How to buy in the belle of the Balearic
Menorca, the Mediterranean’s green gem, is so popular that Sotheby’s is opening an office there, reports Arabella Youens
While its sister islands dove headfirst into package holidays and nightclub tourism in the Seventies and Eighties, Menorca resisted – and how that has paid off. Today, it’s an unspoilt Mediterranean haven.
Anyone on the hunt for Michelin-starred restaurants, celebrity spotting and fast cars will be duly disappointed but, for the increasing number of buyers searching for something distinct and different, the laid-back lifestyle of Menorca is gaining traction.
Something of an insider’s secret, the island’s devotees have succeeded in keeping it off the radar of the international jet set who head instead to Ibiza and Mallorca. But this is no Mediterranean backwater either; 18th-century palacios in its former capital Ciutadella are currently being swept up by eagle-eyed investors to be turned into sophisticated boutique hotels and a nascent tech scene is being established with Menorca Millennials – a gathering of start-up founders and venture capitalists who get together every June.
Apart from sharing a (similar-ish) Catalan dialect, the island has surprisingly little in common with its Balearic sisters and nowhere is that more apparent than in its largely unscarred topography. The closest the island gets to a Magaluf, Mallorca’s nightclub capital, is Cala en Porter, and that’s still some way off.
There are two theories to this. Some say it was a conscious decision on behalf of the island’s aristocratic families, who rejected the idea of selling their land to make a quick buck (the likes of Club Med were refused planning permission in the Seventies). Others believe it had more to do with General Franco denying them funds for large infrastructure projects such as roads and airports as punishment for supporting the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War.
Regardless, the outcome is glorious. Known as the “green” island, it was named a Unesco Biosphere zone in 1993 to protect its cultural heritage, countryside and coastline. Menorca’s homes have immaculate drystone walls and rustic-chic gates made from wild olive wood (anything bling is frowned upon by the local authorities), while the rugged shoreline is punctuated by small bays with white sand beaches on an aquamarine sea.
“Menorca reminds people of what the Mediterranean used to be like 40 years ago,” says Francisco Arnau of Engel & Völkers, an island native whose local office has witnessed a recent turnaround in activity following the property crash in 2007. “It’s relaxed and peaceful. Everyone knows each other and you can leave your keys in the car – no one cares.” But that doesn’t come cheap. Prices for the most attractive properties, right on the beach or with sea views, are up 15 per cent year-on-year.
Until recently, those in the market for a second home on the island fell neatly into two categories: British and mainland (largely Catalan) Spanish. But there has been a surge of French interest. Turning their backs on the traditional house-hunting grounds of north Africa and Turkey, French families have bought a number of the largest properties on the island, including a private coastal estate with direct sea access which sold for €11million (£9.65million) – the island’s most expensive sale to date.
Testament to this increased international interest is that Sotheby’s has decided to open an office in central Mahón this September. “Our contacts tell us that more and more wealthy families are moving to the island – they love the privacy combined with the interesting resident community,” says managing director Alejandra Vanoli. But with strict rules against the building of new houses outside A modern seafront villa in the exclusive resort of Cala Morell on the north-west coast. The seven-bedroom house has a large terrace and an infinity pool. €1.85 million Engel & Völkers (0034 971 369 275; engelvoelkers.com) A five-minute drive from Menorca Airport is this nine-bedroom country estate built in 1886. It sits in five acres, with 10 bathrooms and a garden. €2.2 million Engel & Völkers (0034 971 369 275; engelvoelkers.com) designated zones, finding the Menorcan dream – a traditional finca with sea views – has its challenges.
“They don’t stay on the market for long,” says Arnau, who is marketing El Torre de Sant Nicolau, an original 17th-century pirate tower near Mahón for €2.2million. Built of the local mares sandstone, its honey-gold hues are reminiscent of the Cotswolds. With its roof terrace and remote location, surrounded by little but farmland, an equivalent-sized property offering these levels of privacy on Mallorca would be three times the price. It’s this comparative value when compared with Mallorca, where prices still soar, which is another reason for the uptick in interest.
“Using a broad brushstroke, I’d say that property prices in Menorca are between 15 per cent and 20 per cent cheaper than in Mallorca,” says Colin Guanaria, a quantity surveyor who co-founded Menorca’s longest established estate agency, Bonnin Sanso, in 1988. He cites a minimum budget of €500,000 to buy anything with a sea or harbour view, rising to €600,000 for a detached house with a swimming pool.
The vast majority of his British buyers are those in their mid- to late-50s who’ve sold businesses and want to come between Easter and October. That’s an important consideration: the island is seasonal. “One of the downsides to Menorca, but which has helped to maintain its charm, is the lack of flights in the winter – they mostly drop down to weekly services,” adds Mr Guanaria.
Summer access is improving, though, with increased routes from Britain (BA is operating a route from Edinburgh this summer and Jet2 has started a new route from London Stansted).
According to Spain’s national airline database, Menorca Airport received 1.5 million visitors last year, an 11 per cent increase on 2015. But there’s no concern that the island will become overrun; that’s small change when compared with Mallorca’s annual tourist traffic of more than 10 million.
Thumbs up: the distinctively-shaped Cala Macarelleta on Menorca’s south coast