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It’s party time!” a young woman cries as the aeroplane begins its descent over the Mediterranean. My fellow travellers are gearing up for a hectic week of debauchery, applying lipstick, draining plastic glasses of cava, eking out the last drops of Bacardi and Coke. “The problem is that I’m going to be doing daytime drinking,” says my neighbour, a Londoner who will turn 30 the next day. His grin suggests the problem is surmountable.
We are arriving at Ibiza in Spain’s Balearic Islands. It is 11pm on a Monday in early July, the start of the summer season at Europe’s most famous citadel of hedonism. Our budget plane roars over Ibiza Town harbour above nightclubs with superstar DJs and a marina full of superyachts. Newcomers to the bacchanalia stand out like gauche provincials in a Hogarth print of 18th-century London. “First time in Ibiza?” an old hand asks a young woman after the plane lands. “Just do everything you can.”
Ibiza’s bohemianism runs deep. According to folklore, it was home to the sirens who sang to Odysseus, Homer’s lethal disco divas. Artists came in the 1920s, attracted by picturesque vistas and Mediterranean light. Hippies settled there in the 1960s, going back to nature in a place where nature gives a pretty decent account of herself — a 220 sq mile oasis of pine forests, sandy beaches, secluded coves and spectacular sunsets, 90 miles from mainland Spain.
The White Isle’s transformation into dance-music Mecca began in the 1980s. “Balearic beat”, invented by the island’s DJs under the influence of Chicago house and MDMA, aka Ecstasy, helped spark the acid house craze that swept the UK in 1989. Since then “Ibeefa” has loomed large in the imaginative topography of British youth culture, a land of sunshine and permissive attitudes where a binge of pleasure-seeking awaits.
On the way from the airport, billboards advertise nightclubs instead of cars and banks. I pass one for Space, an Ibiza institution. “Explore the darker side of Mondays,” it beckons.
My destination is the island’s oldest nightspot. Pacha is a 3,500-capacity “super-club” and a global brand that is this year celebrating its 50th summer season. It started out in Barcelona, then opened in Ibiza in 1973 in a converted farmhouse on the outskirts of Ibiza Town. It is still on the same site, and is still run by its founder, Ricardo Urgell.
Pacha Ibiza occupies an attractively mazy complex with annexes and outdoor spaces radiating from a central dance floor. Old whitewashed walls and palm trees are relics of the original finca. This year it came fourth in a poll of 500,000 clubbers by DJ Magazine to find the world’s best clubs. Space and another local rival, Amnesia, were first and third respectively.
The number of visitors to Ibiza has grown rapidly — up 44 per cent from 2010 to last year — yet uncertainty stalks the super-clubs this season. Several days before my arrival, tax authorities raided a number of venues across the island including Space (Pacha was not one of them). The clampdown, called Operation Chopin — the Spanish Tax Agency and National Police takes its anti-disco responsibilities seriously — followed the discovery of €2m hidden in the walls and floors of the aptly named Amnesia, whose owner was arrested.
Other factors are adding to the pressure. A new licensing law passed by Ibiza Council came into effect this summer forcing clubs to stop playing music at 6.30am, a blow to a scene that prides itself on 24-hour revelry. This month a tourist tax was introduced by the Balearics’ regional government. The head of Ibiza’s tourism department, Vicente Torres, has said that the island’s infrastructure cannot “support much more increase” in visitors.
Meanwhile longstanding Ibiza devotees complain that the island is becoming increasingly geared to Europe’s super-rich — those eager to spray champagne in the growing number of exclusive beach clubs — rather than the young, alternative and bohemian.
There are no wild scenes of libertinage at Pacha during my visit. During most of the week its state-of-the-art sound system blasts out sets by big-name DJs such as David Guetta. But I am greeted by the sedate sight of clubbers milling around to The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” amid psychedelic lighting and go-go dancers on podiums.
It is Pacha’s long-running night “Flower Power”, an ersatz celebration of Ibiza’s hippy heritage, costing upwards of €58 a ticket. Flouting the all-white dress code, punters wear the Ibizan uniform of shorts and T-shirts (him) and impossibly short hemlines (her). The air of nostalgia is as listless as the two skimpily attired female professional dancers inside a giant champagne glass on the roof terrace.
The following day I explore Ibiza Town, the island’s capital, with a population of 50,000. Cafés and restaurants line the harbour promenade, leading to a lighthouse on a sea wall. An Englishman expostulates angrily to himself, either a casualty of drugs or the heat, or, more likely, both. It is 32C and the sun blazes in a cloudless blue sky.
On a hill behind the harbour, the old town is a romantic tangle of whitewashed houses and eruptions of purple bougainvillea. It is surrounded by heavily fortified town walls, a legacy of centuries of invasions. Art galleries look back to the days of painters sketching Balearic landscapes. A café sprays a thin mist of water over customers to keep them cool. The sound of cicadas and traffic rises up from the streets below.
At the top of the hill are panoramic views and the town’s principal landmark, its 16th-century cathedral. A huge cruise ship hulks outside the harbour, one of 154 forecast to visit this year, up from 120 in 2015. A couple of miles away to the west is the Playa d’en Bossa beach, the longest on the island. A taxi later, I arrive there to encounter a less tranquil scene.
The beach is adjacent to a busy road lined with fast-food restaurants bearing names such as Steak ’n’ Shake, and billboard adverts promising “The biggest paint party on the island”. Elsewhere there are many quiet beaches and pristine coves, but this mile-long strip of sand is packed with young holidaymakers. Techno thuds from beach lounges and pool parties. As the afternoon sun beats down, a group of English lads casually drink litre bottles of Smirnoff Ice.
But the sea is inviting. Ducking underwater, I see a silvery gilthead bream twisting in front of me, indifferent to the human hordes — at least until the day it is served with chips.
Notions of Ibiza as an idyll in danger of being spoilt recur throughout its tourist history. Hippies complained that the jet set corrupted the island in the 1970s, who in turn scorned the package holiday-makers of the 1980s. Attempts to regulate its nightlife follow the same pattern. Clubbers fear the island’s carnival reputation is under threat.
The Pacha Group’s response to changing trends is diversification. The company has already franchised eight other Pacha clubs across the globe and also runs hotels, restaurants, a luxury yacht charter and a record label. Turnover was €78m last year. Now it is embarking on an ambitious programme of growth, with plans for 25 more hotels by 2025, alongside 10 more clubs and 50 restaurants.
I stay at its Destino resort, a handsomely designed enclave for richer, older clubbers with swimming pools, sun loungers and a beautiful view over the harbour towards Ibiza Town. Pristine rows of white buildings house the rooms. Mine has a ceiling mirror above the bed, a louche touch amid the style.
In the evening I dine at its fanciest venture, a cabaret restaurant called Lío. It is sited in Ibiza Town’s marina, where luxury shops stand in place of chandleries and superyachts costing €350,000 a week to hire are berthed. Singers and burlesque dancers entertain us as we eat. Occasionally we are encouraged to wave wads of fake money on the table.
It is the most surreal meal of my life. At a certain point I realise that I am eating what must be the world’s most expensive chicken and chips while watching a pair of female dancers perform risqué moves to a remix of Hozier’s “Take Me to Church” against a stunning backdrop of sea and boats.
Pacha’s yacht arrives with more dancers, a shimmying vision of salsa and sequins. It is a watered-down version of Ibizan decadence, but the fun is infectious. By the end, I am on my feet dancing as a bearded drag queen performs a version of Italian disco song “Amore”.
Afterwards, I take a taxi to Space, on the other side of town in every sense. The 5,000-capacity club has been run since 1989 by Pepe Rosello, now 80 years old, but is being taken over next year by a nearby rival, Ushuaïa. To regulars, its closure is akin to the ravens departing the Tower of London, an omen symbolising the victory of the VIPs over countercultural Ibiza. I pay £42 for an online ticket.
“Do you have any pills?” a young woman shouts over the beats as I enter the main room. Presumably she is unable to think of any other reason for a man in his forties to be present, greying hair eerily lit in the ultraviolet light. The music is hard and relentless, the opposite to Lío’s cabaret fripperies. The club’s longstanding DJ Carl Cox is holding his valedictory residency, titled “Music Is Revolution: The Final Chapter”.
“You will understand house music is freedom,” a vocalist intones during a track. Revellers raise their hands in response, worshippers at the altar of electronic music. But a question looms in the shadows. How much longer will it remain in its Ibizan cathedral?
Ludovic Hunter-Tilney is the FT’s pop critic
Ludovic Hunter-Tilney was a guest of Pacha. Double rooms at Pacha’s Destino resort cost from €330 per night; doubles at the company’s El Hotel cost from €325, including breakfast
Photographs: Ana Ruiz de Villota; Getty Images; Tatiana Chausovsk; Xavier Ferrand