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The best-kept secret in the western Mediterranean,” is how Zoe Tyson describes Minorca. “It’s well geared for families and very safe, and there’s nowhere on the island that I wouldn’t recommend to visitors.”

Tyson may be a little prejudiced: She’s a tour representative with four years’ on the island. But she’s probably not wrong.

Minorca, the quietest of the Balearic Islands, is an ideal destination for a relaxing, away-from-it-all beach holiday. Lacking the myriad bars and clubs of neighboring Majorca, it’s a place that tends to close early.

But there are compensations: Quiet, sandy beaches with clear, turquoise waters. Deserted coves surrounded by sheer, craggy cliffs. Wild green pastures and scented-pine woods. Atmospheric old towns untarnished by the tourist masses.

More upmarket — some would say more select — than Majorca, Minorca offers attractive villas and well-planned modern resorts designed to blend with the local scenery. The island is a haven for nature lovers and offers magnificent hiking, horseback riding, diving and sailing.

In addition, it can boast some of Europe’s most important Bronze Age relics. And the short distances on the island mean that everything is within easy reach.

We stayed in the northern resort of Son Parc, an attractive complex built amid the sand dunes. The apartments were at ground level and the children loved the gently sloping beach with its soft white sand and wide expanse of shallow sparkling water.

They also enjoyed the resort’s pool and playground, both sensibly shaded by pine trees against the hot afternoon sun. If they had wanted, they could have taken part in kids’ clubs and sports events, or watched the stage shows and dancing that took place every evening in the central plaza. For young families, Son Parc would have been hard to beat, though teenagers may want more in the way of clubs and discos.

But after a few days, I start to get itchy feet even in the most idyllic beach setting. I wondered what Minorca has to offer in the way of excursions. Where should you go and what should you see?

“My advice to any visitor,” said Tyson, “is to hire a car and go out and explore. The island is small enough to get around and the short distances mean that you should be able to see most of it easily in three days.”

Day 1

So we rented a car and set out, heading first for Mahon (Mao), the capital and largest city. The roads were quiet and the landscape green and lush with bushy trees and a patchwork of fields separated by dry stone walls.

Approaching Mahon, we caught glimpses of the city’s superb harbor, which shelters everything from fishing boats and pleasure craft to large cruise ships. Once in the city, we drove into the maze of narrow streets of the old town. The tight bends and one-way systems make this a traffic bottleneck, but eventually we managed to park near the old Barbarossa Gateway.

From here, it was a short walk past the neo-Classical town hall to the Church of Santa Maria. The city’s chief landmark, the church dates to the 13th century, though it was rebuilt in the 18th century. Its pride is an impressive pipe organ — with more than 3,000 pipes — built in Austria and the focus for an annual organ festival.

Outside, locals enjoyed mid- morning coffee in the sidewalk cafés, vendors sold lottery tickets and shoppers strolled along the bustling Carrer de Hannover. We made a quick ice cream stop and then followed them.

This steep, narrow pedestrian zone is the main thoroughfare of Mahon’s shopping district. We followed it up to the Plaça de Esplanada square. Then after lunch, we walked on to the Baroque Carmen Church, where, somewhat oddly, a fruit and vegetable market takes place in the cloisters.

Finding our way out of Mahon’s one-way-street system was like teasing out a checkmate in a game of chess, but eventually we emerged at the port. This is the site of the aquarium and the Xoriguer Distillery, famous for its excellent gin.

There were good views of the islands — including the large Villa Carlos, once home to the British garrison and still with its original grid system and Georgian town hall. And we paused to admire Cala Figuera marina with its state-of-the-art yachts and expensive fish restaurants.

On the outskirts of Mahon we stopped again to inspect the curious prehistoric stones of Trepuco. This unusual walled enclosure is around 3,000 years old and is thought to have been a a religious sanctuary. It includes a massive T-shaped standing stone and a domed stone mound.

A few minutes later we passed through Sant Lluis, an attractive whitewashed town with a splendid windmill. Soon afterward, we reached Punta Prima and tried to pick up the coastal road westward. Signposts were rare and it was some time before we arrived at Binibequer Vell, a complex of glistening apartments clustered round a tiny harbor.

From the parking lot, we followed a sloping pathway into the heart of the village. It was designed to imitate a Moorish fishing village. Its jumble of wooden balustrades and balconies, the shadowy overhangs and neat flights of steps, and the narrow winding paths and arched passages gave it something of the atmosphere of an African bazaar. Potted geraniums and saplings added a dash of color and the whitewashed apartments looked immaculate. The cobbled alleyways and shadowy arches begged to be explored.

Day 2

Because distances are short on Minorca, it’s not necessary to get an early start. So we decided to begin the next day with a visit to the excellent Son Parc beach. Around mid-morning, we set off for the town of Fornells, which Tyson had recommended.

The attractive town, built around a large palm-lined harbor, dominates the Ses Salines inlet. Colorful wooden fishing boats bob on the waters alongside gleaming luxury yachts. This is no down-to-earth fishing village, but rather a magnet for the rich and well-to-do.

The seafood restaurants that line the promenade are famous for their caldereta de langusta (lobster stew) and are reputed to be a particular favorite of King Juan Carlos of Spain.

We enjoyed a tasty fish soup and then took a stroll around the back streets. The whitewashed houses, with their green shutters, wrought-iron lamps and creeping plants, were immaculate and the narrow alleyways offered tantalizing glimpses of the deep turquoise sea. In the middle of town was a pretty white church and, on the outskirts, an old watchtower.

Leaving Fornells, we set off for the lookout point at Cap de Cavalleria. In Roman times one of the island’s largest ports was located here, but now it’s a wild heath landscape populated by goats. The last stretch to the cape was a pot-holed dirt track, but the views from the lighthouse were good, if not spectacular. Afterward, the shady garden at the nearby Eco Museum made a pleasant spot for a quiet drink.

The views were more spectacular from El Toro, Minorca’s only real mountain, which rises above the town of Es Mercadal. Legend has it that an old priest saw a great column of fire rising from the mountain and climbed to the summit with some friars. They found a ferocious bull, which led them to a cave containing a statue of the Madonna. They built a church to mark the site.

Today the convent is the spiritual and geographical center of the island and boasts a thriving gift shop and café. The building is a fine sight with its large black iron gates, old well, olive trees and potted plants.

But the views are the real attraction. On a clear day you can see the whole island from here, especially the Ses Salines inlet near Fornells and the Cap de Cavalleria lighthouse, as well as the beaches along the east and south coasts.

To finish off the day, we drove down via Ferreries to Cala Santa Galdana. This sweeping sandy bay is said to be one of the best beaches in the Mediterranean, and it’s easy to see why. Villas and houses bestrewn with bougainvillaea perch above a vast, half-moon-shaped bay. Windsurfers, motor boats and pedal boats take full advantage of the shimmering turquoise waters. Sparkling white yachts lie at anchor under the jagged rocky cliffs. The gently sloping beach and safe water typical for Minorca was inviting, and we spent a few relaxing hours playing on the beach.

Day 3

On the third morning, we drove across the heart of the island and made our first stop at the Naveta de’s Tudons, believed to be one of the oldest surviving roofed buildings in Europe. This unusual stone structure, which resembles an upturned boat (“nave” is ship in Spanish), is a short walk from the main road and is thought to have been a Bronze Age communal burial ground, built to store bones as well as personal objects of the deceased.

A few minutes later, we arrived in the former capital, Ciutadella. This old Moorish town is the real “must-see” of the island with its unspoiled old center and superb harbor. A tangle of narrow streets radiate off the central Plaça d’es Born with the crenellated town hall on one side and a row of ostentatious mansions on the other. The square is the site of a market and a popular meeting spot.

Behind here, the tiny winding alleyways of the old town are the ideal place for a stroll. The area by the cathedral resembles a film set with its freshly painted buildings and extravagant townhouses with romantic balconies. Nearby is an interesting row of Moorish arcades called Ses Voltes.

But the city’s real highlight is the narrow harbor with its flotilla of fishing boats and yachts. We walked down the steps — past the street artists and hair braiders, the leather goods vendors and souvenir dealers — to the fish restaurants along the water’s edge. Here patrons can choose to dine in caves under the cliffs, or al fresco. We chose the latter and enjoyed a cheap but tasty spaghetti marinière overlooking the bustling port.

After lunch, we drove north to explore the ancient caves at Cala Morell. Regarded as some of the most important Bronze Age caves in Europe, they were originally dwelling places. They were hollowed out of the rock and some of them are amazingly sophisticated with sleeping quarters, windows and chimneys. They were later used as burial chambers.

From here, we drove back across the island to finish our tour with a visit to the Cova d’en Xoroi in Cala en Porter. This dramatic cave is probably the most spectacular setting for a disco anywhere in the world. Hollowed out of the cliff face, it drops sheer to the sparkling water far below.

During the day visitors can sit under the bamboo umbrellas and enjoy a quiet drink on the sun terrace. On Friday and Saturday nights it becomes a dance hall with tables in round bays overlooking the sea, and lights and speakers set in the rocks.

— Richard Moverley is a freelance writer living in England.

If you go

Getting there

Most visitors to Minorca come by air, arriving at Sant Lluis airport, three miles from Mahon. Flight-and- hotel package deals are a good way to visit to the island. Round-trip flights from Gatwick cost around 150-200 pounds ($270-$360). Rates are cheaper in the winter.

Details

Minorca is 27 miles long and 9 miles wide. It has a population of around 70,000. Banks generally open from 9 a.m. to 2.30 p.m. weekdays and supermarkets open from 9 a.m. to 1.30 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Food and drink

The Menu del Dia (menu of the day) is offered by many restaurants and makes a cheap lunch consisting typically of three courses including wine. Prices start at about 6 pounds (about $10.80). Local specialties include caldera de llagosta (lobster stew), peix al forn amb patatas (baked fish with potatoes), peppers stuffed with fish and partridge with cabbage. Also try the delicious ice cream and cheeses from Alaior and the pastries and cakes from Mercadel. Mayonnaise is said to have originated from Mahon. Sangria is a popular drink and the local gin, often drunk with lemonade to make pomada, is excellent.

Market days

Mahon: Tuesday and SaturdayCiutadella: Friday and SaturdayEs Mercadal: SundaySan Lluis: Monday and WednesdayAlaior: Thursday

— Richard Moverley

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