Dawn was fast approaching but for the moment darkness lingered. Blurry eyed and craving sleep, I followed the deserted moonlit path. But unlike most who find themselves up at such an hour on the debauched island of Ibiza, I was not stumbling back from a foam party, struggling to remember how many tequilas I’d slammed.
No, I’d risen early with a mission. I wanted to experience the alternative Ibiza – the Ibiza of winding country lanes and whitewashed hamlets; the Ibiza of secluded crescent coves, forested cliffs, wild orchids, olive groves and almond trees. The Ibiza few take the time to see. And where better to begin, I thought, than by witnessing one of the island’s most magical sights: sunrise over Es Vedra, the iconic 400m-high rock that soars up from the sea, just off the west coast. I negotiated the short but steep and darkened trail, climbing over boulders and limbo-ing under a giant spider web. I was bound for Torre des Savinar, the 18th-century defence tower overlooking Es Vedra and its little sister, Es Vedranell – said to resemble the pointy backbone of a sleeping dragon.
I perched myself on the tower’s sturdy stone wall with my feet dangling over the side. The sea moved slowly; a lone boat – a white speck in the distance – travelled along the coast, passing beaches that in a matter of hours would be crowded with sun-worshippers.
Es Vedra dominated the scene. Legends surround this uninhabited rock. Carmelite priest Don Francisco Palau spoke of meeting ‘unearthly beings surrounded by light’ while meditating there; others have reported sightings of Buddha. Tales of strange flying objects and unexplained magnetic fields have likened it to the Bermuda Triangle – and nervous fishermen continue to give it a wide berth. In reality, the only thing you’re likely to come across is the odd goat but there is an undeniable sense of the mystical about it.
This was not the Ibiza most imagine. An important trading port in the eighth century BC, the Balearic island – formerly known as Ibosim, the island of the god Bes – has been invaded by Romans, Arabs and Byzantines among others in its time.
These days, it’s invaded every summer by revellers from around the world. However, even in the height of the clubbing season (May-September), I found that it’s possible to avoid the party animals in favour of some of the Med’s best outdoor pursuits.
Ibiza’s unfortunate reputation remains a source of embarrassment for many islanders. “The image – the clubs and the drugs – makes me sad,” sighed Pepita Ferrez from the dusty doorstep of her hotel in capital Vila d’Eivissa (Ibiza Town). “But the true spirit remains the same. It’s still the same special place as when I was herding sheep as a little girl.”
Ibiza has seen exponential change over the past half-century. Tourism arrived slowly in 1954, spearheaded by the rich and famous who were drawn by Ibiza’s extreme natural beauty. Hippy travellers were hot on their heels in the 60s, craving the same hedonistic escape that lures people today.
But Eivissa’s fortified old town – known as Dalt Vila (meaning ‘High Town’) – has remained true to its 16th-century roots. King Philip II ordered its construction to ward off Berber pirates. Now Unesco-listed, its seven bastions and five formidable gates still stand today, making it one of the best-preserved citadels in all the Med. More importantly, it’s full of characters with stories to tell.
Strolling around the cobbled medieval streets, voices drifting from the wrought-iron balconies draped with laundry, I got talking to a shopkeeper outside his small souvenir store. A man in his autumn years, Jesus had a twirling moustache speckled with grey and a long ponytail that emerged from beneath his black beret.
Isabel, his glamorous wife of 35 years, soon appeared, a vision of tumbling blonde locks in a leopard-print dress. “Ibiza changed our lives,” she purred. “We were in Barcelona and on the brink of divorce so we moved here to give things one last chance, and the island brought us together.”
The bells of the nearby Baroque cathedral chimed: preparations were underway for a wedding that afternoon – the opening chapter of another Ibizan love story.
Eivissa’s harbour, in Ibiza’s south-east, bustles with people and ships, big and small. Most of the island’s famous beaches and main towns – including the notorious nightlife of Sant Antoni (San Antonio) – are also located in the south. However, beyond these hotspots – in the interior and sparsely populated north – things slow right down.
Driving past billboards advertising all-night trance raves and burlesque shows, I was bound for the sleepy hinterland, keen to explore this area of quaint villages and pleasing scenery – by bike. Joshua, my guide, was waiting in Santa Gertrudis, located in the very heart of Ibiza. Our destination was the neighbouring community of Sant Llorenç.
“It’s 10km away, but we won’t be taking the main road,” said Joshua. “We’re going to take the scenic route.”
He wasn’t wrong. Minutes after pedalling by people sipping wine at the outdoor cafés in the leafy square, we were crossing dusty tracks, a swirling trail of terracotta dust in our wake. Fields of tomatoes and pumpkins zoomed past, as did isolated farmhouses with white walls and orange roof tiles, guarded by dozing Alsatians. The slow pace was perfect for watching rural life unfold.
We headed towards woodland where dappled sunlight illuminated the bumpy track ahead. Through the lean trees I spotted a riding school and its herd of horses grazing peacefully in the shadows. Then the terrain became a little more challenging, with steep inclines and downward stretches scattered with large rocks. I picked up speed; my bike shook and shuddered. I clutched the handlebars until, suddenly, everything went quiet.
Our short-lived but thrilling off-road adventure had come to an abrupt end, the final stretch to San Llorenç spiraling along a smooth paved road. From the crest of one dip, the village – little more than a simple whitewashed church and a handful of homes – came into view: an idyllic enclave in the heart of sun-drenched countryside.
The neglected north also boasts some of Ibiza’s finest places to stay. Yes, Ibiza has colossal resorts and dedicated party hotels – but I had other ideas. Agroturismos – traditional farmhouses converted into comfortable and rather deluxe hotels – have surged in popularity in recent years. Can Martí, located along a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gravel road just outside Sant Joan, was one of the first – and continues to break the mould.
Surrounded by hills and spread across 17 hectares of herb gardens and fruit fields, the 400-year-old estate was nursed back to life in 1994 by eco-crusader Peter Brantschen. This dedicated Swiss with a passion for permaculture spent four years transforming the rundown buildings and neglected land into a fine example of sustainable living.
The four rustic apartments – think thick stone walls, hand-carved staircases and original wooden beams – were resurrected using clay, sand, limestone and other natural materials. The new pool (sorry, ‘biopool’) is chemical-free and filtered by reeds and volcanic sand, giving the water a delightfully silky feel. Rainwater is collected, heated by solar power and used for showers; there’s even an outdoor compost toilet for those so inclined.
The next morning, Peter introduced me to some of the other occupants. Passing the fields of apples and plums, apricots and pistachios, we found Bella and Sidi enjoying breakfast under a leafy carob tree.
From behind a tuft of grey hair, Bella’s gentle brown eyes looked up from her buffet of grass and shrubs. She wandered over with Sidi – the other of Can Martí’s resident donkeys – in hot pursuit. “Sidi was born here,” said Peter. “He’s one of the family. But his mother Titane died recently so we got Bella to keep him company. They seem to be getting on well.”
A warm breeze brought subtle whiffs of citrus, lavender and thyme. The day was starting to heat up. In a bid to cool down, I ventured back to the coast to see Ibiza from the water.
While it’s possible to circumnavigate the island’s 200km shoreline by kayak – a trip that would usually last about a week – I was happy to settle for a taster. Es Torrent, a small beach on the south coast, was my starting point.
The region holds great ecological significance. Las Salinas National Park is a protected reserve stretching all the way to the shores of neighbouring island Formentera, around 6km away. The rich marine life attracts divers, while the park’s lakes and shimmering salt flats are popular with peregrine falcons and flamingos en route to Africa.
My guide Paolo led the way as we paddled east. High above us, clinging to the caramel-coloured cliffs, were gleaming glass-fronted mansions. Soothed by the rhythmic rocking of the waves, I relished the sun’s warm rays and the changing hues of the water around my kayak – from sparkling jade to navy blue.
Cruising around the peninsula we arrived at Porroig, where fancy yachts were moored in the sheltered bay. Rickety wooden fishing huts lined one end of the empty beach. “This place is a real secret. It’s quiet even in the middle of summer. Only local people come here to walk their dogs,” Paolo told me, laying down his paddle.
“But that’s not strictly true, is it?” I replied, gesturing towards the shore. There, spread out, legs akimbo, was a lone sunbather of the naturist variety. Undeterred by his sudden audience, he simply turned to perfect his all-over tan, giving us a full moon sighting hours ahead of schedule. Barefaced cheek indeed.
Heading back, we kayaked around the Ses Illetes rock formations. Crossing open water brought small but powerful waves that required some quick-thinking manoeuvring in order to avoid colliding with the craggy, creviced rocks. Much to Paolo’s amusement, my thinking was not as quick as it could have been – the scenery was just too distracting.
As I glided back to shore I realised that, not only had I become bowled over by this secret side of Ibiza, I felt nourished by it. It seemed preposterous to think this was the same place famed for such debauchery.
I pondered this further during a late afternoon hike to Sa Talaia, the highest point on the island. Armed with a map and joined by local walkers Marga and Bartolo, who lead walks across the island, we set off on the easy-to-follow 14km circular route from Sant Josep. Residential streets, handicraft shops and tapas restaurants soon became dense woodland, renowned for mushroom-picking.
The narrow trail grew steeper as we neared the 475m summit. But the stop-in-your-tracks vistas ensured plenty of regular breaks: distant villages appeared like pearls in an emerald sea; the slender coastline of Formentera emerged on the hazy horizon. Huffing and puffing, I inched further towards the top. Up ahead, visible through the juniper trees, were giant TV aerials – beacons that marked the crown of the peak.
The summit was encircled by forest that tumbled down to the valleys below. From here and all around, the entire island spread out before us. For a short while, the view was ours and ours alone. A few others (who had taken the lazy approach and driven up) arrived as sundown grew closer but the unfolding scene demanded dumbstruck silence from all.
“I’ve never seen the mainland so clearly,” whispered Marga, who reached for her camera as the jagged mountains of Denia appeared vividly against the setting sun.
To my right, starting to twinkle in the evening light, were the harbour and high-rises of Sant Antoni. Soon another night of reckless abandon would be underway. The sun made its final descent behind the mainland, bathing the peaks, the sea and us in a warming crimson light. No amount of booze or euphoric dance anthems could match that.
Freelance journalist Nick Boulos is the current AITO Young Travel Writer of the Year.
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