The Balearics comprise a group of islands situated around 150 miles south of Barcelona, off Spain's Mediterranean coast. The largest island is Mallorca, followed by Menorca, Ibiza and Formentera. Incidentally, the name Balearic probably derives from the islanders' ancient custom of throwing slingshots at passing invaders (ballein is a Greek word meaning to throw). Hannibal was so impressed that he recruited Balearic slingers to fight in the Punic Wars, paying them with wine and women. The art of the slingshot has recently been revived in Palma, the capital of Mallorca.
MALLORCA? IS THAT THE SAME AS
Yes and no. The way that you spell the island has become a test of your attitude to it. Majorca, the British name, is found in the mass-market tour brochures. It is a place where the sun always shines, the beer always flows and the local culture amounts to little more than fake flamenco shows and watered-down sangria. The more upmarket villa and hotel operators tend to refer to Mallorca, the Spanish name for the island. In Mallorca, as opposed to Majorca, the people speak Mallorquin (a version of Catalan) and are more likely to be found drinking the excellent local wine.
ISN'T IT ALL SUN, SAND AND SEX?
From watching some TV travel programmes, you'd think that Mallorca was just like Blackpool with warmer weather, and Ibiza nothing but 24-hour clubbing and chilling out on the beach. Yes, you can find resorts where breakfast consists of a greasy fry-up at 3pm washed down with several pints of lager, but you don't have to. Think Black Forest, not Blackpool - these days, there are far more German than British tourists visiting Mallorca. Claudia Schiffer and Boris Becker have homes on the island and a quarter of all property is in German hands.
SO WHICH ISLAND SHOULD I CHOOSE, AND WHEN?
For an off-season break, Mallorca is the obvious choice. There are regular, cheap flights throughout the year, and the island is big enough to have a life outside the busy summer tourist season. The mountains along the north coast are perfect for autumn and winter walking, and there are some challenging (as well as some easy) cycle trails, too. Palma, the capital, makes a good city break at any time of year, with its Gothic cathedral, modern art galleries and chic waterfront cafes. Even in winter, it is often warm enough to have lunch outside by the sea. Menorca, Ibiza and Formentera are primarily summer holiday destinations. Actually, any of these would make an attractive, quiet off-season break, but most of the hotels shut down in October, and there are few flights in winter. Menorca has traditionally appealed to British families looking for an old-fashioned beach holiday. During the 18th century, it was under British rule, and the influence remains in everything from Georgian architecture to Friesian cattle and a dialect with words like grevi (gravy) and winder (a sash window).
Menorca also has a wealth of prehistoric sites, such as watchtowers and burial chambers from the Bronze Age Talaiotic culture. Ibiza has clubbing, a strong alternative scene, "hippy markets" and even one or two quiet villages, plus a magnificent medieval walled capital, Dalt Vila.
Formentera, a ferry ride from Ibiza, is a small rural island whose inhabitants boast that there is molt poca cosa que veure ("very little to see") and want to keep it that way.
HOW DO I GET THERE?
Mallorca has charter flights from airports around the UK all year, and between April and October there are also charter flights to Ibiza and Menorca. Most seats are sold as part of a flight-and-accommodation package, but you may be able to pick up a flight-only deal from a travel agent, ITV's Teletext screens or from the Cheap Flights website (www.cheapflights.co.uk).
One disadvantage of charter flights is that you usually have to stay for precisely one or two weeks. For more flexibility, scheduled airlines with year-round services to Palma include British Midland (0870 240 7042) from Heathrow and East Midlands, easyJet (0870 600 0000) from Luton, Futura Direct (0990 772233) from Gatwick, and GB Airways (0345 222111), also from Gatwick. Fares start at pounds 88 with easyJet, pounds 139.50 with Futura Direct, pounds 169.50 with GB Airways and pounds 231.30 with British Midland, so it pays to shop around. Go (0845 605 4321) has four flights a week from Stansted to Palma until 15 September, with all seats at pounds 130.
For Menorca, the only regular year-round direct service is with Monarch (01582 398333) from Luton to Ma (Mahn). The cheapest flight that's available in September is pounds 172 return.
Ibiza loses its one scheduled link from the UK (on Go from Stansted) on 15 September. The alternative is to fly from Heathrow, Gatwick or Manchester via Barcelona or Madrid with Iberia (0171-830 0011), or to fly to Palma and pick up a ferry to Ibiza. For Formentera, there are frequent ferries from Ibiza town.
DO I HAVE TO STAY AT A BEACH HOTEL?
Not at all. I have been visiting Mallorca for several years, and the most striking development has been the appearance of dozens of country house hotels, in old manor houses and agricultural estates. These are now starting to appear in Menorca and Ibiza as well.
The trend was started by La Residencia (now owned by Richard Branson's Virgin group), which opened in 1984 in a pair of stone farmhouses in Deia. Now almost every large house in Mallorca is being bought up by foreigners and converted into a luxury hotel. La Reserva Rotana, near Manacor, is set in a 13th-century mansion with its own nine-hole golf course, while Read's, near Santa Maria, is a stately home surrounded by almond groves which has been lovingly restored by its English owner. At such places you can expect to pay at least pounds 100 per night plus 7 per cent VAT for a double room (See also Five of the Best Hotels, below).
These and many others like them can be booked through Castaways (01737 812255), which is one of the leading specialists in upmarket, inland Mallorca. Rural hotels and villas can also be booked through Alternative Mallorca (0113 278 6862) and Simply Spain (0181-995 9323).
Companies specialising in self-catering villas, many with private pools, include CV Travel (0870 603 9018), Vintage Travel (01954 261431), Individual Travellers Spain (08700 780187), Travel Club of Upminster (01708 225000) and Meon Villas (01730 230370). A week in a villa with pool near Ciutadella, Menorca, costs from pounds 345 for up to five people with Vintage Travel in October. Flights and car hire are extra.
The Balearic Agrotourism Association (00 34 971 721508) has a brochure of fincas, which range from elegant country hotels to simple accommodation on working farms. The vast majority are in Mallorca, but there are also a handful in Menorca and Ibiza. The development of agrotourism is being carefully controlled to limit its impact on the environment, with establishments being restricted to a maximum of 12 rooms. After witnessing the impact of mass tourism on the coastline, the Balearics have sensibly decided that they do not want us taking over their villages as well.
THAT ALL SOUNDS A BIT EXPENSIVE
If you don't mind staying in a package resort, there are some good deals to be had at the quieter ends of the season. Go to any high-street travel agent, book yourself a cheap package, then hire a car or bike locally and it is easy enough to escape the crowds. Some people don't bother with the accommodation at all, but treat the cheapest packages (with the dreaded "accommodation allocated on arrival") as flight-only deals.
For something a bit different, Mallorca's old monasteries rent out rooms in the former monks' cells for around pounds 5-pounds 10 per night. The accommodation is basic - you may not even get a shower - but the experience is unforgettable. Most of them are situated on hilltops with great views. Try Lluc (00 34 971 871525), Puig de Maria (00 34 971 184132) or Sant Salvador (00 34 971 827282).
CAN I COMBINE A BEACH HOLIDAY WITH SOME SIGHTSEEING?
The next couple of months are the perfect time for a late-summer holiday - the prices come down, the sea is still warm and the beaches are a lot less crowded than in July and August. Choose a resort like Port de Pollenca on Mallorca's north-east coast, which seems to appeal especially to British families. It has a good sprinkling of restaurants, a romantic beachfront promenade, and superb walking and cycling in the nearby hills. I stayed in Port de Pollenca with my wife and three-year-old son in May, paying just over pounds 1,000 in total, including flights, for two weeks in a self-catering apartment with Sunworld (08705 666222). Even the much- maligned Palma Nova, in the Bay of Palma, can be relaxing at this time of year, with two good beaches and regular buses to Palma.
In Ibiza, Santa Eulalia is a medium-sized resort that has managed to retain its Ibizan feel and is close enough to the capital, Eivissa, for a day trip.
If you hire a car (for around pounds 20 a day locally), you can get to some of the wilder beaches, such as Es Trenc on Mallorca's south coast. This has three miles of white sand backed by dunes, with not a hotel in sight. It is popular with naturists, but rarely gets crowded except at summer weekends.
The south coast of Menorca has numerous rugged coves that can only be reached on foot or by a bumpy drive across farmland, and the north coast of Ibiza, away from the tourist resorts, is similarly endowed with peaceful, sandy bays.
ARE THERE ANY COMPANIES THAT OFFER ACTIVITY HOLIDAYS?
Headwater (01606 813368) has one-week walking holidays based in Port de Sller on Mallorca's north coast. Most of the walks are graded "two boot", making them suitable for moderately experienced walkers, though there are a few tougher "three boot" options. You visit the village of Deia, where the poet Robert Graves is buried in the small cemetery, and Valldemossa, where Chopin and George Sand spent a notorious winter together in 1838. A six-hour walk from Valldemossa climbs high into the Serra de Tramuntana, with views over the rugged northern coastline and most of the island. The trip costs from pounds 573, which includes flights, with departures from September to November.
Alternative Mallorca (0113 278 6862) also offers guided walking holidays led by Valerie Crespi-Green, author of the excellent Landscapes of Mallorca (Sunflower). You choose between beginners', intermediate or expert walks, with four days of walking during a one-week stay. The cost in September is pounds 128 per person, based on a party of four. Flights and accommodation are extra. The company has also introduced horse-riding holidays, travelling up to 25 miles a day and staying in Mallorca's hilltop monasteries (see above).
IS THERE ANYWHERE I SHOULD AVOID?
Unless you are into wet T-shirt competitions, jumping off balconies and drunken fights between British, German and Dutch tourists, you're probably better off staying away from the Bay of Palma in summer - especially the resorts of Magaluf and S'Arenal. Sant Antoni in Ibiza (known by everyone as San An) is the summer clubbing capital of the Balearics, best avoided by anyone of a nervous disposition. It was the antics of young British partygoers in San An that led the British vice-consul in Ibiza to resign his post in disgust a year ago this week.
WHAT ABOUT THE FOOD? IS IT ALL PAELLA AND CHIPS?
In common with other regions of Spain, Balearic cooking has undergone something of a revival, and the islands are full of restaurants offering "new Mediterranean" cuisine, with fresh twists on traditional ingredients. In the last year, I have been offered monkfish with pig's ears, duck breast with quince jelly and crema catalana (a kind of Catalan burnt custard) with caramelised fennel and tomato.
Some of the more inventive cooking is found in the restaurants of the top hotels, such as Sa Tafona at Son Net (see Five of the Best Hotels) and El Olivo at La Residencia in Deia (971 639011). Expect to pay around pounds 30 plus drinks at such places. Grilled meat and fish are usually excellent, and fresh fish is best at the islands' many fishing ports, such as Ciutadella and Fornells in Menorca.
The speciality of Fornells is caldereta de llagosta, a lobster casserole served in an earthenware bowl. King Juan Carlos is so fond of it that he frequently sails over to Fornells from his summer palace in Palma to eat at Es Pla (971 376655) by the harbour. The locals prefer the less pretentious Es Cranc (971 376442). A full dish of caldereta will set you back at least pounds 20, but you can usually sample it as part of a set menu.
A more down-to-earth treat is pa amb oli, the local version of a popular Catalan snack consisting of crusty bread rubbed with tomato, drizzled with olive oil, then topped with ham or cheese. At the Pa Amb Oli grill in Ciutadella, the bread is toasted on the barbecue and served up alongside baskets of garlic and tomatoes on the table for you to make your own. And what's wrong with paella anyway?
As for drink, Mallorcan wine is developing a justified reputation as one of the more interesting Spanish regional wines, with producers like Miquel Oliver in Petra and Jaume Mesquida in Porreres experimenting with imported varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as the indigenous Manto Negro grape.
WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE?
General information on the Balearic islands is available from the Spanish Tourist Office in London (0171-486 8077; www.tourspain.es). The most complete guidebook is the recently published Insight Guide: Mallorca & Ibiza (pounds 16.99), which covers all four of the Balearics and has in-depth essays on their history, culture, food and tourist attractions.
FIVE OF THE BEST HOTELS
1 SON NET, PUIGPUNYENT, MALLORCA
This splendid hotel opened last year in a refurbished 17th-century manor house, less than 10 miles from Palma, but surrounded by orange groves and mountains. The poolside terrace looks down over a village of golden stone houses. The American owner has filled the hotel with his own private art collection, including paintings by Warhol and Chagall.
Reservations 00 34 971 147000. Double rooms from around pounds 150-pounds 500
2 PALACIO CA SA GALESA, PALMA, MALLORCA
This mansion in the back streets of Palma was converted by a British couple a few years back, winning an architectural award from Palma city council. The rooms are individually decorated, and afternoon tea is served in a replica of Monet's kitchen at Giverny. The rooftop terrace overlooks the cathedral and the bishop's garden.
Reservations 00 34 971 715400. Double rooms from pounds 120
3 S'HOTEL D'ES PUIG, DEIA, MALLORCA
The mountain village of Deia has long attracted bohemian types and "the hotel on the hill" features in a short story by Robert Graves, as well as in Gordon West's 1929 travelogue, Jogging Round Majorca. The small hotel, with just eight rooms and a breakfast terrace, reopened in 1996 and makes a cheaper, more intimate alternative to Richard Branson's chi- chi La Residencia in the same village.
Reservations 00 34 971 639409. Double rooms from pounds 60
4 HOTEL DEL ALMIRANTE,
ES CASTELL, MENORCA
This wine-red Georgian mansion was once owned by the British Admiral Collingwood, whose ghost is said to haunt the building. The house has been filled with paintings and antiques from the period of 18th-century British rule. There are good views over Mao harbour, one of the longest natural harbours in the world.
Reservations 00 34 971 362700 (open until end October). Doubles from pounds 50
5 HACIENDA, PORT DE SANT MIQUEL, IBIZA
The top hotel on Ibiza is situated on the rugged north coast, on an isolated clifftop overlooking a rocky bay. There are indoor and outdoor pools, bikes for hire, and jacuzzis in most of the rooms. The restaurant features modern Mediterranean cuisine as well as ancient Carthaginian specialities, such as swordfish with garum, a thick sauce of pickled fish invented during the Roman occupation.
Reservations 00 34 971 334500. Doubles from pounds 165 in September,
pounds 115 in October
FIVE OF THE BEST REMOTE VILLAGES
1 ORIENT, MALLORCA
This village of 30 inhabitants is known mainly to walkers and cyclists, and day-trippers from Palma who flock to its rustic restaurants for Sunday lunch. A two-hour climb from Orient leads to the Castell d'Alaro, a ruined Moorish castle with views stretching to Palma and out to sea. On the way you pass Es Verger, a farmhouse restaurant whose speciality is roast lamb from a wood-burning oven.
2 PETRA, MALLORCA
This sleepy village of green-shuttered stone houses was the birthplace of Fray Junipero Serra, the Mallorcan missionary who founded the cities of San Diego and San Francisco in California. You can visit his house and a museum devoted to his life, then have lunch at one of the cafes in the main square.
3 ES MIGJORN GRAN,
Most of Menorca's inland villages are strung out along a single main road, so this exception, in the south of the island, retains a much more provincial feel. The whitewashed parish church looks like something out of the Greek islands and the main street, with its pastel-coloured houses, could be a painting of 19th-century Menorca.
4 BALAFI, IBIZA
This tiny hamlet in the little-visited interior of Ibiza has a Moorish feel, with whitewashed cottages clustered around a pair of defensive towers. The simple, traditional, flat-roofed style of building has influenced architects such as Le Corbusier, and is also responsible for the modern "cube houses" on the coast.
5 SANT FRANCESC XAVIER, FORMENTERA
The capital of Formentera is little more than a village, with a 14th- century chapel and an 18th-century fortress church. A narrow road leads across farmland to Cap de Barbaria, the island's southernmost tip, where a lighthouse and an ancient watchtower stand on the edge of the cliffs.