceived notion of a place less traveled.
And so, undeterred, we ventured one afternoon to Cala Mitjana, a destination recommended by several locals.
We hiked a mile through the woods, passing a peculiar, conical stone structure, one of many we had seen elsewhere on the island. These talayots, vestiges of a prehistoric Menorcan culture of the same name, are being studied by UNESCO, which considers these and other finds on Menorca to be of archaeological significance.
Once at the cove, another movie-worthy setting appreciated by many, we relaxed in the sun’s late glow. People called out in Spanish and Italian — English was heard little during our time on the island — to kids diving and flipping from a lofty stone ledge into the crystalline waters.
On our final day, we hiked up 204 steps to a promontory on the far side of Cala Galdana; below, in the aquamarine water, sailboats swayed, kayakers explored and swimmers floated lazily.
In the end, all the trekking served to feed body and soul, and as for the people (who, by the way, were a fraction of what you would find on any Southern California beach on a summer day), well, who could blame them for seeking, just as we had, the magical Mediterranean?
Like us, they had found it.
More to love from Menorca
Here are three more things to love about Menorca and not necessarily in this order: cheese, gin and lobster.
The tangy, versatile Mahón cheese (think medium to sharp cheddar), named for the island’s capital, is produced at various farms, some of which offer tours, on this agriculture-oriented island.
The cheese was an integral part of our evening cocktail hour, paired with crackers and washed down with icy gin and tonics.
As luck would have it, Mahón is also a prodigious producer of gin; our go-to was Xoriguer, a grape-based (versus the more typical grain-based) gin with floral undertones. The one-shot size appeared to be a staple, available at tiny convenience stores and larger, full-scale markets.
A splurge meal took place one night in Ciutadella, a small city on the island’s western side that enchants with its stone alleyways, old-world architecture and welcoming harbor. After taking in some local sights (including the town hall and the Cathedral Basilica de Ciutadella) and watching boys play soccer on a town square, we headed to Restaurant S’Amarador.
The lovely S’Amarador, with an optimal location on the harbor, features Menorca’s signature dish, caldereta de langosta. The rich, tomato-based lobster stew was served almost ceremonially: Each order arrived in its own small cauldron, was ladled out carefully and was refreshed politely and attentively.
We savored every morsel, along with the Mediterranean moment: happy people, great food and the soft glow of lights around the harbor.
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