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Europe's dance-party capital is cozy in offseason

IBIZA, Spain - The party was over. Yet some were still trying valiantly. "No Closing," exclaimed a cherry-red billboard on the side of the two-lane highway as I steered my rental car away from Ibiza's lone airport. "The Party Goes On."

Ibiza City's Old Town, including the hilltop Dalt Vila, at dusk. (Josh Noel/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
Ibiza City's Old Town, including the hilltop Dalt Vila, at dusk. (Josh Noel/Chicago Tribune/TNS)Read moreTNS

IBIZA, Spain - The party was over. Yet some were still trying valiantly.

"No Closing," exclaimed a cherry-red billboard on the side of the two-lane highway as I steered my rental car away from Ibiza's lone airport. "The Party Goes On."

But, no, it didn't. Not really. And that's why I was visiting Europe's dance-party capital in fall.

During the height of summer, Ibiza teems with Europeans who crowd into vast nightclubs to ingest questionable substances and dance until morning. After sleeping all day, the story goes, they wake up and do it again. And again. And maybe one more time. And then they go home.

From October to May, the "boompboompboomp" of those thunderous nightclubs drifts largely away, and the island returns to a place celebrated for its subtler charms: rocky coasts, swooping, pine-studded hills, and thousands of years of history in the midst of the Mediterranean Sea.

Warm with the knowledge that the party people were back home in England, Germany, and on the Spanish mainland, I rolled down my windows to take in the sweet-salty air and made the 10-minute drive to Ibiza City, the largest municipality on the island. It has been continuously inhabited for nearly 3,000 years, making it one of Europe's oldest cities.

Ibiza City seemed immediately familiar and like so many well-preserved European haunts, where twisting one-way streets are flanked by stone sidewalks and stucco buildings, and where boys kick soccer balls in a tree-shaded plaza surrounded by restaurants and cafes. Up the hill, at the city's highest point, sat the Old City, encircled by a mighty stone wall. Down at the marina, the tall masts of sailboats swayed in a 70-degree breeze.

Though the party people were home, I was still surprised at what I heard in the heart of the Old City at 12:30 a.m. on a Saturday when awakened by jet lag: absolutely nothing.

Ibiza - or, Eivissa, as spelled locally in Catalan - wasn't always the party island.

Situated about 100 miles east of the Spanish mainland, it is one of the three major Balearic islands settled by the Phoenicians in the seventh and eighth centuries B.C. The island has passed through many hands, including the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Moors, and self-rule as part of the Balearic chain before becoming part of Spain.

The club scene sprouted in the 1980s, as thumping beats were exported from the U.S. and Great Britain to a picturesque landscape bathed in Mediterranean breezes. Fueled (allegedly) by the drug ecstasy, Ibiza's reputation inched from one of Mediterranean beauty and a hippie backwater to a party place. In the last 10 years, Spanish tourism officials have tried to maintain the opulent party while also somewhat minimizing it to promote the island for lower-key travelers - hikers, divers, kayakers, sightseeing families.

The tourist season runs from February into October, with the party patrol on hand mostly from June through September. Most locals I met said the best months to be on the island were May and October, with June and September close behind. Hot and claustrophobic, they said, July and August are best left for those chasing the fiesta.

As I picked through tapas at a restaurant in the old town (octopus, albondigas, and red wine - the usual), a couple who had recently moved to Ibiza from England said the streets where we sat would be jammed during the height of summer.

"Gazillions of people," the man said.

In October, it was mere dozens.

In reality, Ibiza is open for business year-round, which makes a trip timed with the holidays a worthy effort, particularly because temperatures still reliably reach the upper 50s. Many restaurants and shops are closed, but not all. And many hotels remain not only open, but offer exquisite low-season deals. Crowds are nil, and the best of what the island offers - sweeping rock-cliff views of the Mediterranean, nature, and endless tapas and vino tinto - remains ample.

Those nonparty charms were quickly apparent. Like the salt. Yes, the salt. Ibiza salt is a thing, and it's a thing you'll find in the island's better restaurants (and in Barcelona's too). At Locals Only - one such Ibiza restaurant whose name amplifies its locally sourced food, not the clientele it prefers - each table was topped with a glass jar of the white crystals.

"It is natural," said my waitress, who had a solid command of English, like most people on the island. "There is no . . . chemical process."

Soon, lunch began to arrive, starting with a bowl of glistening green olives and a basket of crusty bread beside a bottle of locally produced olive oil.

"Mmmmmmm," my wife said. "I don't think I've ever had olives this good."

At breakfast the next morning on the plaza square, Placa d'Espanya, where cafes are clustered tightly together, I ordered a breakfast of tomato and manchego cheese on a baguette and watched people chat in rapid Spanish, read newspapers, and smoke cigarettes.

It was all so quaintly normal. I began to wonder whether the island's party reputation was overstated.

Though a massive cruise ship sat in the marina after unloading its batch of visitors, the long row of businesses facing the water were closed that afternoon. I wondered whether this was a result of the afternoon siesta, or whether they were closed for the season.

That night, about 10:30, I walked by again, looking for the answer. Sure enough, everything remained closed. The lone exception, Foly's Cafe, offered a vision of what all those storefronts probably present during the height of tourism season: men on white furniture, smoking cigarettes over small cups of coffee, a television flashing a soccer game. It wasn't difficult to imagine the strip teeming with revelers in July. On this night, it was still as a forest.

As I wound my way back to my apartment through the Old City's narrow stone streets, several bars were open and several more were starting to put out tables and chairs in anticipation of a long night.

Ibiza wasn't completely asleep. Just sleepy enough.

On a walk the next morning to the other side of the Ibiza City harbor, I found out what I was missing. The two sides of the harbor couldn't have been more different. Where I was staying was the Old City: narrow streets hundreds of years old, some charming, good-quality restaurants, and hints of an urban life. Across the harbor sat Ibiza's version of 1970s Miami Beach - sprawling, mostly soulless hotels, condos, and apartment buildings beside a boardwalk of bikers, joggers, and slow-moving families.

On an island of 220 square miles, the clubs are mostly confined to Ibiza City and a town 10 miles northwest called San Antoni, which has none of the historic charm of its neighbor but which does feature a gem of a path along the glimmering Mediterranean.

On a tranquil afternoon, past shuttered restaurants and bars, it was hard to imagine the landscape ever full of people.

But it is, said the owner of one of the few businesses still open on the stretch, an ice cream shop where flavors such as estrachatela (chocolate chip) and Nutellina (Nutella) beckoned. The owner said he too would be closed from November through April, even though he would stay on the island. Except for the downturn in ice cream demand, it's a wonderful time to be there, he said.

The deeper you venture into the island, the farther you get from any trace of party culture. Much of the island is simply pine forest crossed by curving two-lane highways and dotted with the occasional palm tree or cactus.

It's hard to go wrong when exploring. To the north are tall, sweeping rocky cliffs that tumble to the ocean. Small, charming villages are laced throughout. Beaches sit along the western and eastern coasts. Exploring it all in October was particularly gratifying, though there was some frustration. Internet research indicated the well-regarded Giri Cafe, in the village of San Juan, would be open upon our midafternoon arrival. But despite the open door, the owner said the cafe was closed. When would it reopen?

"March," she said.

She urged us to visit the charming town of Santa Gertrudis, home to a wide square ringed with restaurants, but they were all closed because of a power failure caused by morning storms.

We instead improvised with a drive down the west coast to a series of beach towns - quiet in October, naturally - and coves.

We wound up on a small beach below a gray sky with a front-row view of the quintessential sight from Ibiza: a pair of small islands, Es Vedra and Es Vedranell, just off the coast. On we went to Es Xarcu, a beachside restaurant at the end of a steep dirt road that seems unlikely to be there as your car bounces toward the beach. But there it is - an unsuspecting little shack with exorbitant prices because you're on Ibiza, you're on the beach, and you're eating fresh-from-the-sea fish in a small Mediterranean cove.

I ordered a lunch of mussels and shrimp in garlic (40 euros for five plump shrimp) and leaned back to breathe that sweet Mediterranean air. Waves lapping at the shore, fresh shrimp dangling from my fork, and a strong ocean breeze blowing through, I began to pity those who visit Ibiza just to stand inside a nightclub.

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