This Spanish Island Is Betting on the Environment Instead of Tourism

Panoramic view
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If you’ve never heard of the Spanish island of Menorca, then the locals would probably consider that a success. The Mediterranean paradise is known for its authentic Menorquín culture, locally-sourced gastronomy, and secluded beaches, especially when compared to its much more popular neighbors, Mallorca and Ibiza. While the other islands spent decades catering to big resorts and tourists, Menorca did just the opposite, opting to keep hotels off its beaches and curtailing development. Now, the results are paying off.

The entire island was recognized as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1993 for its commitment to sustainability, protecting large parts of the island from being built on. For years, Menorca has mostly been visited by in-the-know Brits and Germans, but a hidden gem can only stay hidden for so long. As travelers continue to discover the island's unspoiled beauty, it’s gained a reputation as an off-the-radar alternative to Mallorca or Ibiza.

You would think the local government would try and capitalize on its emerging status, but instead, it’s done just the opposite. In 2019, Menorca requested that UNESCO move to protect more of the island’s terrain, including the waters around it, essentially putting a stop to any new development where it didn’t already exist. It’s not that Menorca wants to keep tourists out—the local economy depends on them—it just wants to do it right.

Making the Right Choices

Even for those who make an effort, it’s not always abundantly clear how to be a responsible traveler. To help well-meaning visitors make sustainable choices, the island council began to recognize businesses that positively impacted the island with a special designation: the Biosphere Reserve Seal. Applicants have to abide by strict environmental, social, and cultural criteria to earn the seal, which in turn lets potential customers know that they’re supporting a local business that’s committed to protecting the ecosystem.

In 2020, the first Biosphere Reserve Seals were granted to a diverse group, including hotels, restaurants, cheesemakers, scuba centers, and many others, and the list is growing.

Hotel Port Mahón

Set Hotels is a Menorcan hotel chain with nine properties on the island that are dedicated to sustainability. Three of them have already earned the Biosphere Reserve Seal, including their first hotel and architecturally the most stunning, the Hotel Port Mahón. The colonial-era building in the island’s capital city overlooks the Mahón Port, so you can wake up each day to a view of sailboats on the Mediterranean from your own balcony, all while enjoying a breakfast of locally sourced fruit, Menorcan cheese, and fresh eggs.

The hotel’s owners are from a family with generations of history in Menorca, so protecting the island is paramount to their business. Part of that plan includes phasing out all single-use plastic, plant-based cosmetics in the guestrooms and installing solar panels to provide renewable energy. Of course, your actions as a guest are just as important, but the hotel nudges visitors to make green choices as well. Towels and linens aren’t washed daily unless you request it, and there’s an “environmental corner” in the lobby to learn about eco-friendly excursions and points of interest around the island.

Mon Restaurant

Menorcan cuisine has always been about simplicity, using whatever’s in season or freshly caught and turning it into something delicious. Mon Restaurant may follow that same philosophy, although the menu is anything but simple. After earning a Michelin star for his work in Barcelona, Chef Felip Llufriu returned to his hometown of Ciutadella in Menorca to put his personal touch on the dishes he grew up eating. He elevates the already rich gastronomy to new levels by choosing ingredients from the island: in-season produce, meats from grass-fed animals, and fish caught the same day.

The ever-changing menu is gourmet without being pretentious, and if you order the lunchtime prix-fixe option, then the price is comparable to most other restaurants in the area. Depending on what time of year you dine at Mon, your meal may include a shrimp carpaccio, artichokes confit, Menorcan lobster empanadas, or croquettes of sobrasada, a cured sausage specialty from the islands. You can try local cuisine at many restaurants all over the island, but few do it quite as well as Mon.

Binibeca Diving

The Mediterranean Sea is practically synonymous with crystal clear water, so it’s not surprising that the high visibility and underwater meadows allure scuba divers and snorkelers alike. You can find tour companies all over the island, but Binibeca Diving is the only one that’s been recognized with the Biosphere Reserve Seal. If you want to try diving while making a difference, the center organizes beach cleaning excursions where visitors can dive for free while collecting garbage off of the seafloor (cleaning while kayaking or walking on the beach are also options). 

But you don’t need to be cleaning to enjoy the water responsibly. If you’ve never tried scuba diving and want to learn, the courses offered by Binibeca Diving focus on being an observer in the water without disturbing the wildlife. “If we teach students to love the sea, then we’re teaching them to take care of it at the same time,” said Meri Garcia, cofounder and one of the instructors. “You take care of what you love.”

Binitord Winery

Even before planting their first grapes, the creators of Binitord were already thinking about their effect on the environment. They chose to construct their vineyards in an abandoned quarry to minimize their impact on the local habitat. Their winemaking practices are the epitome of organic, with grazing sheep used to keep the weeds at bay and ladybugs acting as a natural pesticide. After birds ate over 30 percent of their crop one year, Binitord put in nests for predatory falcons to scare them away instead of using sonar systems or bird nets dangerous to all wildlife in the area. 

The winery also focuses on local commerce, with the vast majority of their annual 38,000 bottles sold exclusively in Menorca, according to the managing director Clara Salord. You can take a winery tour to learn more about their work to protect the land, which naturally ends with a tasting to try their products: two different red wines, a white wine, a rosé, and sweet vermouth.

Santo Domingo Produce

Menorca makes a point to highlight fruits and vegetables grown on the island, and even the big chain supermarkets call attention to local produce by placing a “KM 0” placard underneath them, signifying that your purchase hasn’t traveled from outside the island to get there. But to pick up some in-season products right from the source, one of the most ecological places to do so—and most scenic—is the Santo Domingo farm overlooking the sea. It’s right off the country road that leads to the coastal town of Punta Prima and about 15 minutes south of the capital city of Mahón.

If you want to try fresh produce without necessarily having to prepare it yourself—you are on vacation after all—continue driving past the Santo Domingo farm to the picturesque town of Binibeca, famous for its whitewashed houses overlooking the sea. The sustainable restaurant Salitre buys all of its produce from Santo Domingo and uses it to create a fresh farm-to-table menu each day, along with eggs, meat, and seafood that are all raised or caught from the island.

Lluriach Cheese

There are all kinds of typical Menorcan foods to try—lobster stew, cured meats, even a gin—but nothing is more emblematic of the island than Mahón cheese. You can find it as tapas at virtually any bar or pick some up from a market, but the best place to try it is right on the dairy farm. Of all the cheesemakers on the island, Lluriach is the first to receive the Biosphere Reserve Seal for its commitment to reducing plastic containers in their cheese and yogurt production. All of the yogurt produced on the farm is packaged in glass containers that are reused, while the artisan cheese is made in the same traditional way as it has been for generations. The biggest change from yesteryear is that, today, Lluriach uses biodegradable packaging.

Most tourists stay along the beachy perimeter of the island, but visiting the farm at Lluriach is an excuse to venture into the luscious and bucolic interior and see a completely different side of Menorca. Nina, one of the family owners of the farm, can usually be found in the shop where you can pick up something to eat. There are no formal guided visits, but it’s the type of small farm where you can just ask someone to show you how the cheese is made and end up on your own private tour.

Article Sources
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  1. UNESCO. "Menorca." Retrieved March 2021

  2. Menorca Preservation Fund. "UNESCO Biosphere Reserve Extention." August 7, 2019