TO sit beneath a shady tree on a balmy summer evening while enjoying an outdoor feast is indeed a hint of heaven. To enjoy such an experience with the added bonus of a nightingale in full song each evening at about eight o'clock and the sound of purring cicadas in the background with the caress of a soft warm breeze is indeed memorable.

That was my shared experience in the days before compiling these notes. Our location was Menorca, one of the Balearic islands off the east coast of Spain. We hired a villa, a former farmhouse dating from 1714 with nine double bedrooms and walls more than two feet thick, this kind of space being necessary because we took our family and grandchildren, all 15 of us.

The villa was large enough and superbly furnished and equipped, so that we could all be accommodated with ease for a couple of weeks.

In almost an acre of grounds with a swimming pool, olive and lemon trees, a well-tended lawn and lots of grasshoppers, it was delightful, the perfect base for exploring this most charming of islands.

Menorca is set in the brilliant blue and remarkably clear Mediterranean Sea to the south of France, not far away from its big cousin, Mallorca, or Majorca as the English call it. Of these islands, tiny Menorca - only 30 miles long by 12 miles wide - boasts the largest number of exquisite small beaches.

It has more than Mallorca and Ibiza combined, but due to Menorca's resistance to the demands of mass tourism, it is not possible to drive down to all these wonderfully secluded coves. Many are inaccessible to tourists for they would need to cross private land to reach them and the questionable "right to roam" mentality has not yet won approval on this island.

Private land remains private and the local people, who (at the time of writing) welcome visitors to their country, make sure that tourists remain aware of the need to respect local customs and practices. Tourists are welcome but they are regarded as guests which means they are expected to show adult respect to the island and its inhabitants - and most do. We saw no examples of loutish behaviour, no drunkenness, no graffiti and when exploring the towns at night, there was no feeling of anxiety due to yobs and troublemakers. One could walk safely on this island, a welcome trait in both day and night.

When walking on the island, especially when away from the main roads, one must always be aware that available maps are not completely accurate which makes foot exploration rather hazardous but, in general, the islanders tolerate the intrusion of foreigners from all parts of the world and most of the islanders can speak English, French, German and Spanish, in addition to their own Catalan dialect which has been used here since 1287.

In spite of accommodating some 800,000 visitors each year, but with a resident population of only about 60,000, the island is remarkably free from litter; there is a daily collection of domestic waste with a very efficient recycling system, and nothing is allowed to be dumped in the sea.

Thus the sea water is beautifully clear and pure enough to permit shoals of fish very close to the shore, while the beaches and shorelines are free from the usual rubbish one finds on the British coast. Glass-bottomed boats sailing from Mahon allow visitors a rare glimpse of underwater life.

The island has had a chequered history, being variously conquered by the Phoenicians, Hannibal's brother Mago, the Romans, the Vandals, the Moors, the Spanish, the Dutch, the French and the English.

The English first took possession of Menorca in 1712, but in 1756 it was captured by the French, then handed back to the English in 1763. French and Spanish troops re-took the island in 1781, the British recaptured it in 1798 and finally, in 1802, it reverted to Spain under the Treaty of Amiens.

When the English took possession in 1712, they made the mistake of trying to impose the Protestant religion upon this fervently Catholic island and this created tremendous resentment at all levels of society, so much so that the English government had to despatch a skilled diplomat to ease the situation. He was Sir Richard Kane (1662-1736) and he was appointed lieutenant-governor of Menorca (or Minorca as the English had named it).

One of his first actions was to build a road which spanned the whole island, linking its two largest towns, Ciutedella and Mao, otherwise known as Mahon. He then moved the capital from Ciutedella to Mahon, which has the world's second-largest natural harbour and set about draining marshes, planting orchards, introducing Friesian cattle and stabilising prices in the markets. Thanks to him, agricultural production increased 40 times in only five years.

Sir Richard lived the rest of his life on Menorca and is buried in Fort Sant Felip; he is still remembered with affection on the island, with several streets being named in his honour, one of them (Cami d'en Kane in Mahon) bearing a monument to his honour. It was erected as recently as 1973.

There is much to see and enjoy on Menorca - people from this region will be impressed by the dry-stone walls which adorn the island, separating fields, bordering roads and even being used as boundaries of gardens and private houses. Known locally as tanques, and built of irregular stones of all shapes and sizes without mortar, they are usually two or three feet thick and up to six feet high. It is said there are some 15,000 kilometres of these walls on the island.

The houses have similarly very solid walls up to three feet thick which keep them cool during the heat of the day, while the shops, built into similar cool places, are marvellous, although they can often be missed because their entrances appear to be little more than the doorways of conventional houses. Once inside, however, they are huge with a range of quality goods - leatherwork and cheese are two of the island's chief products.

Civilisation on the island appears to be very old and there are some fascinating prehistoric monuments, some of whose history is uncertain. Talaiots are rounded constructions, very similar in shape to a beehive but large enough to accommodate people. Built of stones without mortar, they are amazing structures thought to date to about fourteen centuries before Christ. Experts are undecided whether these are former dwellings or some kind of building used for religious or ceremonial purposes.

There are some small Bronze Age pyramids known as nevatas which are unique to Menorca and some curious but massive table-shaped stone slabs called taules, thought to have been used for human or animal sacrifice.

The coastline is wonderful with its little bays and beaches and the only hilly part of Menorca is towards the north, although there are no mountains. The highest point is Monte Toro (358m) right in the centre of the island and topped by a huge statue of Christ and a convent.

As one would expect in a Catholic country, there are lots of churches, including cathedrals in both Cuitadella and Mahon, all with masses every day in Spanish and Catalan, and there are three Anglican churches whose only sign of life was a notice about a forthcoming wine and cheese party.

The bird life is wonderful. Every day, a pair of red kites circled above our villa and on most outings we saw these birds, so plentiful here yet so rare in England. There were booted eagles too with lots of herring gulls, house sparrows, swallows, swifts and Alpine swifts, pied flycatchers, black caps, Sardinian warblers, stonechats, rock doves, corn buntings, linnets, kestrels, tawny pipits, cormorants and various species of duck.

From my perspective there were two memorable events - one was the daily visit by "our" resident nightingale who sang to us during dinner and who continued well into the night, but the most exciting was a hoopoe which flew ahead of me on the lane just outside our villa. With his cinnamon pink plumage, black barred wings and tail, and amazing crest, I saw him twice in the same location.

And tackiness? Someone has built a fake Mediterranean fishing village at Binibeca Vell. Some think it is a modern marvel, others feel it is dreadful. If it was real, it would be charming, but it is a fake village inhabited by tourists.

Its tiny church spire is for the benefit of photographers only for there is no church beneath the spire, merely a shallow cavern containing a cross. It tells us that tourists regard churches as something to look at and not of any spiritual consequence