Next to Ibiza, Discover a Quiet Sliver of Paradise
Compared with its busy neighbors, Mallorca and Ibiza, not much seems to happen on the Spanish island of Formentera—except a whole lot of sunbathing, squid-ink paella, and swimming off yachts. Which is just fine with the author.
People get bored on Ibiza.
It’s a truth just as it’s a truth that eventually everyone runs out of cocaine, that eventually dawn finds even the most resolute nightclub, that even fun itself gets boring. (“Fun gets boring” is one of the most terrible vacation truths that travel magazines try to hide from you.) Just open any celebrity tabloid, gaze deeply into Leonardo DiCaprio’s eyes, and you’ll see it staring back at you: even there on the deck of the mega-yacht (because, when in Ibiza, Leo is always on a mega-yacht), even there lashed to a water jet pack, even in the midst of a squirt-gun fight with French supermodel triplets, that nagging question persists like a headache: Is this all there is?
When people on Ibiza get bored, according to Hello! magazine, they go to a place called Formentera. When they want something besides synthetic serotonin boosters and shirtless Dutch DJs, they say, Why don’t we get out of here, spend the day taking in a little natural beauty, a little of the simple life. It’s right there, five miles away, you can actually see the island from here.
There’s a Balearic Island for everyone. (First, I should say: there are Balearic Islands. That’s the name of a group of Spanish territories floating in the Mediterranean off the coast of Valencia.) They all have their stereotypes: giant Mallorca is for vacationing German people and lovers of clay-court tennis; Menorca is for Dutch campers and people who seek a more rustic Mediterranean redoubt and who knows who else because has anyone even been to Menorca?; Ibiza is for, well, you know. But what, you ask, is the stereotype of Formentera? What about that little sliver of rock, that unspoiled paradise, that baked fingernail of limestone ringed with sandy beaches and shallow blue waters that’s almost exactly the same size as Manhattan? What about the littlest inhabited Balearic, that proud cape of nirvana that stands shouting at its bigger siblings: We make sea salt here, too! We attract large yachts as well! We have more sunset cocktail bars than all of the Hamptons put together! We have nicer beaches than Sardinia and definitely more lizards!
Well, the answer is that Formentera—I know because I spent two weeks there this past summer—is more than what it looks like from across the deck of your yacht in Ibiza. ©Ambroise Tézenas
Formentera is for yachters.
If you’re Leo you approach from the north, riding on the aft deck of the Lionchase. You’re with the model Toni Garrn; you have a man bun, she has a lady bun; you are both topless (at least that was the scenario on the Lionchase the last time Leo was in Formentera). Behind you loom the parched massifs of Ibiza, while before you is Formentera and what looks like an undeveloped mile-long stretch of beach. This is Ses Illetes, the part of Formentera where the Ibiza people come to sun themselves for a few hours and take lunch. Just a long, long line of pristine sand, from the port town of La Savina (where the ferries come in) to the uninhabited beach islet of Espalmador (which is the dot on the exclamation point of Illetes, as everyone calls it). Turquoise waters running shallow for a hundred yards out. A half-dozen beach clubs with chic little outdoor restaurants dotting the coast, those rare places in which you can both drink a $200 bottle of wine and not wear shoes. You park the Lionchase among the yachts. On any given day in July or August there’s a billion dollars worth of yachts, easy. Big yachts and small yachts, Italian yachts and German yachts, wooden yachts and yachts with helipads. Once the anchor is thrown, a launch is sent from the beach club where you have a reservation. If you’ve booked at Beso Beach, Noel the bearded Spanish pirate will come for you in a dinghy to spirit you ashore. When Leo came, he headed to the most famous of the restaurants here, Juan y Andrea.
“Most of my clients come from yachts, and many times this is the only part of the island they see,” Andres, the proprietor of Juan y Andrea (and son of Juan and Andrea, who founded the restaurant in 1971), said to me when I was there for lunch one day. He was smoking in the back of the restaurant, a man in his sixties with heavy-lidded, froggy eyes in a blindingly white golf shirt.
The dining room of Juan y Andrea is just a collection of interlocking white umbrellas clustered on the sand, serviced by those older, career waiters in white tunics that can only be found in Europe. One of them delivered to our table an enormous platter of fritto misto: scarlet shrimp, whole anchovies, a school of newly born squidlets so sweet and crisp that to call them calamari would be an insult. To eat them is to taste the sumptuousness of ecological collapse. I washed their little bodies down with an icy Americano. Nearby, a waiter trudged through the sand to deliver another bottle of champagne to a handsome boy who was celebrating his 19th birthday with his 12 closest, tannest friends before they were taken back to their yacht.
“Most of our clients don’t know there is anything else to Formentera except Illetes,” Andres said. “Many of them, they think this is, like, the only restaurant on the island.” We were talking, although maybe Andres wouldn’t put it this way, about how people from Ibiza tend to create a version of Formentera from their imagination. And in their minds, Formentera is a break from the hedonism and artificiality of that other, larger, more famous island. Their Formentera is but a wild, uninhabited sandbar, one of those beachy islands that people scour the earth for, only you show up at this one and there’s a little restaurant serving white wine and grilled langoustines.
“They love it,” Andres’s daughter, Ariana, said. She was sitting in her bikini texting on her iPhone. “Look at it,” she said, indicating the sea, the beach. “It’s like the Maldives. The sea is blue and shallow. There is no wind. It’s hospitable. It’s like a cool bathtub.” ©Ambroise Tézenas
What I liked about Beso Beach and Juan y Andrea and Es Molí de Sal—the three most prominent beach clubs in Illetes—is that, just as they are where Ibiza comes to experience Formentera, they’re also the places on Formentera where you can experience Ibiza. Just drive onto the national park preserve, pay your five euros to park, hang out at the beach, drink your wine, eat your paella, watch the yacht people, maybe see Robert De Niro get off the Arctic P (a yacht owned by Australian billionaire/Mariah Carey fiancé James Packer)— basically get the whole vibe of what you’re missing in Ibiza, while still being able to get back into your Fiat Panda and escape to the real Formentera whenever you want.
Formentera is for Hippies
On a Tuesday night there were about 40 or 50 of us sitting inside at the bar Can Toni in the town of El Pilar de la Mola. And still more were sitting outside the bar, peering through the windows holding beers. It was late, maybe midnight. But there were kids, some actual infants, too—because we were dealing with cool hippie parents, not neurotic Brooklyn ones like myself. La Mola, as the town is called, is kind of a world unto itself. Formentera is shaped a bit like a dumbbell. On one end you’ll find Illetes and the ports of La Savina. Towns and beaches run all along the lowland middle of the island—the handle of the dumbbell, if you will. And on the other end is a stiff, elevated plateau of rock thrust higher than the rest of the island. That’s La Mola. It has forever been a kind of isolated enclave. And tonight was one of the many nights the denizens of La Mola were hanging out at Can Toni to listen to live music. Four men with various lengths of dusty facial hair, resembling various world historical figures (the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Saint Francis of Assisi, Jesus Christ) were playing instruments and singing. I don’t think there were more than three shoes between them. The guy on the end (Jesus) was playing percussion on a plastic box and it sounded good. In the audience there were dreadlocks and piercings. There were homemade dresses and women with armpit hair. One woman was wearing a thing that was somehow both overalls and a skintight hooded bodysuit.
The band was playing a type of traditional Spanish music that, technically speaking, seemed to reach inside my body cavity and destroy my generous stores of irony and worldweariness. It was sing-along music. I didn’t understand the words. I would have called it flamenco, because what do I know about Spanish music? But no, this was rumba. Rumba Catalana. ©Ambroise Tézenas
Formentera has a deep, proud hippie past. It was once considered part of the “hippie trail” that ran from Europe to India—an underground railroad of stoners and people seeking perpetual bohemian vacation. A local legend claims Bob Dylan spent a few months living in one of Formentera’s centuries-old windmills in the sixties. Which is of course not to be confused with the historic Formentera windmill that appears on the cover of a Pink Floyd album. La Mola is meant to host the last vestiges of that hippie scene. And I was kind of shocked to find that it’s still got some weird fairy dust sprinkled on it. At Can Toni you’ll find people who live their lives as part of a pretty legitimate, barter-y, sunkissedsocialist sort of community.
The musicians started playing a song that you clap to, apparently— unlike the last clapping song, this one had two quick claps and then a bigger clap. Everyone knew the words. A middle-aged man, with a flop of bleached hair and a body that stretched the waist of his hemmed jean shorts to the point of explosion, danced the flamenco alone. A woman with chunky glasses did some expert hip swiveling. In fact, all of the women swiveled their hips expertly. They must teach you that stuff when you’re a kid in Spain. How to flamenco dance and to do the many varieties of clap songs. I felt joy then. Though it was a bittersweet joy because it also made me sad that America has no real shared culture except for Breaking Bad recaps.
Formentera is for Sunset Cocktails
Having sunset drinks isn’t a thing you may or may not try out in Formentera. It’s kind of what you do. Every night. It is the start of the evening. For some people it’s the start of the day. Every day the sunset is dramatic and beautiful, and there are almost too many rocky outcroppings where you can drink sangria and cava to visit in one trip. Here are my top sunset cocktail places.
Can Rafalet is tucked behind a kind of strip mall in the hardly-a-town of Es Caló. It’s an awesome, super-local spot to have a cocktail and eat some unfussy Spanish food while watching the Mediterranean beating against dramatic Formentera rocks.
Blue Bar sits on top of rocks on Migjorn beach and is the kind of place where you can and often do still have your bathing suit on. You can go swimming between drinks, in fact.
Chezz Gerdi is super-upscale, in an Italian kind of way. (Formentera is hugely popular among Italians.) Good wood-oven pizzas. Good $20 cocktails. DJ sets that should be called, with an Italian accent, “Chill vibe music.”
Sa Punta is hidden behind the busy marina in La Savina and serves refined Italian cocktails and delicious snacks. You can watch the sunset here and never realize you’re near a port.
Es Molí de Sal is not far from Juan y Andrea, and it’s another one to dress up for (though be sure to button your fine Italian-made shirt only up to the navel or risk being overdressed). There are fashionable tables set up outside so you can look out toward the sea, and this is supposedly the best place for ice cream on the island.
Can Carlos is not on the water, so it’s not entirely about the sunset. But this is the sceniest restaurant in Formentera, the place people will tell you to eat if you want to go out for a special occasion. And behind the outdoor dining room is an outdoor bar, strung over with strands of tiny lights, where handsome bearded men will mix the same kind of bespoke cocktails you can drink in other high-end outposts of the world.
Formentera is for Sunburned Nudists
Now, you’re going to be spending some time on the beach in Formentera. The island is lousy with excellent beaches, a relative rarity in the Mediterranean. There is Illetes. There is Migjorn, the three-mile stretch of coast along the south. There is my favorite beach, Caló des Mort, which is a little protected cove you have to hike into that seems like a world apart. There are the rocky beaches behind the town of Es Caló that remain unpopulated even at the height of summer.
You should be aware that it’s sunny in Formentera. Its citizens say that it is the most cloudless island in the Mediterranean. It’s rained maybe four times in the past two years here. In Formentera it feels like noon at 9 a.m., and it feels like noon at noon, and it feels like noon at 5 p.m. This phenomenon somehow got more surprising the more times my wife and I experienced it. We couldn’t stop commenting on it, like: Holy crap, it’s happening again! The sun is at its highest point and it’s 5 p.m.! Isn’t this crazy! ©Ambroise Tézenas
To tell you the truth, by the end of two weeks I felt a little fried. Not like “a day at the beach” fried. Like “I spent two months in a life raft and now I’m blind and lipless and seventy-five percent lizard” fried. But I was in the minority. Because the people on the island of Formentera, at least many of the holiday-seekers, can flat-out tan. (And often: burn.) And because this is a hippie island, they also do it naked. My favorite beaches were on the Migjorn because there were no yachts there. There were excellent places to eat lunch. My favorite, called 10.7—it’s named after the kilometer marker on the main road where you turn off for it—is owned by an Italian married to a beautiful Swede half his age and serves excellent Italian food. But the Migjorn can also be the nudier portion of the island. My son cried out one afternoon, “Daddy, that man is going to burn his penis!” Another afternoon I watched two women in their late fifties whose skin was literally burned purple lie on some rocks and continue to blast themselves with solar radiation with a placid steadfastness. It can be painful to witness.
Formentera is for Lovers
Formentera is a sexy island. There is a movie, called Sex and Lucia, that’s literally about how much sex people have on Formentera. In the movie they arrive on the island and then go into a Dionysian trance or something. I don’t know if this is related, but there’s one other thing I noticed on the beaches here. I’m not drawing conclusions, only stating mathematical facts. First, there were huge numbers of attractive moms in nice bikinis and straw hats yapping at one another in the Romance language of their choice (mainly Italian and Spanish). Second, there were huge numbers of bearded men in their twenties with searing green eyes and taut forearms. No dads. And seemingly few young single women. I never got around to investigating, but I began to believe that Formentera was an underground place for beard-curious moms to come find mom-curious beards, and enjoy each other’s company in the sun.
Formentera is for Nightlife (but not the kind you think)
Formentera doesn’t really come out until night. Sure, the beaches are packed in the day. The roads are always choked with cars. On the main road there always seems to be a water truck bearing down on you at great speed, or at least an Italian couple in bikinis ectoplasmically glommed together as they ride a scooter past you on the shoulder and hurtle toward certain death. But night is different. As soon as the sun slips behind the horizon, the temperature drops about 13 degrees and the vibe changes. And when it gets truly dark out—that’s when all the towns of Formentera come to life.
There was one particularly great night we had in the town of Sant Ferran. Dusk had just settled upon the island, and the offshore winds were going, and we had that feeling you have on beach vacations in the evening: freshly showered, your skin a little tight from being in the sun, a quietude in your soul. We ate at a traditional Spanish restaurant, Can Forn. There was squid-ink paella and a dish that involved salted fish that had been dried in the sun. There was sangria. Afterward, there were half-size beers at Fonda Pepe, the island’s oldest bar, a place that feels Hemingwayish and is still the heart of the island.
In the centers of all the towns here there are streets and plazas where cars are not allowed. These spaces were full of people strolling around and relaxing and having some nighttime communitarian fun. For the second time I felt bad for America, a little. We don’t use our public spaces like that. If we do, it’s for football or Mardi Gras. Wherever we all gather together on summer nights in America, there is the under-scent of latent violence. You can ignore it, because it usually doesn’t mean anything, but it’s there.
But not in Sant Ferran. My wife and I took our little beers and walked to the main plaza. They were playing a Japanimation movie dubbed into Spanish. We couldn’t understand a word. But we sat down anyway and watched the whole thing.
Formentera is not for Ibiza People
The thing about Ibiza people who claim that really Formentera is probably more their speed than Ibiza is that they always go back to Ibiza. Maybe it’s because of their FOMO or their intrinsic worry that somewhere there might be a foam party at a nightclub they don’t know about. But at the end of the day the fun-seekers must seek their fun, even if they are no longer capable of feeling it. That is their curse. Inevitably Leo boards his boat again, the 19-year-old packs up his birthday party and gets on his launch. And off they go, with the charming little island of Formentera in their rearview. And for days they’ll be telling everyone on Ibiza, “I like Ibiza, but Formentera’s really my kind of place.” And thank God it’s not. A little bit of Ibiza goes a long way, and Formentera has just enough.
The Details: What to Do in Today's Formentera
Formentera is accessible only by sea. Fly to Ibiza via a major European city like Madrid, Barcelona, or London, then take a 30-minute ferry ride from the port of Ibiza to the island’s La Savina.
Paraíso de los Pinos Bright, tranquil apartments surround a beautiful blue swimming pool and a solid restaurant. Sant Francesc Xavier; apartments from $400.
Gecko Beach Club A boutique resort with 30 rooms, a killer pool, and a delightful dining room near the water. Migjorn; doubles from $260.
Restaurants + Bars
Beso Beach Fresh Mediterranean cuisine, Basque dishes, and A-listers sipping cocktails under a palm-canopy roof. Entrées $14–$35.
Blue Bar Set on a dune, this place offers incredible sunset views. Migjorn.
Can Carlos Order a drink at the outdoor bar, where the terrace is strung with tiny lights. Sant Francesc Xavier.
Can Forn A traditional Spanish restaurant with delicious sangria and classics like paella. 39 Carrer Major, Sant Ferran de Ses Roques; 34-971-328-155; entrées $15–$24.
Can Toni The space is limited, but scoring a table here means excellent Spanish cuisine and live flamenco music. 1 Plaça del Pilar, El Pilar de la Mola; 34-971-327-377; entrées $13–$30.
Casa Sa Punta This historic house on the waterfront provides a haven near the port. La Savina; 34-971-322-570; entrées $14–$35.
Chezz Gerdi Grab a drink and lounge on one of the sofas while taking in the seascape. The authentic Italian pizza is also a hit. Es Pujols; entrées $20–$35.
Es Molí de Sal An elegant restaurant serving a variety of meat and fish like bluefin tuna tataki and beef tenderloin. Ses Illetes; entrées $19–$30.
Fonda Pepe The oldest bar on the island is perfect for a beer before strolling through the plaza. 00 Carrer Major, Sant Ferran de Ses Roques; 34-971-328-033.
Juan y Andrea Try a variety of seafood specialties like grilled squid, clams a la marinera, and fresh local prawns at a table on the sand. Ses Illetes; entrées $8–$15.
Restaurante Es Caló Snack on fried lobster while listening to the sound of the sea crashing onto the rocks outside. Es Caló; entrées $8–$28.
10.7 Even native Italians swear by the pesto served at this lunch spot on the beach. Es Caló; entrées $10–$35