Surveying Palma de Mallorca from the rooftop terrace of StayCatalina Boutique Apartments, a converted ironmonger’s shop in the up and coming Santa Catalina district just outside the old town walls, I wondered why it had taken us so long to visit this largest of the Balearic Islands.
Our 360-degree view included a sparkling white cruise ship moored in the harbour behind an ancient windmill standing sentinel in one direction and the gothic grandeur of the cathedral and the sandy yellow arc of The Bay of Palma in the other.
“How very British,” said a Croatian friend, when we had mentioned our mini-break destination for a splash of winter sun. True, and there are very good reasons for the nation’s enduring love of the island: it’s a short affordable flight from Scotland, has safe, sandy beaches, year-round sun, cuisine ranging from tasty tapas to top-end Michelin, and a bucket-load of culture.
With a slew of affordable boutique hotels and apartments such as StayCatalina springing up in the island’s capital, dodging the party madness of Magaluf is easy and living like a local in an apartment instead of a hotel gave us the chance to explore one of Palma’s most interesting districts.
Just outside the city walls and a ten-minute walk to the cathedral and beach, Santa Catalina is a former working class district, once home to fishermen, rope and flour makers, and currently being gentrified. The flats and houses still have old wooden shutters and balconies and the place has a cosmopolitan vibe which mixes the traditional and trendy. In the street next to the apartment is Palma’s oldest food market, dating from 1920, the Mercat de Santa Catalina, its stalls piled high with local produce, from shoals of fresh fish to vast displays of vegetables. Cafés and restaurants nearby offer a world of choice, including traditional paella and tapas, sushi, Italian, Lebanese, Asian, vegan and gluten free options.
After checking into our two-bedroom, four-star apartment in a refurbished townhouse, with its pleasing vintage furnishings, vast comfy beds and up-to-the-minute spotless bathrooms and kitchen, we stocked up at the Mercat then jumped on the free bicycles provided by the friendly, helpful owner. It was time to head for the bay and soak up some rays.
Just ten minutes and a short, terror-free ride later, we raced across the sand and jumped in the sea. Splashing about happily, we were remarking how crowd-free the waves were when a buff lifeguard approached and summoned us out.
“The sea is fickle,” he said.
“Yes, it can be,” I said, wondering if all Mallorcan beach guards had a touch of the Hemingways. “But it’s quite calm today.”
“No, fecal,” he repeated, pointing at the red flag. Ah.
It seems the capital’s somewhat ageing sewage system was temporarily struggling after unseasonal torrential rain, so after a quick shower beachside we headed to the nearest bar for a stiff cocktail to kill any opportunist bugs.
Then it was back on the bikes and along the seafront cycle path to another beach at Portixol, where red flags were absent and bathers aplenty. After lazing around until the sun went down, we cycled back to Palma with the breeze at our backs ruffling the fronds of the palm trees lining the prom.
Next day the picturesque little town and port of Sóller was our destination. It’s possible to catch a 1912 wooden panelled train all the way but time was short so we enjoyed views of the craggy Tramuntana mountains from the bus then hopped on the quaint old tram running from the town to the beach. With its perfect sandy bay lined by a quaint white horseshoe of hostelries, hotels, shops and restaurants selling everything from ice cream to paella to inflatable sharks, it was little wonder the beach was full of sun-seekers. The sea too was full, this time with shoals of tiny fish that flitted around us as we swam. No red flags here.
A couple of hours on the beach was enough for sun-starved flesh, so as the afternoon wore on we headed back into Sóller town. There we strolled around shady alleyways and squares abuzz with locals and tourists sitting chewing the fat, slipping into the cool of the church that dominates the town centre piazza for a blast of baroque excess courtesy of its ornate side altars and beautiful stained glass.
Our final day, with the sun and sand quota met, and topped up by frequent trips up to the rooftop loungers with my bonkbuster, it was time for some culture. First stop was the impressive Cathedral of Santa Maria of Palma, or La Seu, built on the site of an existing mosque when the island was taken back from the Moors in the 13th century. Seeming to rise out of the sea with its flying buttresses and towers, it was full of tourists, heads thrown back, gazing up at the 43-metre vaulted ceiling and one of the largest stained glass windows in the world.
When neck strain kicked in it was time to head through the alleyways of Palma’s old town to the fascinating Arab baths, unchanged since the 10th century, and virtually all that still stands of the old Arab city. The remains of a villa with an ancient garden where the air is heady with the scent of bougainvillea and jasmine tumbling over centuries-old walls, it’s a quiet space to sit and let the busy city around you melt away.
As the sun went down we headed back to Santa Catalina and the neighbourhood selfie-spot, the rooftop Sky Bar at Hotel Hostal Cuba where questions were popped along with champagne corks at the busy tables around us. Cocktails in hand, we watched the cathedral emerge into the dusk bathed in a stunning mantle of white lights for its own Instagram moment, and as the ice melted in our mojitos, the sun dissolved slowly into the bay.
Prices at StayCatalina Boutique Apartments start from start from £88 a night for a one bedroom patio studio. Book via www.i-escape.com
Ryanair flies Edinburgh to Mallorca from £16.99, and Glasgow Prestwick to Mallorca from £19.99, see website for latest prices (www.ryanair.com)