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Wednesday, May 18, 2022

The wild side of the Balearics: off the beaten track on Spain’s stunning paradise islands | Balearic Islands holidays

St Antoni region, Ibiza

The rugged west coast is where some of Ibiza’s biggest adventures are to be found. The rocky headlands are covered in forests, occasionally dipping down to stunning beaches, and much of this area is accessible only on foot.

The remote Ses Balandres beach is reached via ladders and ropes down an almost sheer cliff, after a long hike. Further along the coast, after another challenging hike, you can discover the deep and alluring sea cave of Na Coloms. It’s possible to climb or jump into a deep turquoise pool, but the only way out is to swim through an underwater tunnel to the foot of the cliffs, before climbing back up the hill. Cala d’Albarca is a rocky cove with lovely clear water. It is a bit of a hike to get to and a steep scramble down, but the path descends through a beautiful forest and past a natural stone bridge, the Puente de Piedra.

Ses Balandres beach is below sheer cliffs.
Ses Balandres beach is below almost sheer cliffs. Photograph: Anna Deacon

Travelling inland from here is like stepping back in time. The tiny villages of Santa Agnès de Corona and Santa Mateu have changed little for centuries, their narrow streets of whitewashed cottages opening on to village squares with enormous churches.

Much of this area is still given over to farming, the dark red soil rich with orchards and vineyards. Olive groves, carob, fig and almond trees are surrounded by low, drystone walls. The river valley of Es Broll contains an ancient Arabic irrigation system and the old forest trails are a wonder to explore, with surprising waterfalls that appear only after heavy rain.

Stay and eat

Cala Gracioneta chiringuito, Ibiza.
Cala Gracioneta chiringuito, Ibiza. Photograph: Luanda Lopes/Anna Deacon

The centre of the island is where most of the best places to stay are located. Centuries-old farmhouses converted into stylish agroturismos, such as Can Pujolet (doubles from €240), offer typical Ibizan charm and style in peace and quiet, while the simple, stylish boutique Hotel Las Mariposas (doubles from €184) sits in quiet countryside but is a short hop from the airport and ferry terminal.
Back on the west coast, the headland of Punta Galera juts out from an old stone quarry, offering a prime viewpoint for stunning sunsets. At nearby Cap Negret, Hostal La Torre (doubles from €57) is a boutique hotel with a stylish restaurant and bar, set high on cliffs – another spectacular sunset spot.

Cala Gracioneta just south of here is a superb, tiny beach with a stylish chiringuito (beach bar) serving dishes from a wood-fired oven, and amazing cocktails. You can snorkel from here to the slightly larger beach at Cala Gració, enjoying the view of an abundance of fish as you go.

Mahón, Menorca

Es Grau beach, 9km north of Mahón.
Es Grau beach, 9km north of Mahón. Photograph: Anna Deacon

Much of the coastline to the north of the Menorcan capital Mahón, or Maó, is uninhabited and can only be reached on foot or by boat, so it’s perfect for a wild adventure. This area is dominated by the S’Albufera des Grau natural park, which is part of a Unesco biosphere reserve.

The diverse ecosystem includes a huge lagoon, marshlands, beaches, dune systems, woodland and little islets. Booted eagle, Egyptian vulture, osprey, red kite, wood warbler and red crossbill are among the birdlife.

The ancient Camí de Cavalls trail, which runs around the entire coastline, goes right through the park, giving a clear route to most of the beaches, and marked trails lead off to the lagoon, bird hides and stunning viewpoints.

Walking the section of the Camí de Cavalls between the lighthouse at Cap de Favàritx and the tiny village of Es Grau takes about three to four hours and passes through some of the island’s most beautiful, remote landscapes. The trail winds through shady woodland with ancient, twisted olive trees and open scrubby land scented by wild rosemary and juniper bushes. It passes beaches such as Cala Tortuga, Es Bol Llarg and Cala Rambles, whose turquoise waters are perfect for a cooling dip, but there are no facilities for many kilometres, so take plenty of water and food.

Es Grau is a good spot to start or end your walk, as there is a lovely little chiringuito on the shore, selling cold drinks and simple, local food. The beach is sheltered and very shallow, so perfect for young children. You can hire kayaks or standup paddleboards from a beach shack and paddle out to the uninhabited Illa d’en Colom, or explore one of the fabulous beaches just up the coast.

Stay and eat

There aren’t many places to stay within the park, but Sa Torre Blanca (doubles from €98) is great option – a 14th-century tower with simple apartments, and the ruins of a megalithic village nearby. The city of Maó is five miles away, with plenty of accommodation.

Just to the south of Maó, the tranquil, 400-year-old rural hotel Alcaufar Vell (doubles from €158) has retained the charm of the original farmhouse and has a restaurant in the garden. The hotel has created a three-mile walking or running route around its 250-hectare (620-acre) grounds, where guests can forage for wild mushrooms in season. There are also bikes to borrow.

Llevant, Mallorca

Mallorca’s Avinguda Colon hiking trail
Mallorca’s Avinguda Colon hiking trail. Photograph: Anna Deacon

The northern part of Llevant is often compared to the Highlands of Scotland for its wide-open spaces, mountains and crags. This is the Llevant Peninsula natural park, a beautiful, undeveloped wilderness covered in fan palms, holm oak, pine trees and wild grasses, and crisscrossed by goat tracks and old pathways through forests and along vertiginous cliff tops.

Here you can climb to dramatic viewpoints then drop down to hidden coves and remote, secret beaches on the wild north coast, such as Cala Torta, Cala Matzoc and Font Celada, which are only accessible on foot, bike or horseback and remain clean and unspoiled. In this haven for wildlife, booted eagles, peregrine falcons and even ospreys can be seen flying high overhead, while tortoises, cat-like genets, pine martens and Algerian hedgehogs take refuge in the dense woods and scrub.

Cala de Matzoc
Cala de Matzoc. Photograph: Anna Deacon

In the small town of Arta, the Tuesday market offers home-grown and artisanal produce, strings of multicoloured chillies, olives, cheeses, oils and seasonal fruit and vegetables. On the outskirts of the village is the ancient settlement of Ses Paisses, one of the oldest and best-preserved Talayotic (bronze age) sites in the Balearics, at over 2,000 years old.

From the little village of Colónia de Sant Pere, a coastal trail called the Avinguda Colon leads north to the hidden beaches of Cala Na Clara, Cala d’es Torrent and Platja des Calo, with the mountains on one side and the sea on the other.

Further west along the coast is the Son Real agricultural estate and old manor house (admission free), with a visitor centre and bike hire. Apart from the museum, and beautifully managed grounds with crops and livestock, there are well-maintained trails around the estate and down to a magnificent coast, where there is an astonishing necropolis right on the shore. It is said to be at least 2,700 years old, and comprises more than 100 grave sites.

You can walk all the way to the seaside village of Son Serra from here and hardly see a soul. Natura Cavall is an adventure horse-riding company with rescue horses, which offers treks along this beach, and even swimming with the horses.

Stay and eat

Jardi D’Artà.
Jardi D’Artà. Photograph: Uschi Burger-Precht

Down a little side street in Artà is the charming boutique hotel Jardi D’Artà (doubles from €145), with beautiful courtyards and delicious breakfasts. Café Parisien in the town’s central square has a delightful garden and simple, local menu with a French twist. In Son Serra, El Sol is a popular beachside bar/restaurant right on the sand serving delicious, fresh meals with a sea view.

Migjorn, Mallorca

Es Trenc, south of Migjorn.
Es Trenc, south of Migjorn. Photograph: Anna Deacon

The south coast of Mallorca is known for its relaxed atmosphere and long stretches of clear turquoise water. It also offers plenty of exciting caves to explore, and headland lookout points with stunning views. A hike in either direction from the lighthouse of Far des Cap de Ses Salines, the most southerly tip, takes you to some of the island’s most spectacular hidden beaches. A tough, three-mile hike east along the wild headland is sandy Caló des Màrmols, with clear waters and a great cave to swim into.

Hike west from the same starting point and you’ll reach Platja des Caragol, the most southerly sandy beach on the island. Flanked by dunes and protected by a natural rock pier, this long, white beach is superbly quiet and wild. Visible on the horizon are the protected islands of the Cabrera archipelago, inhabited only by park rangers. You can get a permit to go ashore and explore this remote, unspoiled nature reserve, and the boat excursion from the port of Colónia de St Jordi provides a chance to spot dolphins and whales, too.

Parc Natural Es Trenc, on the west coast of the Migjorn area, is the second-largest wetland area in Mallorca. A wild landscape of perfectly adapted coastal plants, it’s a paradise for the birds that rest and nest here, including flamingos, sea eagles and waders. Behind the sands of Platja d’es Trenc, the longest beach on the island, lies a unique area of protected dunes and 140 salt ponds, which are still harvested today. It is a fabulous spot for watching the bird life and enjoying the sunset over the Tramuntana mountain range.

Inland, this largely rural area is dotted with market towns such as Campos, Llucmajor, Santanyí and Felanitx, with dozens of small villages scattered among them – offering rustic cafes, local markets and quiet, authentic charm. Much of the land is cultivated for crops such as beans, coffee, rice, sugar cane and cocoa. There is also a Talayotic site at Capocorb Vell.

Stay and eat

Finca Es Turó,
The bougainvillea-draped Finca Es Turó. Photograph: Anna Deacon

Finca Es Turó (doubles from €120, just north of the village of Ses Salines, has an infinity pool looking out to the coast from a high viewpoint, and extensive gardens draped with bougainvillea. For weary travellers, Fontsanta Hotel & Spa north-west of Ses Salines (doubles from €223) features the island’s only natural thermal spa, in use since 1869.

A converted windmill in the heart of the tiny village of Santanyí is home to a glorious hidden gem: Es Molí, a flower-filled garden restaurant serving typical Mallorcan dishes. S’Embat, near Platja Es Trenc, is a perfect evening venue, with live music, loved by locals, as it serves simple, hearty food at tables on the sand, under canvas festooned with ribbons and fairy lights.

Formentera

Beach on Formentera
‘Tantalising strips of turquoise water and white, powdery sand’ … Playa Illetes. Photograph: Juan y Andrea

The smallest of the main four Balearics, Formentera is around 13 miles long, with no airport. Although regular ferries from Ibiza take only 25-60 minutes, opportunities to hire or bring over cars are very limited. Thankfully, the island is relatively flat, with lots of little country lanes leading to beaches, coves and villages, and there are several car-free cycling and walking “green routes”.

A free map of the green routes can be downloaded from formentera.es and bikes and mopeds can be hired from near the ferry terminal from €10 a day. There’s no better way to take in the beauty of the landscape, the tantalising strips of turquoise water and white, powdery sand, the towering cliffs, the whitewashed houses and the dusty tracks.

Cap de Barbaria lighthouse lies at the most southerly point of the island, close to what was once known as the Barbary Coast in Algeria, about 65 miles away. The long, straight road to the lighthouse traverses a lunar-like landscape, and passes an almost hidden ancient settlement, the megalithic Cap de Barbaria, At nearly 4,000 years old, these sites are worth a detour. To the right of the lighthouse is Sa Cova Foradada, a hole in the ground with a little ladder leading into a large, dark cave. Walk through the cave and you come right to the cliff face and stunning sea views.

The nature reserve of Can Marroig has a visitor centre as well as a picnic and barbecue area in the forest. Explore the headland and the forest trails from here, including Punta de Sa Pedrera, an old quarry site on the coast with tidal pools, caves and interesting rock formations – a perfect, quiet spot for snorkelling and swimming. Es Caló is a beautiful fishing village with a tiny natural harbour surrounded by traditional fishing huts. Wander along the boardwalks that protect the dunes to find a quiet spot for a swim in the silky, turquoise water.

Stay and eat

Juan y Andrea
Paella at Juan y Andrea. Photograph: Courtesy of Juan y Andrea

For a good central base, the small, stylish, family-run Hotel Es Marès (doubles from €210) is in the old town of St Francesc and has a beautiful spa and rooftop pool. The agrotourism boutique hotel Es Pas (doubles from €120) is on farmland near Es Caló, surrounded by olive and fig trees and with a glorious sea view.

Watch the sun go down with a cocktail at the quirky, windmill-topped beach bar high up in the rocks at Chiringuito Cala Saona, or visit Juan y Andrea on the beautiful Playa Illetes, on the northern tip of the island, which has possibly the best beachside location on Formentera and serves amazing paella.

This is an extended extract from Wild Guide Balearic Islands by Anna Deacon and Lizzie Graham, published by Wild Things on 1 March, £18.99. It’s available to Guardian readers at a 20% discount and with free P&P with code WGB22 (wildthingspublishing.com)

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