Traveller's Guide: Mallorca

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The largest Balearic island has much to offer beyond the beach, not least dramatic terrain and serene villages.

Sixty years after the arrival of the first charter flights of tourists eager for a taste of the exotic new cocktail of hot sun, warm sea and golden sand, Mallorca has never looked better. Spring has arrived in the largest of the Balearic islands and sophistication is blossoming; in the next few months the five-star brand, Jumeirah, is scheduled to open its a 120-room hotel and spa, upping the accommodation stakes in Port de Sóller on Mallorca's glorious north-west shore. Doubles with breakfast from €295 (00 34 971 637 888; jumeirah.com). The group remains cagey about the precise opening date, stating that it "will be announced as soon as it is confirmed".

The key to Mallorca's success as a destination has been its ability to adapt to new tastes. Whether you want unashamed luxury, a pretty port for your yacht, a quiet boutique hotel in the country, a second home or an adventure break, you'll find it, alongside the cheap and cheerful two-star holidays that were mocked in the 1980s Heineken advert: "The water in Majorca don't taste like it what it oughta."

Tourism has come at a cost: the shoddy developments of the Franco era are still in evidence in several coastal areas, while the influx of foreign second-home owners has inflated house prices to the detriment of locals. The water still has an odd mineral taste; but who goes on holiday to drink the water?

Mallorca is both compact and varied. Its centre of gravity is in the south-west corner, around a huge bay – la Badia de Palma – which shelters the elegant capital, Palma, home to half of the island's 800,000 population. Just east stands the international airport of Son Sant Joan, Spain's third-busiest after Madrid and Barcelona. Palma is served from a wide range of UK airports by British Airways, Bmibaby, easyJet, Flybe, Jet2, Monarch, Ryanair, Thomas Cook and Thomson.

Around the bay to the west are the resorts of Magaluf and Palma Nova, particular favourites of the British, and the predominantly German destination of Peguera. On the opposite north coast, just 60km from Palma across the central plain, two more sweeping bays shelter the other major resort towns: Alcúdia and Port de Pollença. The east coast, though, is quite different in character. Backed by a chain of 300m hills, its inlets, coves and fishing villages feature lower-rise, lower-key developments.

Package holidays to the main resorts are delivered by all the major operators. Thomas Cook (0844 879 8400; thomascook.com) offers a week at the Iberostar Albufera Playa Hotel in the resort of Playa de Muro, near Alcúdia, for £499 half-board leaving from Gatwick on 1 May. First Choice (0871 200 7799; firstchoice.co.uk) has an all-inclusive week at the Marina Pax in Magaluf on the same day from Luton for £436. Prices in the summer peak season will be up to twice as much.

Mallorca's dramatic west coast is dominated by the Tramuntana mountains. The highest of them, Puig Major (1,445m), towers over the pleasant town of Sóller, which has become a centre for walking and hiking. For an authentically Mallorcan experience, take the 100-year-old narrow-gauge train from Palma to Sóller and visit the town's exceptional Can Prunera museum (00 34 971 638 973; canprunera.com; 10.30am-6.30pm; closed Mondays, October to March; €5). Housed in an elegant 1910 building at Carrer de la Luna 86, the collection includes a fine clutch of paintings by local artist Juli Ramis, as well as works by Picasso, Paul Klee and Man Ray.

Equally attractive Pollença graces a valley at the northern end of the Tramuntana range. This harshly beautiful terrain, where olives are the traditional crop, is dotted with hillside villages and interspersed with fertile valleys whose oranges and lemons add colour and scent. The mountains also harbour outstanding examples of religious architecture, the monasteries of Lluc and Valldemossa. The latter provided lodgings in 1838 for early foreign tourists, the fugitive lovers Chopin and George Sand. Not that George was very complimentary about the mountain winter: "As the winter advanced, the gloom froze all my attempts at gaiety and calm." A century later a more appreciative foreign visitor, the poet Robert Graves, came to live in nearby Deià.

Winter in Mallorca is rarely cruel. Even in January, Palma averages five hours of daily sunshine. The island can be suffocatingly hot at the height of summer, though the coast usually enjoys breezes; spring and autumn are generally more suitable for activities such as walking and cycling. The winters tend to be mild in Palma, the south and on the plain, though the Serra de Tramuntana gets much colder and is subject to violent rainstorms. The sea remains warm enough for a swim as late as November.

Vamos a la playa

Long stretches of sand fringe the island's huge bays. Palma Nova has a good family beach. In high season, Port de Pollença's white strand tends to be less crowded than neighbouring Alcúdia. Seek out the smaller calas or coves, sheltered at the end of fjord-like inlets concentrated on the east coast.

The five beaches of Cala d'Or are particularly picturesque (and good for snorkelling) though nearby s'Amarador, lined by pines, is much less developed.

Es Trenc is the most attractive beach on the south side. It has neither hotels nor watersports, but has plenty of white sand and naturists.

Remote Cala Tuent, on the north-west, is the place for clear water, guaranteed space on the crescent of shingle beach, plus great mountain views.

Inside story

Surprisingly, given its accessibility by road and rail, the island's interior – El Pla, or The Plain – is ignored by many visitors. Worth seeing are clusters of ancient windmills for grinding grain and pumping water (around Muro) and the marvellous displays of almond blossom in late winter.

El Pla is also where you'll find the largest of the island's towns: Inca, with a popular Thursday market and flourishing leather industry. Camper, the fashionably functional global shoe brand, has its headquarters here (and two outlets in Palma).

Manacor, in the east, has cornered the world market in artificial pearls and is the birthplace of one of the few Mallorcans whom the world has heard of: Rafa Nadal. To find a rival for this title, go back 800 years to the time when Mallorca had only just become a part of the Catalan-speaking Kingdom of Aragó* on mainland Spain. Ramó* Lull was an extraordinary medieval philosopher, theologian and linguist. His main legacy is the monastery which he founded at the top of the Puig de Randa, a mini-mountain which rises abruptly from the plain near Llucmajor and affords a quite unmatchable view over the island. Stay at the secluded Finca Es Castell, in the village of Caimari, a 10-minute drive north of Inca. The former olive farm, with views towards the mountains, has B&B doubles from €130 (00 34 971 875 154; fincaescastell.com).

On foot, by bike

Mallorca's prime walking country is to be found in the Serra de Tramuntana, which, last year, made it on to the Unesco list of cultural landscapes. A long-distance trail, the GR 221 or "dry-stone route" along the length of the range, has recently been opened (GR221.info) The best base for walking is Sóller: one outstanding walk (not to be attempted after rain) is down the Torrent de Pareis, Mallorca's "Grand Canyon". The local company Tramuntana tours (00 34 971 632 423; tramuntanatours. com) can arrange a guided walk for €45 per person, cash only, based on a minimum of four people.

Inntravel (01653 617002; inntravel.co.uk) has a one-week self-guided walk from hotel to hotel, through the mountains, with luggage transfers, from £715 per person (with breakfast but not flights or transfers). The island's extensive flat terrain, with occasional testing hills, is a favourite with Lycra-clad professionals doing winter training. There are bespoke cycling routes and chances to hire bikes in most resorts. For more committed cyclists, Explore (0845 291 4542; explore.co.uk) offers an eight-day holiday which takes in a mixture of scenic hills and flatter wine-producing country. The next departure on 19 May costs £779, land only (£996 with flights) for bed and breakfast in standard hotel accommodation. Bikes are included.

Dining out

While fish'n'chips, frankfurters and sangria still rule in many resorts, there's no shortage of local fare. The traditional cuisine of the island is based on its fish and seafood or meat such as rabbit or lamb. More controversially, songbirds, particularly thrushes and greenfinches, can still be found on some menus.

Specialities include the chorizo-like sobrassada sausage, and ensaïmada, a kind of brioche made with lard. Palma's coolest restaurant, Simply Fosh, pictured, at Carrer de la Missió, has turned a 17th-century convent refectory into a relaxed temple to Mediterranean fine dining (00 34 971 720 114; conventdelamissio.com; mains from €20).

Good food is also on offer in Deià, Sóller and, more unexpectedly, in the little town of Algaida, 20km east of Palma, where several restaurants have congregated. It's worth the trip to Port d'Alcúdia and worth forking out €70 for the exceptional 11-course tasting menu at the newly Michelin-starred Restaurante Jardín (00 34 971 892 391; restaurantejardin.com; closed Mon and Tues).

The best of the local wine is produced around the town of Binissalem. Santa Maria del Camí is a good Mallorca 2010 red, which can be bought in the UK from M&S; £9.99 a bottle.

Cultural highlights

There are a few remnants of the island's early history, mostly in Palma. The Arab Baths, or Banys Arabs, date back to the 10th century, and are well worth the €2 entrance fee (9am-6pm daily) – not just for a view of the interior of the domed bathhouse itself, but also for the tranquillity afforded by the small garden outside.

The unmissable building though, is Palma's cathedral of La Seu, pictured (00 34 902 022 945; catedraldemallorca.org). Its construction was started in the 13th century and completed only in the 20th century. It bestrides the city and is one of the island's great sights, particularly at night, when it is illuminated. The interior is notable for the slender columns that support one of the biggest Gothic structures in Europe; for a vast stained-glass rose window; and for Antonio Gaudí's wrought-iron canopy symbolising the Crown of Thorns which is suspended above the altar and looks like a giant Christmas decoration. It opens 10am -5.15pm from Monday to Friday (10am-2.15pm on Saturdays), but is closed to all but worshippers on Sunday.

If you missed last year's Joan Miró exhibition at Tate Modern in London, catch up now. The Spanish artist spent the latter part of his life in Mallorca, and the dramatic Miró Foundation clings to a hillside in the suburb of Cala Major, three miles south-west of Palma (00 34 971 701 420; miro.palmademallorca.es). Open 10am to 6pm Tuesday to Saturday; to 3pm on Sundays; €6.

To find out about other highlights beyond the city, such as the Roman amphitheatre in Alcúdia, visit the Mallorcan tourist office in Palma at Plaça de la Reina 2, close to the Seu (open 9am-8pm Monday to Friday, 9am-2pm Saturday, closed Sunday).

Natural charms

Mallorca's great natural treasure is the abundant and varied birdlife. Above the craggy cliffs where the Tramuntana range meets the sea, you stand a chance of seeing an osprey, a black vulture or the equally rare Eleonora's falcon. The walk through the Boquer Valley (start from Port de Pollença) could also reveal Balearic warblers.

Somewhere which features on every ornithologist's list is the marshy expanse of s'Albufera. Its lagoons and reed beds are criss-crossed by dykes and paths, with hides for spotting the waterbirds, including bittern. You need a permit (free) from the reception centre, which is reached from the road between Alcúdia and Can Picafort (9am to 7pm; 00 34 971 89225). Naturetrek (01962 733051; naturetrek .co.uk) has an eight-day birding tour based near Port de Pollença (from £1,295, including accommodation, all meals and flights from London).

Among the Mediterranean trees and heathland shrubs of the Parc Natural de Mondragó (nearest town, Campos) you'll find lizards, toads and hedgehogs as well as a couple of quite untouched beaches.

Mallorca's minor islands have also been protected from development: the Parque Nacional del Archipiélago de Cabrera and the Parc Natural de sa Dragonera can be reached by boat from the coast (Colonia de Sant Jordí and Sant Elm respectively).

Accommodation

Palma's most recently opened boutique hotel is Can Cera at Carrer San Francisco 8 (00 34 971 715 012; cancerahotel.com). It's a 700-year-old building in the heart of the old town with an atmospheric patio and 12 luxurious rooms from €178. (Breakfast is an extra €16 per person.)

Beyond Palma, in the parte forana (hinterland) as it's known locally, Sóller is particularly well off for small hotels. Hotel la Vila, pictured, as central as you can get at Plaza Constitución 14, offers good value doubles with breakfast from €100 (00 34 971 634 641; lavilahotel.com).

Thanks to the large number of foreign-owned properties, there's also a wide selection of apartments, villas and refurbished cottages to rent. Owners Direct has nearly 3,000 holiday homes on its website (ownersdirect.co.uk) at high-season prices which range from a one-bedroom apartment in Palma Nova (£420 per week) to a luxurious house with pool and bar (for 12) near Pollença for £4,000.

For exclusive villas and farmhouses, Mallorca Farmhouses (0845 800 8080; mallorca.co.uk) has a good selection both inland and by the coast. If you can travel before Easter, or between mid-April and the end of May, you could find a big villa with pool for just over £1,000.

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