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Spanish Isle Is an Outdoor Museum

June 12, 1988|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

MAHON, Spain — "Our philosophy is not to work for more material things, but to live the life."

That's the word from the island of Menorca, second-largest of Spain's Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean Sea.

The island, 10 by 30 miles, has 60,000 people (Mahon, principal port city, has 28,000), more than 1,000 prehistoric sites and monuments and at least 120 beaches. To the Romans, Menorca meant "the small one," in contrast to the neighboring isle of Majorca, "the large one."

The serenity of life and the azure sea rippling into island bays and coves brought Prince Rainier of Monaco and Princess Grace Kelly here for their honeymoon. King Juan Carlos I of Spain and Queen Sofia often come here from Madrid to hide out near the fishing and resort village of Fornells, where Es Pla is known to the gourmands of Europe for its fresh fish and lobster.

Visitors need not be royalty to be welcomed, however. Hotels, small inns, restaurants and cafes offer low to moderate prices. Double accommodations run from about $40 to $130 U.S.

Quiet Beaches

Menorcan officials are hoping to attract more visitors. The island offers a simple life style, culture and history, quiet beaches, walking trails, pasturelands, mountain views and cliff-side coastal roads.

Menorca is an outdoor museum preserving one of the world's most impressive collections of Stone Age and Bronze Age constructions. New development is controlled.

Some beaches and coves are havens for water sports, while others are intimate and solitary, approachable only from the sea. Small islets close to Mahon are sanctuaries for sea birds. The northern beaches are paradise for bird watchers.

Menorca can afford to be independent. Its costume jewelry, high-fashion shoes, high-tech small industries, custom-made furniture and some of the best cheese made anywhere undergird the island economy.

There are some 40,000 head of dairy cattle on interior pasturelands.

More than 175 leather-shoe enterprises export to such outlets as Cardin in Paris. The International Costume Jewelry Fair is held annually in Mahon. Custom-made furniture reflects styles that can be 18th-Century Queen Anne or classic French. The British eras brought the making of lemon-flavored Plymouth gin to the island.

Moved Out of Caves

At least 4,000 years before Christ, the first people arrived at Menorca on tree-trunk rafts in search of water, animals for food and cave dwellings that could be defended. Ornamentation on the caves indicates the development of community life with a respect for authority and morality.

During the Bronze Age that followed, from about 1,600 to 200 BC, Menorcans moved out of the caves into houses built of wood and began tilling the fields and breeding domestic animals.

Remains of one of their homes is considered the world's oldest. In and around their villages, with an unknown technology, they built the religious crosses of massive stone called taula and the megalithic towers called talayot --today visitor attractions.

The Greeks, Phoenicians, Romans, Carthaginians, Byzantines and Moors all occupied Menorca. The Greeks brought cattle as well as the Goddess Athena. British, French and Spanish contended for centuries until the Treaty of Amiens returned Menorca and the Balearics to Spain in 1802.

There was a time, in the early 1970s, when the rapid increase of tourism threatened the island as new hotels and urban developments rose. However, growth was slowly controlled.

Great Britain Leads Way

No new hotels are planned for this year. One of the largest and most scenic bays around Ciudadela, which was the capital city under the British, has only three resort hotels.

Out of a new record high of 506,000 foreign visitors last year, eight of 10 were from Great Britain.

Local romantics will assure you that Admiral Horatio Nelson and Lady Emma Hamilton lived the life of their romance on the Golden Farm estate of San Antonio near Mahon.

American visitors will find the roots of such American cities as Oakland and St. Augustine, Fla., as well as the history of the Navy.

David G. Farragut, for whom Congress created the rank of admiral to honor his leadership of Union naval forces during the Civil War, was born in Tennessee of Menorcan heritage and came to the island when the American Mediterranean squadron was based in the port of Mahon.

His bust overlooks the harbor at Ciudadela as the result of the efforts of Jim Maps, an American and tour guide who has lived on Menorca for the past 30 years.

The ancestor of American novelist and poet Stephen Vincent Benet was an early immigrant from Menorca to St. Augustine; Mahon and St. Augustine regularly exchange delegations of visitors.

John Clar, born Juan Clar on Menorca in 1813, became an American naval officer and then acquired part of an old Spanish land grant to become one of the founding pioneers of the city of Oakland.

Walking Tour

The streets of Mahon, along with many of the buildings, are reminiscent of British rule.

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