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Ibiza has long been known for its riotous nightlife and extravagant party scene. Seemingly, it’s not a destination you’d choose if you wanted a quiet break or to experience a different culture.
But driving along the island’s peaceful northern shores, passing tiny hamlets and secluded bays, its reputation as the party capital of the world couldn’t seem further from the truth.
The third largest of the Balearics, Ibiza – or Eivissa as it is known in Catalan – certainly is an island of contrasts. While thousands of club-goers descend on its two main towns in the summer months, much of the rest of the island retains a distinctly rural feel, making it the perfect place to relax and unwind.
Inhabited largely by peasant farmers until the 1960s, when the island became a magnet for hippie free love, Ibiza has undergone rapid development and change. But its sense of beauty and history have not diminished.
My trip started with a tour of Ibiza old town, Dalt Vila, one of four UNESCO World Heritage sites on the island. Situated above the rest of the town, the once-fortified acropolis is surrounded by towering Renaissance walls and contains the Cathedral of Ibiza, built by the island’s Christian conquerors in the 13th century on the site of an existing mosque. Also housed within the walls is the Museum of Contemporary Art, Ibiza Castle, currently being restored for use as an exclusive hotel, and the Monastery of Sant Christofol, home to an order of cloistered nuns.
Dinner can also be enjoyed within the confines of the old town, where cobbled streets are home to authentic Spanish restaurants as well as charming boutiques.
Further up the coast, Puig de Missa, the historic quarter of the noticeably-quieter resort of Santa Eularia des Riu, is also worth a wander round. A walkway along its pearly-white walls provides magnificent views of the town and the sparkling blue sea beyond. The church of Puig de Missa, originally built for defensive purposes, has a beautiful triple arcade in its porch and several small chapels inside.
Also at Santa Eularia is the Ethnography Museum of Ibiza, which gives visitors a glimpse of what life was like on the island before the onset of mass tourism. Housed inside an old farmhouse with a winery and olive press, the museum contains displays of peasant tools, fishing tackle and examples of traditional dress and jewellery. There’s also a video of a rather unusual peasant courting dance, still re-enacted in villages on the island.
A short drive away from Santa Eularia is the sprawling hippie market of Es Canar, started by hippies in the 70s as a way of earning money when their parents stopped supporting them financially. Today, just a handful of hippies seem to frequent the market, which runs on Wednesdays during the summer, but it’s still well worth a visit, containing around 400 stalls selling all manner of souvenirs including African art, jewellery, tunics and lavender grown on the island.
At the other side of the island is San Antonio, the heart of Ibiza’s clubbing scene. I’d been expecting lots of neon and cheap tourist fare, but was pleasantly surprised. By day, at least, the town looks very smart and well-kept. Several restaurants, including an excellent tapas bar called S’Avaveradero, overlook its large marina, which is filled with expensive-looking yachts, ferries and motor boats. From here it’s possible to get boat trips out to the mysterious uninhabited rocky island of Es Vedra, home to a herd of goats and nesting falcons. Believed to be one of the most magnetic places in the world, legend has it the island is the tip of the sunken city of Atlantis. According to hippies on Ibiza, it was also a popular landing spot for UFOs. I wasn’t quite convinced, but Es Vedra does have a special kind of aura about it, sure to delight any tourist.
The boat trip, which takes about three hours, also passes Ibiza’s rocky cliffs and some of its exemplary blue flag beaches. On a clear day it’s possible to spot the coastline of mainland Spain and if you’re lucky you’ll see dolphins leaping out of the turquoise-coloured sea and have the chance to jump in for a swim.
Ibiza’s rolling countryside, densely covered with pine trees, offers plenty of opportunities for walkers. Of particular note is the Natural Park of Ses Salines, along the island’s south-eastern shore. Here you can walk along the coast to a 16th-century watch tower, once used as a look-out for pirates. The reserve also offers some spectacular views of the neighbouring island of Formentera, whose pristine beaches have featured in several advertising campaigns for Bounty chocolate.
But it was the northern half of the island where Ibiza’s real beauty hit home for me. More sparsely populated than the south of the island, time appeared to slow as we wound our way through tiny villages with quaint churches and passed white-washed houses, framed by a bright blue sky. Bright pink flowers were dotted everywhere and fruit trees lined the roads. We stopped at Cala Sant Vicent, a quiet resort offering a peaceful get-away for families and further inland at Santa Gertrudis, where you can while away the afternoon at a café off the town’s main square or browse an extensive collection of artwork, donated by hippies in exchange for lodgings, at Bar Costa.
As you’d expect from an island, Ibiza’s culinary specialities include an array of seafood. Octopus, shrimps, crab and cuttlefish are served in many of the island’s best restaurants. Also popular is the Hierbas Ibicencas, a refreshing liquor made from a variety of herbs and other ingredients, which is served at the end of most meals.
During my trip to the island, I stayed at the trendy hotel Garbi on the outskirts of Ibiza town, where most guests appeared to be under 35 and staying there for the nightlife. As well as its own strip of beach, the hotel boasted a spa complete with steam rooms and saunas, a large outdoor swimming pool, bar and a very comprehensive breakfast buffet. The more family-orientated hotels seemed to be located further north on the island.
With just 41km between its two furthest shores, you can’t escape the feeling – to quote our tour guide – that Ibiza really is “just one big village”. Whatever your interests, you’ll never be far from something that appeals.