Ruminations on a Drug-Free Ibiza

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The Spanish island of Ibiza (not pictured above) is — like a few other islands I can think of — as much a state of mind as an actual destination and its reputation precedes it. It is utterly Mediterranean, of mythical status almost by default. A lot of Ibiza’s allure is in the name, which sounds like baby prattle spiked with a soupçon of something savage. And how apt that is, because with hardly any effort on your part, Ibiza will tease your senses and transform ordinary sensibilities into something altogether more hedonistic.

In the 1960s, this southernmost of the three main Balearic Islands was a global hippie magnet. The seventies brought the jet-set and exuberant nightlife (think Studio 54 by the sea), and by the mid-nineties — as DJs such as Paul Oakenfold and Fatboy Slim became international celebrities and touched down on the island — there was no disputing Ibiza’s status as the world capital of clubbing. A perennial hot spot that is open all year long, Pacha, is filled on any given night with stunning, wealthy, and often “loaded” Europeans who can’t stop dancing because the DJs spin set after perfect, thumping set.

But to talk only of nightclubs in Ibiza would not do it justice because there is much more to discover. Beyond the sometimes frightfully overdeveloped southern coast are rocky landscapes baked by the sun and marked by gentle pine-clad foothills. Ibizan soil is very often red which, in concert with gnarled olive trees and a cobalt blue sky, makes for a visual feast. If you want to get to a feel for this terrain — and it’s worth getting to know — you will need to rent a car (reserve well ahead of time if you only drive automatic). The winding road north from Ibiza Town (the largest and most atmospheric town on the island) eventually deposits near Atzaro, a bastion of flash in the hinterland. The luxury hotel features an indoor–outdoor restaurant dotted with Buddha statues and such, a posh spa set in the middle of an orange grove, and villastyle accommodations. They grow their own fruits and vegetables here; if you want, you can pick a pomegranate from a tree and eat it.

In the island’s western backcountry, dirt roads and a security gate serve to deter paparazzi from an Ibizan farmhouse-style hideaway property, the finca-like Hotel Cas Gasi, which is favored by actors such as Richard Gere and others among the rich and famous. Above all, the place is quiet, a quality you’d be hard pressed to ascribe to Eivissa (as native Catalan speakers refer to the island), or Ibiza Town. There, Dalt Vila, a medieval citadel with ancient Roman origins, forms the uppermost part of town. It was built long ago with walled fortifications to keep pirates and other marauders at bay. The fortress walls seem to slink halfway up to the moon.

Just beyond Dalt Vila is the neighborhood of Sa Penya. Its serpentine streets and whitewashed buildings are reminiscent of Mykonos. The main drag is Calle de la Virgen, but if you go looking for a virgin on this little thoroughfare you could be in for a very long night. On the other hand, you’ll have no problem at all finding bars, discos, and pubs catering to whatever kind of crowd strikes your fancy. Like Dome next door to it, Soap boasts a nice terrace right below the ramparts. Up from that is — what else — Soap Up, the club’s gay counterpart. Wherever you alight, above the music you’ll hear not just Spanish spoken, but English, French, German, Italian, and Russian. It doesn’t get much more international than this. And if world peace ever breaks out, chances are greater it will happen in a place like this than a UN corridor.

If you want to stay in a place of understated chic that’s near Ibiza Town and less than 100 euros a night, the Casa Alexio in the Talamanca neighborhood is a good bet. It attracts a largely male clientele and has also been known to harbor refugees from upscale Ibiza properties fleeing the serenity-shattering shrieks of overly pampered young guests. The breakfast buffet is served from a civilized 10 a.m.–1 p.m., and leaves nothing to be desired. The owner, Xosé, takes your picture before you leave. The place has a special vibe, and I’m not telling you how to find it. I’ve already said too much.

Ibiza’s other big town, San Antonio, is on the northwest side of the island, and is essentially a summer colony for inebriated British youths, many of whom could make you fear for the future of Britain. The reason to go is to savor a sunset drink on the terrace of Café del Mar, a spot that has become such an Ibiza institution it churns out its own CDs.

Ibiza’s beaches range from entirely “touristy”— the concrete-fringed Playa d’en Bossa, for one — to drop-dead gorgeous. The best example of the latter is Es Cavallet, accessible either by car or by public bus from Ibiza Town. It’s a magnificent stretch of white sand that seems to have no end. Here, you can choose your scene: The first part of the beach attracts young families. The center veers into a sort of hamlet for European honeymooners, before it reaches its apotheosis in the gay section beyond. Each zone has its own beachside café and is clothing optional (remember it’s Ibiza with a “Z”). Beyond the blue-green waters, huddled like a flapjack over the sea, is the smaller, flatter island of Formentera, which has some fantastic beaches of its own. It’s one of the least developed islands in the Mediterranean, but probably not for long. Designer Philippe Starck has a place there, and nothing in these parts stays off the tourist radar for very long.

If opportunities for hedonism are grand in Ibiza, the island itself is balm enough for stressed-out souls. I can still remember hiking on my 30th birthday to a vantage point called es Torrent, which affords a spellbinding view of an islet called Es Vedra — local dialect for the Dragon. It is a thick mass of wind-sculpted limestone that shoots up more than a thousand feet from the sea like a primitive skyscraper, or a mute sea monster, and is said to be enchanted. And don’t you disbelieve it. As sunset approached on that terrible day when youth disappeared forever, streaks of brilliant pink light danced across the dark blue sea and, almost as if propelled by the thyme-scented breeze, rippled right up to the base of the dragon’s rocky claw. No nightclub could be as spectacular.

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