Ibiza, Mallorca, Menorca - Spain's most popular gaggle of Balearic Islands have long dominated the sun, sea and sand scene. But Formentera, the smallest of the Balearic Islands, is just a thirty-minute boat ride from pulsating Ibiza and dances to an entirely different beat.
Tell someone that you're travelling to Formentera and you may well receive a rather quizzical look. Slow paced and rugged, the island remains one of the Mediterranean's best kept secrets: an island strewn with untamed vegetation and tumbling dunes, scattered with salt lagoons and encircled by turquoise waters.
Visit now and you'll have the place much to yourself. And with a strong eco-movement pushing forwards to protect the island, there's never been a better time to visit – and to take it slow on – Formentera.
Why should I go?
Slung between two rocky headlands, the slender waistline of Formentera wriggles with pleats of sandy coves and indigo inlets. Its interior is overrun with wild rosemary, fragrant pine trees and iridescent blue-green lizards. Sand-coloured buildings dot the arid landscape, infrequently clustering into sleepy fishing villages that strive to make at least some impact in the diminutive capital of Sant Francesc Xavier.
And it's that lack of impact that's really the point: Formentera is all about keeping things low-key, low-development and low-stress. It's a place to kick back and experience nature, to explore the network of hiking and cycling trails stretching across the island, to hide out on some of Spain's least crowded beaches, and to lose track of time over a long, lazy lunch.
Lighthouse Formentera © Olivia Rawes
Why is now a great time to visit?
Visit Formentera now and you'll experience the island at its best. Still relatively undiscovered, it has so far skirted the attentions of package tour operators, while the no-airport, boat-only access helps to keep things feeling that bit more remote. A ban on new beachfront properties has left the coastline wonderfully untamed, with a vast swathe of the island's northern stretches protected as a nature reserve.
In fact, Formentera has embarked on an eco-crusade, with new eco-ferries running to Ibiza, a crop of sustainable boutiques popping up and regulations set to kick off in 2019 that will limit the entry of vehicles to the island to help reduce CO2 emissions.
Boat to Espalmador © Olivia Rawes
What are the beaches like?
Cancel your trip to the Caribbean - that limpid water and pale sand abandon is much closer at hand. Formentera is home to some of the best and most deserted beaches in Spain, with water clear enough to make even the Maldives a little nervous.
The sweeping bay of Platja de Migjorn is a perennial favourite - a 5km swathe of sands lined with tumbling vegetation and a few low-key beach bars. Yet to experience the wildest coastline you need to head to the Parque Natural de Ses Salines. A protected wetland nature reserve that has absorbed the island's north. Here, a pristine sandy peninsular unfurls itself, scattered with rocky outcrops and shallow lapping lagoons. And just off the tip of the peninsular is the dot of Espalmador, a private island that can be reached by boat from La Savina.
Guarded by a lone house, the island is entirely made up of billowing golden sand dunes topped with swaying grasses. Any description of Espalmador falls right into tropical castaway territory: softly sifted pale sands surrounded by turquoise waters riddled with deep pools of indigo.
Salines Natural Park © Olivia Rawes
What can I do in Formentera?
Formentera isn't just about flopping on beaches. Rent a kayak and you can explore the island's hidden caves, or try diving and snorkelling - thanks to the vast UNESCO-protected underwater posidonia seagrass fields, which filter the water, you'll find the visibility here second-to-none.
Meanwhile on land, the relatively flat terrain is ideal for hiking and cycling, with 32 marked Green Routes making up a network of more than 100km of paths. Even more adventurous, Walking Formentera organise various trips from cave explorations to trail runs.
For a small dose of civilization head into the tiny capital of Sant Francesc Xavier. The village consists of a charming cluster of low-level white buildings finished with blue shutters, iron balconies and draped with fuschia-hued Bougainvillea. At its heart is the sunbaked central square, where a heavily fortified eighteenth-century church glares across at the town's oldest bar. This is a place to potter around little boutiques, enjoy lunch and browse your way through the Saturday farmers' market.
Sant Francesc Xavier with church in background © Olivia Rawes
What's the food scene like?
While Ibiza is known for its all-night parties, Formentera is firmly the domain of the long, luxuriating lunch. Platja de Migjorn is dotted with relaxed chiringuitos (beach bars), such as Piratabus, a wooden shack dishing out light bites and ice-cold caipirinhas to a laid-back crowd. Further along Platja de Migjorn, Gecko Beach Club offers more sophisticated dining. Set just back from the beach along a vegetation-strewn boardwalk, the whitewashed restaurant serves up steaming bowls of coconut-milk mussels and plates of zingy ceviche.
In the little fishing village of Es Caló de Sant Agustí, family-owned Can Rafalet has perfected the relaxed lunch. Nestled in a shallow rock-and-sand cove – the perfect place for a post-meal dip – the restaurant has near-wrap-round views of the sea and the scattering of fishing huts lining the bay. The food is local cuisine at its best, from ensalada payesa – a typical dish of tomatoes, crunchy croutons and strips of salty, dried ray – to frita de pulpo, a finely diced mix of octopus, garlic, tomatoes and onions.
Further inland, Casbah Restaurant also focuses on locally sourced produce, with bottles of silky Formentera olive oil and perfectly grilled, meaty slices of octopus – all enjoyed in a pine-shaded garden or from the sleek glass-wrapped dining room. In Sant Francesc Xavier don't miss the restaurant at the hotel Es Marès, where the dining room opens out onto a leafy shaded terrace. This is the place for beautifully presented tapas from lightly fried, gooey-centered béchamel and ibérico ham croquettes, to smoky burratina sprinkled with tiny balls of olive oil caviar.
Traditional paella served at restaurant in Formentera, Spain © pisaphotography / Shutterstock
For further information about Formentera please visit: www.formentera.es and for more information about the Balearic Islands, please visit: www.illesbalears.travel. Trasmapi Ferries run regular fast services between Ibiza and Formentera. Top image: Salines Natural Park © Olivia Rawes