The sweetly smiling woman who buttonholed us at the arrivals gate was insistent. The guide book she was pushing would reveal "everything of Mallorca". Even better, she added, it was "gratis". Yes, yes, we smiled back, perhaps a little defensively, tossing the glossy leaflet on top of our luggage trolley before sweeping out of the airport into the afternoon sun - in search of our hire car and the road to Es Rafael, the farmhouse that would be our home for the next week.

A few hours later, now happily installed at our rural finca, we finally opened our guide - to discover among its recommendations a picture of the Mallorca we were trying to avoid, a Mallorca of Aquaparks and McDonald's sundaes ("free with McMenu Grande"), of fish & chip shops serving "North Sea cod" and British pubs offering Boddington's and Bud. And the thought occurred: what we needed here was a different kind of guide - an alternative map of Mallorca, without a fish & chip shop in sight.

The map we'd be proposing would lead you firmly away from the lager-fuelled pleasures of the Bay of Palma, the concrete accretion that stretches from Magaluf to S'Arenal and has made Mallorca a byword for package-holiday excess. Instead, it would point you northwards and eastwards, along the island's great jagged spine, the Sierra de Tramuntana, whose 37 peaks rise to almost 5,000 feet before plunging down to one of Europe's most dramatic - and still amazingly unspoilt - coastlines.

It would point you to Deia, of course - the picture-perfect village in the foothills of the Sierra, made famous by the poet Robert Graves (whose burial site high in the churchyard is still a place of pilgrimage), which is now a magnet not only for artists and writers, but also for racing drivers and supermodels (Michael Schumacher and Claudia Schiffer have homes here), pop icons (Bob Geldof and Mick Jagger have also been spotted), Hollywood stars (well, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones) and even stray billionaires (Richard Branson once owned the local hotel, La Residencia).

But it would direct you, too, to some of the island's less celebrated villages - such as Puigpunyent, only 20 minutes from Palma but surrounded by countryside of such verdant beauty that it's hard to believe you're in the Balearics at all. Puigpunyent is also home to one of Mallorca's finest hotels, the Son Net, housed in a 17th-century aristocrat's mansion perched high above the village. With lush gardens, dramatic views, a spectacular swimming pool and some of the best food on the island, this is truly a magical spot (and according to the regulars, it's smarter, less expensive and a lot more friendly than Branson's old place).

Our guide would take you high up into the hills, along the winding road to the monastery at Lluc, a sacred place for more than 2,000 years, a place of tranquil contemplation and cool Tramuntana breezes, of fountains and forest walks, with one of the most atmospheric churches in all Spain (where the famous Lluc boys' choir performs each day). Whatever your beliefs, it's an ideal place to raise an appetite for lunch at Es Guix, the splendidly isolated local restaurant, in a converted hunting lodge along a rough private road. With its renowned menu of mountain dishes and its own, bracingly cold spring-water swimming pool, it attracts foodies and families from all over the island.

But lest you think we're becoming obsessed with crags and peaks, our guide would soon descend from these heights to the island's best beach - the unbeatably lovely, pine-fringed Platja de Formentor. Once the private realm of a flamboyant Argentinian beef baron, and then of the Hotel Formentor, the long white-sand strand is now open to the public but remains protected from development.

Our guide could go on. It could tell you about the bustling Sunday-morning market in pretty Pollenca; about the bargains at the Camper shoes factory in Inca (from £20 a pair); about the wonderful caves and underground lakes at Campanet. It could advise you that a night out in Palma's old town is not to be missed, but reflect that you should base yourselves inland: our enchanting finca, just outside the sleepy village of Buger, with its manicured lawns, olive trees and private swimming pool, seemed much more relaxing than any concrete apartment block on the coast. But more than anything, our guide would encourage you to get out and explore this surprising and extraordinarily varied island, where just a few minutes from even the worst tourist hell, a paradise awaits.

Rates at Finca es Rafael (sleeps six) from £575 per week, inc. maid service, car hire and deluxe hamper on arrival. Cook service is available on request. Contact Mallorca Farmhouses on www.mfh.co.uk, 0118-947 3001. British Airways operates eight flights a week to Palma from London Gatwick with return fares from £69 inc. taxes. See ba.com or call 0870 8509850. Double rooms at Gran Hotel Son Net from €180 (£120) per room per night. Call 00 34 971 147 000, www.thesteingroup.com

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