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Words: Chris Zacharia
More than any other place in Europe – possibly in the world – Ibiza is inseparable from partying. But there’s another side to Ibiza, with cultural and historical gems to rival anything in the Mediterranean.
You wouldn’t know it from the superclubs, but Ibiza has real heritage. Having passed through the hands of several empires and kingdoms, the island bears the influence of a multitude of nations. And in terms of natural beauty, it’s up there with the best the Balearics have to offer.
To explore Ibiza’s well-preserved Old Town, it’s worthwhile staying near the historic harbour. After a short, sunlit stroll through the pedestrianised docks, I check into Ryans La Marina, a sporty hotel housed within a seafront-facing townhouse where the bedrooms are decorated with murals of great athletes. Checking into my bedroom, I find Michael Jordan passing a basketball and a balcony with magnificent views of the harbour. It’s less than five minutes’ walk from the old city walls.
A solid, stately fortress with a vast slope of stone, the old town suddenly looms out of nowhere. One moment you’re looking at the bright, modern shopfronts, and the next there’s the hulking mass of the Old Town staring down at you. It’s an impressive sight.
Past the portcullis, complete with a Latin inscription dedicated to King Philip II (famous for launching an Armada you might’ve heard about), you enter a world of steep cobblestone streets and traditional stone dwellings. Halfway up, we stop for dinner at La Dispensa.
Inside, it’s a cool haven of whitewashed stone, fantastically decorated in a charming gothic style. Gold-trim marble tabletops, fleur-de-lis tiles and vigil-esque rows of candles give it a magical aura, supplemented brilliantly by mirrors adorned with dining sets of plates, cutlery and glasses, all sticking out from the wall at a ninety-degree angle. It’s like the restaurant Cruella de Ville would launch, with Lewis Carroll as the head designer.
Luckily, the character is not confined to the walls. A perfectly moist burrata di mozzarella is coated in a bright bloody mary sauce, decanted by our water from a tiny potion-sized bottle. Potato, olive and octopus salad is punchy and refreshing, each delicate curl of octopus a burst of sea-sweetness. Prawn and avocado futomaki roll, snaking across the plate like an eel, shows that La Dispensa aren’t afraid to dress up their seafood in exotic outfits.
It’s exactly what you want from island cuisine: fresh, zingy flavours doing magical things to fish and seafood.
Just as it approaches midnight, we head back to Ryans La Marina, noticing that the restaurant is just starting to get full. With such hot temperatures in the daytime, you can’t blame more experienced Ibizans for making the most of the balmy night-time. A comfortable stroll back down the old town’s streets and into the marina brings us home to Ryans.
Although Ibiza is itself an island idyll, the locals like to get away from it all on nearby Formentera. Smaller and less developed than Ibiza, Formentera boasts a tranquility that’s hard to resist. After a leisurely coffee and croissant at Ryans, gazing at the marina as we slurp espressos, we hop on the ferry for the ten-minute ride across the bay, to the peninsula closer to Formentera.
We’re picked up by Matt, an ex-pat who runs Ibiza Delivers, a private boat service around Ibiza. Matt serves us beers and a much-needed bottle of water, as we kick back on his leather seats to watch the waves as we cross. Even though it’s 25 degrees, the whipping of the wind has us shivering. We’re going so fast now that you can’t hear your own voice.
Twenty minutes later, we’re bobbing towards one of those perfect-looking beaches on which you wish you could spend half a lifetime. Following the meandering tree-lined path of the wooden boardwalk, we find ourselves in the buzzing atmosphere of Beso. The roof is thatched with palm fronds, there’s sand beneath our toes and dance music on the stereo. Each and every one of the tables is occupied. Through the greenery, you can see the blueness of the ocean in the distance.
Seafood is the order of the day here, and when it’s so fresh you wouldn’t want it any other way. A traditional seafood salad is bursting with colours and crunchy textures, prawn, squid and salmon brushing against watermelon and orange. Crab carpaccio does the crustacean’s subtle flavour justice. And for a huge cauldron of mussels looks like far too big a portion, until you taste how aromatic and sweet they are. Then, if anything, it seems too little.
We finish our meal with a shot of hierbas, a local Ibizan digestif with a sharp, cool herbal flavour, tasting at once of both the forests and the mountains. After a couple of those, the boat ride back to Ibiza feels much shorter and sleepier than the outward journey.
With such excellent food and drink, you could quite easily forget about Ibiza’s clubs. Back on the island, we drive to Ushuaia for the pre-season party, promising Groove Armada and five-times DJ Award winner Steve Lawler. As one of Ibiza’s five or so superclubs, Ushuaia draws world-renowned big-budget DJs and an international crowd. Its symbol, a side-profile of a white hummingbird, is everywhere, from billboards to the merchandise shop at the airport.
It’s only 4pm, but by the time we arrive Ushuaia is already packed. A vast courtyard patterned with swimming pools, bars and DJ booths is filled with thousands of revellers, dancing in the sun and shade, a sea of tank tops and hot pants. On all four sides of the courtyard, the balconies of Ushuaia’s hotel rooms jut out, occasionally filled with a private party who enjoy the music with a bit more privacy. It’s a world away from your local Oceania.
Dancing becomes easier once the sun sets – and once the characteristically blue-hued gin and tonics take effect. Everyone has turned to face the front stage, which hosts a spectacular accompanying light-show. If this is the pre-season warm up party, I want to see what it’s like in full swing.
Still, since the season is not yet underway the music ends at midnight. A ten-minute taxi takes us back to the fringes of the pedestrianised marina, where we hop out and walk the rest of the way beside the moonlit shore. Ibiza has a way of making a night out feel far more romantic than back home.
Stay at Ryans La Marina on-season from €110 per night