Travel to…Formentera

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.

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.
Yacht: Charter from Ibiza to Formentera.

British Airways flies from UK airports to Ibiza, from £52.

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.

3) 10.7
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

Travel to…Sri Lanka

The island of Sri Lanka looks every inch like the tropical paradise we’re accustomed to seeing in films. The Shangri-La of our collective imagination if you will. Golden sand and lush green jungle collide on this small piece of land off the tip of Southern India, it’s easy to see why it’s so often referred to as ‘the jewel’ of the Indian Ocean.

Famous for it’s tea plantations, Sri Lanka was a British colony known as Ceylon until they achieved full independence in 1972. The idyllic landscape give no indication whatsoever of the years of darkness that Sri Lanka has endured. The civil war raged from 1983 until 2009, and it is only in the last five years or so that the country has really been able to focus on its burgeoning tourism industry.

The island itself is beautiful but as are the inhabitants. The locals are incredibly friendly and inquisitive; we made several great friends whilst there who keep in touch via Facebook. Beyond interaction with foreigners, there seems to be no sense of animosity amongst Sri Lankans themselves, quite extraordinary when you consider the bitter divisions civil war caused. Perhaps these things are somewhat hidden from tourists, but there is now a genuine sense of peace and stability on the island. We saw a Hindu festival taking place right next door to the Buddhist temple on Sri Lankan Independence day. It defies belief to think that something so traumatic and tragic happened in such a serene and picturesque environment.

We flew with Sri Lanka airlines from Heathrow, which was as an enjoyable an experience as long haul flights can possibly be. Like almost all of the Sri Lankan’s we would go on to meet, the staff were polite, attentive and eager to be of service. We arrived into the capital city, which is every inch the gleaming South Asian metropolis one would expect. However, once you get outside the city, the truer face of Sri Lanka is revealed, with ramshackle buildings, teeming streets a and tuk-tuk drivers zigzagging all over the roads. The warm, moist air hits you the moment you step outside, as the alternating smells of pungent spices, wood fires, gasoline and flowers fill your nostrils.

We stayed at Citrus Waskaduwa, a relatively new build (it was opened in 2009) a couple of hours south along the coast from the capital. Given that we had booked the hotel as part of a deal, we were completely unsure what to expect. The photos available online were perfectly nice, however it was only once we actually arrived that we realised how little they did the place justice. The hotel is large and gleaming white with orange detailing (whilst a little garish this worked nicely in a tropical setting), with every room looking out over the expanse of Indian Ocean (the video below shows the view from our balcony!).

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The rooms were clean and spacious with all the usual amenities. The highlight was most definitely the glass wall between the shower and the bedroom, which being directly adjacent to the balcony, meant that you could look out onto the rolling waves whilst hosing off.

The food both in and outside of the hotel was spectacular. Sri Lankan food is wonderfully varied; it reminds me both of South East Asian and Indian cuisine combined. Think light, fragrant curries flavoured with coconut milk and curry leaves, pillowy roti and amazing fresh seafood. A must try is the traditional Sri Lankan hopper, a kind of crisp ‘basket’ made from batter in which an egg or curry can comfortably sit. Hoppers are not usually served in restaurants, so be sure to grab one from a street vendor when you get the opportunity. That’s another great thing about Sri Lanka, unlike in India, you can feast upon the street food without worrying about getting ill.

Although Sri Lanka is relatively small (smaller even than the UK), if like us you’re only visiting for a week, then you must be realistic about what you can achieve in such a short amount of time. The historic city of Galle on the South coast of Sri Lanka is one place that you have to make time for! The city was fortified by the Dutch during their occupancy in the seventeenth century and is now a world heritage site. Galle was badly affected by the tsunami of Boxing Day 2004; the city was destroyed and over 4000 people died, with many more lost to disease in the aftermath. However, it has since been rebuilt and remains one of the most stunning cities in the world.

The fort area is spectacular. It’s a strange sensation moving from dense jungle with wild monkeys in the trees to a European style town, complete with French style central square, where you imagine a village fete should be in full swing. The juxtaposition of the architecture and the natural surroundings is just spectacular. There’s so much to do in the fort area, from taking in the views (and the snake charming!) by the clock tower to feasting in the town’s many cafes and restaurants. I wish we could have spent a few nights there, as one day simply wasn’t enough.

‘Why Guesthouse’ just outside of Galle, run by the lovely Henrietta, is meant to be lovely, and I’ll definitely stay there during my next visit. Five or so minutes in the car from Galle Fort you can find ‘Jungle Beach’, a tiny but gorgeous beach that whilst completely off the beaten track has proven immensely popular with tourists. Also definitely worth a visit, if only for the fantastic fresh juices and shakes served at the little beach hut café!

The other main Sri Lankan city we visited was the historic Kandy, world heritage site and last capital of the Sri Lankan Kings.

The long drive up winding mountain roads felt like an exercise in sight seeing itself. The bustling streets, shouting vendors, laissez-faire attitude to road safety and colourful but dilapidated shop fronts are enough to enthral anyone used to the relative blandness of the UK. What’s so different about it is the sheer swell of humanity every town centre seems to hold. The huge number of people simply going about their daily lives makes the roads of London seem comparatively empty; a difference I’ve noticed on my travels throughout South Asia.

The temple of the tooth is the go-to site for tourists in Kandy. This scared Buddhist temple houses Buddhism’s most important relic, the tooth of the Buddha as the name suggests. The site was bombed during the civil war, but looking at worshippers from far and wide gather there today you’d be forgiven for assuming it had always been a place of peace. Kandy Lake –which surrounds the main site – is thoroughly impressive to look at, as is the beautiful golden ceiling of the temple itself.

Only a few hours from Kandy is another world heritage site, the ancient rock fortress Sirigya. I have to admit I was bitterly disappointed not to be able to visit, will be at the top of my list for next time.

Aside from Sigiriya, the main thing we felt that we missed out on was visiting Yala National Park. Given that it’s an area of such staggering natural beauty – and by today’s standards remains relatively unspoilt- Sri Lanka has many national parks you can visit. We went to a small, local reserve where we spotted stunning rare birds, paddled in breath-taking waterfalls and learnt to spot the difference between almond and cashew trees. However, it’s at the big parks like Yala that you can expect to spot wild elephants and if you’re lucky, a leopard or two. After much consideration we decided against taking the eight hour drive to Yala purely because – given that the best time for animal sightings is dawn – it just didn’t seem feasible during our short and jam packed trip.

We were however able to see an abundance of wild life on our ‘river safari’ in Bentota, only forty five minutes or so away from the hotel by tuk tuk. Boats crawl along the winding salt-water trail through the mangroves, where you can spot water monitors, crocodiles, fruit bats and herons to name just a few. The river felt eerily quiet, the tranquillity broken only occasionally by the eager ‘hellos’ of local children playing by the banks.

Another place worth a visit in Bentota is the turtle sanctuary. Of the six species of sea turtle, five can be found in Sri Lankan waters. In an effort to get the endangered types of turtle to thrive, the sanctuary aims hatches thousands of eggs on site before releasing them into the sea. We actually held the live eggs, which were rather like moving soft-shelled ping-pong balls, as well as the tiny babies themselves.

One thing to be mindful of when visiting Sri Lanka is that you have to be firm when dealing with local experts and guides. There are plenty of moneymaking initiatives designed to make the most out of tourists, so bear in mind that if something seems a little too steep in price, it probably is.

We were taken to a herb and spice garden where we learnt all about ayurvedic medicine which was, admittedly, fantastic. A little less fantastic was the £160 we spent on various lotions and potions without even meaning to, under the influence of the very charming – and flashily dressed- owner. At the end of the day Sri Lanka is still a poor country in recovery from a gruelling twenty plus years, and tourism is the main industry generating wealth. Most people aren’t out to rip you off, but do make sure that you put your money into the right people’s pockets. Tipping is an absolute necessity, so be sure to keep smaller notes to tip hotel staff, waiters etc.

The magic of Sri Lanka is felt by all who visit. The abundance of mountains, jungles, ancient sites, beautiful beaches and colourful villages is enough to win over even the most reluctant tourist. Since returning, my boyfriend and I have spoken endlessly about moving there in the future, imagining the idyllic (and cheap!) life we could have. It’s literally become our favourite day-dream. If you can take one trip this year, make sure it’s to Sri Lanka, and you’ll see exactly why people all over the world have fallen in love with this island nirvana.

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