Far from the madding Ibiza crowd
irishtimes.com | Mar 12th 2011
Go Spain: Located just 30 minutes by ferry from Ibiza town, arriving on Formentera is akin to discovering another planet compared to what you have left behind, writes JIM CARROLL
IT’S TIME TO LET readers in on one of Europe’s best kept secrets. There are many reasons why you may not have come across Formentera before now, but the main one is probably a reluctance on the part of those who’ve already visited the island to spill the beans on its charms.
This unwillingness to share is understandable – once smitten, people want to keep the island for themselves. The smallest of the Balearic islands at 82sq km (or 19km from one end to the other), Formentera is one of the unspoilt gems of the Mediterranean. Located just 30 minutes by ferry from the buzzing Ibiza Town, arriving on Formentera is akin to discovering another planet compared to what you have left behind on the White Island.
While Ibiza is bursting at the seams with package tours at full pelt and clubbers on the razzle, Formentera operates at a much more laid-back and much less frazzled pace. There are pockets of tourist developments on the island, but these are mere pockets compared to what you’ll find elsewhere in the Med.
Even if there was a desire by the 10,000 full-time island dwellers to attract more tourists, Formentera is unlikely to become a hotbed for mass tourism in the short to medium term.
The absence of an airport on the island and the lack of large-scale holiday accommodation will ensure that Formentera remains a tranquil, chilled and slow-motion kind of place. Yes, it will take you some time to get there – between plane rides to Ibiza, taxi hops and ferry trips – but it’s time worth taking.
HISTORICALLY , the arid, bleached island with its rugged coastline and striking beaches has always attracted a motley crew of visitors. On their various tours around the Continent, the Phoenicians, Vandals, Romans and Berbers took a liking to the island and set up homes there.
In the 1940s, it was Franco’s government who found a use for Formentera, when they set up a concentration camp outside the port village of La Savina to imprison up to 1,000 Republican rebels.
During the 1960s, when the only other occupants were tough farmers eking a living from the island’s barren land, the island was one of the stop-off points on the international hippie trail and attracted musicians, artists and other creative layabouts. The more famous visitors included Bob Dylan (he lived in a windmill in El Pilar de la Mola for a few months), Pink Floyd (they came here to record the soundtrack for More , a film about bedraggled, strung-out hippies which was also partly shot on Formentera), Joni Mitchell (she wrote some of the songs for Blue on the island) and Janis Joplin.
You’ll still find some throwbacks to that culture manning the stalls at the hippie markets in Formentera’s villages. Here, trinkets and jewellery are hawked to the Italian and German tourists who make up the bulk of the visitors during the summer season. It’s a far cry from a crazed Syd Barrett at large, but the original hippies would be happy to know that the hazy, laid-back atmosphere they knew when they had the place to themselves is still intact.
That’s not to say that there haven’t been some innovations aimed at drawing tourists – and especially more chi-chi tourists – to the island. The opening of multi-million euro boutique hotel the Gecko Beach Club on the island in 2009, for instance, has attracted the glitterati and European footballers keen on spending their large wages at the Playa Migjorn on the island’s south coast.
While these clients are drawn to Formentera by the hotel’s minimalist design, beautifully landscaped terraces and attention to detail, it’s the island itself which really snares them. You really do come here to get away from it all.
You don’t have to stay in swanky lodgings to experience Formentera’s allure as an escapist idyll. There’s more than enough room on the island’s white, uncrowded, lengthy beaches for everyone to find a patch of sand to call home for a few hours or days – and there’s definitely enough beaches to go round.
WHILE A LOT of the action happens on Platja de Illetes to the north of La Savina, anyone seeking somewhere quieter will have plenty of choice. Just randomly pick one of those unmapped, dusty dirt-tracks, hedged with wild rosemary, which lead away from the main roads. Point your bicycle or moped down the path, avoid squashing the bright-green gecko lizards scurrying along in the sun, strap yourself in for a bumpy ride and head for the sea.
Located a sandy stroll down the Playa Migjorn from the Gecko Beach Club, veteran island hang-out the Blue Bar is still pulling in the quiet crowds. One of many bohemian chiringuitos (beach bars) on the island, the Blue Bar and its ramshackle, charming chill-out space provide good food and drink for sunset watchers, beach bums and everyone else.
At night, as you’ll find in many bars around the island, there are DJs and laid-back sounds, but it’s nowhere near as full-throttle as what you’ll find just over the sea in Ibiza.
When you wander into Sant Francesc, the island’s sleepy capital, you’ll find a charming village which doesn’t look like it’s changed all that much in the last few decades. There’s a lovely plaza at the top beside the whitewashed 18th-century church with loads of cafes, which are perfectly pitched for people watching.
You’ll arrive and leave via La Savina’s port and the tiny town is viewed by most as simply a gateway to the rest of the island. There’s little to see or do here bar gawk at some of the super-yachts moored in the harbour or enjoy a meal at one of the excellent seafood and Italian restaurants which ring the seafront.
The homely Es Pujols in the north of the island gets the bulk of the visitors in high season, thanks to its family-friendly beaches, hotels, cafes, bars and restaurants. It’s as close to bustling as you’ll get here, though “bustling” may be overstating it a little.
The beauty of Formentera is that you don’t have to look hard or go far to find the peace and quiet you’re here to enjoy. While it has certainly embraced many of the trappings of modern life, the island still retains the old-fashioned atmosphere and tranquillity which those hippie travellers discovered back in the 1960s.
If you’re looking for superclubs and 24-hour party people, you’re unlikely to have this place on your list. But if you’re looking to recharge your batteries and get away from the rat-race for a few days in a remarkable setting, you really should join the Formentera club.
Formentera where to . . .
Roca Bella , Apdo 184 San Francisco Javier, Playa Es Pujols, 00-34-971-328-130, zulmarhotels.com. A good budget choice for those who want to stay in the island’s main tourist town. Rooms from €60.
Tahiti , c/Fonoll Mari 8/28, Playa Es Pujols, 00-34-971-328-122, tahiti.es. Smart, modern hotel located right on the Es Pujols town beach. Price includes a breakfast buffet served daily until noon. Rooms from €100.
Gecko Beach Club , Playa Migjom, Ca Mari, 00-34-971-328-024, geckobeachclub.com. Formentera’s first boutique hotel where Dino and Karina Gillibrand have splashed out a couple of million euro on very swanky, chi-chi, design-led lodgings. Rooms from €250.
Chez Gerdi . Es Pujols, 00-34-971-328-603, chezzgerdi.com. Fresh, simple, delicious Italian food at this fantastic seafront chiringuito a short stroll away from town along the boardwalk. Dinner with wine from €30.
Blue Bar . Platja Mitjorn, San Ferran, 00-34-666-758-190, bluebarformentera.com. A Formentera classic, this chilled-out bar/restaurant located right in the middle of Playa Mitjorn serves food and snacks all day with good seafood and pasta dishes. Lunch with wine from €20.
Café de la Luna . Puerto Deportivo, La Savina, 00-34-971-321-585. Harbourside restaurant so you can watch the yachts come and go as you tuck into tasty pizza, pasta, seafood and steaks. Dinner with wine from €30.
Far de la Mola . Jules Verne used the lighthouse located at the eastern end of the island (a mile beyond the one-horse town of La Mola) as a setting in one of his novels. Incredible sea views from the cliffs around it make it a popular sunrise spot.
Illa de s’Espalmador . The small uninhabited island is located just off the northern tip of Formentera and can be reached on foot during low tide. Contains some inspiring coastline and gorgeous beaches and is part of the island’s national park.
Sant Francesc . The island’s biggest town will provide a diverting couple of hours with boho craft shops, boutiques, artisan jewellers, bookshops and some chilled cafes – a visit to Café Matinal is highly recommended.
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