The watershed moment en route to Formentera comes when a man changes his watch. As you slip the Rolex Sea-Dweller from your wrist and replace it with the Bulgari Carbon Gold on a woven strap – realising you’ll only be looking at it to see if it’s time to have that first drink – the will to recline into idle island life takes over.
Just as ritual dictates that you sniff a cigar before cutting it, to really savour the swap, wait until you’re aboard the 25-minute water taxi from Ibiza to La Savina. Let the other guests take the public ferry; you, my friend, are in a rush to unwind.
After you’ve been handed a cool towel by a deckhand, as the stress of the airport fades from memory and the 12-mile stretch of land comes into view, that’s the time to make the switch. The contentment you feel in that moment is what holidays to Formentera are all about. Well, that and lunch.
Often referred to as Ibiza’’s hippy “little sister”, the smallest of the four major Balearic Islands has been a place of elegant escape since the Sixties. Titans of chill from Bob Marley to Jimi Hendrix once flocked to Formentera. There’s even a rumour that Bob Dylan watched the sunset over Africa’s Barbary Coast from the Cap De Barbaria Lighthouse – although reports that Zimmy was sporting a pair of cyan Vilebrequins at the time are, as yet, unconfirmed.
Still, it’s not the affection of musical legends that’s made Formentera the coolest holiday destination in the Mediterranean since Jackie Kennedy went to Mykonos in search of her tan lines. For this, the blame must be laid at the door or, rather, the boot and heel of the Italians.
The Italians adore Formentera like Italians adore bad techno. During high season, as much as 75 per cent of the population is from the land of the passionate hand gesture and the island has become a bolt hole for wealthy Italians looking to avoid crowds of their countrymen on the beaches of mainland Spain. From slick lunch spot 10.7 to our favourite beach shack (or chiringuito), Lucky Beach Bar, co-owned by Bolognesi gentleman Davide Busi, half the bars and restaurants are run by Italians who live here year round.
Ask any of Formentera’s Italian devotees why, and you’ll hear the same thing. That it looks more like the Maldives than the Mediterranean aside, it’s because this tiny utopia just doesn’t change. Ibiza’s superclubs and megahotels are yet to arrive in Formentera – developers have been stopped from doing almost anything at all by the iron fist of the authorities, who have strict aesthetic criteria for new structures and, most significantly, a blanket ban on beachfront buildings.
“Unspoilt” might be one of the most overused words in the history of travel writing, but there’s no other way to describe Formentera’s postcard #nofilterneeded beaches, whitewashed villages, heathery scrub, salt plains and sand dunes. As the island’s website says, this is “the last paradise of the Mediterranean”. Modern tourism hardly exists in Formentera. There’s no airport, very few hotels (though no shortage of luxury villas), no designer shops and no American fast-food chains. Many of the roads are dirt tracks, much of the pine-covered countryside protected and areas in the north part of a World Heritage Site. The Ses Salines Natural Park safeguards a Unesco-protected seagrass, posidonia, that’s one of the oldest living organisms in the world and which filters the water offshore and keeps it crystalline.
But the Italians’ best-kept secret is almost out, thanks to the likes of Cara Delevingne and Leonardo DiCaprio. Claims that the island was planning on banning selfies and man buns may have been wildly under-reported, but British interest has been piqued by increasing reports of celebrities descending on Formentera.
Package tour operators are now attempting to cash in on the tranquillity, and the possibility that the island may be only one summer away from ruinous change – of morphing into a grotesque Majorcan mini-me – seems increasingly plausible. Let’s face it, we know what the infatuation of our compatriots can do to Iberian idylls. If there was ever a time to soak up Formentera’s restorative “time stands still” vibe it’s now.
Swim, eat, drink, repeat: this is the format for Formentera’s golden days. This is a destination for people who like the good things in life, sure, but aren’t taken in by bright lights and flashy fanfare. Yes, it’s luxury, but it’s laid-back luxury. Think stealth wealth – nothing more ostentatious than a creased white linen Sunspel shirt, say. Be prepared to feel like your wallet has undergone open-heart surgery – even the supermarkets are extortionate. Two weeks in Formentera would be enough to make Warren Buffett’s eyes water.
For the moment, holidaying in Formentera is a sign of good taste. That and solid evidence that you like a beach. Even those steadfast sunbathers who usually refuse to waste a minute of tanning time get tempted into the cerulean sea, especially at Platja de Ses Illetes, a long sliver of white sand on the island’s north coast with ocean on each side.
Close to the port of La Savina, Illetes is where the Ibiza crowd comes to play. The number of -billion-pound boats dropping their anchors here in high-season rivals the Monaco Yacht Show, with hordes of beautiful people -disembarking to spend an afternoon at the obscenely expensive Juan Y Andrea. Barefoot waiters serving champagne sangria and lobster risotto will entice day visitors, but you’ll find better food in the Italian -restaurants of Sant Francesc Xavier, the island’s miniature capital, and especially at Il Gioviale, a trattoria run by a trio of Italians. Macondo Pizzeria in the nearby village of Sant Ferran de Ses Roques is also worth a visit and yet another example of the Italian influence over the island. Barely a minute on the island’s only major road goes by without an Italian on a moped zipping past, typically with a woman sporting little more than a mahogany tan, intricate tattoos and a Chloé string bikini sat behind them.
They’ll be heading up to Es Pujols, the most resorty town and a hotbed of Campari-quaffing Italians. The hottest haunt here is People Bar. The smell of grilled fish mingled with Marlboro Lights and the constant chatter of bosomy old Italian ladies can get a bit overwhelming.
The beach to spend the bulk of your holiday on is Platja de Migjorn. This 6km stretch of sand and sea is where you’ll find the best chiringuitos. Start at Kiosko 62 before sauntering all the way down to Flipper & Chiller, a Mediterranean restaurant with an unbelievable terrace owned by Nacho Vidal, Spain’s most famous porn star, via a cocktail stop at Lucky Beach Bar.
Given the hedonistic, rosé-fuelled all-day lunches, this is generally a back-early-to-your-private-villa kind of an isle, but it’s along Platja de Migjorn that you’ll find somewhere to spend after dark. And if that after-dinner drink at Blue Bar turns into six, there are two (very casual) nightclubs where you can join the Italians for some fist-pumping before bed. It’s a very different sort of debauchery than the throbbing titillation of Ibiza. A couple of shots of Hierbas Ibéricas down and you’ll be ready to get back to the pad. Should said shots impair your memory, then rest assured your cab driver will get you to your villa even without the address. All you need is the name and one of the island’s white taxis will whip you back quicker than you can WhatsApp the babysitter. Just be sure to pronounce it right or you could end up on the other side of the island, scaring someone else’s wife.
You come to Formentera to make your own fun. With food, drink and scenery like this, excellent company is all you need to turn the island into your own personal paradise. Formentera feels conspiratorial. It’s one of those places you would rave about to your friends if not for the fear the wrong people might hear. If you’re not having a good time you’ve invited the wrong guests. Lucky for you the taxi (for them) is but a short Mehari ride away. After all, this island ain’t big enough for both of you.
How to get there
There’s no airport in Formentera, so you need to travel by sea from Ibiza. It’s a 12-mile boat journey that takes around 25 minutes.
Water taxi: The best way to get across to Formentera is to book a luxury water taxi through Ibiza Delivers, complete with sound system, onboard bar service (sponsored by Dom Pérignon) and room for up to eight passengers. ibizadelivers.com/water-taxi
Ferry: Regular ferries from Ibiza (Port d’Eivissa) to Formentera (La Savina) cost around £20 each way. There are four companies to choose from depending on what time you want to travel. In high season, play it safe and book in advance. directferries.co.uk
Yacht: Charter from Ibiza to Formentera. Smartcharteribiza.com
British Airways flies from UK airports to Ibiza, from £52. Britishairways.com
Where to stay
1) Gecko Hotel & Beach Club
If you’re going down the hotel route then book a beach-facing suite at this secluded, Balearic-meets-Rivieria-style boutique resort on Platja de Migjorn. Well-groomed but easy-going, big on yoga but with poolside cabanas made for nursing a mid-morning pick-me-up, Gecko’s got it all. It’s a ten-minute drive from Sant Francesc Xavier, but only a stroll along the sand away from most of the island’s most charming chiringuitos.
2) Cala Saona Hotel & Spa
If you plan on hitting up Formentera with your family, and big, ballsy luxury hotels are usually your child-friendly thing, this is your ultimate island base. Set just off the shoreline of Cala Saona – a small-but-splendid west-coast bay – you can see all the way to Ibiza from the rooms. The shallow waters are ideal for the children’s “beach to pool and back again” routine, while the beach bar’s killer Caipirinhas are enough to satiate even the most stressed-out parent.
3) Es Ram
If a private villa’s more your thing, but you dig the easy-breeziness of resort life, head to celebrity bolthole Es Ram on the south side of the island. Nestled in a pine forest beside the cliffs of La Mola, the resort has six secluded “viviendas” – and chic doesn’t even begin to describe it. Expect canopied beds, a wood-heavy natural colour palette, swathes of white muslin and the bright pop of purple bougainvillea.
4) Las Cabecitas
Less than a ten-minute drive from Sant Francesc Xavier, hidden among vineyards and olive trees you’ll find a Formenteran “finca” so perfect you’ll have a hard time hitting the beach. Suited to big groups of friends or several families, this elegant seven-bedroom property has it all: think infinity pool, glamorous outdoor eating area, impeccable design and an independent guest house ideal for stashing the couple you know will argue all week.
5) Casa Daisy
The smaller, four-bedroom Casa Daisy close to Cala Saona is the villa to rent for two families holidaying together. Completely private, with a pool facing the sea, watch the sunset every evening over magical Es Vedrà while enjoying a Copa de Balón on the garden terrace. A beautifully furnished sanctuary split across two structures, if the Balinese bed doesn’t keep the children occupied, the charming attic entertainment den will.
Where to eat and drink
1) Kiosko 62
Little more than a shack, this rustic wooden chiringuito on Platja de Migjorn is basic in the best way possible – expect Formentera’s typical barefooted bliss. The vibe is relaxed and friendly, despite the first-class cocktails and excellent potential for people watching. Head down late in the afternoon for a sundowner (or several) and watch the skies turn pink from this prime coastal spot.
2) The Blue Bar
Also situated on the sandy stretch of Platja de Migjorn, this has been a hippy hangout since the Sixties. A mecca for musicians, legend has it that Bob Marley, Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix frequented this trippy bar. The Mediterranean menu makes for a laid-back lunch, but the big draw is still the music. Stop off after drinks at Lucky Beach Bar to hear owner Kaya play one of her ambient after-dark sets.
One of the few places in Formentera where you won’t feel out of place if you’re dressed up – by which we mean wearing a shirt – this sophisticated seafood restaurant is one of the island’s best lunch locations. Think expansive sea views and stunning sashimi (plus traditional Med cuisine) with a sublime symbiosis between the music volume and amount of alcohol consumed come sunset.
4) El Gioviale
There’s no shortage of Italian food in Formentera, but if it’s unpretentious yet perfectly executed pasta your heart desires, head here. Served straight from the pan, the seafood spaghetti is worth rhapsodising over, as is the service. Request the table under the canopy of the fig tree. If you’re in Sant Francesc Xavier for breakfast, then around the corner is the brilliant, child-friendly Ca Na Pepa.
5) Beso Beach
Spend an idle afternoon at Beso Beach eating out-of-this-world paella with your feet still in the sand. The palm-lined roof fosters an unpretentious beach-chic vibe, but don’t be fooled, as one of the best restaurants on Platja de Ses Illetes, with a menu by famous Catalan chef Carles Abellan, this is still billionaire territory. Arrive for your reservation by yacht and the club will send out a speedboat to bring you in.
This piece was published in the June 2017 issue of British GQ