Every now and then we’ve come across a little-known gem that truly takes us by surprise. Off the east coast of Spain, Formentera – the southern-most island in the Balearic archipelago – is no secret. The island’s flawless white-sand beaches, crystalline waters and breezy beach bars are well patronized by an in-the-know Italian crowd and cool holidaymakers from other European neighbours. Though following four extended visits to Europe, plus years of story-swapping with other travellers, reading and research, I’d not heard whisper of this effortlessly hip escape and one of the last unspoilt treasures in the Mediterranean playground.
I’m placing my bets you’ve not heard of Formentera either. Perhaps that’s because the island has happily basked in the shadow of her hedonistic and wild sister to the north. This wishbone-shaped isle lays a stone’s throw from the world-famous party island of Ibiza. A yachtie friend from nearby Mallorca described laidback Formentera as underdeveloped; a hippy vibe without the pretention and throbbing club scene. Where scooters and bicycles are standard transport, sandy roads lead to sundrenched chiringuitos (beach bars) and local fisherman winch their boats out of limpid Caribbean-like waters into ramshackle driftwood shelters. Formentera is what Ibiza was like 40 years ago – before Pacha, drugs, cheap package tourism and Euro trash landed. (In Ibiza’s defence, some worthwhile peaceful pockets still exist…)
After another summer sailing the Mediterranean, we reached Formentera mid-October. Tourist season was officially over and sadly many of the rustic beach clubs and restaurants were boarded up ready for winter. Instead, any crowds were long gone, the sunny autumn weather fault-less and prevailing wind blowing on the western shore left the eastern beaches glistening and beckoning.
October is a special time for Mike and I, celebrating both our birthdays and wedding anniversary within nine days. We took the opportunity to check into a resort hotel; spoiling ourselves with long hot showers, a plush king bed and four walls that didn’t move. In the meantime, Mum and Dad anchored finally my darling off stunning Playa de Llevant to enjoy the sunshine and boat to themselves.
Since opening in May 2014, Blanco Hotel Formentera has been at capacity. Its chic white-on-white-on-white décor is popular with the Italian clientele, the beds heavenly, buffet breakfast fresh and delicious (sliced jamon, queso and figs my favourite), service attentive and located just a few minutes sandy-footed walk from Es Pujols’s lovely beach.
Whilst Es Pujols is the only resort-like town on the island, its cluster of low-rise buildings are far from offensive compared to overdevelopment found elsewhere in mainland Spain. Several beachfront dwellings and rural farmhouses have been restored into boutique accommodation, yet Blanco Hotel is the last new-build project planned for the island.
Fortunately the local government is savvy and understands Formentera’s allure is its sand dune-backed beaches and boardwalks, tamarisk pine forests, dusty access roads and peaceful sunsets. They’ve the established wealth and foresight not to sell-out to developers and inflict irreversible damage on its natural assets. There is no airport or annoying low flying aircraft (access is via flight to Ibiza then ferry) and no goliath cruise ships moored offshore (only a smattering of bobbing yachts). The trill of cicadas fills the air and the closest thing to a traffic jam is navigating a sandy car park where scooters and bicycles are parked three-deep outside boho watering holes lining the sweeping arc of Playa Migjorn.
Formentera quickly romances you into sedate holiday bliss. I kicked the excitement up a notch by shunning my usual pillion position and scootering solo on a racy red and chrome Vespa. Just 20 km long, the island is perfect for exploring on two wheels. We bounced down pot-holed tracks bordered by low dry-stone walls and zipped past bikini-clad cyclists riding the wide shoulder of the main asphalt thoroughfare.
We fell in love with the canvas beanbags, sand between the toes, chilled glasses of Spanish wine and smooth Café del Mar tunes at PEOPLE Bar on Playa des Pujols. No matter what the time of day, we returned often and found it VERY hard to leave…
On the protected eastern coast, pretty Es Pujols is awash with late-afternoon pastels.
For a small community, Formentera’s choice of high quality restaurants would impress even a hard-nosed aficionado; delivered with the island’s signature low-key service and unpretentious ambiance. A small handful remained open during our off-season visit, to which our gracious host Javier of Blanco Hotel pointed us in the right direction.
We celebrated Mike’s birthday over a delicious paella and sangria lunch at waterfront Es Calo; and for our wedding anniversary the following evening we ordered almost every mouth watering dish off Can Dani’s paired back tapas menu. Along a dark road, Can Dani’s farmhouse exterior was unassuming. Inside, under fairy light-draped grape vines, tables were scattered around the courtyard and I could sense the energy that would pulsate there in summer. Other local favourites that we must add to the list for ‘next time’ include Juan Y Andrea and Chezz Gerdi.
In the north, a shallow sandbar connects to the dreamy islet of Espalmador. From there, across the waterway, we could easily see Ibiza’s popular Playa d’en Bossa; its endless white string of hotels a constant reminder for Formentera to tightly hold onto its integrity and wide-open spaces.
Formentera may belong to Spain, but don’t go seeking a dose of culture. Its international vibe and youthful playfulness is a credit to the laissez-faire locals and visitors alike. And after the well-worn tourist haunts and sense of entitlement often found elsewhere in the Western Mediterranean, Formentera was a breath of fresh air.
Clothing optional: magic Playa Illetes (below) is heaven for naturists.
Like any good thing in travel, word spreads. And while the local authorities maintain a fine balance with new development and tourist arrivals, get there soon while the bohemian island magic is alive and well.
Take me back.
Before departing the Balearics and sailing back to mainland Spain, we anchored the night off San Antonio on Ibiza Island. Trashy San Antonio was a polar opposite to the exquisite shores of nearby Formentera. Yet we couldn’t miss watching the sun set with an overpriced vino in hand at the original Café Del Mar lounge – the birthplace of chill house music and the soundtrack to many summers of travels and adventure.