From a hardscrabble peasant economy to one of the world’s wealthiest enclaves in the space of 60 years… Few places on the planet have undergone changes as sweeping, as transformative, both for good and ill, as Ibiza.
Some of these shifts I have witnessed myself. It’s a story I’ve told before: for 10 years I lived in an old casa payesa in Sant Vicent de sa Cala in the 1990s when rent was as cheap as chips, smartphones and the internet hadn’t happened yet, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a good hotel on the island. When I returned earlier this summer I was celebrating a double anniversary: 30 years since I first set up home here, and 20 since I finally fled the madding crowds for a distant corner of the Iberian peninsula.
From the airport, I swung past Ibiza town on its hill beside the sea. Everything was still in post-Covid recovery mode and a strange, faintly dazed feeling was detectable. Along the road, sun-faded nightclub billboards advertising the closing parties of October 2019 seemed like messages from another world. The great dome of Privilege up on the heights of San Rafael looked forlorn and unkempt, the encroaching vegetation making it appear like a Mayan ruin in the early stages of being reclaimed by the jungle.
Whatever the pandemic brings in its wake, it’s hard to imagine a return to the unsustainable levels of excess that have ruled the island in recent decades. I saw signs of a new thoughtfulness, a new—and I never thought I’d say this—sobriety. Take Oku Ibiza, which recently opened on the edge of San Antonio, a rebranding of the Casa Cook hotel that had its soft launch in 2019 and then closed. The design ditches the all-white aesthetic traditionally synonymous with Ibiza in favour of earthy, neutral tones, stone, linen and acres of grey concrete. Wooden slats now clothe the property’s slab-like modernist form. The funky chairs beside the pool are not from a big-name Scandinavian brand but handmade by artisans in Papua New Guinea.
I stood on my balcony and took in the sight below: a beauteous pool, bright young things lounging in swimwear, the gentle thud of house music. There was an atmosphere of elegant unflashiness, chastened chic, that seemed somehow attuned with the mood of the times. Raising my eyes along the horizon, I saw a sweep of dull identikit rooftops—the coastal suburbs of ‘San An’—and, through a gap between the buildings, an enticing slice of blue sea. A crane loomed over the neighbourhood.
Hereby hangs a backstory. A moratorium by the Balearic government has halted the construction of new hotels on non-urban land, essentially forcing would-be developers to revamp old ones. Though it looks fresh, Oku is in fact based on the footings of a former three-star stay, a humble bucket-and-spader dating from the package-tour boom of the 1970s. As such, it’s a perfect illustration of a tendency—one that has come to the fore as the island rakes over its recent past—to see what can be retrieved, reassessed, and if at all possible, recycled. Another example of this is Petunia, where I stopped one evening for dinner on a terrace with mesmeric views of the rocky islet Es Vedrà. Here, the reinvention effort was a labour of love, taking a plain-Jane family hotel from the 1980s to the next level with a total overhaul—a fine, Italian-inflected restaurant in La Mesa Escondida, wonderful gardens and rooftop tables for soaking up the extraordinary panorama. On the night I was there, drinking cold fino sherry and nibbling burrata with olives and juicy figs, the soundtrack was a Brazilian guitarist playing soft bossa nova.
One of Ibiza’s realisations over the past few years is that context is irrelevant. You might find a sparkly W hotel in a bustling little town never previously noted for its glamour (Santa Eulalia). Or a smart seaside hotspot such as Beachouse at the scrappy end of Playa d’en Bossa, where the large Ushuaïa and Hard Rock Hotels fizzle out into overgrown waste ground and car parks. The old north-south divide is also increasingly redundant: you’re as likely to discover a cool boho scene among the glitz of the south as a whopping heavyweight resort on a wild northern beach.
As I traversed the island, I found plenty to confound my expectations as well as stir up long-dormant memories. Parts of my mental geography were virtually unrecognisable: Santa Gertrudis, in my day a one-horse hamlet with a couple of bars and a tobacconist, was now a fully grown town of done-up villas with a world-class cocktail bar, Overall, and Bottega il Buco, an outpost of New York restaurateur Donna Lennard’s Il Buco.
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