Scattered across the Mediterranean off the eastern coast of Spain, the four Balearic Islands — Mallorca, Ibiza, Formentera and Menorca — possess very different personalities. Ibiza and Mallorca have been two of the most popular vacation spots in Europe for decades. In contrast, tiny, wild Formentera, the smallest island, attracts just a few knowledgeable travelers. Now Menorca is shyly stepping into the spotlight. The quietest and most authentically rural of the quartet, it has recently seen the opening of several noteworthy hotels, along with a number of excellent restaurants.
Connoisseurs of the Balearics insist Menorca has the best beaches, ranging from sandy strands to intimate coves. The 30-mile-long, 10-mile-wide island is also a terrific destination for hikers and riders. The recently renovated Camí de Cavalls, or Way of Horses, is a well-marked and -maintained 115-mile trail that circles the island. Menorca is avidly equestrian, with several stables that hire out the native black Menorquín horses. The island was declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO in 1993, which partially explains why it’s so pristine. Development is strictly controlled, and S’Albufera des Grau Natural Park, which includes five small islands, is home to prolific birdlife.
Now Menorca is shyly stepping into the spotlight.
The island’s history informs its distinctive personality. Coveting the huge natural harbor in Mahón, the British occupied the island for much of the 18th century. They expanded the port there, built roads and reservoirs, developed the island’s agriculture and left behind an enduring taste for gin, which is still made on the island at the Xoriguer distillery. The Georgian architecture of many houses in Mahón also bespeaks the former British presence.
Nowadays, Menorca is more accessible due to an increased number of flights from cities like Paris and Rome, and the island has caught the attention of trendsetting young hoteliers such as Guillaume Foucher and Frédéric Biousse, who first won a reputation with their stunning Domaine de Fontenille in Provence.
The two Frenchmen fell in love with the island and decided it would be an ideal place for a hotel project because it seemed much like the Mediterranean of half a century ago. Shopping for an existing structure to convert, they found themselves unable to decide between a 17th-century manor house called Santa Ponsa and Torre Vella, a fortified farm nearby. So they bought both properties, which opened last year as 21-room and 17-room hotels, respectively.
After a 25-minute drive from the airport in Mahón, we arrived at Fontenille Menorca Santa Ponsa on a golden Indian summer afternoon. (The best seasons in Menorca are May-June and September-October.) The handsome manor house was set on a hillside surrounded by lush Moorish-style gardens with trickling fountains, orange trees, jasmine vines and blazes of bougainvillea. It was imposing but seemed welcoming at the same time. After cold drinks on the terrace, the general manager gave us a tour of the property, which has a variety of room types. Some accommodations are in the original manor house; others are found in adjacent outbuildings, including our Prestige Suite. This came with an appealingly rustic décor that included stone floors and exposed wooden beams, plus a gray sofa, wicker wing chairs and a built-in writing desk in a separate living room. The spacious bath featured handmade oyster-colored tiles, a soaking tub, a separate shower and a pair of sinks set into a wooden counter. French doors led to a small terrace.
Having settled in, we explored the grounds and took a dip in a plunge pool created from a former irrigation reservoir. Afterward, sun loungers on grassy terraces invited us to spend a quiet afternoon with a book. Most of the other guests appeared to be 40-something French, English and German couples.
Since Santa Ponsa’s restaurant hadn’t opened yet — it will begin service this summer — we went to dinner at the hotel’s sister property, Torre Vella, located a 10-minute drive to the south. This establishment has a very different atmosphere, with a younger clientele that is drawn to its minimalist décor, the work of Miguel Jiménez Robertson, a designer well-known in Menorca for his stylish renovations of old fincas (farmhouses). Even though the service was slow, dinner on a balmy night in a courtyard illuminated by candle lanterns was a delightful experience. We enjoyed some Jabugo ham and pimiento de Padrón (flash-grilled green peppers from Galicia) to start, and then tucked into some delicious black rice with prawns and mussels, paired with a Chardonnay from Binifadet, Menorca’s largest winery.
The following morning, back at Santa Ponsa, we had a memorable alfresco breakfast that included sobrassada, Menorca’s soft, paprika-seasoned sausage; local cheeses; and juice made with fruit from the surrounding orchards, before heading off for a day’s exploration of Menorca’s wild northern coast. At both Santa Ponsa and Torre Vella, the service was warm and friendly but often slow and sometimes imprecise. We trust that it will be better this summer, when the staff have become more experienced. The spa at Santa Ponsa will also open in 2020.
Stylish décor; beautiful Moorish gardens; the delicious breakfast.
Though friendly, the service was often too casual and slow.
Some rooms overlook the parking lot and should be avoided.
We set off along country roads through timeless countryside interspersed with pine forests and dotted with handsome stone farmhouses, many of which produce the orange-colored wheels of Mahón cow’s milk cheese, which is one of the great cheeses of Spain. After a quick swim in the turquoise waters of the Platges de Cavalleria, one of the island’s best beaches, we drove out to the sturdy white Far de Cavalleria, a lighthouse built in 1857 on a craggy peninsula, the northernmost point of the island, which affords spectacular views. We then headed into the pleasure-boat-filled port of Fornells, a place famous for its caldereta de llagosta, a rich tomato-brightened rock lobster stew made with locally caught crustaceans. There, we enjoyed a fine lunch at Es Cranc, a restaurant favored by the Spanish royal family when they put into Fornells on their yacht.
Later in the afternoon, we arrived at the casually elegant 27-room Torralbenc, which was opened in 2013 after the renovation of a whitewashed 19th-century farmhouse. (The property is owned by the Marugal group, founded by innovative Spanish hotelier Pablo Carrington, which also owns Cap Rocat in Mallorca and the URSO Hotel & Spa in Madrid.) Set on a ridge, about 2 miles from the beach town of Cala’n Porter, it was designed by architect Antoni Esteva, who is well-known as the creator of some of the most spectacular villas in the Balearic Islands. His additions included several new subsidiary buildings, which house the hotel’s spa and restaurant, as well as many of its rooms.
After a dour welcome from a wan young woman, we headed to our Superior room in one of the new outbuildings. Spacious and attractive, it came with exposed wooden beams, a cathedral ceiling, straw area mats and a palette of sand and toast colors. Overall, the room reflected the styles of traditional Menorcan rural architecture with low-key contemporary chic. Our sitting area provided a pair of armchairs and an accent table situated in front of French doors that led to a small private terrace. This overlooked the olive groves that produce the oil used in Torralbenc’s exceptional restaurant. The bath was well-lit and appointed with two vanities set into a wooden counter.
Though you can indulge in treatments at the spa — which uses Natura Bissé and SeaSkin products — take yoga classes, horseback ride through the olive groves or head off for a day at a nearby beach, many guests happily spend their time reading and drowsing between dips in the large saltwater infinity pool. We opted to follow their lead, since Torralbenc provides a blissful setting in which to relax and do absolutely nothing whatsoever.
One of the most notable features of the hotel is its restaurant. The menu was conceived by Basque Michelin-starred chef Gorka Txapartegi and is executed by chef Luis Loza. Although not extensive, it successfully combines Menorcan culinary tradition with modern tastes and techniques. Dishes range from starters like sobrassada-filled croquettes to mains such as creamy rice with seafood and local fish, crab stew with cauliflower cream, and roasted Menorcan red shrimp. The dessert not to miss is the light and slightly tangy cheesecake made with local Mahón cheese. The wine list includes Torralbenc wines produced on the estate, which are justly regarded as some of the best in Menorca.
Our only reservation about this lovely place was that the staff, while professional, were occasionally rather haughty. Otherwise, Torralbenc is a fine base from which to explore Menorca, as well as an impressive destination hotel.
The balance between rural authenticity and creature comforts; the superlative restaurant.
Aside from the charming team in the spa, the staff could be haughty and occasionally impatient.
Even if you’re not staying at Torralbenc, the hotel’s restaurant is one of the best nights out in Menorca; nonresidents must book well in advance.
From Torralbenc, we headed to Ciutadella de Menorca, a small port on the island’s west coast built of honey-colored stone. Currently, the town is being roused from its torpor, which set in after the British moved the island’s capital to Mahón at the beginning of the 18th century, by an influx of young creative folk. Ciutadella was the traditional seat of the Menorcan aristocracy, which explains the handsome mansions that line its backstreets. Today, it has some of the island’s best shops and a constellation of excellent restaurants. We opted for lunch at Mon Restaurant, a delightful place helmed by chef Felip Llufriu — who won a Michelin star in 2013 during a stint in Barcelona and who has rediscovered the natural simplicity of traditional Balearic cooking back on his native island.
Later that afternoon, we drove east to the 18-room Hotel Rural Biniarroca, located 2 miles south of Mahón. A renovated, bougainvillea-splashed 18th-century farmhouse with several outbuildings and two pools, Biniarroca was a prototype for the stylish, rustic-chic lodgings that have lately become a signature of Menorca. Although our welcome was warm, the property has, alas, not aged well.
The chilly lighting in our Superior room in the garden came from low-wattage energy-saving bulbs, while the austere room beneath a low beamed ceiling was uninspiring. The bed was comfortable enough, but the writing desk and side chairs were more decorative than practical. And the bath came with a basic double vanity, plus a tub with a hand-held shower badly in need of updating. The recurring mystery of our stay at Biniarroca was why so many of the world’s travel publications continue to rate this property so highly.
Friendly staff; lovely gardens.
Our dated and poorly lit room.
Guests must be older than age 16.
The following day, we left without regret and transferred to the 12-room Cugó Gran Menorca, 6 miles to the west. On arrival, the only sounds to be heard were those of crickets whirring in the afternoon heat and the wind threshing the lavender bushes and olive trees that lined the pathway up to the handsome stone manor. After an exceptionally charming welcome, we settled into our ground-floor Superior Room. Spacious and light, this had a beamed ceiling, dark parquet floors, wall-mounted nickel-silver reading lamps, two upholstered armchairs and a secretary desk. Overall, the atmosphere seemed like that of a stylish guest room in a private house, rather than that of a hotel. The bath was fitted with travertine floors, quarry-tile walls, a double vanity and a large walk-in shower. Two pairs of French doors led to a private terrace with neatly trimmed box tree hedges and two loungers.
Public rooms include a beautiful living room with cushy sofas and chairs, books in many languages and a Juliet balcony that offers views over the vineyards and olive groves of the 250-acre estate to the distant Mediterranean. Outside, loungers line a terrace overlooking an infinity pool surrounded by lawns, topiaries and daybeds screened with white muslin curtains.
That evening, we enjoyed a delicious meal in the candlelit dining room, including Cap Roig fish stew and a rabbit-and-prawn paella, with which we drank an excellent white wine from the estate. Cugó Gran Menorca is a stylish but friendly and peaceful hotel, where it is easy to linger for several days doing nothing much aside from enjoying the pool, the spa and the views of the Mediterranean. It would be hard to think of a better example of the gracious, low-key luxury accommodations that are now making Menorca an increasingly popular but still secluded destination.
The beautiful interiors; the remarkably friendly and efficient staff; the gorgeous swimming pool; the tranquil and secluded atmosphere.
The Wi-Fi access is spotty at best.
The nearest sandy beach, Cales Coves, is located 3 miles from the hotel.