Ibiza remixed

The island is fabulously hedonistic, but Europe’s favourite party playground is also surprisingly traditional. Christopher English is charmed by Ibiza’s no-menu cafés, barefoot beach bars and laid-back locals.

By Christopher English
Ibiza is a haven for hippies and hedonists; a refuge for black sheep, misfits and mystics, draft-dodgers and Hollywood stars fleeing scandal. But the Balearic island's reputation as a bohemian party playground was earned long before the arrival of the escapists in the 1960s. Its name is derived from Bes, the Egyptian god of protection, music and dance, and the island's longstanding culture of tolerance and freedom has seduced everyone from the Carthaginians, Romans and Vandals to the Byzantines, Moors and pirates.
Despite the profound impact that latter-day tourism has had on the island, it's still possible to catch glimpses of the lives of people who farm the rust-red earth and forage for wild food, as they have for generations. When lunching with the locals, propping up the bar in a sleepy village or swimming in a secret cove, the notorious nightlife for which the island is renowned can feel as though it belongs to another place and time entirely.
Food is not the first thing people associate with Ibiza, but a new wave of entrepreneurs is taking its cue from the island's long-established, family run restaurants, using fine local produce and serving it in informal settings with the requisite relaxed attitude.
The island's population skyrockets in summer - nearly six million people visited last year - but there are about 132,000 residents, among them many old island families. Ibizans have retained a sense of identity, even as the island's popularity has grown. Intrepid visitors will find a place of surprising diversity, immense charm and wonderful produce, made all the more remarkable by the island's diminutive size. Ibiza is fabulously hedonistic, but also fiercely traditional.
La Paloma
This café in the village of San Lorenzo is an island favourite, set in a beautifully restored farmhouse with citrus groves. During the day it serves homemade focacce, salads (try baked goat's cheese, pear, fennel and nuts) and smoothies in cool combinations such as melon, date and soy milk. As the sun goes down, the terrace is set for dinner using organic seasonal offerings, much of the produce sourced in the café's gardens. Mixing Middle Eastern, Asian and North African influences, the restaurant has a loyal celebrity following, but there's none of the pretentious posturing that can blight some of the island's more popular haunts. And the amiable staff give you the sense that you've stumbled upon a well-kept secret. Can Pou 4, San Lorenzo, +34 97 132 5543.
El Bigote
An extensive wine list, slick service and a menu are just a few things you won't find at this family-run restaurant, established more than 40 years ago as a workers' café. Until recently the simple seaside eatery in the north-east of the island had no phone and bookings had to be made in person. In an oft-repeated tale, King Juan Carlos of Spain was once turned away after arriving without a reservation. This mildly inconvenient system has changed; fortunately the food has not. At midday a selection of local fish is thrown on the grill, but the real fun is to be had at the 2pm sitting when a cauldron of bullit de peix, a Balearic specialty of saffron-flavoured potato and fish stew, is cooked over a woodfire. The cook prepares the next course by tipping a few bags of rice into the remaining broth, to which a few handfuls of squid are added. An authentic experience best accompanied by a bottle of chilled local rosado. Follow the signs from San Carlos to Cala Mastella, +34 65 079 7633
Camí de Balàfia
This traditional Ibicencan restaurant is another no-menu affair and the choice of many islanders, especially committed carnivores. Olives, bread and alioli are served as a matter of course, followed by an enormous mixed plate comprising chicken, lamb, pork, rabbit and beef cooked on a grill over carob, almond and olive branches. For vegetarians the accompanying tomato salad and hand-cut chips are worth a visit in themselves. Camí de Balàfia is hugely popular with visiting superstar DJs, local families and savvy travellers, so booking is essential in high season. At the end of the meal a large bottle of homemade hierbas, a traditional digestif prepared with wild herbs and aniseed, is likely to be left at the table, on the house. Carretera San Juan de Labritja, +34 97 132 5019
Fish Shack
It has no official name but the modest moniker tells you all you need to know. Follow the curve of Talamanca Beach past Sa Punta restaurant until you stumble upon a jumble of parasols, tables and plastic chairs set among the rocks. There are no frills here, just a small selection of fresh fish, perhaps sea bass, sardines or dorada, grilled in the makeshift kitchen, served with a simple salad and an impressive view of Ibiza Town. At the end of Talamanca Beach past Sa Punta restaurant over the rocks, +34 97 132 5019
Bar Anita
Ibiza has a smattering of bars yet to succumb to modernity, but few encapsulate the old-school ambience quite like this island stalwart located in the village of San Carlos. Anita's role as a civic hub for more than half a century is reflected in the mailboxes it provides for those who live in the more inaccessible parts of the island. Food is functional rather than flashy and served in substantial portions. For smaller appetites there's a modest tapas menu or ask for the montaditos mixtos, a selection of toppings, such as garlicky grilled pork, jamón serrano, cheese and bacon or omelette, served on rustic, tomato-rubbed bread. With a glass or two of the house sangría, this surely rates as one of the island's finest brunches. Plaza de la Iglesia, San Carlos, +34 97 133 5090
Restaurante Sa Caleta
This understated seafood restaurant, set back from a compact but beautiful beach enclosed by rocky red cliffs, is the perfect place to enjoy a boisterous lunch with the locals. The menu includes an excellent fideuà, a dish similar to paella but made with short noodles rather than rice, and an outstanding bullit de peix. Don't miss the pricey but incomparable local prawns if available, grilled simply a la plancha. Conclude the meal with café caleta, a slightly sweet black coffee infused with citrus peel, spices and brandy. Platja El bol Nou, Sa Caleta, San José, +34 97 118 7095
Babylon Beach
This restaurant and beach bar is representative of Ibiza's new approach to island dining and has quickly won favour with locals and visitors. The original and somewhat basic bar, albeit with a breathtaking view of the Med, was bought by British entrepreneur Angie Vestey, who has decorated it in wood with a subtle suggestion of Balinese chic. It's a winning combination of setting, service, an impeccable drinks list (try the Ginger Old Fashioned: Buffalo Trace Bourbon, orange bitters, orange oil, muscovado and homemade gingerbread syrup) and a menu that takes its cue from the produce available on the owner's organic farm. Aged Aberdeen Angus steak cooked in a charcoal oven and served with chimichurri and a home-grown Caprese salad are memorable. Sa Caleta 20, Santa Eulalia, +34 97 133 2181
For an island that likes to drink, there's a surprising dearth of gifted cocktail makers and shakers in Ibiza. One notable exception is Chris Edwardes, formerly of London's The Groucho Club, Atlantic Bar & Grill and Damien Hirst's Pharmacy bar. Edwardes has teamed up with his wife, interior designer Amanda Blanch, to create an eccentric yet family friendly venue with a top-notch cocktail list and an eclectic menu. Lazy afternoons can be whiled away in the shady garden playing giant chess, old-school board games or enjoying a round or two of mini-golf. Cala San Vicente (look for the sign on the right as you approach the beach), +34 97 132 0253
Hostal La Torre
Many visitors feel compelled to join the masses paying homage to sunset and sound each evening at the famous Café del Mar. Escape the crowds by travelling a little farther north to this understated guesthouse. Walk past the bungalow-style accommodation, through the archway into the restaurant and down to the two-tiered terrace for an uninterrupted view of the sun setting over the sea. It's low-key, but the position attracts a crowd, so phone ahead to secure a spot. If you're lucky, Café del Mar's pioneering chill-out DJ, José Padilla, might spin the decks. Cap Negret 25, San Antonio, +34 97 134 2271
Ses Salines Beach
There are more than 60 coves and beaches along Ibiza's coast, each with its own appeal. But for pure people-watching, Ses Salines is hard to beat. This long stretch of sand and beach bars attracts an assortment of international eye-candy throughout the season and is a stage for flamboyant parades promoting local club nights. Find a spot in front of Sa Trinxa beach bar, where DJs lay down a languid soundtrack.
Punta Galera
At the bottom of a dusty path located between Cala Gracioneta and Cala Salada is one of the island's finest swimming spots, encircled by natural rock terraces that appear to have been fashioned by thoughtful Phoenician masons. The terraces are ideal for sunning and as launching pads into the warm waters of the Med. It's advisable to take your own refreshments, although cold beer and soft drinks are often sold by a naked chap who sits beneath an umbrella with his Esky. From San Antonio, head to Cala Salada. Bypass the gated entry and veer left, following the winding path down the hill.
San Francisco
This welcoming bar's proximity to the airport makes it a tempting stop for a final farewell, made particularly memorable when glasses are raised as the sun dips behind the salt flats. Try a glass of the house-made vermouth from the huge jar that sits on the bar or enjoy a bottle of Spain's finest beer, Alhambra Reserva 1925, in the tended but ramshackle garden. A small selection of quesadillas, tortillas and bocadillos is prepared in the tiny kitchen behind the bar. About five kilometres from the airport, opposite San Francisco church on the road to Ses Salines, +34 64 647 4042.
Can Talaias
This historic property was discovered and restored by the late British actor Terry-Thomas and is one of Ibiza's first agritourism projects. The six-room residence is tucked away in a tranquil location but is conveniently close to some of the island's best beaches and restaurants. The knowledgeable and welcoming staff contribute to the feeling that you're staying with some very fortunate friends, but perhaps the biggest bonus is a sundowner on the terrace surrounded by the spectacular landscape. Rooms from $215 per night. Apartado 244, San Carlos, +34 97 133 5742
San Juan Market
Ibiza has several so-called hippie markets, the most popular of which is the Saturday market in San Jordi, pitched in the dusty horse-racing hippodrome. The Sunday market in San Juan in the island's north, however, is as interesting for the colourful characters in attendance as for the artisan stalls. San Juan remains a haven for many of the island's original hippies and the village retains an air of nostalgia. Grab a cup of perhaps the island's finest coffee from the Kiwi brothers at the Cafés Meke stall and find a spot on the steps for a gentle afternoon of people-watching and local music. Sundays, 10am-5pm, Plaza de España
Casita Verde
At the forefront of Ibiza's nascent ecological movement is Chris Dews, a Yorkshireman whose mission is to protect the island's natural beauty and enhance its sustainability. Among the plethora of projects he oversees, Casita Verde is the flagship educational ecology centre located in a picturesque valley near the village of San José. There are frequent workshops and fundraising open days on Sundays from 2pm, including excellent and well-priced vegetarian lunches. +34 97 118 7353, +34 97 141 0048
Aguas Blancas
Located on the east coast, this stretch of sand is perhaps the most egalitarian of the island's beaches. Families can keep an easy watch on paddling children while enjoying the shade of the cliffs behind. The more adventurous can seek out the secluded cove at the southern end but be aware that many on this part of the beach choose to go cossie-free. The beach bar here specialises in Caipirinhas and bocadillos. From San Carlos follow the signs to Cala San Vicente then turn right at the Aigües Blanques sign.
D'Alt Villa
The old part of Ibiza's main town is a maze of cobbled streets and wonky whitewashed residences, enclosed by the medieval ramparts that historically protected Ibizans from waves of invaders. This UNESCO World Heritage site is dotted with significant sites, including a Museum of Contemporary Art, an Archaeological Museum and a beautiful cathedral that dates to the 13th century. Wander the old town without aim for a few hours and absorb the island's layered history.
The Giri Residence
Few of the island's boutique hotels have managed to marry the traditional with the contemporary with such effortless style as The Giri Residence, located well away from the hordes yet a short walk from San Juan, one of Ibiza's most unspoilt villages. With only five suites, guests receive an attentive yet discreet level of service, perfectly in keeping with the chic surrounds. Rooms from $360 per night. Calle Principal 3-5, San Juan, +34 97 133 3345
Can Agnes
This five-bedroom finca set among pines in a tranquil north-west corner of the island has an unencumbered view of the Mediterranean into which the sun sets every evening. It is tastefully decorated with an up-to-date aesthetic but remains sympathetic to its setting, and has all the high-end features required for a luxury stay with a group. Perhaps the ultimate in luxe is the open-air rooftop cinema, although the amazing views could eclipse any movie. From $14,300 per week. Santa Inés, +44 17 9951 6971
Sa Talaia
There are many stunning walks on Ibiza, but few that will reward your effort with such spectacular views. From San José in the south, this trail leads to the summit of Sa Talaia, Ibiza's highest peak at 475m, with views extending to Mallorca on a clear day. The climb is manageable for most levels of fitness. Much of the route can be undertaken by car, though this would rather defeat the object of the exercise. Follow the trail signs from San José.
Santa Eulalia market
This traditional undercover market is the place to stock up if you like to shop with the locals. The best providores attract the longest queues, including the fruit and vegetable stall close to the stairs, known to sell some of the best produce on the island. The personalised service at this market is from a bygone era when customer satisfaction was as important as profit. Little English is spoken, but the point-and-purchase process is half the fun. Close to Santa Eulalia bus station, open Monday-Saturday 8am-2pm (except public holidays).
  • undefined: Christopher English