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Secrets of Ibiza

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Photo: Andrew Hetherington

It’s getting close to sunset, and a bit chilly, but I have no desire to leave. A structured landscape of medieval cisterns and fruit trees, Es Broll de Buscastell, the site of an ancient freshwater spring, reminds me of nothing so much as the Garden of Eden. It’s absolutely still, fragrant with pine, and the cool water is perfect for a lazy dip. Though I’ve been coming to Ibiza for nearly a decade, this is my first time at Es Broll, a brilliant suggestion from English friends who have summered on this Mediterranean island long enough to know its secrets. We pick a few plums and figs before decamping.

Think of Ibiza and you likely imagine mega-clubs and all-night rave parties. And indeed, if you stay in Platja d’en Bossa or Sant Antoni de Portmany, that may well be a big part of your experience. About 80 miles off the coast of Valencia, Ibiza is known for its cultivated hedonism and air of permissiveness, yet what is really extraordinary about this island is how much variety exists—and cohabits peacefully—within its compact area. Ibiza is many things, many places in one, with an almost immeasurable variation of atmospheres that range from urban to pastoral, high-test to utterly restful.

To find the Ibiza of refined relaxation, my boyfriend, Stephen, and I head for the low-key western and northern parts of the island. Nothing is terribly far from the main town, also called Ibiza, and you can reach a village such as Sant Agustí des Vedrà—where a storybook church and single restaurant make the ideal setting for a quiet dinner—in about 20 minutes’ time. Recent road improvements on the island give the dense southern zone a more urban feel than before, yet also have the effect of spiriting you away to tranquillity more quickly than ever.

Santa Gertrudis de Fruitera, located near the center of the island, is our usual jumping-off point. This gorgeous town, with its pedestrian-only center, is full of boutiques and restaurants, some quite traditional. We’ve spent many happy afternoons at Bar Costa, a comfortable meeting spot for locals and visitors that is home to what may be the island’s best jamón ibérico on toasted pan con tomate. Another favorite—for boldface names like Jade Jagger and Jean Paul Gaultier as well—is the bustling terrace of Macao Café, which serves excellent Italian dishes. Santa Gertrudis, with its selection of clothing, jewelry, leather goods, and home-décor shops, as well as a wonderful bookstore called Libro Azul Ibiza, is inevitably where I find myself on a last-minute jaunt for gifts to bring home.

The village atmosphere of Santa Gertrudis seems positively electric compared with that of the hamlets farther north. The evening after my reluctant departure from Es Broll, we went to Sant Mateu d’Albarca for an early (these things are relative) dinner around 11 p.m. and ate simple grilled meats in the shadow of a startlingly white, adobe-like church that dates back to the 18th century. Not far off is Santa Agnès, a one-horse town with an old-school grocery next door to Can Cosmi, ground zero for the island’s best Spanish potato omelette, known as tortilla de patata. Across the street is Sa Palmera, where I can’t get enough of the gazpacho—ideal takeaway for beach picnics—and roasted lamb shoulder. Nearby is the leather shop Cas Sabater, owned by a graceful German, Manfred Postel, who displays his grandmother’s circa-1920’s handbags alongside the excellent sandals, bags, belts, and eyeglass cases he now makes and sells. Postel also carries a collection of acid-etched belt buckles, a cache he found in the 1970’s, when he first moved to the island.

To drive between towns is to encounter a landscape that is ancient and majestic. The windmills and prickly pears of the south give way to pine forests, terraced hills with olive, fig, and almond trees, and the occasional carob and pomegranate bush. I haven’t visited in winter yet but hope to someday see the almond trees in bloom, one of the reasons Ibiza is known as the isla blanca. A surfeit of stone walls divide the red earth, and whitewashed estates called fincas, some many centuries old, dot the landscape. All this—the Mediterranean countryside you dream of—sits under an impossibly blue sky. And it’s hard to decide which is more magical: this landscape at twilight, when everything goes a shade of lilac-silver, or at night, when the sky fills with shooting stars.

Our hotel, the family-owned Es Cucons, is near Santa Agnès, an easy bicycle ride from town along the narrow Camí des Plá de Corona. This is one of the most lovely countryside hotels on the island, with 15 rooms around a lazy swimming pool. Stephen, our friend Ian, and I wait patiently as the sangría de cava is prepared from scratch, with time for the fruit to macerate, but it is worth it; they also serve fresh watermelon and mint juice. From the pool the view is across a valley surrounded by a crown of rounded mountains.

Friends who live on the island—owners of the chic Hotel Los Jardines de Palerm—take me to the far western coast of the island to discover another hidden treasure, the seaside quarry known as Atlantis. This is a massive excavation of cliff where the stone was taken out to build the walls of Ibiza’s Dalt Vila, one of two remaining walled citadel towns in the whole of Europe. It’s a long, steep hike down, but the rewards are great. We swim in a Mediterranean that time has forgotten, salty and clear and silent. On the climb up, we see the sun set beyond Es Vedrà, an offshore rock formation reputed to be the home of the island’s patron goddess, Tanit, and ascribed with magical powers.

Another day, we opt for an athletic session on the water, renting kayaks near Port de Sant Miquel to explore the grottoes and deserted beaches of the area. From here it’s not far to the cliffside luxury of Hotel Hacienda Na Xamena. Along the way we spot a field of colorful tie-dyed fabrics drying in the sun at Original de Ibiza, an impromptu shop that recalls the island’s hippie past.

Later that afternoon, we reverse course toward the south and stop off at the seaside lounge at Cap d’es Falcó. Here, on white-draped beds at the water’s edge, my friends and I enjoy cocktails and tapas, then drive back, silent and content, along the island’s famous salt pans as they reflect the lights of the airport across the flats. We have found the quiet heart of Ibiza.

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