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Travel: Mallorca

Vista del Puerto de Soller
Mallorca

Vista del Puerto de Soller Mallorca

  • by FRANK CORLESS
 

As we peered across to the swanky Puerto Portals marina in Mallorca our thoughts turned to money – pots of it – and how the other half lives.

In front of us, lines of ocean-going yachts, one of them with a helicopter pad, rested at anchor, their mega-sized shapes casting long shadows under the white-hot midday sun.

Multi-millionaire movers and shakers are among those who regularly drop anchor to enjoy fine dining at swish restaurants or to browse ultra-chic boutiques selling high fashion labels.

Another holidaymaker who shared our table at Wellies, a renowned harbour-front bar and restaurant, reckoned a lottery win was our only chance of joining the jet set.

Laughing out loud, her husband pushed the reality button. “Don’t be daft,” he said, “you would need the jackpot just to buy an anchor for one of these boats.”

Opened 16 years ago, the marina is among similar developments that have sprung up around the island, all of them enticing sailing enthusiasts from around the world. These upmarket projects reflect how far Mallorca has come in the 60 years since the first package tourists arrived, sparking the construction of unsightly accommodation and tacky bars.

New regulations now restrict the height and quality of buildings, and it’s great to see that recently opened glitzy hotels – all oozing style and class and boasting excellent facilities – are more than a match for the more traditional (but still upmarket) establishments dotted around the island.

More good news has also emerged from efforts to improve the environment and to combat anti-social behaviour at a few resorts where lager louts have made bad headlines. Things have definitely calmed down but, from what I saw during a fleeting visit to Magaluf, it’s still a work in progress.

To be fair, even though some of the bigger resorts can be boisterous, most of them offer wonderful facilities. Excellent beaches and family-friendly entertainment are almost obligatory. A particular favourite is the £45 million Palma Aquarium at Playa de Palma.

However, I’m at that delicate time of life when my idea of what I want from a holiday has changed. That’s why the irresistible lure of Mallorca’s capital, Palma, kicks in long before I set aside time for lazing on a sunbed. Just thinking about what the city has to offer sparks an adrenalin rush – world-class museums, art galleries, parks and palaces, shaded backstreets and passageways, enticing shops and sunlight illuminating the wonderful Bay of Palma.

It’s here that the hoi polloi and the super-rich rub shoulders to share the same pleasures – apart from when it comes to buying expensive trinkets. Together, we can sit in the same pavement bars with a coffee or a glass of wine and just watch the world go by.

No doubt we share watering holes in two of my favourite places, the tree-lined Passeig des Born, the classiest avenue in Palma, and Plaza Mayor, the main square, which is only yards from the city’s most historic landmark, the imposing gothic cathedral La Seu.

Work on the gold-coloured limestone building began in the 13th century and continued until 1601, with further improvements finishing in 1904. Creating something special can take time and this immense task was well worth the effort.

Mallorca may be the largest of the Balearic islands, but it is still comparatively small and an easy place to negotiate. When you get round to exploring it, you will be astonished by the size and variety of its attractions. These range from soft, sandy beaches and jagged peaks to picturesque towns and villages, as well as churches, monasteries, caves and fertile plains sprinkled with vineyards and orchards groaning with olives, almonds and oranges.

Most of the island is very easily accessible. Apart from the cheap and efficient bus service, you can explore by car, on coach trips, by pedal power or on a motorbike. But best of all is to traverse on foot. In fact, if you have the stamina to hike, you will get to see the very best of the island’s most tranquil places as you pick your way through forests and along mountain trails.

It doesn’t need that sort of energy, however, to enjoy an hour-long ride out of Palma aboard the Tren de Soller, a vintage wooden train that is celebrating 100 years of service this year.

The train threads its way through 13 tunnels and into the dramatic and breathtaking scenery of the Serra de Tramuntana mountain range before arriving at Soller, a warm and welcoming place set amid orange groves. It gets pretty crowded, so be sure to return to the station early to catch the train back.

If you like sand between your toes, you have got to see and enjoy Alcudia. Its family-friendly beach is wide and wonderful and it’s a joy to swim in its warm, crystal-clear waters – though that’s only possible after wading out for quite a distance. It is hardly a surprise that it recently won third place in a European best resorts survey.

At varying times in history, Mallorca has been occupied by Egyptians, Moors, Ottomans and Romans, who conquered the island in 123BC. In different ways, they have all left their mark. Nowhere more so than in the beautiful village of Deia, high in the mountains, where a sophisticated irrigation system dates back to Moorish times. English poet and novelist Robert Graves settled into the golden stone hamlet in 1946 and was soon followed by a stream of other writers and artists. Word certainly travelled fast in those halcyon days.

Deià’s fame has lasted down the years and the village is a ‘must see’ for hordes of tourists from around the world, who throng the streets in spring and summer – most of them climbing to the parish church of Sant Joan Baptista, where Graves is buried at one end of the graveyard and his wife at the other.

Nearby Valldemossa is equally gorgeous. In 1838, Polish composer and pianist Frederic Chopin and his lover, George Sand, rented rooms for a year in the Reial Cartoixa monastery, which is second only to Palma Cathedral in the number of visitors it receives. Today, the rich and famous are still beating a path to the area. Hollywood star Michael Douglas and his wife Catherine Zeta Jones are among many celebrities who have bought into the idyll. And who could blame them? This is a seriously beautiful and protected area of the island.

The whole experience of visiting both places is truly memorable. If I had the money, this is where I would choose to live. Sadly, the most I can afford is a brief vacation, but at least we hit the jackpot in our choice of hotel – the superb four-star BonSol, at Illetas, only a short bus ride from Palma.

It is 60 years since Mallorcan-born Antonio Xamena and his wife Roger launched the hotel as a white-washed 14-bedroomed guest house, a solid old-style property with a Moorish tower. Hollywood superstar Errol Flynn was one of their first guests, and just for once the legendary lothario lost his heart to a place rather than a woman.

Switch to today and the now lovingly-restored hotel – still owned by the same family – has become a jewel in the island’s crown. Antonio’s son Martin Xamena, his London-born wife Lorraine and their 27-year-old son Alejandro make up the team who have maintained and developed the place.

In terms of surroundings, it’s all about quality. Thanks to a huge expansion project, which involved sinking two lift shafts and constructing three tunnels under two roads, the hotel now consists of 120 rooms and villas, most with views of the hotel’s small beach, overlooking the Mediterranean.

Living on the premises, the owners mingle with guests and often share their tables for meals or drinks. In 30 years, the BonSol has seen only three chefs. By most restaurant standards, that’s a miracle. At dinner in the Beach restaurant, overlooking the Bay of Palma, Pablo the Argentinian-born guitarist entertains for hours – as he has done for 24 years. Eating out under the stars has never been so good. Who needs a lottery win?

FACT FILE

A week’s half-board stay in a classic twin or double room (two sharing) costs €700-€980 a head at the BonSol (www.hotelbonsol.es).

Jet2 (www.jet2.com) flies to Palma from Glasgow (starting 28 March 2013) from £102 each way, and from Edinburgh (starting 3 May 2013) from £94 each way.

Thomson (www.thomson.co.uk) flies to Palma from Glasgow (starting 2 May 2013) from

£225 return.

 

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