Menorca. Experimental. Two words which, when placed together, sound very much like a contradiction in terms.
For the past few decades, it’s fair to say, this Balearic isle hasn’t exactly been a benchmark for experimentation. While its big sisters, Mallorca and Ibiza, were honing the powerful machinery of their tourism and construction industries, Menorca tended to err on the side of caution. Conservation values, allied to an innate conservatism, kept the island’s landscape free of planning blight. Its modest tourist sector puttered along, still depending largely on the mid-market Brits who have been coming here for years, but there was precious little glamour to be found in its rustic hotels, its simple restaurants and its raucous local fiestas. If Ibiza was the bling sister on a big night out, Menorca was staying at home to wash her hair.
Current developments on the island, however, suggest this particular Cinderella may very soon go to the ball. Two excellent rural-luxe hotels, Torralbenc and Cugó Gran, have opened in the past few years. An influx of wealthy and well-connected Europeans, many of them French, are buying up menorquín country houses by the score, converting them into stylish, high-end properties – some of which may be rented for stays. And the news earlier this summer that the all-powerful Swiss gallerist Hauser & Wirth is to open a space for contemporary art in an 18th-century hospital on Illa del Rei, an islet in Mahón harbour, has confirmed what some of us already suspected: the gimlet eye of the world’s cultural aristocracy has, finally, trained itself on Menorca.
If the island is about to enjoy a moment in the limelight, however, it’s partly down to the Experimental Group. The young Frenchmen behind this marque of unimpeachable hipness have spent the past 12 years opening drinking and hospitality venues, the first of which, Experimental Cocktail Club on Rue Saint-Sauveur in Paris, redefined cocktail culture for the Monocle generation. A move into hotels (Paris, London, Verbier, Venice) has been equally successful, but so far the Group’s plan of action has involved buzzy locales with a frisson of underground cool – not qualities that would seem to work well outside the urban context.
The brand new Menorca Experimental, therefore, marks a departure in more ways than one. The hotel, fashioned from a magnificent country house near the village of Alaior, seems set to revolutionise Menorca’s slow-moving hotel ecosystem. A dusty track between majestic pines leads to a foursquare mansion whose Georgian façade of pediments and galleries, drenched in whitewash, reminds you that Menorca was a British colony for most of the 18th century. A former military barracks, abandoned and derelict before the Group took it over, the house is part of an estate sprawling over 30 hectares of sun-warmed scrub, meandering dry stone walls and thickets of wild olive trees whipped into listing submission by the fierce Tramuntana wind. Cast-iron planning laws make new‑build construction on the island almost unthinkable, but the estate’s various outbuildings – gardeners’ cottages, a chapel, a pigsty – have been skilfully commandeered as freestanding casitas, some with their own pools, back gardens or galleried balconies.
The new property has galvanised the Group into a frenzy of creativity. The excitements begin with the interior, which, thanks to Dorothée Meilichzon, Parisian design doyenne and regular Experimental collaborator, has taken on a captivating freshness and chic. The look combines grand gestures – an airy atrium with slatted balustrades over two floors, a massive wooden table before a whitewashed fireplace, a feature wall of sea-green ceramic tiles – with details inspired by Meilichzon’s study of domestic Menorcan architecture. Arab tiles commonly used as roofing are brought into play as lighting fixtures and as zigzagging gutters on the buildings’ exterior. Rustic island furniture hobnobs with vintage Charlotte Perriand rush-weave dining chairs and hardwood wall lamps by Allied Maker’s Ryden Rizzo. Meilichzon even has her own take on traditional elements of Menorcan life, such as black metal door latches and the rustic gates of twisted wild olive that are an emblematic feature of the countryside hereabouts.
On-the-nail though it may be, the Group’s first rural hotel is less about edgy cool and more about a chilled out “new country” vibe. Basque-French chef Sylvain Roucayrol, formerly at the Henrietta in Covent Garden, plans a laidback menu, drawing on small local suppliers and fruit and veg from the hotel’s own farm, referencing both the island’s Moorish heritage and its fabulous store of produce. And the cocktails – if there’s one thing that carries over from the group’s funky urban watering holes, it’s these. Anatole Boutant and his barmen will be shaking up a storm using local spirits like the famous Menorcan gin, as well as fruit and aromatics sourced on the estate, and exquisite base ingredients such as island honey, eucalyptus and liquorice, and a home-infused chamomile liqueur.
From the terrace of a top-floor room in the main house, Romée de Goriainoff – one of the three Parisian thirtysomethings known affectionately as “the boys” by their coterie of friends and collaborators – gazes out over the landscape, its curious topography of stone and scrub framing a distant fragment of turquoise blue. This is not the trio’s first adventure on a Balearic island – that title goes to Experimental Beach in Ibiza, which opened in 2016. But when “the boys” disembarked in Menorca, it was a bolt from the blue. On this unsung isle they were amazed to find a place that had resisted the siren calls for more and faster development, retaining its idiosyncratic personality and its oddly beautiful minimalistic landscape virtually intact.
“We’d been looking at other islands, but this one had fewer people and seemed to be growing in a calm and steady way. The north reminds me of Greece; the south could be Sardinia or the south of France. The beaches are the most amazing in the Mediterranean,” says a grinning Goriainoff. He and his colleagues profess to have some fine experiences in store for their guests. Nothing too stressful, naturellement – there will be gentle hikes along the Camí des Cavalls coastal path, lazy boat trips to remote calas, and sunset drinks at the incredible Cova d’en Xoroi, a club venue carved out of a clifftop far above the ocean.
But beyond the Experimental’s perimeter wall, the island is blooming. If, a few years ago, the story was a wave of comfortable agroturismos – Sant Joan de Binissaida, Alcaufar Vell, Morvedra Nou, Sant Ignasi – recent years have seen the focus shift on to the island’s diminutive cities, where a new generation of micro-hotels in old-town houses and palacios is emerging. Ciutadella now has 30-odd townhouse hotelitos, including the gems Can Faustino and Can Sastre, while in Mahón – the island’s charmingly strait-laced capital, whose prim Georgian houses with their sash windows and green-painted shutters look like nothing else in Spain – the clear winner is Casa Telmo. “We love the island for so many reasons,” enthuses Pol Castells, who, in 2017 with fellow Catalan Benito Escat, opened this wonderfully characterful five-room guesthouse in the historic centre of colonial Mahón, filling it with vintage furniture and eccentric objets d’art. “Menorca has a special magic. People who come expecting somewhere like Ibiza or Mykonos tend to be surprised; they can’t believe it’s so unspoilt,” he says.
Unspoilt, but not without creativity. Directional cuisine, like cutting-edge coctelería and design-forward hotels, was never a thing here until recent years; now a clutch of local chefs, passionately committed to island formulas and flavours, have parlayed Menorcan gastronomia into a close-knit and dynamic little scene. Leading lights Felip Llufriu (ex-Can Roca in Girona) at Mon, David de Coca at Sa Llagosta, and Miguel Sánchez at Smoix are fired up by ingredients like local-breed beef, first-class seafood (the Menorcan lobster is legendary) and a raw-milk cheese made from the Friesian cows that graze the rolling pastures of the interior. The island’s foremost culinary tourism outfit, Cómete Menorca, has seen a surge of interest in its tapas tours, cookery courses and workshops on the theory and practice of mayonnaise – the sauce, which Mahón claims as its own, being the island’s major gift to world cuisine.
It happened with Comporta in Portugal a few years back: what was once just under the radar has now dipped above it, and wised-up global travellers are gravitating towards the island, always being careful to cover their tracks. In the absence of an Ibiza-style nightlife and social whirl, insiders point to the rise of a “villa culture” analogous to that of Tuscany or Provence (or, indeed, Comporta). “You float around, you know who’s in town, you might go out for dinner once or twice, but basically it’s about cocktail parties in other people’s houses,” says one regular. High-profilers spotted on the island include Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz, Jon Kortajarena, Cesc Fàbregas, Roberto Cavalli and Mario Vargas Llosa, not to mention the Wirths, Iwan and Manuela, whose forthcoming gallery on Illa del Rei will surely do for art-starved Menorca what their endeavours in Bruton have done for Somerset.
Cédric Reversade, reigning tsar of the ultra-high-end villa agents, has watched the ebb and flow of fashionable European destinations over the years, but believes Menorca to be something special. Among the eight properties he manages on the island (“In the next few years there’ll be many more,” he asserts) is a fabulously chic converted country house owned by a French designer whose name would register instantly, did Reversade’s discretion policy not forbid its appearing in print, and a ranch house behind a deserted beach on the wild north coast – at 300 hectares, one of the island’s largest private estates.
“What I love, and what our clients love, is the luxury of privacy – no mass tourism, not too much traffic, peace and quiet,” says Reversade. “What people want is simplicity. Low-key, cool, discreet. Of course, Menorca will change very quickly now, with the new Experimental. Let’s see how it goes.” Hopefully, Reversade and I agree, it has a few years left of what we’ll one day remember as Menorca Back When.