In the late afternoon shade on the terrace at Santa Ponsa, my family and I became transfixed by two identical, parrot-like birds with tangerine breasts and bright green backs in a cage next to our table. They popped out from their little house and hopped onto a swing, where they began rubbing beaks and chattering away to one another.
“They are called ‘Les Inséparables,’ ” the waiter said as he poured our iced lemonade. “Lovebirds, originally from North Africa.”
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Though the two could surely tell they were far from home, there is a distinctly Moorish feel to the gardens of this luxuriously restored 17th-century farmhouse hotel a few miles from Menorca’s southeastern coast. Looking out across the stone walkways that crisscrossed the sunken terraced gardens, with their lemon, orange, pomegranate, and fig trees, my husband, Nicolas, and our two kids, 10-year-old Louis and eight-year-old Audrey, wondered out loud whether the lovebirds would be quite so happy together if they didn’t live in such a romantic setting.
Santa Ponsa’s confluence of styles reflects the many nations and powers that have influenced this Balearic island over the centuries. The Finca’s façade is painted Menorca’s classic “English red,” a shade designed to look like brickwork. And yet, with its white trim and signage, the building is more reminiscent of an Argentinean estancia. The excellent restaurant, Nura, is presided over by a Catalan chef, Oriol Sola Pagés, while the interiors — a mix of velvet, rattan, and potted palms — would make any well-heeled Parisian feel at home.
Once the summer home of a wealthy family from Mahón, the island’s capital, Santa Ponsa was sold to farmers in the late 19th century and eventually fell into dereliction, like many handsome houses on the island. Thanks to Parisian hoteliers Guillaume Foucher and Frédéric Biousse, who used to vacation in Menorca and bought the property in 2015, the finca has undergone a lavish restoration. Biousse, who formerly worked in fashion, and Foucher, who was a gallerist, are the creative force behind Les Domaines de Fontenille, a hospitality brand with 11 properties in France, Italy, and Spain, including two on Menorca — Santa Ponsa and the neighbouring Torre Vella, both of which opened in 2019.
Menorca is quietly unassuming, yet in my view the true beauty of Spain’s four Balearic Islands. It’s often overlooked by those who don’t know better — and cherished by those who do. Thanks to rigid preservation laws, its pristine coast has been spared the high-rise buildings you’ll find elsewhere in the Balearics; here, new development is only permitted in the agricultural interior. Those who like their beaches wild and rugged will be drawn to the north, with its pine-fringed rocky coves, but if, like my children, you like to spend hours paddling in gin-clear shallows, the golden beaches of the southeast are a must-visit.
Still, compared with brash Mallorca and wild-child Ibiza and its tiny, scenery sibling Formentera, Menorca can at first glance seem a little lacking in vibe. That began to change in 2021 when the international art firm Hauser & Wirth opened a gallery on the small island of Illa del Rei, a short ferry ride from Mahón. Since then a new international crowd has descended. At around the same time, a clutch of understated hideaways has popped up among the olive groves of the island’s unspoiled southeast, each perfectly pitched to appeal to an art lover’s eye for authenticity and design.
Of Domaines de Fontenille’s two Menorcan hotels, Santa Ponsa is the more upscale, with a subterranean Susanne Kaufmann spa and two swimming pools. Close to the beaches of Son Bou and Santo Tomas, Torre Vella, constructed around a 15th-century lookout tower, has a more simple, pared-back feel. But while the signage is rustic and the pathways are dusty, the whitewashed bungalows conceal plush suites, many with private plunge pools and swing seats; an outdoor pool and yoga area are hidden behind pampas grass.
After a quick transfer from Santa Ponsa to Torre Vella, we sat down to a lunch of Menorcan sheep milk cheese and slivers of jamón, accompanied by a crisp rosé from the hoteliers’ vineyard in France. Next came a sublime sunset dip off the almost two-mile (3.21 km) sandy beach at Son Bou. We dined in one of the property’s courtyards while bullfrogs chirped under a crescent moon.
But the highlight of our stay came the next morning. If you, like me and my family, live for a sumptuous breakfast buffet, you’ll lose your mind at Torre Vella. Louis and Audrey made several trips to a giant central wooden table laden with cookies, brownies, and an orange-almond cake, still warm from the oven. Nicolas attacked a vast chorizo with a spoon, while I focused on a board of Menorcan cheeses and a bowl of grated tomatoes to be spread on sourdough bread, in true Catalan style.
Our next stop was Menorca Experimental, less than a mile (1.6 km) away. A sign indicating agriturismo took us through olive groves to a gracious 19th-century finca surrounded by extensive gardens. It did not look like any agriturismo I had ever been to — a fact confirmed when we walked into the reception area, with its display of fashion-forward jewellery, which sat alongside a four-foot urn and pedestal woven entirely from straw.
The Paris-based Experimental Group, which began by launching cocktail bars and has since expanded to hotels in hot spots like Ibiza, Venice, and Verbier, in the Swiss Alps, has a playful, sophisticated aesthetic; the Menorca outpost, which quietly opened in 2019, is no exception. Designer Dorothée Meilichzon, who conceived the 43-room property to resemble an artist’s vacation cottage, took inspiration from the works of Miró, Dalí, and Picasso to create a colourful abstract language throughout the hotel.
With a palette of terra-cotta, pale pink, blue, and cream — carried through to the ceramics and textiles by the Moroccan studio lrnce — the feel is inventive and seriously cool. Our fellow guests were similarly fashionable, mixing DIY Tom Collinses with Xoriguer gin from Mahón to the sounds of a tasteful — yet surprisingly loud — playlist at the bar that evening. I worried that children would not be welcome, but was relieved to see a bunch of bronzed, barefoot kids running around the grounds while their parents made merry.
We dined in the hotel’s boutique, where tables had been laid out. Nicolas and the children concentrated on their char-grilled steaks; my attention was drawn away from my sea-bass ceviche to a pair of lrnce sandals winking at me from the shelf.
After another extraordinary breakfast, we piled into the car for the 20-minute journey to our final stay, Torralbenc, the oldest of this new wave of hotels and in many ways the most grown-up. Set in another converted farm, Torralbenc’s golden-hued stone buildings nestle into the landscape unobtrusively, save for the odd splash of crimson bougainvillaea growing on a wall. The place is so quiet that even by the side of the saltwater pool, all you can hear is the hum of bees in the lavender bushes. I discouraged my children from dive-bombing.
Bought by a Basque family in 2005, Torralbenc opened as a hotel in 2013 and pioneered the idea of the luxury rural bolt-hole on Menorca — while setting a high bar for sustainability. Throughout the 27-room property, there are no single-use plastics: shower caps are made from repurposed potato skins, and slippers from bamboo. Its 35-acre vineyard has been making wine since 2016, and the chef sources all produce locally, from the creamy farm yoghurt to the fish from the market in Mahón.
Under a bamboo canopy, we chatted with a French couple who had checked in for a week while waiting for the renovations to be completed on their new finca. The island, they told us, is fast becoming the second-home spot of choice for well-heeled French families who have given up on the Côte d’Azur.
As the sun disappeared between the olive trees, we sipped Bodegas Torralbenc’s blackberry-inflected Merlot and discussed the best places to buy espadrilles in Mahón. And just like that, I found myself dreaming about a finca of my own.
(Hero and feature image credit: Trans-World Photos/Premium Stock Photography Gmbh/Alamy)
This story first appeared on travelandleisure.com