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Formentera: The quiet island

“Why on earth do you want to go there?” asked the owner of the apartment we’d rented in Ibiza. “Nothing happens on Formentera.”

Formentera: The quiet island
Image: By ximateix! under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY-SA-2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

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He couldn’t have sold it better. If I subjected myself to any more late nights and loud music at 42, I was going to look more like former resident Bob Dylan than Boho beauty Jade Jagger (who now lives on the island yet manages to look like she’s just walked off the cover of Vogue).

Formentera may only be 40 minutes by boat from Ibiza Town, but it couldn’t be more different from its hedonistic neighbour, where each day revolves around a frantic flurry of guest lists and hangover cures. Inhabited by farmers, fishermen, former hippies and a fair few German property owners, Formentera has little in the way of nightlife and, despite its simple, laidback vibe, manages tourism rather efficiently, fiercely protecting development of high-rise hotels and clubs.

At only 13 miles long and 1.5 miles wide, and predominantly flat, most first-timers zip around on scooters or bicycles for an hour or two, diverting off the main tarmac road down dirt tracks past rustic whitewashed farmhouses, drystone walls and fig trees, to discover the odd abandoned watch tower and windmill or deserted cove. When they finally realise that there isn’t much to see or do, they breathe a sigh of relief, relax and enjoy what Formentera does best – nothing.

The chilled-out vibe here no doubt stems from the fact that Formentera was famous as a hippy hangout in the 1960s. But while the smell of ganja still lingers heavy in the air and remnants of the ‘60s scene still remain – Fonde Pepe club, the place where Dylan used to hang out, and Formentera Guitars, which has been handcrafting instruments for stars ever since Pink Floyd, are still open in Sant Ferran – this isn’t why most people come here.

Without a doubt, the island’s main attraction is its beaches — gorgeous swathes of bone-white sand lined with simple wooden chiringuitos (beach bars) lapped by cerulean seas more typical of the Caribbean. Sadly Playa de Illetas, one of its best beaches, attracts hordes of day-trippers during the peak months of July and August.

The budget ones arrive by bus with baguettes, while the rich ones arrive in 50-footer Sunseekers and are chauffered in dinghies to Juan y Andrea, a simple beach shack that charges surprisingly high prices. Here, a clientele ranging from oligarchs to DJs sit with their toes in the sand sipping sangria (mixed with Champagne, not Cava), listen to chilled Balearic beats and eat lobster while turning a similar colour.

Although their antics are amusing (money doesn’t buy dexterity when getting back onboard after a skinful in the midday sun), we leave the crowds and head south to Platja de Migjorn. Here, a vast expanse of beach means it’s easy to find a peaceful patch of sand on which to have a picnic, leaving at sundown to sip margharitas at the nearby Gecko Beach Club. The hotel is one of the few properties on the island with sleek, contemporary design and yoga courses with top international instructors.

But my husband and I had chosen to stay in a sleek studio apartment nearby in Es Calo, adjacent to a small cove and rocky islets. Once the main harbour selected by the Romans to export figs, Es Calo still boasts the best fish restaurants, including one, Can Pascual, just a few steps from our room. Seafood still dominates the island’s gastronomy with tempting traditional dishes such as squid in black ink among the best I’ve ever tasted.

Nearby is the island’s only steep incline – a torturous ascent by bike (best tackled on a moped) in the searing summer heat, despite the cooling pine canopy. We go to catch the sunset but discover La Mola has a great craft fair, open on Wednesday and Sunday afternoons, with products designed and made in local workshops, and jugglers cheered on by the crowds.

We drive a little further and come to the highest point of the island, La Mol a – home to the lighthouse that inspired Jules Verne to include the island in his novel Hector Servadac as a place at the end of the world.

Formentera may feel like somewhere that stands still but is this really true?

It’s been a few years since my last visit, so I ask a local if there’s anything new, and my suspicions are confirmed. “Thankfully, no,” is his answer. “We like it as it is.”