It is so popular that it has been fought over for nearly two thousand years by pirates, Romans, Arabs, French, British and Spanish.
Now, after a few days on the beautiful island of Menorca, I can see what all the fuss was about.
The super-powers of the day were, of course, not interested in its 300 days of sunshine a year or its golden beaches but in its strategic position in the Mediterranean.
When navies ruled the world, Menorca and the other Balearic Islands were of prime importance for those wanting to control or trade with this part of the globe.
And as Menorca boasts the second largest natural harbour on the planet in Mahon – second only to Sydney in Australia – that made it even more appealing.
Today we have come to appreciate the island’s more peaceful attributes such as the warm climate, the 100 sandy beaches, its hidden coves, lush interior and quaint villages. Its two cities, the capital Mahon (or Mao) in the east and the former capital Ciutadella in the west, have their own devotees to argue which is the more beautiful.
Many holidaymakers are happy just to lie in the sun where the Mediterranean sea-breeze makes the summer heat more tolerable than on the Spanish mainland, and where the food is quite superb. We visited some beautiful restaurants and ate like kings, but more of that later.
For the adventurous traveller there is a world of opportunity on this island of 90,000 people, a figures which triples in the summer months.
For walkers and cyclists, a footpath goes all the way round the 50km by 20km island. The famous Cami de Cavalls is the only way to see some remote parts of Menorca.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is the island’s astonishing array of prehistoric buildings, some of them giant structures not found anywhere else in the world, but which reminded me of the Aztec and Inca temples of Central and South America.
Called talayots, these huge megalithic towers, were built between 1,000 and 700 BC and many are still in good condition. The 700 sq km island has a staggering 1,500 archaeological sites, more than two monuments for every square kilometre, including large burial chambers known as navetas and giant standing stones, or taules.
Menorca’s nature and wildlife are also huge attractions with Albufera des Grau Natural Park on the rugged north coast top of the list. Because of its numerous natural reserves the whole island was classified as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1993.
Its islets and wetlands are home to a huge variety of sea birds and birds of prey, making Menorca a top destination for ornithologists.
We travelled direct to Menorca from Belfast with Jet2. (There are currently no direct flights from Dublin although talks are underway.) The airline’s incredibly friendly staff made the two hour drive north from Dublin worthwhile.
On arrival in Mahon we were transported to the Lago Resort, Cala en Bosc, in the south-west corner of the island, a drive of about 40 minutes, and a lovely base for our few days.
After checking in we headed into Ciutadella a few kilometres north and were soon enjoying our first culinary treat, dinner in Restaurant Balear.
A range of delicious speciality starters were served up to share, which became the norm every meal, and included cod balls in garlic sauce, carpaccio of tuna, mussels in a wine sauce, whole shrimp and cod in a leek sauce over fried potato. For a main I chose local speciality, “piglet” on a potato puree, which melted in the mouth. The mousse dessert was unusual in that it came in a filo pastry but again was delicious.
Next day we explored the pretty capital Mahon on foot before taking to the waves on a boat ride across the massive harbour where we admired picturesque marinas, fortresses and a naval hospital built by the British nearly 300 years before. It was the perfect way to appreciate the enormous scale of the natural port.
A local liquor tasting in Sant Climent followed when we tried out Menorca’s famous gin. Pomada is a well-known Mahon brand and comes already mixed with lemon juice at 13.5 per cent proof. This is a traditional drink in the Balearics, particularly at festival time.
We also tried Biniarbolla, a sweet 21 per cent liqueur made from 17 herbs including mint, fennel, laurel, lemon, thyme, chamomile and anise. We ended with a glass of Innot Gin made from juniper berries, served with rosemary, lemon and ice.
Taste buds were now raging for our lunch in nearby restaurant Casino Sant Climent where we enjoyed shared dishes of salad, potatas bravas, cuttle fish, stuffed aubergines and meatballs.
In the afternoon we visited Favaritx Lighthouse in the national park and then did five kilometres on the lovely Cami de Cavalls walking trail from Mongofre.
A real treat followed – a trip to a bar called Cova d’en Xoroi set into the cliffs overlooking the sea near Cala’n Porter, a truly spectacular setting, particularly at sunset.
We finished off the day with dinner in Mahon port where we tried a wonderful eight course taster menu with wine for €55 in Restaurant Passio Mediterranea right on the water.
Mahon cheese pannacotta with tomato jam and basil oil was followed by Coulanet of Menorcan sobrassada, crunchy croquettes of sobrassada with Menorcan honey. A sesame crunchy club sandwich with free range chicken, apple and curry mayonnaise was followed by local mussels with creole soup.
Next up was grilled fish with Menorcan saffron parmentier and Cabernet Sauvignon reduction followed by shepherd’s pie with local lamb.
A dessert of sweet vegetables was finished off with pea pie, a cake of peas and peanuts with crunchy seaweed.
They take their food seriously on Menorca so we also visited a working farm, Son Vives, where we had breakfast with all locally produced meats and cheeses. Six years ago the place was a ruin but now tourists flock here for the authentic food and newly built 12-room accommodation and pool.
We saw cheese being made before getting a lesson in how to make mayonnaise, which was invented in Menorca before its introduction in France.
The afternoon was spent on a guided tour of the gorgeous town of Ciutadella, where shops on the narrow, cobbled streets are overflowing with locally made foodstuffs.
Lunch was in the plush restaurant Pins 46 right in the centre of this historic town before we crossed the island once again to visit the magnificent Talaiotic site of Trepuco, one of the highlights of the trip with its giant tower, standing stones and ancient ruins.
The day was finished off with a visit to the Binifadet vineyard where we had a wine tour followed by a delicious dinner washed down with red and whites straight out of the cellar.
Next day saw us heading to the airport and back home.
For More Information on Menorca
For more information on Menorca please visit www.menorca.es
Jet2.com offers direct flights from Belfast to Mahón: www.jet2.com
Local companies Farmers & Co and Cométe Menorca offer a range of gastro experiences such as local Mayonnaise workshops, liquor tasting, visiting a Mahón cheese farm or cookery class with local chefs: www.farmersandco.es/farmers-way/ or www.cometemenorca.com/es/experiencias-gastronomicas
Enjoy Menorca wine at Binifadet vineyards & restaurant: www.binifadet.com
Café Balear. http://www.cafebalear.com/en/
Casino Sant Climent: www.casinosantcliment.com
Bar Cova d’en Xoroi: www.covadenxoroi.com/en
Working farm: Son Vives
Restaurant Pins 46: www.cafebalear.com/en/restaurantes/pins46-3/
TRAVEL ARTICLE WRITTEN BY JIM GALLAGHER