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From the Mallorcan seaside town of Colònia de Sant Jordi, the island was a dark, diffuse shape on the horizon. As the ferry drew closer, I found myself scanning the landscape — a rugged land mass speckled with green — for signs of tourist life: hotels, blocks of flats, marinas. There was nothing to be seen until we rounded the corner into a sheltered bay where a few boats were moored in a tiny harbour, a pretty collection of whitewashed houses that is the island’s only settlement. A few battered four-wheel drives, the island’s only vehicles, came and went. There was a big pine tree, two rusty cannons and a single yapping dog.
Mallorca, Menorca, Ibiza, Formentera — these are the Balearic Islands most of us know about. But there happens to be another: Cabrera, smallest and least-visited of all the inhabited Islas Baleares, lying 10 nautical miles off the southern coast of Mallorca. This year Cabrera celebrates a quarter of a century since it was declared a terrestrial-maritime national park (one of 15 in Spain), affording protection to 10,020 hectares of land and sea that the 20th century has left virtually unaltered.
From the harbour, I walked the 15 minutes to my lodgings, my gaze fixed on the sparkling waters of the bay. Until recently there was only one way of staying on Cabrera, and that was to stay off it. Yachts are permitted to drop anchor in two areas of open water within the bounds of the national park, and can stay for between two nights and a week (depending on the season, for a fee, and subject to permission from the Balearic port authority).
But now there’s another option: a small hostel, opened in 2014 and still patronised mainly by Mallorcans, that allows guests to stay for a maximum of two nights. Housed in a converted military building with beams and clay roof tiles, the Albergue de Cabrera is basic bordering on monastic. But its dozen all-white double rooms have en-suite bathrooms, there are self-catering facilities and, best of all, the hostel stands within a few paces of a sublime little beach. In any case, to wake up in the midst of Cabrera’s pristine natural surroundings is, you might argue, a luxury greater than the five-star sort.
There is no traffic, no tourist presence to speak of, and no litter bins (visitors have to take all their rubbish away). Conservation is a serious matter, and national park rules are strictly enforced. Signs everywhere sternly remind you not to leave the designated paths, not to pick plants or have picnics, and to avoid making noise (a tough call in noise-addicted Spain). There can’t be many islands in the world so close to a global tourist hub (Mallorca) where the buildings can be counted on the fingers of two hands, where the population holds steady at 20 and anything that might alter its immaculate state of conservation is categorically outlawed.
Although much of the national park is off-limits to both people and boats, I found there was plenty to do. On my first day, under a dazzling midday sun, I trudged up to the castle above the harbour — a medieval fortress with a twisty Gothic staircase and a Spanish flag fluttering on the tower. From the battlements there were views north towards Mallorca and the heat-misted shapes of the Sierra Tramuntana.
Cabrera is not the flat, barren island I had been expecting. It has folds and valleys, rocky summits and cliffs that fall sheer to the sea. The vegetation is a mixture of classic Mediterranean scrub (juniper, rosemary, mastic, wild olive) and unfamiliar endemic plants such as Balearic buckthorn. As I walked, the little details that caught my attention — a whisper of sea breeze, a black lizard darting across the path, a sudden smell of juniper — seemed magnified by the space and silence that surrounded them.
And there is more to the “fifth Balearic” than meets the casual eye, a dark side to its luminous beauty. The remains of a Byzantine necropolis were recently discovered here; yet more unsettling is the history surrounding a nondescript group of what were once stonewalled shacks. These are the remains of barracks that housed French soldiers during the Napoleonic wars — as many as 9,000 were held here as prisoners of war, of whom more than half died of hunger and disease. Hidden among the pines above Pla de ses Figueres stands a plain stone plinth with a weather-worn inscription — A la mémoire des français morts à Cabrera . . . — and a small EU flag placed poignantly beside it.
Down the hill from the monument is the island’s Ethnographic Museum. The day was hotting up fast, but the building, an award-winning restoration of a stone-built storehouse, was cool and airy inside. As its only visitor that day, I enjoyed learning about island legends like the sixth-century monastery (of which no trace has been found) whose monks were reprimanded by Pope Gregory for their lewd behaviour; and the German pilot who crashed here during the second world war and whose ghost is said to roam the island.
It was easy to fall into the slow rhythms of Cabrera. There are beaches where you can sit alone all morning, and gentle hikes in a landscape smelling of hot stone and sun-warmed herbs. I rediscovered the joy of snorkelling in waters as clear as handblown glass, with no sources of contamination anywhere near. A sea-bass of at least two kilos, apparently conscious of its good fortune (there is no fishing within the bounds of the National Park), swam fearlessly towards me through the shallows, lithe and silvery grey.
Nights on the island hold little promise of party action beyond a gin and tonic and a tapa or two in the Cantina, Cabrera’s sole restaurant and social hub, as well as the possessor of its only TV. The peak of the tourist influx during my visit was a party of schoolchildren from Llucmajor, on the Mallorcan mainland, but they had departed on the 3.30pm ferry, leaving the Cantina empty but for two Spanish couples staying in the hostel, a handful of yachties that had buzzed over for a sundowner, and myself. It was certainly a far cry from Magaluf.
Mixing drinks at the bar was the son of the family who have run the Cantina for years. I wondered aloud what it would be like to live here all year round, when even my two days on this precious scrap of the old Mediterranean had felt, pleasurably enough, like an eternity.
“Cabrera is another world,” the boy smiled in reply. “It’s pretty quiet, but you do get used to it.”
Paul Richardson was a guest of the Albergue de Cabrera. Double rooms cost €60 per night (not including breakfast). A return trip to Cabrera by boat from Colònia de Sant Jordi costs from €40, see excursionsacabrera.es and marcabrera.com
Photographs: Alamy; Getty Images