Getting to know - Balearics
When I ask Martin Xamena how his hotel guests have changed over the last half century, he raises his eyebrows. “When I stay at a hotel I like to be served, I like a pleasant ambience and I like to meet civilised fellow guests,” he says. “That’s what I try to achieve, but to find civilised people these days isn’t easy. Just look at how even famous people behave.”
Civilised people? In Majorca? The Spanish island, largest of the Balearics group, is synonymous with mass market package holidays. Like neighbouring Ibiza, it’s also very popular with young clubbers, but Martin’s Bon Sol hotel in Illetas, Majorca, offers a rather different experience. The family home became a guest house in 1953 and has since been transformed with facilities including a major spa. The Bon Sol is a haven of tranquillity, excellent food and, yes, civilisation. No wonder some guests have been coming every year for 50 years, and a dozen of the waiting staff have been there since the 1980s.
Mass market, high-rise resorts such as Magalluf and Palma Nova in Majorca, and San Antonio in Ibiza, are still going strong, and both islands suffer unfairly from the image these resorts project. The second largest Balearic island, Menorca, has largely avoided the mass market despite having some large hotels, and is a favourite of families. As for tiny Formentera, the fourth Balearic island, mass tourism has virtually passed it by.
The islands have been favourite holiday destinations since long before the package holiday age. Polish composer Frederic Chopin was a notable visitor to Majorca in 1838 and King Juan Carlos of Spain considers Majorca attractive enough for his summer holiday retreat. But with cheap flights from all over Britain taking just two hours and extensive development along the coast, you have to pick your spot to enjoy the tranquillity of the Balearics. This summer could be especially busy, with the pound gaining strength againstthe euro and uncertainty hanging over other popular holiday spots.
Despite being the most developed island, Majorca has been able to withstand the annual influx of over around two million tourists simply because of its size – over 2,500 square kilometres (1,000 square miles). Mass market development is concentrated around the Bay of Palma in the south, with the north and east coasts having many smaller and more family-friendly resorts, such as Alcudia, Puerto Pollensa and Cala d’Or. The west coast is little-developed, courtesy of the Sierra Tramuntana mountains, and picturesque coastal towns such as Banyalbufar and Deia perch on the cliffs. The north-west coast is flatter; here you’ll find perhaps the prettiest coastal resort, and the one with most “local” character, Puerto Soller.
Away from the mountains in the west, inland Majorca is less interesting, being mainly a plain, but with highlights including Manacor where Majorca’s famous cultivated pearls are produced. A “must” away from the resorts is the city of Palma, a city break in its own right especially off-season, when it is cooler and considerably less crowded.
Palma is a bustling seaside city with the long Paseo Maritimo boulevard running beside the sea, past a marina brimming with luxurious yachts and a busy cruise terminal. The nearest beaches are a few miles away either on the west side, where Palma Nova and Magalluf are favoured by the British; or on the east side, near the airport, where C’an Pastilla and Arenal are distant outposts of Berlin and Frankfurt. But it’s the old city of Palma which is most worthy of attention, and that is just behind the huge Gothic cathedral which towers
over the eastern end of the Paseo Maritimo.
The cathedral was built between the 14th and 16th centuries, but the rose windows were created by the Catalan architect Gaudi, best known for his lavish modernist architecture in Barcelona. The maze of narrow streets behind the cathedral is a delight to wander in, and still home to thousands of people as well as bars, restaurants, boutiques and historical attractions. Don’t miss the Arab Baths, Convent of St Francis and art museum, housed in an ancient building once used by merchants. Almudaina Palace, by the cathedral, was the seat of Moorish and Catholic kings.
Palma can easily be reached for a day trip from most Majorcan resorts, but consider staying longer if you’re into history, culture, shopping, gastronomy and nightlife. It has a lovely old Plaza Major or main square, with historic buildings on every side and cafes and
shops dotted around, although anything bought here comes at a premium. Oliver market is well worth a browse to stock up on typical Majorcan snacks or simply admire the displays of fruit, vegetables and fish, while the main areas for fashion shopping are Paseo de Born and Avenida Jaime III. The city has lots of bars and restaurants and plenty of clubs too, mainly in the small streets near Paseo Maritimo.
You might think the many large resort hotels, and big city hotels in Palma, are the only accommodation choices. But that is not so, as there are many historic, boutique and character hotels scattered around the island plus a few in Palma old town, including the Dalt Murada, closer to the cathedral. Over 20 of these belong to the Reis de Mallorca marketing group.
Menorca is the least visited of the three main Balearic islands by British visitors, yet we have a long history here. Britain ruled Menorca three times between 1708 and 1802, with periods of French and Spanish rule in between. An unlikely link between Menorca and a foodstuff used throughout the Western world is mayonnaise, named after the main town of Mahon by the French, after they wrested control of it from Britain in 1756.
The island has some excellent sandy beaches that have seen plenty of development, but nothing on the scale of the Bay of Palma in Majorca. Resorts are mainly on the south coast and include Santo Tomas, Son Bou, Cala Blanca and Cala Galdana, plus Arenal d’en Castell on the north coast. Many of the beaches are on small, fairly secluded bays, popular with families. There are plenty of villas here, too, for large families or groups of friends.
Palaces and churches
Menorca is essentially a place to chill out, but a trip to Mahon or the other main town, Ciudadela, may be rewarding. Mahon, on the east coast, is less interesting, although it’s good for shopping and has a colourful port. Ciudadela, on the west coast, has more of a historic feel as befits the island’s former capital. In the old town, you can enjoy 17th and 18th century palaces and churches, while the harbour is a delight and close to most of the nightlife. Some of Menorca’s finest and least-developed beaches are nearby, including Son Saura and Macarella, but access can be difficult.
Inland Menorca is mainly farmland with plenty of cattle, the highest point reaching only 350 metres (1,150ft).
If you are keen on ancient history, the interior is worth exploring in depth as it has over 1,000 megalithic monuments, mainly ancient T-shaped tombs called taulas. There are also some signs of Roman settlement.
If Menorca’s image is one of peace and relaxation, the opposite could be said of Ibiza, due to its long-established clubbing scene. Huge pleasure palaces of insistent beat (and the infamous foam parties), such as Privilege and Pacha, can be found in the resort of San Antonio, capital Ibiza Town, and along the road in between. San Antonio is a huge clubbing resort and you’re ill-advised to go there if you’re over 30 – or even over 25. Fortunately, however, Ibiza has never attracted the worst and cheapest end of the clubbing market as in Greece and Cyprus. The reason is simple – it’s expensive.
But the foam party image has put off the older visitor, despite the existence of much quieter resorts appealing to couples and families, such as Santa Eulalia, Es Cana and Playa d’en Bossa, which has the island’s longest beach. Some older people return to Ibiza year after year and see nothing of its lurid image, but as the island is fairly small – about 570 sq km (220 square miles) – it’s important to choose your resort carefully.
Ibiza is worth exploring, with a large Phoenician archaeological site at Puig des Molins and the wetlands of Ses Salines, but most of the sightseeing is in Ibiza Town. By day – before the nightlife cranks up – it’s a charming place, with a fortified old town surrounded by Medieval walls dating from Phoenician times but rebuilt in the 16th century. There are many character restaurants here, but it can also be very crowded in peak season.
And what of Formentera, smallest of the Balearic islands? It can only be reached by boat from Ibiza, and has similar wetlands. Isolated beaches and a handful of villages dot the island, the main one being the port of La Savina. It is one of the best “away from it all” experiences in Spain despite having a few large hotels, and is good for walking and cycling. The arty Spanish film, Sex and Lucia, is set here, with Formentera portrayed as having magical qualities.
I must find out why one day, as my only visit so far was a day trip from Ibiza. But it will take a lot to wrench me away from my very “civilised” special places in Majorca, such as the sun terrace at the Bon Sol, walking along the west coast, or Palma’s old town.
When you consider how many “new” holiday destinations have sprung up over the last 20 years but how many people still regard these islands as their favourites, the Balearics really are the great holiday survivors.
When to go
The tourist season in Menorca, Ibiza and Formentera is strictly from May to October, with only Majorca being open year-round. Spring and autumn are ideal times to visit as high summer can be very hot, with cool temperatures and rain in winter, and occasional snow in Majorca’s mountains. Palma hotels are open year-round but many Majorcan resort hotels close in winter.
Car hire and buses are the way to go, with Majorca having some motorways and rail routes. Inter-island ferries are available.
The Bon Sol in Illetas, Dalt Murada in Palma and Mar I Sol in Banyalbufar all belong to the Reis de Mallorca marketing group. The islands have many other accommodation options, from self-catering apartments up to five-star hotels.
Spanish Tourist Office: 020 7317 2011