From a hardscrabble peasant economy to one of the world’s wealthiest enclaves in the space of 60 years… Few places on the planet have undergone changes as sweeping, as transformative, both for good and ill, as Ibiza.
Some of these shifts I have witnessed myself. It’s a story I’ve told before: for 10 years I lived in an old casa payesa in Sant Vicent de sa Cala at a time (the 1990s) when rent was as cheap as chips, smartphones and the internet hadn’t happened yet, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a good hotel on the island. When I returned earlier this summer I was celebrating a double anniversary: 30 years since I first set up home here, and 20 since I finally fled the madding crowds for a distant corner of the Iberian peninsula.
From the airport, I swung past Ibiza town on its hill beside the sea. Everything was still in post-Covid recovery mode and a strange, faintly dazed feeling was detectable. Along the road, sun-faded nightclub billboards advertising the closing parties of October 2019 seemed like messages from another world. The great dome of Privilege up on the heights of San Rafael looked forlorn and unkempt, the encroaching vegetation making it appear like a Mayan ruin in the early stages of being reclaimed by the jungle.
Whatever the pandemic brings in its wake, it’s hard to imagine a return to the unsustainable levels of excess that have ruled the island in recent decades. I saw signs of a new thoughtfulness, a new – and I never thought I’d say this – sobriety. Take Oku, which recently opened on the edge of San Antonio, a rebranding of the Casa Cook hotel that had its soft launch in 2019 and then closed. The design ditches the all-white aesthetic traditionally synonymous with Ibiza in favour of earthy, neutral tones, stone, linen and acres of grey concrete. Wooden slats now clothe the property’s slab-like modernist form. The funky chairs beside the pool are not from a big-name Scandinavian brand but handmade by artisans in Papua New Guinea.
I stood on my balcony and took in the sight below: a beauteous pool, bright young things lounging in swimwear, the gentle thud of house music. There was an atmosphere of elegant unflashiness, chastened chic, that seemed somehow attuned with the mood of the times. Raising my eyes along the horizon, I saw a sweep of dull identikit rooftops – the coastal suburbs of ‘San An’ – and, through a gap between the buildings, an enticing slice of blue sea. A crane loomed over the neighbourhood.
Hereby hangs a backstory. A moratorium by the Balearic government has halted the construction of new hotels on non-urban land, essentially forcing would-be developers to revamp old ones. Though it looks fresh, Oku is in fact based on the footings of a former three-star stay, a humble bucket-and-spader dating from the package-tour boom of the 1970s. As such, it’s a perfect illustration of a tendency – one that has come to the fore as the island rakes over its recent past – to see what can be retrieved, reassessed, and if at all possible, recycled.
Another example of this is Petunia, where I stopped one evening for dinner on a terrace with mesmeric views of the rocky islet Es Vedrà. Here, the reinvention effort was a labour of love, taking an Eighties, plain-Jane family hotel to the next level with a total overhaul, a fine, Italian-inflected restaurant in La Mesa Escondida, wonderful gardens and rooftop tables for soaking up the extraordinary panorama. On the night I was there, drinking cold fino sherry and nibbling burrata with olives and juicy figs, the soundtrack was a Brazilian guitarist playing soft bossa nova.
One of Ibiza’s realisations over the past few years is that context is irrelevant. You might find a sparkly W hotel in a bustling little town never previously noted for its glamour (Santa Eulalia). Or a smart seaside hotspot such as Beachouse at the scrappy end of Playa d’en Bossa, where the large Ushuaïa and Hard Rock Hotels fizzle out into overgrown waste ground and car parks. The old north-south divide is also increasingly redundant: you’re as likely to discover a cool boho scene among the glitz of the south as a whopping heavyweight resort on a wild northern beach.
As I traversed the island, I found plenty to confound my expectations as well as stir up long-dormant memories. Parts of my mental geography were virtually unrecognisable: Santa Gertrudis, in my day a one-horse hamlet with a couple of bars and a tobacconist, was now a fully grown town of done-up villas with a world-class cocktail bar, Overall, and Bottega il Buco, an outpost of New York restaurateur Donna Lennard’s Il Buco, also found in NoHo and the Hamptons.
Pitching up at Alma Beach in Port des Torrent, I recalled an old-fashioned Spanish chiringuito with white plastic chairs and fried calamares, not the rustic-modern hangout with artfully weatherbeaten interiors that it had become. Further round the west coast, I stopped for a dip at the pretty cove of Cala Moli, just down the road from the splashy private community Sabina Estates. Not long ago, there was a club at Cala Moli called Bagatelle where Cathy Guetta held court and the local police kept tabs on the decibel levels of its mad, all-night parties. Today the space, renamed El Silencio by its new French owners, has morphed into a sand-on-the-floor seaside restaurant with gorgeous wabi-sabi-like styling, a pool out back and a menu by young-gun chef Jean Imbert, known as the Jamie Oliver of France.
When you return to a place you lived 30 years ago, there are bound to be ghosts around every corner. Watching the sunset from the clifftop terraza at Hostal La Torre – a key spot for frustrated dance-music lovers during the lockdown period – I smiled to remember a party here during the naughty 1990s, when sleeping pills were distributed under another guise and the sun rose to reveal a landscape littered with snoring bodies. La Torre is not the only delicious makeover of a tired hostel – look at Los Enamorados in Portinatx, the delightful waterside bolthole curated by design freaks Pierre Traversier and Rozemarijn de Witte.
My stomping ground was always the rural north: the hills and villages around Santa Inés, San Juan and Cala San Vicente. And that was where I headed next, drawn by the single-track roads winding among almond fields and the secret calas (creeks) of the coast. Arriving at the sweeping bay of Cala Xarraca, on the far tip of the island close to Portinatx, I cast my mind back 25 years to a summer weekend’s camping beside a freshwater spring that dribbled out of the cliff. Here, on a site that would have been visible from where I pitched my tent, is where the island’s most talked-about new place to stay has made landfall. New, yes, but based on a tatty tourist retreat that had stood on this plot for decades. Another silk purse out of a sow’s ear. The building creeps up the crag, imitating the dun-coloured tones of the surrounding stone; the bamboo shades over the terraces are a visual reference to the boat sheds huddling in the rocky calas along the water’s edge.
Gossip has been swirling locally as to the appropriateness of placing a 116-room escape on a stretch of largely unspoilt shoreline. Six Senses Ibiza is certainly big and opulent, and involves a massive investment by a powerful international brand, but having visited on the eve of its opening, I’m happy to report that the alarm is mostly unjustified. Of course, this is a high-end hideaway that pulls out all the stops, but we’re a long way from Ushuaïa. The entire space is free of single-use plastics, the Agora fashion store sells restored and recycled clothes, and the in-house Earth Lab aims to teach guests about sustainability. The organic produce at HaSalon at The Piazza restaurant – helmed by Eyal Shani, the founding father of new Israeli cuisine – is sourced from the company’s farm outside Santa Gertrudis. As an indication of just how far it is from blaring techno around the pool, there are plans to host a classical music event here next year.
What I’d found around the island so far was evidence of a stocktake, a pause for thought and consolidation. But if the coast is reimagining the infrastructure of the package-tour era, out in the countryside the movement is fuelled by nostalgia for the Ibiza of a much earlier time: simpler and more pastoral.
Driving into the interior, I was soon surrounded by agricultural land. The dark-green hillsides dotted with farmhouses in the typical white- washed, cuboid style; the tiendas selling everything from sandals to sardines; the clouds of chalky dust that billowed up on the bumpy tracks among the pines… This was the Ibiza I’d known and loved, but still there were innovations. Back in the day, the sleepy hamlet of San Lorenzo had a single bar, the Casanova, where country folk went to smoke cheroots and play cards. Rechristened Casa Lhasa, it now specialises in natural and biodynamic wines, though the homespun decoration has been lovingly maintained. And the local restaurant La Paloma has long since become the pillar of social life in the village. I went there for dinner one evening with Serena Cook who, after almost 20 years at the helm of Ibiza’s most creative concierge business, has her finger firmly on the island’s pulse, can always get the best tables and is the keyholder to some of the most special villas around. She also knows about the loveliest new hotels, especially those low-key ones that open their doors quietly.
Lying in bed the next morning with the dazzle of a flaming June day filtering through the shutters, I looked up at the ceiling of my bedroom at Can Domo. For 10 whole years, I reflected, something very similar to this view of beams and rough-hewn plaster was what I gazed at. One of the first wave of agriturismos in Ibiza, Can Domo was recently taken over by the three Spanish partners behind Can Tres on Formentera. The group has overhauled the house and its grounds, drawing on a deep knowledge of the area’s traditional architecture. I wandered around in a mild aesthetic trance, registering the twisted wooden gates between stone walls, the aroma of jasmine, the flame-thrower blasts of bougainvillaea against the white façade turned ultraviolet by the midday sun.
My island odyssey was drawing to a close. I would spend my last hours poking around small villages, checking out old haunts. Though most of my friends here have moved away, a few stubbornly cling on, resisting the sky-high cost of living in a spot that’s become a magnet for the super-rich. Meanwhile, it’s drawn in more bohemian creatives such as Patricia Marañón, a floral designer working with organic and wild blooms, and her friend Laura de Grinyo, a ceramicist inspired by the forms of classic ibicenco pottery. It was Marañón who introduced me to the community of estate owners who are restoring and regenerating great swathes of abandoned land. The passion projects of Rebecca Frayn, who is bringing a spectacular finca in San Vicente back to productive life, and Sophie Daunais and Christian Jochnick, with their ambitious farm-to-table venture Juntos in San Mateo, are remarkable enough to warrant a story of their own.
For the moment, there was one thing I still had to do before heading home. I drove back west to a place that has lingered in a corner of my mind for a quarter of a century: Punta Galera, where the natural terraces of smooth rock act as shelves for sunbathing like a lizard. On the walk down through the forest, balsamic scents of heat-baked pine and rosemary flung open the synapses of my memory. I cast myself off a rugged slab into water as intensely blue as turquoise ink and somehow viscous, so swimming in it felt languid and sensuous.
Then I saw it: a scene straight out of Ibiza central casting. A niche in the cliff held a miniature temple to some Hindu deity. In front of this impromptu shrine, a bearded fellow in the lotus position was doing something with a rolling paper. He had clearly made a dwelling for himself on this ledge above the sea. Arranged among the rubble were kitchen implements, piles of clothes, tomato plants in pots. And before him sat an acolyte (every guru should have one). She was a blonde girl, cross-legged with an expensive-looking leather tote bag at her side. On the rock face above them a series of legends, gobbets of feel-good hippie wisdom, had been written in paint.
It reminded me that even as one generation moans about how much more magical and idyllic Ibiza was in their day, successive generations are already finding new sources of magic and idyll. Meanwhile, the island continues to evolve, even if old-timers such as me sometimes have a hard time adjusting to the new realities. One of the guru’s cliffside messages caught my eye. Both a piece of advice and a kind of farewell, it seemed appropriate. I committed it to memory as I set off to catch my flight with the salt still drying on my skin: ‘Accept, and let it go. Live now.’
THE BEST BEACH CLUBS IN IBIZA
Oceanside dining with French panache at Cala Moli. Not to be missed are the multicoloured installation by artist Miranda Makaroff and chef Jean Imbert’s avocado dish – it’s oven-baked and delicious. elsilencioibiza.com
A fine example of the elevated chiringuito. Neighbouring Eat is Life and Alma Canalla, with burgers by Valencia’s The Black Turtle, make Port des Torrent something of a gastro melting pot. almabeachibiza.es
With rustic rattan, washed-out linen and sandy floors, Jondal, on the cala of the same name, is Ibiza’s restaurant of the moment, no contest. On a hot day it bustles with beautiful people who come for chef Rafa Zafra’s impeccably prepared fish and shellfish. casajondal.es
THE BEST BARS AND RESTAURANTS IN IBIZA
BOTTEGA IL BUCO
Donna Lennard’s focacceria/wine bar has quickly become the leading Santa Gertrudis dinner address. ilbuco.com
Finally, the island gets the avant-garde coctelería it’s been wanting for years, set in the foodie hub of Santa Gertrudis. overallibiza.myshopify.com
Its sign reads, ‘Wine. Coffee. Oysters.’ Which almost sums it up, except the rebooted San Lorenzo bar also does a great line in small plates such as Iberian pork loin with courgettes. instagram.com/casa.lhasa.ibiza
Gran Hotel Montesol is an Ibiza town institution. And with Hilton’s Curio Collection no longer running the show, the Experimental Group has taken over, opening a recharged restaurant designed by Dorothée Meilichzon this summer and bedrooms next year. sabbabamontesol.com
THE BEST PLACES TO STAY IN IBIZA
A 300-year-old casa payesa in the classic ibicenco style, this gorgeous San Lorenzo property had stood abandoned for 80 years before its exemplary six-year restoration job. The makeover by Dutch interior designer Carmen Straatsma is an exercise in balancing contemporary taste with an injection of personality. Modern and mid-century furniture sits beside tribal art and edgy lighting. Plus there’s a saltwater pool and biodynamic farm-to-table dining. Centuries-old olive trees stand guard while peacocks patrol the paths. From about £65,000 per week (exclusive use, sleeps 18). fincadelica.com
SIX SENSES IBIZA
Booked out well before it opened, this much-talked- about arrival is drawing hordes of wellness-focused travellers to the north of the island. Doubles from about £645. sixsenses.com
San Antonio but not as you know it. Crisp styling, cool vibes and access to the west coast’s beaches. Doubles from about £310. okuhotels.com
New owners have transformed this relaxed country farmhouse into a gorgeous hipster hideaway. Doubles from about £140. candomoibiza.com
A total revamp has given these buildings with the best views of Es Vedrà a fresh energy. Doubles from about £230. petuniaibiza.com
WHO TO CALL
The original fixer for anything you want organised while in Ibiza, from villas to chefs, drivers to yoga teachers. It also advises on the loveliest beaches, places to shop – founder Serena Cook is mad about La Galeria Elefante – and quiet corners such Cala Xuclar, which has a tiny chiringuito, great cliff jumping and underwater caves for snorkelling. deliciouslysortedibiza.com
Keep scrolling for more pictures of Ibiza
Like this? Now read: