As you sail Spain’s Balearic Islands and enter one of the world’s biggest natural harbors, you might wonder how you had never even heard of Mahón. Calm and quiet, the capital of Menorca island was built up by the British in the 18th century and retains some quirky Anglo traits. It doesn’t take long to wander its compact and fine old town that sits high above its coveted harbor. And just minutes outside of city limits you’ll be exploring a rural realm of nature reserves that coexist with luxury agritourism and fine dining establishments.
While the British built solid military bastions all over Menorca, it’s the smaller things, such as sash and bow windows along with Georgian architecture, that are the more famous English characteristics of Mahón. Some of those British era buildings today house boutiques in which you’ll find a most Menorcan traditional item in avarcas, simple slingback leather and rubber-soled sandals that have gone somewhat chic and upscale in design of late.
To truly understand the city and island, the Museu de Menorca that wraps around the courtyard of the former Convent of Sant Francesc is indispensable. Refurbished a few years ago, its three fascinating floors can easily keep dedicated museum goers busy for several hours.
Starting with funerary objects in its extensive prehistory section, successive rooms take you through the Bronze Age so-called Talaiotic period, and on to Roman, Byzantine and Islamic times. The museum’s 20th-century displays include a newsreel shot in Menorca during Franco’s repressive era and continue through the beginnings of tourism in recent decades. In one room, whose floor is covered by a crisp satellite view map of the island, an interactive click and learn display is fun for the whole family.
For more history, a short boat trip takes you to an island dominated by the Llatzeret, or a lazaret as a quarantine station is known in a seldom-heard English word. Built under restored Spanish rule in the late-18th century, the enormous walled fortress with a fine Palladian entrance housed arriving sailors as a precaution against the plague.
The fine little fishing village of Es Castells is essentially a Mahón suburb, such as there are any. Its protected waterfront Cales Fonts is lined with docked boats and seafood establishments. For more than fifty years from spring until fall, Restaurante Trébol has been serving fried sea anemone, prawns, lobster, mahi-mahi and more there.
Dinner in the inland village of Sant Climent is delightful at Es Molí de Foc, an original flour mill (molí) turned restaurant, one so small it feels like home with tile floors, wooden beams, a patio and local art works. In addition to serving popular rice dishes, the twenty-five-year old restaurant has doubled over the last dozen years as a small craft brewery with English style beers.
Just minutes west of Mahón, the restaurant Sa Pedrera des Pujol is the height of Menorcan fine dining, but in an unpretentious building whose glass walls open onto the patio. For all of the island’s famous seafood, beef Wellington is a hit here as prepared by the Asturian owners. Its wine selection is extensive as well.
A whitewashed 18th-century rural manor house turned hotel with fifteen rooms that are named after classical composers, Sant Joan de Binissaida takes its name—meaning Sons of Said—from earlier Arab culture, as do many place names in this southeast corner of Menorca.
The property’s garden includes a pool, plenty of palm trees and a “green filter” patch of vegetation that repurposes waste water for irrigation over its thirty acres. In recent years, the property was reforested with pine, as well as 3,000 olive trees which produce the varieties of arbequina and koroneiki oil that are bottled in their own mill.
With the hotel particularly focused on local products and the history behind them, you just might find yourself at an olive oil tasting, or be treated to a demonstration of mayonnaise making in all kinds of variations from sweet and savory to tangy and smokey. Because you surely did not know that the oil and egg dressing you have been consuming on every sandwich since your childhood likely comes from Menorca, the name having migrated in a brief French influence on the island from Mahón to mahonaisse. You get it.
Binissaida could serve as one of those historic village sites showing off Menorca’s lovely traditional drystone walls that look like something out of Scotland (along with Dutch-looking windmills and lighthouses that are popular motifs). The property also has fine examples of the elegant Menorcan gates whose curvy rails are made from ullastre, or oleaster, i.e., wild olive trees, whose wood is sculpted by arader artisans of whom some still work on the island.
From the hotel, a path leads to the Camí de Cavalls, Menorca’s 116-mile-long trail that circumnavigates the island and its rugged shores. You could follow it for ten miles just north of Mahón and you’ll land up in the wonderful 13,000-acre S’Albufera d’es Grau natural park. Regal fisher eagles and birds of all kinds live within this preservation project of a brackish coastal wetland. You’ll spot Hermann’s tortoises crossing and Balearic lizards sunning on your path. And all this just minutes from the “big city.”
Travel Notes: Making for the only long-haul flight from the U.S. to the Balearic Islands, United Airlines will launch service between Newark (EWR) and Palma de Mallorca (PMI), from June 2nd through September 23rd. The Boeing 767-300ER aircraft, with new cabins that include United’s new premium Polaris, will fly three times a week. United will also launch new seasonal service to the Canary Islands.