A short boat ride from the glitz of Ibiza the diminutive island of Formentera offers a luxurious glimpse of simpler times
Each of the four Balearic islands that sits off the east coast of Spain has its own peculiar personality. Formentera, the smallest in this family of jewels sitting in an azure sea, is the little sister. Like all little sisters, she’s sweet and cute on the outside and mysterious and deep on the inside. Her intrigue has been irresistible for millennia attracting every kind of suitor from Barbary pirates and Roman strategists to hippy musicians, poets and escape artists.
Refreshingly, Formentera is still only accessible by sea. Which means unlike other spots in the Med she’s relatively undeveloped. A network of ferries chart a course from Ibiza or the mainland but the best way to arrive is on a luxury high-end speed boat or a stately masted sailboat allowing for a leisurely passage across the calm seas and a chance to visit some of the more remote parts of the island such as the islet of S’Espalmador.
For a long time, in the dim and distant past, the island played an integral role in the life of the archipelago. By the fifteenth century, it had become increasingly vulnerable to pirate raids and was eventually abandoned, remaining unoccupied for more than three hundred years. As the threat diminished people gradually returned and by the end of the eighteenth-century normal life had largely resumed.
Formentera goes about her business without a care in the world. The vibe is free and easy mixing an intense natural beauty with indulgent luxury tempered by a nonchalant attitude and rustic charm.
Pretty soon a much more benign type of outsider began disembarking on its shores. The 1960s hippy wave began dropping in to drop out in this hidden paradise. Word spread and inevitably bigger names started following suit. With such heady days being understandably hard to recall for all involved, myths and legends abound. King Crimson’s song ‘Formentera Lady’ proves that these proto-prog masters of the extended jam certainly put in an appearance. Joni Mitchell escaped here for a time, composing parts of her landmark album ‘Blue’ during her sojourn and dumping boyfriend Graham Nash by telegram. It’s also said that Pink Floyd popped over from Ibiza to recover from having just kicked the acid-fried Syd Barrett out of the band.
Today Formentera has morphed into a sophisticated yet laid-back slice of bliss catering for all of her eclectic visitors, each of whom is united by her incomparable beauty. Every one of the island’s splendid beaches is just as varied as the people who frequent them. Arriving at Platja de SesIlletes for the first time feels as if you have just been teleported to somewhere in the tropics. The colour of the sea ripples across a spectrum of unbelievable turquoise, there’s good reason why this beach is listed among the top ten most beautiful in the world.
Way less frenetic than Ibiza, far more charming than Mallorca, Formentera feels like a cool breeze across the soul on a hot summers day. This is the ultimate location for an endless summer.
Along this stretch of golden, powder soft sand is the island’s well-known culinary hot-spot, Juan y Andrea. This beach-side restaurant was built on a love story between a sailor and his siren. Together they took what was ostensibly a shack and built it into a world-class eatery known across the globe. Inevitably that makes it extremely popular. The yachting crowd and glitterati drop anchor at tables positioned in Caribbean-like surroundings but counting some of the world’s top chefs as regulars has far greater significance. The crowd’s good-looking shine can be overwhelming for the more sensitive traveller but the food soon makes up for the chi-chi vibe with the freshest seafood coming straight out of the surrounding waters.
Directly across the isthmus is Platja Levant beach where the iconicChiringuito Vapor Manolito serves up hearty salads and the freshest seafood cooked to traditional perfection. South ofSesIllets is the crystal clear waters and a more thinned-out crowd at Cavalld’en Borras. Here another Formentera institution holds court. Beso Beach (which translates as Kiss Beach) is a beach-bar turned gourmet sensation with the appropriate tag line “there is no summer without a kiss”. The menu blends Mediterranean favourites with Basque country style all wrapped up in the outrageously beautiful views across the beach and bay.
From here keep heading west towards CalaSaonawhere the shallow, calm waters make an excellent swimming spot for families with little kids. Back in the sixteenth century, this tiny cove hosted hundreds of trading ships but luckily these days it’s a peaceful bay surrounded by a stunning landscape. This is just one of the many places to come and witness an unforgettable Formentera sunset when the pinks and reds dancing across the sky melt into the blues of the sea.
Not far from Beso Beach is the excellent EsMolí de Sal restaurant. This refined eatery is literally a place fit for royalty of various kinds, with King Juan Carlos himself a regular. So if you have the time, come here to eat like a king and rub shoulders with the likes of Philippe Starck, Pedro Almodovar and Rafa Nadal. Adjoining a former salt mill, and with a terrace looking out across the sea, it’s popular with jet-set and holidaymakers alike. The menu consists largely of seafood, from traditional salted fish to lobster caviar and some of the finest wines in the world.
Further south the diminutive Calod’es Mort is a great location to play out Robinson Crusoe fantasies (or just to enjoy its tranquil atmosphere and panoramic views). This secluded cove is situated just moments from the picturesque village of Pilar de Mola, which hosts the island’s well-known craft market on Wednesdays and Sundays throughout the summer. Here locals and tourists alike pick up hand-made fans, jewellery, bags and purses, dolls and hats, all sold in a friendly atmosphere with live music in the evenings. This is where in the 1970s jeweller Eric Majoral got his start. Now his jewellery is sold all over the world and he has shops in Barcelona and Ibiza. But the brand’s heart will always be in Formentera and you can catch a glimpse of the artist at work at his open studio situated in the centre of Pilar de Mola. The village is the highest point on the island and is the location of one of the most iconic images of Formentera. The long straight, narrow road that leads to the La Mola lighthouse has featured in movies and dreams for decades. At the end is the impressive tower of the lighthouse and a view that will never leave you.
Playa de Migjorncomes with a mythology right out of a 1970s power ballad with the ghosts of rock stars past haunting its sands. This gorgeous stretch of paradise is long enough to never feel truly crowded. If you get your timing right you can cross the low tides to the islet of Espalmador, which will provide you with more than an outside chance of seclusion. Migjorn is home to the weirdly wonderful Blue Bar. Jimi Hendrix, Syd Barrett, Roger Waters and Robert Fripp among others were rumoured to hang out here although no one can really remember through the haze of the hippie era. A mix of Med and Asian food has been served at this classic Migjorn location and music still plays a central but not overly obtrusive role, with reggae, jazz and the usual electronic teasing the ears. . For something a little more sophisticated head to 10.7 Beach Club where the Med mixes with Asia on a whole different level. Just shy of fine dining keeping things relaxed and comfortable 10.7 is perfect for sunset cocktails that segue into dinner.
Life in Formentera is lived slowly. Being accessible only by sea keeps Formentera protected attracting a certain type of visitor. Every one of the island’s splendid beaches is just as varied as the people who frequent them.
Obviously, island life is centred on beaches but Formentera’s capital is worth a long stroll. Sant Francesc Xavier sits inland and its beautiful boutiques, cafes and bars accentuate its village vibe. Here is the place to pick up some unique island-made gifts and if you find yourself here in June stop by the church square for the Jazz Festival. Getting around Formentera is made all the more cinematic by renting a vintage Citroën Mehari. These open-sided vehicles let you connect with your inner beach-bum as you tootle across the magnificent island landscape. Alternatively, those with a penchant for exercise can rent push bikes as Formentera’s relatively flat terrain makes it perfect for two-wheeled adventures. Having your own transport is essential to getting the most out of your stay as is finding a spot to rest your weary head after a hard day’s beaching, eating and wandering.
Formentera is blissfully free of massive hotel chains and developments. There’s a plethora of boutique options and divine villa rentals. The family-run Es Mares Hotel & Spa is located in the heart of the capital means it is well-placed for accessing all points of the island. The original stone architecture has been cleverly supplemented with modern elements, and unfussy, elegant interiors lend considerable charm. The in-house spa provides a sauna and heated lounge beds plus an array of treatments, and its popularity means booking is essential. The restaurant has earned a place in local hearts with dishes such as red shrimp lasagne and veal chuletón.
The brand new five-star Five Flowers Hotel and Spa is a short stroll to EsPujols beach. An all-white exterior hides its pop art inspired rooms complete with sunshine yellow, scarlet red and forest green retro furniture. The complex manages to pack in a whole lot of amenities including the spa and fitness centre with a dedicated yoga deck amongst the trees. The signature restaurant Kokoy by Hideki Matsuhisa, an extension of the Michelin starred chef’s KoyShunka in Barcelona, is bound to have foodies across Europe salivating. Five Flowers represents something really new for Formentera’s hotel scene and there’s no doubt that The Sky Cocktail Club rooftop bar will become a focal point for visitors and locals alike.
One of the more well-known resorts is situated on Migjornbeach on the west coast of the island. The Gecko Hotel & Beach Club is ideal for those with families looking for indulgence plus activity. Each of the thirty rooms has a spacious private terrace, some with their own plunge pools for cooling off. The kids club means that little ones are taken care of while you partake of morning yoga sessions and Ayurvedic massages, or slip off for one of their refreshing Gecko signature lavender-laced cocktails under the palm and juniper trees.
For those seeking the seclusion of a private house, Casa Daniela is a gorgeous villa with space for eight guests situated at the southernmost tip of the whole Balearics. Owned by stylist Daniela Cavestany, this peaceful refuge has been a labour of love. Colours are muted, clean lines play off each other, the furniture both in and out is stylish but unpretentious, and wide picture windows give out onto the wild landscape. For another taste of architectural loveliness try Villa Lentisco. Its Milanese owner also doubled up as its architect, and his strong sense of design shows an inventive take on the Brutalist tradition, while the interior is replete with beautiful retro furniture. Located a stone’s throw from CalaSaona, the huge pool offers across to Ibiza and with seven bedrooms this state-of-the-art villa has more than enough space.
While the Balearics big sisters of Ibiza and Mallorca offer a plethora of experiences those in the know understand that life has not been truly lived until you have lost yourself in Formentera. Here you can still find untouched parts of the world where it’s possible to melt pleasingly into the island’s beautiful embrace. Ibiza can have her glamour and glitz, Mallorca can keep its elegant crown as the capital, Formentera knows all too well that her secrets are quite simply exceptional.
Photographs by Ana Lui. ◼
© This article was first published in June-July 2019 edition of World Travel Magazine.