At 40,000 feet, the plane is awash in youth. Aboard the Transavia flight from Paris to Ibiza, my Virginian mother — 68 years young — raises an arched eyebrow at the party-ready passengers. Seated across the aisle from us: my French husband and two young daughters (4 and 6). What are we doing taking a family trip to the Spanish isle famous for its hedonistic nightlife?
Anchored in the Mediterranean just 93 miles from Valencia, Ibiza is the closest island in the Balearic archipelago to the Spanish mainland. Generations of travelers have heard the siren song of its sun-baked beaches and crystal-clear waters. Of course, Ibiza also has a reputation for its all-night parties, electronic music and DJ-driven clubs — including the world's largest, Privilege, which has a capacity for 10,000 revelers.
Paparazzi photos of celebrity antics are splashed across tabloids every summer, while millionaire soccer stars Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi dock their yachts side-by-side in the marina. Among the jet set, this is an island that's off-the-charts cool: There's a chic new Nobu hotel, billed as "the ultimate Ibizan playground"; a beach bar by the trendy Paris-based Experimental Cocktail Club; and a "live dinner experience" called Heart, a collaboration between culinary maestros Ferràn and Albert Adrià and Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberté.
For an April getaway from our Paris home, we chose Ibiza for its climate (guaranteed sunshine), beaches, the Spanish love of kids and — I'll admit — the enticing low cost of the Transavia airfare.
Greeting us in the airport are ads for more nightclubs, with bold, one-word monikers such as "Amnesia," and anticipated soirees with world-famous DJs. (Bonjour, David Guetta!) It's late, the flight arriving at a not-so-kid-friendly hour, and I can't help but wonder: Did we take an unwise gamble on Ibiza, even in the offseason?
But as we travel north in our rental car (a breezy ride from Sixt), the billboards are fewer and farther between. The landscapes unfurl in a hypnotic tapestry of olive groves and pine forests. A moon is hanging over the Mediterranean by the time we arrive at our vacation house, rented via Airbnb, not far from San Carlos. It's stocked with a stash of snacks to stave off our pre-dinner hunger. Perched on a rise above an olive-dotted estate, the house takes in wide vistas, all the way to Tagomago island offshore. Gesturing to the island, our host Ronald explains it's an exclusive spot rented out for $20,000 per night. We are privy to the same views for $160 per night.
Ronald and Marielle, a hospitable Dutch couple with a vacation rental company on Ibiza, share generous tips about their adopted home. It's Ronald who first regales us with tales of Es Vedra. A mystical rock formation off the western coast of the island, Es Vedra is said to have special magnetic properties — some pilgrims swear it's the missing piece in the puzzle of the lost city of Atlantis, while others claim it's where Odysseus succumbed to the Sirens.
The map Ronald and Marielle provide us — a full-color glossy with numbered images corresponding to 56 island beaches — becomes a tattered testament to our quest to unravel the mysteries of the "White Island."
Phoenicians and hippies
Ages before the house music and all-night raves, and long before the hippies landed in Ibiza — jumping ship on their way from Morocco to continental Europe — the island was coveted for its strategic position on maritime trade routes. The earliest settlements were founded by the Phoenicians in the 8th century B.C., making Ibiza Town (or "Eivissa" in Catalan) one of the oldest settlements in the Mediterranean.
This rich history is on beautiful display on a stroll through the walled Old Town, or "Dalt Vila," to the hilltop cathedral. Tranquil, cobbled alleys are lined with whitewashed houses; local guide Cheska Giménez explains that the buildings were first painted white as a means to ward off the plague.
"The Phoenicians considered this a magic island," she says, "naming it for a Babylonian god who protects from evil spirits." It's still got magic; Giménez describes the island's ecosystems: salt flats, coves and marine nature reserves thick with Posidonia oceanica, also known as Neptune grass, which purifies the sea. Between Ibiza and the neighboring island of Formentera, this "forest" of sea grass is a UNESCO World Heritage site. At the edge of the cliff, Giménez points out caper plants sprouting from stone walls. Down below, the Mediterranean sparkles as brilliantly blue as the Caribbean.
The hippies arrived in the 1960s as Ibiza morphed into a fabled stop on the hippie trail. They set up makeshift markets near the monumental drawbridge leading into the Old Town. It's still the fashion to wear all-white bohemian frocks on the "White Island." (Our daughters participated, spinning around in their lace-edged dresses.) Today, there's a popular hippie market, Mercadillo Hippy Las Dalias, open every Saturday in San Carlos. It has a storied history, and as a tourist attraction draws busloads of visitors seeking out artisanal crafts and sun fun.
"What's Ibiza?" Giménez quotes a Latin motto: "Ad libitum." (As you like). And this is exactly what our family discovers: The island is whatever you want it to be.
Studying our map, we notice that the coastline is punctuated by seven symbols depicting ancient fortified towers. Aha! Why not explore them? Our daughters clutch the "treasure map" as we set out for the first, closest to our house. To reach Torre de Campanitx, we follow a trail through woods and flowering meadows buzzing with bees. Reaching the thick-walled, stone tower, all of the family is giddy about the Mediterranean views.
Our "tower quest" becomes a means to explore all corners of the island and discover the myriad beaches along the way. Despite its small size (221 square miles), Ibiza has incredible diversity: pine-covered mountains, vineyards, quiet coves, rugged coast and sand to suit every beach personality. Some of the beaches are flanked by cliffs, or tiny camouflaged crescents, or endless swaths of sand — the postcard image of Eden on earth.
We give a wide berth to the nudist beach just north of our house and continue to the Torre des Molar. This northern tower offers thrilling Mediterranean views from a precipitous perch at the top of the stairs. Is that a celebrity's villa with a shimmering pool down below? With wildflowers clinging to the stone edge, this is by far our favorite tower.
Along the way, we chance upon the most scenic beach, empty save for a few souls, inside a cove at Cala d'En Serra. It's so steep that we must park the car at the top of the road and walk down. We're rewarded with a vision out of paradise: white sand gently lapped by the turquoise sea. Nearby are the hulking remains of an abandoned hotel project by noted Catalan architect Josep Lluís Sert. Work was halted in the 1970s, meaning that the area's natural state has been mostly restored. Flowers are everywhere.
To the west, we notice a shift in the vibe: A party crowd flocks for sunset cocktails and beats at Sunset Ashram, a bar above Cala Comte beach. (Not Mom's favorite, but our daughters dig the soundtrack.) So we continue and find an empty trail leading to the Torre d'en Rovira, a path we all enjoy because of the striking, craggy coastline. The island's multihued palette shows itself at the Cala Salada beach, where orange cliffs abut the white sand. My husband leads the way to the remote corner of the beach, along a path threading through pines along the cliff's edge. Our daughters thrill in the challenge. (Mom and I only slightly panic at the height.)
Our quest concludes at the tower facing the rocky pinnacle of Es Vedra. The sun is beginning to sink lower in the sky when we first glimpse the rock. And it appears that Es Vedra is illuminated with strange shafts of light from the heavens above. (Or is the camera viewfinder playing tricks on us?)
Perhaps the real highlight of our adventure is the discovery of countryside hamlets where Spanish traditions reign supreme. We drive through the village of Sant Vicent de sa Cala and are stopped in our tracks by the site of a church — gleaming white in the midday sun, festooned with festive ribbons in all the colors of the rainbow. The only sounds are the garlands flapping in the wind. Inland, at Santa Gertrudis de Fruitera, we arrive to partake in a long, joyful Sunday lunch among local families crowding the terrace tables set up outside on the street. We sip glasses of Ibizan wine, soaking up the sun, while our girls run wild on the playground along with the rest of the village kids.
After a week on Ibiza's rhythm, we find ourselves at La Noria, a seafood restaurant near our house that's always packed with locals. Two kids, the parents and a grandmother linger over lunch in the sun-dappled shade beneath an arbor high on a cliff above the blue-blue sea. The scents of jasmine and grilled fish waft on the breeze. Everyone's happy in this mellow Mediterranean moment, Ibiza style.
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Cala Boix, San Carlos
Perched on a cliff above Cala Boix beach, this restaurant specializes in fresh fish and large paella dishes. There's a lovely outside terrace with sweeping sea views. The price for paella with fish is about $29. Closed in the winter.
Carrer Venda de sa Picassa, 2, Santa Gertrudis de Fruitera
A friendly establishment in the beautiful village of Santa Gertrudis, in the middle of Ibiza. Open all day; breakfast highlights include healthy juices and great coffee. Right across the street is a playground, so children can frolic while their parents linger over food and drinks. Delicious salads and main plates average about $15.
Plaza San Carlos, San Carlos
This restaurant is known for its large sunny terrace with fountains in the heart of San Carlos. Grilled steaks and fish dishes are available. There's a fixed-price lunch menu at about $14; main plates (like grilled fish) cost about $18. Closed from Dec. 23 to early February. Across the square is Bar Anita, the original "hippie bar" and now a legendary spot, but it is often crowded because of its storied history.
Carrer del Mestre Joan Mayans, 6, Eivissa
A great spot for homemade ice cream and smoothies in Old Town. Vivian, who launched the shop, is wife of Formula One champion Nico Rosberg. Closed in the winter months. Small scoop for about $4.10, medium for about $5.63.
Dramatized tours of the Dalt Vila
The Ibiza Tourist Office arranges a number of themed guided tours, such as this one, with actors in costume illustrating how people lived at the time of the construction of the Renaissance walls of the Old City. Tours every Saturday at 6 p.m. November to February, and 7 p.m. from March to October. Adult tickets cost about $11.75, and are free for children 7 and younger.
Guided tours can be arranged directly with Ibiza's network of professional guides. Prices vary depending on the length and theme. Full-day island excursions are also available.