Eth­nic trea­sures:

China Daily - - WEEKEND LIFE - JAIME REINA / AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The Xun­hua Salar au­ton­o­mous county of­fers you a unique ex­pe­ri­ence of lo­cal cus­toms, tra­di­tions and life­style in an un­hur­ried man­ner.

MENORCA, Spain — Lo­cals say Menorca can be re­duced to three words: wa­ter, fire and stone.

The Span­ish is­land’s three es­sen­tial el­e­ments are em­bod­ied in Cova d’en Xoroi, a nat­u­ral cave that houses a so­phis­ti­cated lounge half­way down a cliff. As the sun dips into the Mediter­ranean, waves crash on the rocks be­low and selfie-snap­ping pa­trons burn the same roasted-or­ange color as the sun-bleached lime­stone. Then the staff lights torches un­der the craggy roof, and the stun­ning yet laid-back venue tran­si­tions into a lively night­club.

Although the scene may sound as sum­mery as a frozen mo­jito, it’s re­peated nightly well into au­tumn, when Menorca re­mains as beguil­ing as it is in peak sea­son. Through much of Oc­to­ber, it’s still warm enough to en­joy the spec­tac­u­lar beaches, but vis­i­tors will find the is­land has plenty to of­fer be­sides sun and trans­par­ent blue wa­ters.

Here’s a quick look at Menorca and its vi­brant cities, Ma­hon and Ci­u­tadella, at a time of year when you just might have them to your­self.

Na­ture vs. nur­ture

Menorca is the far­thest east of the Balearics, an ar­chi­pel­ago be­tween Spain and Italy that in­cludes the bet­ter-known is­lands of Mal­lorca and jet-set Ibiza. All three en­joy an en­vi­ably mild cli­mate in a pic­ture-post­card set­ting, but Menorca’s comes with­out the crowds or the 50-euro club cover charges. It has man­aged to hold on to an un­der­stated, calmer style by re­strict­ing de­vel­op­ment to a few ex­ist­ing, mostly low-rise re­sorts.

The en­tire 270 square mile (700 square km) is­land was de­clared a UNESCO bio­sphere re­serve in 1993, and as a re­sult, most of the 125 beaches that en­cir­cle Menorca’s jagged coast­line have very lit­tle, if any, de­vel­op­ment.

Along the south coast, walk­ing paths that start at in­land park­ing lots wind through forested ravines to the beaches. Cala Mit­jana’s pow­dery white sand is sur­rounded by cliffs, and the calm, shal­low wa­ter makes it easy to ex­plore a cave and the rocky crags with snor­kel­ing gear. In the north, Cala Caval­le­ria is a lit­tle eas­ier to get to but no less un­spoiled.

The wa­ter may feel warm into au­tumn, but vis­it­ing af­ter the peak sum­mer months also means pay­ing half-price for ac­tiv­i­ties like hir­ing a boat with a pri­vate cap­tain. Just plan ahead and check the weather for wind as well as tem­per­a­tures.

Cul­tural lega­cies

The an­cient Phoeni­cians called it “Nura,” or the Is­land of Fire. Leg­end Boats has it that pass­ing sailors saw bon­fires built along the south­ern cliffs, which the orig­i­nal in­hab­i­tants used to sig­nal each other. Signs of those first set­tlers — Ibe­rian tribes that came from the main­land in the Bronze Age — are still ap­par­ent in more than 2,000 stone mon­u­ments spread through­out the is­land.

The Talai­otic so­ci­ety left stone tem­ples, burial cham­bers and mon­u­ments that re­sem­ble smaller ver­sions of Stone­henge. Some of the larger clus­ters re­quire tick­ets and have English guides in high sea­son, but there are so many mon­u­ments that most aren’t even marked. You might stum­ble upon them while hik­ing along a walk­ing path, hid­den in tall grass. Taken to­gether, they com­prise one of Europe’s largest open-air mu­se­ums.

The fol­low­ing mil­len­nia brought ever more vis­i­tors and in­vaders, in­clud­ing the Greeks, Moors, French and Cata­lans, but no out­side cul­ture has left a more last­ing stamp than the Bri­tish. They ruled the is­land in­ter­mit­tently dur­ing the 18th cen­tury and moved the cap­i­tal to Ma­hon from Ci­u­tadella, which had been founded be­fore the Ro­mans ar­rived but was de­stroyed in the 16th cen­tury by the Turks.

The English legacy shines through in the sash win­dows of Ma­hon’s ar­chi­tec­ture and in the ac­tive gin trade. The Xoriguer gin dis­tillery is a cool spot for a pre-din­ner tast­ing in Ma­hon, and I saw beach-friendly bot­tles of frozen gin and home­made lemon­ade fre­quently for sale, in­clud­ing at an ice cream shop in Ci­tu­adella.

Farm to ta­ble

Though beaches get all the lime­light, much of Menorca’s econ­omy is agri­cul­tural, ev­i­denced by the fact that there are more cows than peo­ple. Small farms, sep­a­rated into minia­ture parcels by dry stone walls, cover the rugged hills of the in­te­rior, pro­duc­ing a shock­ing va­ri­ety of pro­duce (40 types of ap­ples, for in­stance), olive oil, wine and the de­li­cious Ma­hon cheese.

The cheese even made it into my ice cream cone at Am­brosia in the cap­i­tal — not cheese­cake, but chunks of sharp, near-ched­dar cheese mixed with vanilla ice cream. Some­how, it worked.

Menorca’s eco­log­i­cal sen­si­bil­ity res­onates at spec­tac­u­lar restau­rants in the at­mo­spheric cities, which over­look nat­u­ral har­bors sur­rounded by bat­tle-ready for­ti­fi­ca­tions. In Ci­u­tadella, check out Es Tast de na Sil­via, the only Slow Food-cer­ti­fied restau­rant in the Balearics. They serve up­dated takes on lo­cal dishes like fideua, a sort of seafood paella with noo­dles. Over the din­ing room, an arched stone ceil­ing is stamped with the year 1704.

sit in the wa­ter of Cala Mararel­leta in Ci­u­tadella, on the Menorca Is­land.

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