Our family trip to Menorca should have been remembered as any number of things: the summer vacation when my daughter learned to snorkel, that time my dad ate a lobster's face, the week of 17 impossibly perfect beaches. And it was all that, but halfway through our stay it also became the time my wife found out her mother was dying.
We had rented a house along the Spanish island's southern coast, in a community called Binibèquer. It sounds like Binny Baker when people say it. We had a running joke about Binny Baker, whom we imagined as a legendary British comedian and predecessor to Benny Hill who'd retired to Menorca. Binibèquer is like an appealing Mediterranean version of a Florida enclave, with white cement and plaster houses clustered around a town center where you can walk around and buy sunscreen and beach pails and eat mussels and drink sangria made with Sprite at the bars.
Travel can be a trick you play on yourself. You can almost make yourself believe you actually live in another place. It's effective. In just a few days, the memory of our real lives can be obliterated. Rituals help with that. On Menorca, we got our morning coffee from the bakery by the supermarket. We went to the beach around nine. This was our favorite local cheese, that was our favorite walk. But when texts with the news of Danielle's mother began arriving at 3 or 4 a.m., it yanked us out of that fantasy. Suddenly we were just strangers in a place far from home.
It was a warm night, and Danielle must have been up checking her phone. She often can't sleep. She has the metabolism of a cute, extremely aware fox watching a ping-pong match, and she gets more things done between midnight and 5 a.m. (if you count booking babysitters and panicking about global warming as getting things done) than I do all day long. On this night, for some reason I woke up, too. Disturbance in the Force or what have you.
"My mom had a stroke," Danielle announced, sitting up in bed. She'd gotten a text from one sister first. That sister was prone to drama, though. My mother-in-law had had many strokes, all of them minor. But then a text came in from another sister. And then from my brother-in-law, kind of a gray-haired father figure who can always be counted on when a cooler head is needed to prevail. He said it was possible Danielle's mother had only a short time to live. So the news was sanctioned.
Danielle was funny about it. She was crying but also mordant. She said something about how her mother was probably telling a paramedic he didn't know how to drive the roads near her house and was going the wrong way. As daybreak arrived, the sky became a deep blue, and the wind picked up. The gusts were so strong in the mornings that they sometimes knocked over bottles of shampoo in the bathroom. Standing outside on the patio in that wind, we agreed that Danielle would fly home as soon as possible. I, along with our two kids and my parents, who were with us on the trip, would keep our return tickets and fly back in a few days. Soon Danielle was on the phone calling the airline. I tried to help but mostly just got in the way.
Upon our arrival in Menorca, we picked up a large car we had reserved. It was some kind of Renault, called a Mavis Gallant, I think. (Disclaimer: its real name wasn't Mavis Gallant.) It was long and wide, and had enough trunk space to put another Renault inside of it. It was like a car designed by M. C. Escher. On our second morning, we packed into the Mavis Gallant to go to the beach. Danielle and I were in the front, while the children (Finn, boy, age five; Frankie, girl, age seven) sat about 10 miles away from us in the backseat, where they looked like shrunken businessmen in a limousine. My parents rented the same Renault Mavis Gallant, naturally. Gordon and Jill, ages 74 and 72 at the time of this vacation, are the happiest people I know, though they've been through some terrible hardships. Also, my dad is the slowest driver in the entire world. The vacation was mostly me pulling over on the side of the highway that runs across Menorca, through a miniature mountain range and bleach-blond farmland, waiting for him. He trailed me as we headed west out of Binny Baker.
Here's the deal with Menorca: it's the most laid-back and family-friendly of Spain's Balearic Islands. While there are sophisticated restaurants and places to stay (including a boutique vineyard hotel called Torralbenc, where they administer some top-notch massages, as I can personally attest), the island is emphatically low-key. It doesn't have the hordes of British and German vacationers who make neighboring Mallorca so, at times, not-fun. Also absent are the untz-untz nightclubs — and dudes sitting on the beach in $400 flip-flops scrolling through Instagram — that plague Ibiza. What you have instead on Menorca are rocks, Spaniards, and a ton of great beaches.
Menorca's beaches come in a full spectrum. There are tiny coves notched into the coastline everywhere, for furtive couples and nudists. There is Son Bou beach, perfectly long and wide and sandy. There's the rugged and beautiful Cala Pregonda, which you hike to over a series of hills, each spot beckoning you to the next, just in case it's even prettier and less crowded (and it almost always is).
Three of Menorca's most famous beaches are clustered along the southwestern coast: Cala Macarella, Son Saura, and Cala en Turqueta. They're sort of Menorca's analogue to the Eiffel Tower or Times Square — touristic imperatives. Places you have to visit because otherwise you wouldn't feel like you've really been to Menorca.
As you drive to those beaches in your Renault MG, at some point you'll come to large, mysterious electronic signs. You might guess that they have been placed in the peaceful, sun-beaten farmland to give people gate information for some cosmic portal. Stand next to this cow at 4:30 and you'll be sucked into another dimension! But in fact they are something stranger: parking information signs. The prime beaches, in the height of the season (your late Julys through your ends of August), are so ungodly popular that a system was set up to start turning people away miles from the actual beaches.
We slowed the Mavis Gallant as we approached a sign for Cala Macarella parking. Next to it there was a lady sitting in the shade of a small tent. She explained that the lot was full. And suggested we eat lunch. In a few hours people would leave and we could come back. She helped me navigate a 14-point turn in the Renault.
My father still hadn't caught up.
We decided to have lunch in Es Migjorn Gran, an inland town that is set into the side of a mountainette and has a beautiful, centuries-old center. At Bar Peri — a dark, quiet tapas spot seemingly not updated since the 1940s — we ordered typical small plates. Finn didn't eat a single bite of nutritious food. But he wanted dessert. "If you eat your tortilla," I said, "you can have dessert. But if you don't, you can't." Danielle looked at me: Don't draw lines in the sand you don't intend to back up. I glared back: Can you stop judging my parenting? "Okay, how about just three bites," I said. "But I won't negotiate any more." Danielle rolled her eyes. Looking at Finn, I could tell a whine was coming. There was a Spanish family with beautifully behaved children at the next table. My father was having just the friendliest conversation with them, even though he speaks no Spanish. He can do that. Finn's whine was getting louder and attracting attention. I was desperate. "Okay, just one bite…half a bite…forget it — just go pick some ice cream out of the freezer!"
Danielle was yelling at me without saying anything. That she was right made me angrier.
There was a freezer near the bar stuffed with the kinds of factory-made, highly processed ice cream products people back home in Brooklyn are statutorily prohibited from giving their kids. Finn stood looking at the colorful packages. There were so many. Frankie was already eating an ice cream cone, watching amusedly. "I can't decide," Finn said. He said it like it was an accusation — how could you take me to this place with all these kinds of ice cream? "Just get the one that Frankie has," I begged. Jill joined in: "Ooooh, that one looks delicious!" We all knew what was coming. I tried getting philosophical: "Your indecision is so legitimate. Disappointment is inevitable." I shot a quick glance at my wife, who wasn't even trying to interfere: Let me handle this.
When I finally got him to pick one, unwrapped it for him, and he tasted it, he dropped it on the ground and screamed, "I want what Frankie has!!!!"
So I went over to buy him that one. It didn't work.
Menorca's beaches are famous for a reason, and Cala Macarella is arguably the most spectacular of them all. It's a turquoise inlet surrounded by cliffs and rocks and pine forest, tipped with a gentle slope of white sand. Spaniards were gathered on the beach and in the shallows. Topless women, babies, young couples rolling cigarettes. With the cliff walls it felt a bit like an amphitheater — all of us sitting on the sand to watch the sea perform.
I went for a swim. The water was perfect: blue-green, just cool enough to be refreshing. It was easy to get out far enough to feel that I was alone, the other people reduced to visual details, like little wildflowers in a field. In no time I'd swum around a bend and into another cove, a smaller version of Macarella called Macarelleta. The same deal — people on the sand staring out at the sea. I floated on my back, and for a minute I let go of all dissatisfaction. It added one year to my life.
After I returned, we got the kids ready to leave. I was silently levying a protest against my wife. She responded with a wordless counterprotest. But we dried and dressed the kids and desanded the clothes and walked back through the forest to the car in a kind of practiced synchronicity. On the path to the parking lot, the sun was burning the carpet of pine needles at a slow roast, releasing a beautiful, dry smell.
Roads on Menorca don't always make accommodations to modern traffic. There are a lot of farm roads, lined by stone walls that push in from the sides. Two cars can just squeeze past each other. Usually. When a car approaches, you both keep slowing down and slowing down until you're creeping past each other with minimal tolerance, pulling your mirrors in, sometimes passing close enough to reach out and change the other car's radio station. And on the way home I found myself in such a bottleneck.
I slowed. The oncoming car slowed. My father crept steadily behind me, liking the pace, probably not even realizing that I was slowing down. As he penned me in from behind, the oncoming car penned me in from the front, pushing us together to a point where it was unclear how to disentangle all our Mavis Gallants. It was, I thought, kind of like the impasse that I'd come to with Danielle. Not so much a fight as both of us inching forward and not backing down, and neither of us knowing how to get out of it.
One of the things that makes Menorca the most authentic Balearic island, in my opinion, is that all of its towns feel real. Not BS tourist towns made up of hotels and little drywall grocery stores but the kind of towns you'd expect to find on some hilltop in Castile — old and formidable, with heavy stone buildings and narrow streets and real live old ladies sitting on benches mumbling to each other. During the day, when everyone is indoors, hiding from the sun, these towns — especially those in the interior — can take on the air of a lost civilization, but at night they come alive.
Here on Menorca, you are constantly reminded that there's a reason why the Spanish eat and socialize so late: because it's f***ing hot during the day. The sun comes at you at an unpleasant volume, with retina-searing intensity. (One time Finn had to go out into an unshaded plaza to chase down his soccer ball in the middle of the day, and I half expected him to start smoking and burst into flames.) But at night? At night it's civilized. Temperatures drop, and the wind courses over the island, whipping Menorcans' towels and underpants as they dry on their clotheslines.
During the summer, each Menorcan town has its own day of the week to host night markets — one evening it's in Fornells, another in Ferreries, another in Alaior. On those nights, the bars and restaurants drag tables into the street, some kind of Spanish marching band or reggae five-piece is booked for a stage in the central plaza, and vendors sell bracelets and cookies and fresh fruit juices.
On Alaior's designated night, we drove to its outskirts and ditched the Renault in a lot. With Gordon and Jill in tow, we hoofed it into the town center, toward the sounds of Spanish people having fun. Once we were there, it wasn't long before my daughter discovered a hand-built merry-go-round set up in the middle of a lane. You paid your money and picked a "horse," constructed out of old tires and scrap metal and broom handles. Then the man put the music on. He powered the contraption using a bicycle whose back wheel was connected to a gear, propelling the riders around in circles. I held Danielle's hand as we watched the guy pedal (he basically had to complete a stage of the Tour de France over the course of the evening). We were suddenly not mad anymore. That was it. We didn't talk our way through it. We just left it behind and moved on. When I was young and foolish, I wouldn't have thought that was how you worked things out.
The town of Fornells is different from other places on the island. Out there on Menorca's northern coast, the landscape suggests Patagonia. Sparse, rocky, windswept. Martian except for the sea. Located near the mouth of a small bay — with sailboats in the water and sturdy stone houses clinging to the coastline — the town itself resembles an Irish fishing village that's been perfectly restored and translated into Spanish. In the distance we could see the Mediterranean pouring into the inlet as the tide came in. But was that really the gentle Mediterranean — the sea of linguine and light white wines, tasteful yachts and old, tanned Greek men swimming the crawl at dusk? Because here it was all crushing waves and relentless wind churning against the shore. It felt almost like a thing you weren't supposed to see.
Fornells is famous for its lobster stew. In the local Catalan the dish is called caldereta de llagosta, and there are a number of well-known restaurants that serve it. Arguably, the most famous of these is Es Cranc. Which I believe translates to "The Crankypants." It can be difficult to get a table at Es Cranc in the high season unless you reserved last year. And maybe not even then, as it's filled with families that have been coming to Es Cranc forever and have their appointed tables. As for the American travel magazine I was writing for? Es Cranc couldn't have cared less.
We did get a table at the second-place spot, Sa Llagosta. But only in what the restaurant industry refers to as "shoulder hours." Though we were seated at 6:30 — when no Spaniard would ever eat dinner — I will tell you this: the lobster stew might be $80 per person (it is, in fact, $80 per person), but it's worth more than that. Your lobster, severed into chunks, is cooked in a brown soup for a very long time at a low temperature. The soup itself is made by boiling lobster shells and fish bones and saffron and pepper and who knows what else for days until it turns into an intense, briny broth. It comes to the table in a large, earthenware cauldron with a set of dental devices with which to extract the meat. My father mostly just held the tooth scaler in one hand, using the other to grasp the lobster carcass as he gleefully sucked the meat out.
Finn tried the stew, but he wasn't feeling it. Frankie liked it, but didn't love it. Jill wrote a sonnet about it.
When the kids woke up on the morning we got the news about Danielle's mom, we told them the truth without telling them the truth. It's one of those things you learn as parents. "Mormor is sick, and Mommy has to go home to see her," we said (mormor is Swedish for maternal grandmother; Danielle's mom is Swedish). Then we waited to see if they wanted any more information — they never ask for more than they can handle. We made a plan for Danielle's last day: we would go to Ciutadella, the most elegant and cosmopolitan of Menorca's towns, and eat our faces off and buy stuff; after that we'd visit the Cap de Cavalleria lighthouse, which the kids wanted to do.
For lunch, we got a table at S'Amarador, a crowded restaurant in Ciutadella's harbor that serves the kind of food you'd expect to find on a stylish yacht. We ordered plates of mussels, squid, hard Spanish cheeses (and less-hard Spanish cheeses), grilled fish, roasted fish, and fish soup. I believe there was a salad involved. We drank wine. We all held hands. Danielle cried. I already missed her. I felt ill at ease, wondering how I would inject a sense of fun into anything. Which is not what I should have been thinking about when my wife's mother was dying. On the way to the restaurant, the kids and I had picked up a little yellow cotton dress for Danielle. It just felt like Menorca, kind of sunny and breezy. At lunch I started to take it out to give to her.
"Please don't," she said. "Or else it will always be the dress I got when I found out my mother was dying."
After lunch, we drove to the lighthouse. When we arrived, Jill went to the information kiosk (she's interested in things; I'm not) while my dad sat down and soaked it all in from a restful position, as is his wont. Danielle was on the phone with her sisters. I took the kids out to a cave.
Menorca is pocked with caves — in cliffs and underwater. Caves into which ancient contemplators disappeared, where Jews were imprisoned, treasures hidden. Caves that now host expensive cocktail lounges, like the famous Cova d'en Xoroi. Near the lighthouse, a hundred yards from the cliff's edge, there is a cave entrance. Just a hole in the ground. And into that hole we saw people disappearing one at a time.
As soon as it was our turn, Frankie wriggled right down the ladder and disappeared into the blackness. But Finn was frightened. He stared into the hole. Finn at age five was such a force of nature, approaching the world with such defiance, that it surprised me when he got scared and grabbed onto my thumb with his soft little hand. He looked at me and said, "I want to go, but I also don't want to go. Should I be scared?" The main psychological questions laid bare, without any of the repression we learn later in life. "I would be, probably," I said. "But it's not actually going to be scary when you're down there."
Finn eventually proceeded, solemnly, into the blackness. Frankie was waiting for us, and she took one of my hands while Finn took the other. We walked down a long underground passageway until we came to an opening, protected by a metal grate, overlooking the sea at a terrifying height. The three of us gazed out, kind of willing ourselves to bear witness. I like to think Frankie and Finn shared my sense of staring into an unknown — just as their grandmother was doing back home in America.
Turning toward the exit, Finn said he wanted an ice cream cone. I told him to ask his mom.
The Details: What to Do in Menorca, Spain
Fly to Menorca Airport via Madrid, Barcelona, or other European hubs like London and Rome.
Alcaufar Vell: The 21 rooms and various outbuildings at this historic property — portions of which are said to date back to the 14th century — have been gracefully modernized. Sant Lluís; doubles from $249.
Torralbenc: Set amid vineyards, this oasis of luxury features 27 warmly minimalist rooms in converted farm buildings. There’s also a lovely spa, a restaurant, and a knockout swimming pool. Alaior; doubles from $203.
Restaurants and Bars
Cova d’en Xoroi: Make your way through a series of caves to enjoy the breathtaking sunset views and live music at this bar carved into the cliffs. After sundown, be prepared to dance, as the space turns into a nightclub. Alaior.
Es Cranc: This restaurant can be hard to get in to in high season, but its lobster stew — a local specialty — is worth the effort. So plan ahead and brace yourself to spend a bit to try the delicacy. 31 Carr. de les Escoles, Fornells; 34-971-37-64-42; entrées $50–$84.
Sa Llagosta: A great alternative to Es Cranc, this spot serves up excellent seafood dishes. 12 Carr. de Gabriel Gelabert, Fornells; 34-971-37-65-66; entrées $31–$78.
S’Amarador: Like many restaurants on the island, S'Amarador is all about seafood. The dining room, located in the historic port of Ciutadella, offers mussels, clams, and more. entrées $25–$73.