While they haven’t completely shaken their reputations for soulless resorts and lairy hedonism – with some justification, it has to be said – the two largest islands of the Balearic archipelago have nonetheless experienced something of an image transformation over the past decade.
Palma is now a firm fixture on ‘top city breaks’ lists in Sunday travel supplements, and many visitors are being seduced by the islands’ growing reputations for outdoor activities, quality places to stay and eat and stunning beaches. With enticing natural attractions and forward-thinking authorities, especially in Mallorca’s case, the image transformation hasn’t been too problematic.
Millions have been invested in cleaning up the streets and improving counter-resort culture tourist infrastructures, such as hiking and cycling routes, upmarket rural and metropolitan accommodation, yachting facilities and conference centres, while legislation has been brought in to curb late-night booze-driven behaviour.
This embracement of more ‘civilised’ tourism isn’t actually anything new in Mallorca: in the 1920s, the glitterati, including Elizabeth Taylor and Audrey Hepburn, poured in to swan about the Hotel Formentor, while artists, hippies and writers, such as the late Robert Graves, have been cavorting around the west coast, and in particular the village of Deià, for decades.
While those in search of summer sun, late-night cocktails and English pubs will still find what they’re after, visit off-season and the vibe is far more wholesome. In winter, spring or autumn, you’re more likely to come across lycra-clad cyclists skimming along the interior, hikers scaling the peaks of the Tramuntana and metropolitan sophisticates keen to sample the tapas bars of Palma’s perfectly preserved old town. Mallorca’s capital is in fact a gem of a city, often likened to its big sister Barcelona, yet without the tourist droves (or pickpockets).
If you really want to escape, though, Menorca is the place. With a somnolent interior, some outstandingly beautiful, undeveloped beaches and a couple of tiny port towns, it’s one of the Mediterranean’s most manageable island destinations, and a real treat for divers.
So, two small islands but a wealth of different possible experiences. The question now is whether such tourism-reliant destinations can weather the storm in these economically challenged times.
Around the Islands
Palma & the Bay of Palma
If you had a list of desirable attributes for any city, few ticks would be missing on Palma’s checklist, from stylish hotels and decent restaurants to a compact layout and interesting architecture. The surrounding Bay of Palma has been scarred by the tourism excesses to which the capital has made few concessions. Yet white sand beaches, yachting facilities and nightclubs draw in the crowds.
The rugged peaks of the Serra de Tramuntana flank the whole of the west coast, blocking large-scale tourist development. This region is certainly not free from tourists, but they tend to be of a more rarefied cast, often keen to head into the mountains for some soul-cleansing hiking. The area contains some of the choicest places to stay and eat, and some of the smartest and most atmospheric villages.
North & central Mallorca
The Northern towns of Alcúdia and Pollença are among Mallorca’s most appealing, and make great holiday bases. South of here, the central plain, Es Pla, is the island’s agricultural heartland, and largely unknown by tourists. A growing wave of excellent agroturismos – along with an improving wine industry – are, however, starting to beckon in visitors wanting to escape the crowds.
East & south Mallorca
On the east coast, you’ll find a number of popular family resorts that may lack character but are at least not as environmentally offensive as they could be. In contrast, the wind-whipped southern coast is largely undeveloped; though flat and barren, it does possess a certain wild, melancholic beauty. The pristine islands of the Cabrera national park, a short boat trip away, are a must-do in this area.
Outside of its two large towns, Maó and Ciutadella – wonderful pint-sized ports worthy of a couple of days exploring – Menorca is more relaxed and quieter than Mallorca. It lacks the dramatic geography of the Tramuntana, but it is also largely free of frenzied overdevelopment, with paradisiacal beaches, a handful of excellent rural hotels and – often a surprise to visitors – prehistoric ruins.
Things to do
Mallorca has its fair share of fine (if over-populated) beaches, but few can compare to the idyllic coves that crenellate the Menorcan coast. Many can only be reached on foot, and with their fine bleached sands and pellucid shallow waters, it doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to fancy yourself in the Caribbean. The twin beaches of Cala Macarella and Cala Macarelleta, and Cala en Turqueta in the southern part of the island are some of the best. Divers, meanwhile, are spoilt in Menorca, with visibility of up to 30 metres (100 feet) and water temperatures of up to 25 degrees celsius during high season.
The Serra de Tramuntana mountain range, stretching down Mallorca’s west coast, is the island’s most spectacular natural asset, offering memorable climbing, hiking, cycling and birdwatching, and little tourist development. A good introductory hike is the route up to the ruined monastery of La Trapa (9km. Circular. 3hrs, with possible extension) in the south-west; more experienced trekkers should try the popular Tossals Verds (13km. Circular. 4hrs 30mins) route. If you prefer to see the serra from the comfort of a car, a drive along the coastal road from Port d’Andratx to Sóller should not be missed, with some of the most dramatic scenery to be found in Europe.
Works of art
Palma’s art scene has notably improved over the past few years, with the opening of modern and contemporary art mecca Es Baluard, Museu d'Art Modern i Contempoani de Palma (971 90 82 00/www.esbaluard.org) in 2004, and with the strengthening of its popular Nit de l’Art (Art Night, 3rd Thur of September). Miró’s time in Palma is underdocumented outside of Mallorca; the Catalan artist had several prolific years of artistic creation in his studio on the outskirts of the city, which can be visited. Outside of the Mallorcan capital, there’s an unlikely and original art find in the form of the Fundación Yannick y Ben Jakober (sculptures are dotted around the island and a collection of more than 140 paintins of children are exhibited former subterranean water cistern) on the Bay of Alcúdia, while the village of Deià is something of an enclave for expat artists; its renowned hotel La Residencia (971 63 90 11, www.hotel-laresidencia.com) showcases quality local work in its in-house Tafona Gallery.
The islands’ local industries (aside from tourism) are deeply connected with national identity, being centered around heritage crafts such as shoe-making, glass-making and the production of local foodstuff, such as the emblematic ensaïmada pastry and sobrassada sausage – both of which are unmissable for foodies. Town markets are a good way of appreciating local products, with some of the best ones to be found in Palma, Alcúdia, Artà, Sineu, Inca, Bunyola and Santanyí. Mallorca’s wine industry is a growing sector, with tasting tours available in the island’s main vineyard region of Binissalem (see Tasting tours below), while gin has been the tipple of choice in Menorca since British rule in the 18th century; Maó’s Gin Xoriguer factory (971 36 21 97, www.xoriguer.es) runs tours. And for a trip back in time, to when citrus growers on the west coast used to take their products to Palma’s markets, take a trip on the old-school Palma–Sóller train (971 75 20 51, www.trendesoller.com).
The website www.binissalemdo.com is an excellent resource when it comes to getting to grips with the local vino.
Ruins and caves
Nowhere in Europe has a greater concentration of prehistoric sites than Menorca. More than 100 are scattered over the tiny island. Their typical structures of lookout tower (talayot) and T-shaped shrine (taula), as in the Talatí de Dalt (just off the Maó-Ciutadella road) and Trépuco (a kilometre south of Maó), are unique.
Mallorca has its own astonishing structures in the form of cave systems, with the most astounding, such as the Coves del Drac, to be found along the east coast. Dripping with multi-hued stalactites and lined with silent underground lakes, they make for an otherwordly experience, which even their thorough commercialisation can’t spoil.
Where to stay
No region of Spain has more classy hotels than Mallorca. In an attempt to lure more upmarket, higher-spending visitors, the island is now covered with a network of sleek places to stay – from urban designer hotels, such as the Puro Hotel (971 42 54 50, www.purohotel.com), Hotel Tres (971 71 73 33, www.hoteltres.com) and newcomer Hotel Santa Clara (971 72 92 31, www.santaclarahotel.es) in Palma, to luxury-rustic agroturismos (see below). On the other end of the scale are the island’s spectacularly located monastries, such as the Santuari de Sant Salvador (971 82 72 82) and the Santuari Nostra Senyora des Puig (971 18 41 32), which offer some of the cheapest and most spiritually satisfying lodgings on the island. Don’t expect frills: just simplicity, utter tranquility and views to die for.
The Balearics enjoy a Mediterranean climate with a year-round average temperature of 21°C in Mallorca on the coast and 20°C in Menorca, and an average of more than 300 days of sunshine throughout the year. For average monthly temperatures, see below The Local Climate.
The best time to visit the islands is in the spring, when the blossom and wild flowers are out, the sun is not too fierce and the fiesta season is just beginning. At this time, prices (except during Easter Week) are still low, but the weather is often warm enough to enjoy a beach holiday. Inland, however, it can still be a bit damp and cold, especially in the mountains, so come prepared.
From mid June prices and temperatures rise steeply, and by July and August the islands are a furnace, with temperatures regularly hitting the mid 40s.
By mid September high season is officially over and prices and temperatures start to fall. This is also a good time to visit as the fine, mild weather often stretches into late October.
November to February is officially winter, and many hoteliers and restaurants choose to close for a few months. It can snow during this period, especially in the high mountains, and it gets very cold in towns like Valldemossa. This is also rainy season, and sudden downpours after months of near drought can lead to flash floods and rock falls.
Visit www.aena.es for details on all Spanish airports and live departure and arrival details.
Maó airport, Menorca
971 15 70 00/airport tourist office 971 15 71 15. Menorca’s international airport is four kilometres south-west of Maó. From mid May to October, services from Maó bus station to the airport run every 30mins 5.45am-10.25pm, then at 11.15pm and 12.15am. From November to mid May, buses run every 30mins, 6am-10.30pm weekdays, and hourly 6am-10.30pm at weekends and public holidays.
A single fare is €1.60. For details, phone 902 07 50 66, Torres bus company (www.e-torres.net) on 971 38 64 61 or the airport tourist office on 971 15 71 15. A taxi into Maó shouldn’t cost more than €12.
Palma airport, Mallorca
971 78 90 00/airport tourist office 971 78 95 56. Son Sant Joan airport lies eight kilometres east of Palma. Bus 1 runs between the airport and the bay-side Passeig Marítim via Plaça Espanya every 15mins from around 6am to around 2.15am every day. The single fare is €1.85 (971 21 44 44, 900 700 710). A taxi will cost around €22 to the city centre. There are fixed-rate taxi fares to other places on the island.
Airlines Below are listed the major airlines flying to Palma and Maó. Some only offer charter flights and may have a reduced timetable or no service out of the summer season.
Baleària Spain 902 16 01 80/Palma 971 40 53 60/www.balearia.com. Standard and high-speed passenger and car ferries between Barcelona and Valencia and the Balearics.
From Barcelona, there’s a daily service to Ciutadella on Menorca (3hrs 45mins), going on to Alcúdia on Mallorca (5hrs 30mins; 1hr from Ciutadella to Alcúdia), and three slow ferries a week to Maó (9hrs). From Dénia, a twice-daily service runs to Palma via Ibiza (5hrs or 8hrs 45mins; 2hrs or 4hrs from Palma to Ibiza).
Between Mallorca and Menorca, ferries run daily between Alcúdia and Ciutadella (1hr) and three times a week (July-Sept only) between Alcúdia and Maó (1hr 30mins).
Single passenger tickets from mainland Spain to the Balearics are €66 (standard ferry) and €90 (high-speed ferry). Single fares between Mallorca and Menorca are €59.60, and €49 between Palma and Ibiza.
Iscomar Spain 902 11 91 28/www.iscomar.com. Iscomar operates car and passenger ferries between Alcúdia on Mallorca and Ciutadella on Menorca (2hrs 30mins; twice daily Mon-Fri, once daily Sat, Sun, with an extra service on Sat from mid June to Sept), as well as a daily passenger service between Barcelona and Palma (8hrs 30mins) and six boats a week between Valencia and Palma (9hrs).
A single passenger fare between Alcúdia and Ciutadella is €39; Barcelona and Palma is €29; and Valencia and Palma is €25.
Trasmediterranea 902 45 46 45/www.trasmediterranea.es. Services from Barcelona and Valencia to the Balearics on both high-speed and standard passenger and car ferries. There are daily departures in high season from Barcelona to Palma (3hrs 45mins or 7hrs) and six a week during high season to Maó (8hrs). In summer, daily services run from Valencia to Palma (6hrs or 7hrs 15mins) and one a week (on Sat) to Maó (14hrs). There’s a weekly ferry every Sun between Palma and Maó (5hrs 30mins), and twice-daily service between Palma and Ibiza (2hrs).
One-way fares between mainland Spain and the Balearics start at €68 (standard ferry) and €98 (high-speed ferry) . A single fare between palma and Maó is €56.
For tourist information before you leave your own country, contact the local Spanish National Tourist Office:
USA 8383 Wilshire Boulevard, Suite 960, Beverly Hills, CA 90211 (323 658 7188/www.okspain.org); Water Tower Place, Suite 915 East, 845 North Michigan Avenue, Chicago, IL 60611 (312 642 1992); 1395 Brickell Avenue, Miami, FL 33131 (305 358 1992); 666 Fifth Avenue, 35th floor, New York, NY 10103 (212 265 8822).
Visas & immigration
If you are a citizen of the EU, Norway, Iceland, the USA, Japan, Canada, Australia or New Zealand, you do not need a visa to enter Spain and stay for 90 days. All other nationals should contact their local Spanish consulate for information. Regulations do change, so all visitors should check with their local Spanish consulate for the latest information prior to travelling.
To stay longer you need to obtain a permiso de residencia (residency permit) at a police station and prove that you can support yourself financially. If you have found employment within this time, your employer will often sort out the red tape for you.
The Foreign & Commonwealth Office have issued the following travel warning: 'There is a high threat from terrorism in Spain. Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places frequented by expatriates and foreign travellers. The Spanish authorities are fully aware of the impact of terrorism and take measures to protect visitors, but you should be vigilant. Disruptions from real or hoax terror attempts can be expected. You should follow the instructions of the local police and other authorities.'
Ensure you check the FCO website before making travel plans.