What's the attraction?
Scattered prettily off the east coast between Barcelona and Valencia, Spain's Balearic archipelago offers holiday heaven. Whether you seek safe beaches lapped by clear water, high-altitude thrills or high-octane nightlife, some combination of Mallorca, Menorca, Ibiza and Formentera can deliver.
Each of Spain's Mediterranean islands has its own character and rewards. Sir Richard Branson, Spain's Royal Family and Catherine Zeta-Jones are among the millions who head for Mallorca in summer. Besides some of the Med's best beaches, an astonishing amount of scenery is packed into the largest island – as demonstrated on the splendidly antiquated old railway ( trendesoller.com) that rattles across the mountains from the capital, Palma, to Soller.
Across a short stretch of sea to the north-west, Menorca is the easternmost fragment of Spain, and lies astride the Greenwich Meridian. Its natural good looks are best reflected in its beautiful, shady coves.
Menorca and Ibiza are approximately the same size (and so is the Isle of Wight). While Ibiza is rinsed in millennia of history, many of its visitors are clubbers in search of vibrant music venues. But even if you fondly imagine the Ministry of Sound is something to do with noise abatement, this pearl of an island has much to offer – including a short ferry link to Formentera. The splendid isolation of the smallest of the quartet inspired Pink Floyd and King Crimson.
Classic beach break
The reason many brochures still begin with Mallorca is simple: it delivers great family beach holidays. The closest to the airport are those on the Bay of Palma, from Magaluf to Arenal. Despite attempts to smarten up these brassy resorts, they are far from the best Mallorca can deliver. Instead, head for the Bay of Alcudia in the north, and in particular Port de Pollenca. The full range of holiday stays is on offer here.
Thomson has a good deal at the Flora Aparthotel in Port de Pollenca for £423pp departing on Saturday 5 August, based on a family of four in a self-catering apartment. Flights from Gatwick and transfers included.
The most compelling reason to come to Menorca is to make the most of the water. Minorcan Sailing Holidays (020-8948 2106; minorcasailing.co.uk) offers sailing and windsurfing courses from its base at Fornells Bay on the north coast of the island.
"Most of our absolute beginners are sailing a single-handed Laser Pico in the safe, shallow waters by the end of the first afternoon," says the company. Departures are on Fridays from Gatwick with Thomson. The price of £1,519 per person for departures in July covers flights, transfers, hotel accommodation and tuition.
Walk an isle
Whether you arrive with flip-flops or hiking boots, there is plenty to offer. Wander the streets of Ibiza Town (Eivissa) and its tumultuous history is evident from the 16th-century walls, which wrap around a spur of rock. Or get a map and head for the north – green with pines and olive trees. On Menorca, there is a spectacular hike along the south shore from Cala Bosch (about five hours). Mallorca offers the widest range of hikes. Explore (0845 291 4542; explore.co.uk) has an enticing itinerary, for departures from 22 September to 20 October. An eight-day trip, taking in Puig Tomir (1,104m), costs €700 including B&B, but not flights.
Buy one, get one (almost) free: travellers to Ibiza also gain easy access to Formentera. A half-hour boat trip from Ibiza Town takes you to the island – which markets itself as "the last paradise in the Mediterranean". The absence of an airport gives it a very different character. Old hippies are augmented by sophisticates in search of landscapes untroubled by the 21st century. The isle has a network of 20 paths, now adapted for bikes and hikes. Corona Holidays (0800 5 677688; coronaholidays.co.uk) has a range of options based on charter/low-cost flights to Ibiza, and costing £400pp in June for hotels on Formentera, including breakfast.
The best city break
Palma is a calm alternative to its big Catalan sister, Barcelona. The main Balearic metropolis has its share of Modernista buildings with architectural flourishes by Gaudi and his contemporaries. It has a shimmering Gothic cathedral made of stone the colour of tanned flesh, a beautiful Plaza Mayor (main square) and a shady Rambla. Yet Palma is refreshingly free of the congestion, rascals and the high prices that dog Barcelona. Expedia (020-3027 8682; expedia.co.uk) has an excellent deal flying from Manchester with Monarch on 30 June for 48 hours, staying at the five-star Gran Melia Victoria, for £283 (excluding transfers and breakfast).
Who said that?
"Houses iced in whitewash guard a pale shoreline, cornered by the cactus and the pine" King Crimson, "Formentera Lady"
"In Palma one has to be recommended and introduced some months ahead to 20 of the more important local personages if one does not want to end up sleeping in the open air" George Sand, A Winter in Mallorca
"You never heard the Vengaboys singing a song about Benidorm. Need we say more?" Ibiza publicity, Club 18-30 brochure
"Port de Pollenca has to be the best resort on Mallorca, if not on the whole of the Mediterranean. On Menorca, I adore Cuitadella, although it's not very beachy." – Paul Chandler, former owner of Travel Club of Upminster, which pioneered package holidays.
Getting there and around
Between them, easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com), Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com), Monarch (08719 40 50 40; monarch.co.uk) and Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) offer links from many UK airports to Palma de Mallorca, Mao (Mahon) in Menorca and Ibiza. British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) serves all three islands from London City. These links are supplemented by flights from the two leading package firms, Thomas Cook and Thomson – which can also be bought as seat-only deals via their respective websites. Island hopping is possible by sea or air, though the latter is disproportionately expensive.