The island of Ibiza is world famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) for being an elite 24/7 party island. It’s for this reason that I didn’t really have any urge before to visit this iconic Balearic destination, imagining it to be a hedonistic haven for perennially drunk tourists and tweaking clubbers. So in 2011, when I had a chance to visit Ibiza for the first time to attend a wedding, I was extremely surprised to discover that this spectacular island is so much more than its party-hard reputation — in fact, that’s just a small fraction of Ibiza’s character, and defining it so would be akin to saying that Paris is just a city for lovers of cheese.
What I soon discovered was an island fringed with alluring hidden coves, majestic cliffs, lush citrus groves, historic walled towns, charming beachside restaurants and cafés, and sapphire waters you can’t tear your eyes from. And there was this rolling soundtrack of mesmerizing melodies from José Padilla too everywhere I went, creating a full sensory experience of my first Ibiza visit.
Fast forward to the summer of 2020, on the heels of the most devastating pandemic that shredded the Spanish tourism sector, which, pre-Covid, contributed 11% to Spain’s economy annually. After over 100 days of one of the strictest lockdowns in the world, and certainly the most stringent in Europe, Spain slowly opened up in phases at the end of June and attempted to salvage the summer season with a tourism campaign to help kickstart its battered economy.
Yet international travel to Spain remains sparse (a massive difference compared to its record-shattering tourism numbers over the past few years) with many of its usual visitors still prohibited from travel to Spain. And so, the iconic Balearic destinations of Ibiza, Mallorca and Menorca, usually packed with tourists at peak summer months, this year found themselves beautifully bare, with only a handful of tourists from the mainland and neighbouring Mediterranean countries Italy, France and Portugal.
Ibiza sin turistas
On a typical year, the thought of traveling to Ibiza for the summer would just not cross my mind. But as this pandemic has transformed everything into the Upside Down dimension, suddenly Ibiza was an attractive travel option, open for exploration, rife with generous hotel discounts and, well, not a bad way to help revive the Spanish economy.
An empty Ibiza revealed its true splendor. We stumbled upon some incredible hidden places, including ancient Phoenician ruins, forest bars straight out of the Lord of the Rings, and clandestine coves.
My favourite eating and drinking spots
And of course, there’s the food. Not only were we were able to make reservations at places that would normally be impossible to book, we also got wind of favourite spots recommended by locals, with whom we had time to chat given the low tourist turnout. Here below is a roundup of my favourite of all the amazing restaurants we were fortunate to visit. (Please note that I am not affiliated with any of these establishments, these are my honest and independent recommendations 🙂 ).
1. Es Boldadó — Seafood with a stunning sea view (€€)
Nothing sums up a perfect beach holiday than fresh seafood by the beach. Restaurante Es Boldado takes this a step further with its offer of the freshest assorted catch of the day, premium Spanish and French regional wines, enjoyed with a spectacular panoramic view of Cala D’Hort. The restaurant is carved on a cliffside across the cove, and is designed with wide open terraces and balconies for full viewing pleasure.
We started off with one of my go-to Spanish favourites boquerones (white anchovies in olive oil and garlic) and steamed mussels, paired perfectly with a bottle of albariño, white wine from the Rias Baixas region.
Our favourite was the grilled seafood platter, which came with a very generous array of superfresh grilled prawns, prawns, monkfish, and sea bass, best savoured with a sprinkling of lemon.
2. Ca n’Esmeralda – Cozy local sunset spot with gourmet level dishes (€)
We heard about Ca n’Esmeralda from an elderly scuba diving British couple who live on the island. This cozy little corner in Sant Josep easily became my favourite dining spot in Ibiza for offering some of the best — I’d say even gourmet level — dishes we had on our trip at very friendly prices, very friendly wait staff and a fantastic spot for sunset watching. I highly recommend the Beef tenderloin with truffled mashed potatoes and foie, scallops au gratin with a mango and citrus emulsion, tuna tartare with black garlic mayonnaise and mango vinaigrette, and seasonal grilled vegetables with (incredible) romesco sauce (a traditional Catalan sauce made with roast peppers, tomatoes, garlic, lemon and almonds.)
Not on the menu, but a nice island touch are the adorable little geckos prancing about the wooden floors. We named this one “Becky” aka Becky the Gecko:
I loved washing this all down (except Becky of course) with a glass of organically grown rosado.
3. La Paloma — A magical Mediterranean garden (€€)
Bathed in moonlight, Restaurante La Paloma is an enchanted fever-dream. This could very well be a popular Elven restaurant in the realm of Lothlorien, with its glowing citrus trees, candlelit tables, dreamy angel statues and vintage furniture amidst a romantic Mediterranean garden.
La Paloma’s homemade traditional dishes from Tuscany, where the bohemian owner is originally from, are elaborated from organically sourced ingredients from their very own vegetable garden and local suppliers on the island. Apart from their divine homemade focaccia bread, we loved their risotto with lamb ragu, charred aubergines and spaghetti vongole (clam spaghetti).
4. Imagine Restaurant Beach Bar – Squidtastic by the shore (€)
A chance discovery along the Playa Port d’es Torrent! We marvelled at what for me is their star dish – the fried calamares (squid) served with a spicy kimchi sauce (we loved it so much we came back two more times!). Imagine serves very well made traditional Spanish tapas with their own twist, with prices that won’t break the bank. A great place to dig your toes in the sand and watch Ibiza’s coastline light up while toasting with ice cold beers.
5. Café del Mar – A sunset is forever (€€€)
The iconic Café del Mar brings back memories of the early 2000s when I listened to its mesmerizing chillout compilations on way too many beach trips and day after parties. So coming here felt like my past was merging with my present, as we watched the sun languidly melt into the sea over massive cocktails, and a chilled out version of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” played in the background.
We spoke to our very kind server from Romania, who told us that pre-pandemic, the Café del Mar terrace, where we were sitting at, would be packed every day with 150 tables (and there would certainly not have been time to chat with the busy wait staff.) But that afternoon, the tables were reduced to 40, with a lot of space in between to comply with social distancing policies. (We actually needed to reserve ahead to sit at the terrace, with a consumable charge of minimum 30eu per person or 45eu per person for the premium spot by the beach.) Admittedly, this is not the place to linger with such expensive prices, but for that sunset, that soundtrack, and those strong cocktails, it is worth the unforgettable experience.
As soon as the fiery orange circle touched the horizon, an appreciative crowd applauded and cheered as is tradition here (and apparently all around Ibiza, as we soon noticed). It is so comforting to know that in spite of everything going on in the world today, there are still awesome elements in the natural world that can still captivate us and move us to gratitude.
6. Cala Bonita — Fresh catch and catchy tunes (€€€)
Cala Bonita is a snapshot of contrasts: an elegant rustic setting by a craggy, off-the-beaten path cove; a resident DJ playing great chillhouse music to energize a tranquil fisherman’s hideaway. We started with fresh oysters and the Ensalada mixta Cala Bonita, to prepare us for the main event, the fresh catch of the day, in our case the good-looking lubina a la parilla (grilled sea bass) that the gracious staff pre-slices by your table.
It is of little wonder that Ses Roques is a popular choice for weddings, as it crowns the breathtaking Cala Comte on the San Josep coastline. To think that this place started out in the 80s as a humble chiringuito (beach bar) that served customers coming in by boat from neighbouring Sant Antoni de Portmany.
This was one of our top dinner spots with a fantastic selection at reasonable prices. We loved the parillada de verduras (grilled vegetables), aguacate gambas (avocado and shrimp) and the solomillo de ternera (beef steak) — which was the best steak we had on this trip.
That night, the local government had just imposed a 7PM curfew for the beach, and a strict no smoking policy anywhere, even in open spaces. So we were actually stopped by the local police before getting to the restaurant, and if we hadn’t had a reservation, we would have had to turn back.
8. The Beach Ibiza — Homebase and a brief history of fideuá (€)
With such unerring nomenclature, The Beach right by our hotel became our home base. It had all the elements we were looking for to make it our go-to meeting spot: a beautiful and tranquil beach on Cala de Bou that overlooks the boat-speckled bay and the San Antoni Promenade, a stylish Mediterranean setting, very warm wait staff (Javier was just wonderful) and of course great food and drinks.
I highly recommend the grilled prawns (which we ordered four times this trip) and the fideuá de marisco y pescado – a traditional Valencian noodle dish, reminiscent of paella or arròs a banda (rice cooked in fish stock, served with assorted seafood and shellfish such as mussels, crayfish and shrimp). The origin story of fideuá goes back to 1915, and traced to a Valencian fisherman named Joan Batiste Pascual (fondly known as “Zabalo”) who worked as a cook on a fishing boat. He regularly prepared and served paella to the sailors, but as the story goes, the boat captain loved rice so much that he hardly left the sailors their fair share. So Zabalo thought of changing the rice to pasta noodles, which the captain didn’t like as much, to keep him from being greedy.
9. Es Virot (€€)
Es Virot is a cool and cozy family-style restaurant along the Port d’es torrent on Cala de Bou, right by the beach. At night, you can view the pretty lights on the anchored boats and the Sant Antoni Promenade right across. A green light across the bay reminded me of the East Egg dock in the opening chapter of The Great Gatsby.
Here once again we had our fideuá de marisco fill, and got to sample their excellent local craft beer, but for me, the absolute main event was the assorted homemade, artisanal dessert platter, which the restaurant takes pride in. We celebrated our friend Eyad’s birthday here, and thanks to our early conspiracy with the very affable staff, we surprised him with this glorious birthday dessert feast, featuring their popular homemade tiramisù and greixonera. a traditional Ibicenco dessert.
We also had a chance to savour the beautiful paintings of the Ibicenca artist Cristina Gonzalez , the daughter of the restaurant owner, who graced the restaurant’s hallways with the sapphire colours of the Balearics.
Ibiza Upside Down
To end this Mediterranean daydream, I fully realize just how lucky we are to have been able to visit one of the most beautiful and iconic destinations on the planet. Living in Madrid affords us to take a mere 50 minute flight to Ibiza, which ironically back in the “normal” times, we didn’t take advantage of.
It doesn’t take a Sherlock to note that most of these photos I took revealed half or nearly empty restaurants, and one imagines just how packed these would have been during the peak summer seasons in the past. Suffice to say that the impact of Covid has been devastating on local businesses who depend on tourism every summer. And while we have been very fortunate to experience the beauty of Ibiza bereft of the tourist masses, I really do hope that the island will see better days, and a harmonious equilibrium of visitors and the local economy will be reached. Maybe this pandemic will be a turning point for a better, more accurate image of the mythical Ibiza.