Menorca is only the third-largest of the Balearic islands, yet it has more beaches than Mallorca and Ibiza put together. A fair few of these are only really approachable from the sea. My wife and I joined a catamaran day-trip to one such deserted cove; there was a delightfully Robinson Crusoe-like feeling to weighing anchor, diving in and swimming ashore, where a paella was cooked for us on a bonfire of driftwood.
Menorca shares many blessings with its visitors. The island is 10 degrees closer to the equator than the southernmost point in Britain, on a par with the far south of Italy. The Mediterranean minimises the extremes of climate – but has maximised the cultural intensity. From enigmatic stone structures built by pre-historic man, to dazzling 21st-century Spanish architecture, man’s impact on Menorca is fascinating.
And I am part of the latest, and mostly benign, invasion: tourists. Many of us are in search of an accessible yet discreet island whose strongest suit comprises beautiful, shady coves that serrate the southern coast. But it has plenty more on offer.
The strikingly handsome port of Ciutadella, at the western end of the island, is steeped in naval history but now provides moorings for pleasure craft. It feels as cosmopolitan as St-Tropez or Capri Town, minus the bling and high prices. Ciutadella also provides a good location from which to explore the stone structures of San Catlar (including an impressive wall), and the cliff-side caves of Xoroi. At the other end of the island lies the capital, Mahon (or Maó in the local dialect). This is another pretty port, which seems frozen in mid-tumble to the harbour. It has the distinction of being the first place in Spain each day to welcome the sun – don’t miss the fascinating Churrigueresque touches in the church of San Francesc.
And then, of course, there is learning the ropes. Having made my first forays into dinghy sailing on the slate-grey waters of a reservoir near the M3 in Surrey, I can vouch for the fact that the warm, blue lagoon at Fornells makes for an altogether more enticing arena for the inevitable capsizes. I hired the dinghy by the half-day, but for those wanting a more single-minded nautical experience, various companies offer specialist sailing holidays (see below).
My father-in-law has since invested in a rubber dinghy with small outboard motor, in which we chug around the harbour, or into Mahon or nearby Cales Fonts to moor up outside the restaurants like proper yachtsmen do. Bobbing around on the water in any size of craft leaves you with the sense that you are fully part of Menorca. Jaunty sailor caps are entirely optional.
Air links to Menorca are excellent. From the London area, easyJet (0905-821 0905; easyjet.com) flies from Gatwick and Monarch (08700 405040; flymonarch.com) flies from Gatwick and Luton. Monarch also flies from Birmingham and Manchester, while easyJet flies from Bristol, Liverpool and Newcastle. Jet2 (0871-226 1737; jet2.com) has services from Blackpool, Edinburgh, Newcastle and Leeds/Bradford.
Low-cost flights are operated from other UK airports by airlines such as Thomson and Thomas Cook Airways.
The island’s airport is close to the capital, Mahon. It is within walking distance of the centre (assuming you are not weighed down with luggage), or there are two buses an hour into town.
Minorca Sailing is based in Fornells but has a UK office in Richmond, Surrey (020-8948 2106; minorcasailing.co.uk). It offers packages that will fly you out to the island from a range of UK airports. Accommodation is in self-catering apartments. Courses include group lessons for dinghy sailing and/or windsurfing; an hour’s personal tuition at the end of each day; and racing every afternoon. Four people sharing a villa in July costs £2,114 per person (with reductions for children).
Alternatively, try the Mahon-based Menorca Cruising School (00 34 971 389003; menorca sailing.co.uk), which in 1994 became the first RYA (Royal Yachting Association) sailing school in the Mediterranean. Accommodation is onboard, with lunch and breakfast included. The five-day RYA Competent Crew most popular course for beginners costs £550 from May to October (high season) excluding flights.
After the second rudder broke, it dawned on me that maybe I was doing something wrong: perhaps attempting to turn too sharply with the thing held too deep in the water. Who knows? The guy who hired out the dinghies on the shore of Fornells, a lagoon in the north of Menorca and an idyllic watersports nursery, seemed unperturbed, resigned even. Perhaps he had seen it all before. Or maybe his equipment was just well insured.
I had been coming to Menorca almost every summer since I met my wife; her father owns an apartment overlooking Mahon harbour, itself another safe playground for people who mess around on boats. For the first few years I was happy to explore the island by car or on foot. Then came a Damascene moment while sipping an aperitif on the balcony.
Having spent endless evenings watching all manner of craft come and go below, from cruise ships and Abramovich-sized yachts to small put-put launches and Biblical-looking fishing boats, I was suddenly struck by the realisation that, as a landlubber, I was missing an important dimension to this fascinating island.
For more information: http://www.menorcaexplorer.com