Formentera – Island #43

Wide open blue skies studded with fascinating clouds, beautiful pine trees and flamingos wading through the still waters of age-old salt marshes, Formentera was a total surprise!  With stunning views across the water to the Ibizan coast, white sandy beaches and some of the clearest water in the Mediterranean, this is an island well worth a visit. Take the boat over from Eivissa town but – be warned – choose your mode of transport well!

I visited little Formentera on a day trip from Ibiza. Several boats of different shapes and sizes leave the main port in Eivissa town throughout the day. The bigger the boat, the shorter the journey and the more expensive the ticket. Being the budget traveller that I am, I chose the cheapest! €20 return (rather than €40) Journey time 1 hour (instead of 30 mins). I wasn’t in a hurry and €20 pays for lunch! It wasn’t until we left the safety of the harbour and headed out towards the open sea that I realised why people were prepared to pay double. I have seen a lot of seasick people in my life (I used to work on a cruise ship) but on this trip I saw people actually turn green!! It had rained and the open deck was all wet so everyone crammed in ‘down below’. I had a window you could open, a little bit of fresh air and an uninterrupted view of the horizon so I survived – just! It wasn’t pretty.

I had no plan for Formentera and there is no bus service to speak of so, still feeling a bit queasy from the crossing, I decided to go for a walk. The boat docks in La Savina, a tiny town on the north of the island mostly catering to the needs of visitors arriving by yacht or by ferry.  Most people hired bikes or mopeds from the shop by the port (Formentera is very flat!) but it was a beautiful day and I love to walk so it seemed like a good plan. There are several well marked walking trails on Formentera. I walked past the yachts and through the fishermen’s section of the port to where the trails start and chose a path which runs along the coast. White waves crashed onto the beach on the other side of the neat wooden picket fence and I glimpsed stunning views across the wide expanse of blue water to Ibiza through the trees  on one side and beautiful mature pine trees on the other.

The path then turned inland along the edge of the salt marshes of Ses Salines National Park – a UNESCO World Heritage site and wildlife sanctuary. It is stunning! Sections of clear water divided by old stone dividing walls are home to flamingos, cormorants and hundreds of species of birds. Bright green pine trees line the path and wild flowers and shrubs grow along the way. It was absolutely beautiful and there wasn’t a soul there.

Apparently no salt has been panned here since 1984 when the operation was closed down but the island has been a source of salt for centuries and it is still produced naturally.  The wide sandy path runs between the calming waters of the salt pans and a row of pine trees which separates the path from the road. Signs clearly indicate that people should not attempt to walk across the stone dividing walls. It’s an unexpected and beautifully peaceful backdrop.It’s an unexpected and beautifully peaceful backdrop.

Ses Salines National Park covers a wide area of the island of Formentera and the channel between it and Ibiza.  It is home to the world-famous Posidonia, a mineral-rich single organism sea plant of extreme ecological importance, responsible for the purification of the ocean and the protection of the coastline from erosion. Here in Formentera, the government are placing great importance on this ancient natural wonder which covers an area of over 8 square miles and is considered to be the best-preserved example in the Mediterranean. Steps are being taken to protect it from hapless yachtsmen and other visitors unaware of its vital importance.

Eventually the path peters out and joins the road. A wide lake (the Estany Pudent saltwater lagoon) stretches out into the distance on the other side of the road and at one point the road is the only thing that separates the two bodies of water. The water is frothy where it meets the shore – apparently due to the high salt content of the lake. Although I saw an occasional white house with light blue shutters tightly closed for winter, I didn’t see any inhabitants. It was peaceful and beautiful. The only people I saw on the road were my fellow day trippers on bicycles and mopeds and the odd van or car.

The main island of Formentera is 19 kms long and is situated to the south of Ibiza, separated by a channel 3.6 kms wide at its narrowest point. It covers an area of 83.24 kms² and, with a year-round population of approximately 12,280 souls, it is the least populated of the Balearic Islands.  The island is divided into several sub-divisions called ‘parròquies’ and further divided into ‘vendas’.  It has only 6 major settlements or villages, the capital being Sant Francesc Xavier. Previously administered jointly with Ibiza, Formentera finally became a separate entity with its own council in 2007 after a long battle for independence from its larger neighbour. Included in the administrative area of Formentera are the island of Espalmador, a ‘tombolo’ or sandy isthmus – joined by a sandbar visible at low tide; and the uninhabited island of Espardell.  The island continues to remain dependent on Ibiza in many ways and the battle for separation, greater independence and equal rights with the other islands is ongoing.

In the 1960s and 70s the island became a popular destination for hippies, something which has shaped the island’s personality and earned it a reputation as a place for relaxation and tranquility (as opposed to the more frenetic reputation of its sister island Ibiza). Formentera has 69 kms of coastline much of it made up of beautiful white sandy beaches, many of which are designated nudist-friendly. During the summer months it attracts a high number of tourists and is particularly popular with Italians. At this time of year, the tourists appeared to be mainly retired, or perhaps resident, German couples.

I walked to Es Pujols, the nearest settlement.  It seemed to be very modern and, I would guess, mainly built to service tourists.  The beach was sandy and clean and the water a pale beautiful pale blue colour with a few little boats bobbing about in the bay.  Some hardy tourists braved it in swimwear on deck chairs.  Most things were closed with the exception of 2 beach-side restaurants.  One was expensive and full to the brim with tourists sitting outside at tables in the sun. The other was cheaper, shady and empty.  I took a seat in the full one, dodging the puddles everywhere from the recent rainfall.  After a couple of minutes a German couple asked if they could share my (sunny) table even though there were other tables available (but in the shade).  I couldn’t say no but it was awkward and, as no service was forthcoming after 5 long and uncomfortable minutes, I upped and left and went and sat happily on the shady terrace of the almost empty place next door with a lovely sea view; nice, prompt service and a table all to myself! Call me unsociable….!

I had a very welcome and much-cheaper-than-next-door lunch of a freshly made Spanish omelette and huge salad preceded by deliciously garlicky home-made allioli (garlic mayonnaise), olives and fresh bread washed down by local beer and a café solo all for the price I’d saved on the ferry ticket. The waiters and owners had their own lunch and played cards inside – apparently unconcerned with how busy their neighbours were!

I was going to walk all the way around the lake on the way back but it was difficult to judge the distance and I wasn’t sure how long it would take.  I didn’t want to miss the last boat and actually enjoyed the salt marshes so much I was happy to walk past them again, this time with different light.

I made it back to La Savina in good time to catch the last ferry, just as the sky was darkening and menacing clouds started to form.  It was very windy and a bit chilly as we set off at sunset. Apparently the weather had been so bad during the day that the service had actually been suspended and some boats cancelled. I chose to sit on the top deck, regardless of the weather. Give me a fresh breeze and open sky any day! I was joined by 4 other hardy souls and we all put on all the clothes we had with us. The Italians put their hats, coats and scarves on. The Brits wrapped themselves in their beach towels!  The cloud formations and the views of Espalmador as we sailed past were fantastic and the journey back was so much nicer than the one over.

I only saw a fraction of Formentera but I like to think I saw some of the best bits.  The salt marshes were definitely a highlight.  A fantastic walk in surprisingly beautiful scenery with a great lunch by a gorgeous beach.  Gràcies Formentera – sorry I didn’t see more of you.  Fins a la propera!

NEXT ISLAND:  Staying in the Baleares, my next island is Mallorca.

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