Coast is clear for sheer indulgence in Mallorca
Mallorca, long our favourite holiday island, now boasts a property from the people who brought you Dubai's Burj Al Arab. Stephen Bayley checks in.
Stephen Bayley is an author, critic, columnist, consultant, broadcaster, debater and curator. With Terence Conran he created the influential Boilerhouse Project in the Victoria & Albert Museum, which evolved into the Design Museum. Stephen writes a regular column for The Independent on Sunday’s Travel section, and contributes features that have previously covered anything from travelling through Japan via the iconic Shinkansen, to the artisans of Florence and driving a vintage Fiat 500 around Sicily.
Friday 17 August 2012
To understand the new Jumeirah Port Sóller, you will need to rethink your idea of "hotel" (and, later, rearrange your prejudices about Mallorca). It is a huge new undertaking of global ambition, an extraordinary laboratory of modern hospitality, and we were an experiment: among the very first guests.
From origins in a residential area of Dubai, Jumeirah is building a fast-evolving collection of landmark hotels and resorts. Best known is the sail-shaped Burj Al Arab hotel, but in the UK it is known, if at all, for expensive but uninspiring Knightsbridge hotels. Port Sóller is different in scale, scope and identity. Mallorca has many fine hotels and very many more that are not. The island has now acquired something else: an enormous statement of intent, as bewildering as it is impressive, which owes not much to established tradition and nothing at all to local custom.
Port Sóller is on Mallorca's rugged north coast, about 35km from Palma. Many of the people who find their way here are day-tripping tourists who take the historic and dramatic train across the mountains from the capital. But we arrived direct from the airport, sweaty and fretful, and asked to go straight to one of the two pools. We could have walked, but our guide (we must call him exactly that since this was a form of exploration) suggested we use the "elevators".
The journey from reception to poolside needed five separate lift journeys: the price to be paid for an amazing cliff-front site is that the hotel clings to the rocks where it can, occupying crags and fissures where nature makes them available. Until they design a lift that turns corners, this staggered lift arrangement will remain.
The 120-room hotel extends at its different levels along a site that is not much less than 1km in length. It is not a single building, but clusters of them precariously attached to the geology. The buildings make no attempt at cuteness or charm. Instead, they are a sort of authentic contemporary Spanish seaside vernacular. A matter-of-fact architecture of emphatic neutrality. The hotel neither confronts its rocky context nor is it subdued by it.
The headline effects are all internal. Or they certainly were in the Lighthouse Suite which we were assigned. This is a double-height cylinder with enormous floor-to-ceiling arched windows set on a very large terrace whose views of sea and mountain thrilled my senses of beauty and romance while disturbingly testing my tolerance of vertigo's effects.
In order to build a cumulative mental picture of the exceptionality of Jumeirah Port Sóller, it is worth cataloguing the contents of the terrace. A small olive plantation is included, reminding me of that Rothschild remark that "no matter how modest, no garden should be without several acres of woodland". You could say the same of terraces and olives. Also included were: an eight-seater dining table, Jacuzzi, a tented love seat positioned for fornication in the sunset, four armchairs and footstools plus two sunloungers.
Inside the Lighthouse Suite, the improbably tall windows are covered by the finest nets operated by touch-sensitive electronic controls. Housekeeping is not my special subject, but I imagine there will eventually be maintenance difficulties here. A coruscating German kitchen is included, specified, perhaps, by a techno fanatic trained at Audi. It contains a large fridge dedicated to drinks: if I say there were four different types of beer and four different types of mineral water, not to mention juices and mixers, you may get the impression that unusual attention to detail has been exercised here.
The bedroom is on a mezzanine halfway up the cylinder, accessed by a long, curling ramp. The lofty location provides astonishing views (with a brass telescope to assist), but also traps the heat overnight. However, since there is powerful air-conditioning, no impediment exists to the eco-insensitive achieving, for once, cool.
The bed is surrounded by a suite of electronic controls glowing with the menace of technical authority. It must be that man from Audi again. So far from being the preface to the Land of Nod, getting into bed felt rather like accessing the flight deck on a business jet, an environment with which many customers will be familiar.
The number of wardrobes and cupboards in exotic wood approached fetishistic levels. My latent puritan whispered "Too much!", but my dominant realist insisted that it is all very well done indeed. In fact, it is all so good – with bathrobes of baffling softness and down-stuffed duvets of giggle-making voluptuousness – that cynicism is defeated. Utterly vanquished. The style of it all was, to be honest, not much to my taste, but I have never experienced any room more comfortable or efficient. Or with better views of sea and mountain. Perfection can take many forms, but this I feel was very near one of them.
There are two restaurants and, as so often in hotels, the simpler one was the better. Es Fanals is the lunchtime bistro overlooking the dramatic infinity pool. We ate octopus, a tuna "ceviche" (in fact just raw fish, not one that had been marinated in lemon), plus an authentic paella. Quite rightly, the sommelier, the splendidly named Oliver Sinclair González Padron, is an advocate of locality and drinking of Mallorcan wines is strongly encouraged. Here we had a cheerful macabeu. This was all served by immaculate girls who artfully combined promptitude with a relaxed attitude. I may sound as if I have lost my powers of criticism and become besotted under the influence of white wine and strong sunshine, but it happens to be true.
To prove that I have not lost my powers of criticism, the more formal restaurant is a disappointment. Named Cap Roig (an unattractive bony fish of the order Scorpaeniformes familiar around the Balearics), its menu is a parody of false sophistication with much too much going on to no good purpose at all. For example: duck foie gras with tuna pastrami and plum chutney or carpaccio of beef flavoured with lapsang souchong served with green papaya and prawns. Dear me, no. What I really wanted was a simply grilled bony fish familiar around the Balearics. Good food, after all, must just taste of what it is. We drank an interesting red wine called petjades which was compensatingly superb.
There are other niggles. The bathrooms are a good place to study the mounting absurdities of minimalism. Perfectly flat ceramic soap dishes lack drainage ridges so the perfectly flat disc of soap adheres intractably. Towel rails snag the towels. But a big positive on the style front is the almost total lack of branding. Small Jumeirah logos are etched on some windows, but nowhere else are there any intrusive graphics.
Some might feel the Jumeirah Port Sóller is a deracinated rich person's absurdity imposed on Robert Graves's noble peasant island. Indeed, I thought I was going to think that myself. But after a few days of otherworldly comfort and meticulous service delivered by wave after wave of politely smiling, but not at all obsequious, staff, I acquired Stockholm syndrome.
I found it dangerously seductive and began to wonder whether my lifelong quest for hotels of eccentric charm and quirky character has been a terrible mistake. Maybe I actually prefer anonymity and supreme comfort. True, Jumeirah Port Sóller tells you nothing about Mallorca, but if you have seen Magaluf that is perhaps no bad thing.
So what to do if you tire of paradise? A 10-minute stroll down a very steep hill takes you into Port Sóller itself (although the hotel operates an on-demand Mercedes shuttle van). Port Sóller is pretty and neat rather than gorgeous and glamorous. There are no noteworthy restaurants, but we ate an earthy conejo con cebolla (rabbit with onions and "innards") at Albatroz on the quayside and a hake at Ses Oliveres by the beach.
Or you can take a taxi for a 20-minute drive through the thrilling Tramuntana range to the perhaps-too-pretty mountain village of Fornalutx. The favoured restaurant here is Es Turó and its arroz brut, a rough paella. But the must-do is take a €5 ride from Port Sóller to the inland town of Sóller proper. You do this on the delightful Ferrocarril de Sóller, a wooden-bodied electric tram of apparently ancient provenance.
On Saturdays in the handsome town of Sóller there is a very good market with all the fine artisanal produce which has now made Spain at least as good a place to eat as Tuscany or Provence. We bought figs, aged manchego, jamon, bread, tomatoes and a simple white wine. We took the plastic bags back to the terrace of the Lighthouse Suite. We sat, ate and looked at the blue sea, the green mountains and thought this compromise between nature, peasant culture and nervelessly sophisticated extreme modern comfort was, let me admit ... absolutely perfect. And the love seat was yet to come.
Palma is well served by airlines from the UK, including easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com), Monarch (08719 40 50 40; monarch.co.uk), Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com), British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com), Vueling (0906 754 7541; vueling.com) and FlyBe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com).
Jumeirah Port Sóller Hotel and Spa, Port Sóller Mallorca, Spain (00 34 971 637 888; jumeirah.com/mallorca). Double rooms start at €362 including breakfast.
Eating and drinking there
Bar Albatros, calle Marina 48, Port Sóller (00 34 97 163 3214). Ses Oliveres, Urbanitzacio Es Traves, Port Sóller (00 34 971 634 168; restaurantsesoliveres.com). Es Turó, Avenida Arbona Colom 6, Fornalutx (00 34 971 630 808).
Balearic Islands Tourist Office: www.illesbalears.es
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