Tourists relax on the beach at Cala Esmeralda / Rex
Forget the mega-din of Magaluf – this is the jewel in the Balearic crown, with a charming coastline, mighty mountains and Palma, Spain's loveliest provincial city. By Frank Partridge

Island of dreams?

Yes, for upwards of eight million tourists this summer. Mallorca's brilliant white-sand beaches and warm, fresh climate provide the island's main attraction – but it is also blessed with spectacular scenery, a formidable mountain range, and an appealing capital city, Palma, which bubbles with atmosphere and culture.

Some say Mallorca has been too popular for its own good, at least along small pockets of the coast, which have been disfigured by a handful of mega-resorts that specialise in cheap package tourism. In July and August there will be a terrific buzz but limited elbow room along the Bay of Palma, especially in Magaluf and Palma Nova (both mainly British) and Arenal (German and Scandinavian). As long as a fair proportion of holidaymakers want a round-the-clock soundtrack of thumping music, full English breakfasts to cure their hangovers, virtually guaranteed sunshine, banana boat rides and waterslides, market forces will prevail. But the largest of the Balearic Islands has much more to offer than sex, sun and sangria.

Mallorca is a big island – about the size of Hampshire. The mountainous north coast, its flat, central plain and the windswept and rocky south coast have escaped the madness of Magaluf, and an improving road system has brought all points within easy reach of Palma. The Costas of mainland Spain simply cannot match the island's variety of landscapes or its scenic beauty.

Even in busy resort areas such as the Bay of Alcudia on the north coast, it is still possible to find small, quiet beaches and coves. This part of the island also contains a remarkable expanse of unspoilt wetland that is home to egrets, sandpipers and warblers. Admission is free to S'Albufera Nature Reserve (00 34 971 892 250), which opens between 9am-6pm from April to September, closing an hour earlier in winter.

When did tourists start migrating south?

As a tourist haunt, Mallorca predates the Spanish coast by many decades; artists and writers began frequenting the island in the 19th century.

The French writer George Sand sailed into the Bay of Palma with Frédéric Chopin to spend the winter of 1838-9 on the island. She wrote: "The day will come no doubt when those seeking rest, and even beautiful women, will be able to go to Palma with no greater fatigue and trouble than that with which they now go to Geneva." She was right: 170 years later, Palma airport is among the busiest in the Mediterranean.

By 1905, Mallorca had its own tourist office. In 1929 it became a byword for elite tourism when the strikingly modernist Hotel Formentor was opened on the north coast by an Argentine art-lover. And when General Franco encouraged the development of mass tourism to try to boost Spain's economy in the Sixties, it was inevitable that Mallorca would become one of the hotspots. Since then, it has become part of the richest region in Spain – allowing the authorities to invest in cultural and rural developments to counteract the negative impact of some of the coastal developments

Some city life?

Palma is one of Spain's loveliest provincial cities – not that the majority of visitors notice, as they hurtle past on their way from the airport to the big resorts. Most of Palma's key sights lie within an easily navigable area that extends from the seafront to the series of wide, interconnecting shopping boulevards north of the old town. In between is a medina-like jumble of shady streets, alleys, patios and small squares, where getting lost is as easy as finding your way again: all you have to do to get your bearings is to scan the skyline for a glimpse of La Seu (00 34 902 022 945; www.catedraldemallorca.org), the towering place of worship that looms over everything. Even the non-religious cannot fail to be impressed by this Gothic giant with its distinctive pinnacled buttresses, especially if they approach from the sea or view it under floodlight.

The largest of its soaring stained-glass windows extends almost beyond the reach of the naked eye, and the sense of wonder is completed by Gaudi's many eye-catching embellishments of the 20th century, including a wrought-iron canopy suspended above the altar. La Seu opens for visitors (admission €4/£3.30) between 10am-6.15pm Monday-Friday; 10am-2.15pm on Saturday; mass is held between 9-10.30am on Sunday.

A short distance west of the cathedral, set into the city's medieval defensive wall, is the Es Baluard Contemporary Art Museum (00 34 971 908 200; www.esbaluard.org), an angular, modernist building which reflects Palma's importance as a centre of both art and architecture. There are rooms devoted to Picasso and Miro: the latter spent his later years on the island. Es Baluard opens 10am-8pm every day except Monday; admission €6 (£5).

The old town's most atmospheric hotel is Palacio ca sa Galesa (Carrer de Miramar 8 (00 34 971 715 400; www.palaciocasagalesa.com), built around a 16th-century courtyard in the shadow of the cathedral. From the sun terrace on the roof to the Romanesque pool in the basement, this former palace oozes elegance, its public rooms crammed with valuable paintings, clocks and furniture in the public rooms. But it comes at a price: double rooms start at €301 (£251) per night.

After Palma's cathedral, the most imposing landmark is the circular, 14th-century Bellver castle, on top of a wooded hill north-west of the city, from where you can appreciate the full, 30km sweep of the bay. Inside the fortifications is an impressive, galleried courtyard and the city's History Museum, which opens between 8am-8pm daily (10am-7pm on Sundays), admission €2.10 (£1.75).

One of the city's unexpected delights is its sandy seafront east of the old town, with five small beaches bordered by a cycle track stretching towards the gentrified fishing villages of Portixol and Molinar, where the seafood is reputed to be the best on the island.

The great outdoors?

Mallorca's dominant geographic feature is the towering Serra de Tramuntana mountain range, high enough for snow to fall in winter. The crags fulfil the twin role of laying on some memorable scenery criss-crossed by superb walking trails, while preventing any serious tourist development along the coast because of the steepness of the fall from the peaks to the sea. A handful of small resorts have gained footholds where the mountains level off – among them Port de Pollença and Port de Sóller, both of which have pretty sister towns (without the 'Port de' prefix) a short distance inland. The latter has a handsome main square, some interesting shops, and is also the terminus of the island's dinky narrow-gauge railway line, the Ferrocarril de Sóller (00 34 902 364 711; www.sollernet.com), which burrows noisily through 13 mountain tunnels on a rollicking 27km run from Palma. The wooden carriages with their brass fittings are as delightful as the ornate stations at either end of the line: Sóller station even boasts its own art gallery. There are seven services in each direction every day; the fare is a snip at €14 (£11.50) return.

Deep in the mountains between Sóller and Polença, the monastery of Lluc has been a sacred site since prehistoric times and is now the island's main religious shrine, housing a small, dark wooden statue of the Virgin, to which devout Mallorcans pay homage. Admission is free to the main basilica, where you can see the statue at close quarters, but you have to part with some money if you want to stay in one of the 129 former monk's cells which have been converted into bedrooms and small dormitories.

The rooms are simplicity itself, but the spartan ethic only goes so far: all have ensuite bathrooms, a facility that was surely denied the monks who once occupied them. A double cell costs €35 (£29) per night, and can be reserved by phone (00 34 971 871 525) or online ( www.lluc.net). Breakfast is not included, but if the prospect of monastic fasting doesn't appeal, the complex has several restaurants, bars and cafés.

At the western end of the mountain range, Port u o d'Andratx is a pleasing mixture of the old and new, with a sizeable fishing fleet sharing the water with yachts and powerboats. Andratx has a cluster of chic boutiques, and numerous restaurants specialising in fresh shellfish.

Is the middle of the island worth seeing?

Yes and no. Much of the agricultural plain that makes up Mallorca's midriff is as flat and featureless as Norfolk. The island's bread-basket has few sizeable settlements or unmissable sights, but the overpowering sleepiness of the central belt makes a refreshing change from the bustle of the coast.

Towns and villages seem impervious to the racket going on around them. Sineu, 30km from Palma, stands out from the rest. It has cobbled streets, well-restored townhouses, and a lively open-air market every Wednesday where stall-holders shift small mountains of fruit, vegetables and all kinds of everything, much as their ancestors have been doing since the 13th century.

The central plain's most obvious concession to tourism is the growing number of farms and manor houses that have been converted, with government assistance, into small, characterful hotels or villas, in a laudable effort to tempt visitors away from the coast. More than 100 of these can be booked through the Agrotourism Association (00 34 971 721 508; www.topfincas.com). Sineu's member is the 300-year-old Hotel Léon, where a double room with breakfast costs €120 (£100) per night.

A beach less travelled?

The south-eastern flank of Mallorca has a staccato string of less-busy beaches. The resorts are modest, and the wide-open spaces in between have a desolate, wind-blown feel: some of the dusty one-horse villages could almost belong to the Wild West, but the lack of large-scale development has left this part of the island very much as nature intended. In fact, it does have one glorious, sweeping beach – Plat'ja d'es Trenc, near the fishing port of Colonia de Sant Jordi – a 3km-stretch of unblemished sand that ranks among Mallorca's finest. Cala Santanyi, Cala d'Or and Cala Pi are among a handful of pleasant family resorts – the last of these dramatically enclosed by limestone cliffs. Several tour operators have south-coast packages, including Thomas Cook (0870 111 1111; www.thomascook.com), which offers seven nights in a family hotel at Cala Pi in mid-July from £364 per person, including flights (from Gatwick) and transfers.

A more mysterious attraction, near Cala Pi, is Mallorca's main prehistoric site of Capocorb Vell, where the remains of five prehistoric talayots – stone constructions probably designed as watchtowers about 3,000 years ago – are spread across a complex containing about 30 dwellings of similar vintage. The settlement was inhabited for a millennium or more, but we know next to nothing about the people who lived there, and you need a fertile imagination to picture the lives they might have led. The site opens 10am-5pm daily (Thursday to 2pm), admission €2 (£1.65).

Another good reason to visit Colonia de Sant Jordi is to take a boat-trip to the archipelago that forms the Cabrera National Park.

The best address in Mallorca?

Years ago I met a Concorde pilot whose seniority at BA earned him the privilege of being able to travel inexpensively to almost every corner of the world during his time off.

"Of all the places you've visited, which is your favourite?" I asked him. "Cap de Formentor," he replied, without a moment's hesitation. He was referring to the wild, pine-clad peninsula on Mallorca's north-east tip, accessible along an excitingly circuitous road from Pollença, which offers giddying panoramas at every hairpin bend before tunnelling through a mountain to emerge near the lighthouse that signals journey's end. As well as bird's-eye views of craggy inlets and tantalisingly inaccessible beaches, this is a place for sunset-watching. When I was there last autumn, several dozen travellers turned up for an evening light-show that brought whoops of wonder as it went through its different phases, and a generous round of applause when the sun slipped below the sea.

Halfway along the road, the Hotel Formentor (00 34 971 899 101; www.hotelformentor.net) is still there, one year shy of its 80th birthday, set in luxuriant gardens and overlooking an excellent beach that is open to everyone, whether or not they can afford to stay in the hotel: double rooms in high season start at €215 (£179) per night.

How do I get to Mallorca?

The majority of visitors fly into Palma airport, which has flights from airports across the UK. Most tourists are on package holidays, with Thomson/First Choice and Thomas Cook being the market leaders – though plenty of other companies, from Cosmos to the Travel Club of Upminster offer good deals.

For independent travellers, Thomsonfly, Thomas Cook Airlines and easyJet offer the most flights, but it is well worth comparing fares on carriers such as BMI and its subsidiary, Bmibaby, and Spanair. For more information, contact the Spanish Tourist Office in London (020-7486 8077; www.spain.info).

Poet's paradise

Gertrude Stein, a friend of the poet and novelist Robert Graves, described Mallorca to him as "Paradise – if you can stand it".

Following this recommendation, Graves came with his mistress for some years in the 1930s. He returned after the war with his second wife to spend the last 40 years of his life in the pretty north coast enclave of Deià. This village became an artists' colony as admirers beat a path to Graves' door, but took half-a-day's travel from Palma until the coast road (C710) was upgraded.

Vitalised by the sunshine and breeze, Graves wrote prodigiously, entertained bibulously and swam naked off the small shingle beach at the foot of the mountain to which the village clings.

Latter-day admirers visit the writer's headstone in the churchyard of the parish church near the top of the hill, calling in at the small museum next door, which opens in summer only between 10am-1pm and 5-8pm.

Hotel rooms tend to be pricey in and around the village, but an affordable option close to the church is the nicely refurbished S'Hotel d'es Puig (00 34 971 639 409; www.hoteldespuig.com), where a double room costs €140 (£117) for bed and breakfast.

Island of ghosts – and goats

Cabrera is the largest of an archipelago of 17 islands lying about 20km south-west of Mallorca.

Named after the goats which flourish on its scrubby terrain, it's better known for its unusual lizards and crustaceans. Shearwaters, peregrine falcons and ospreys are among the many birds that colonise the cliffs.

The island has had an eventful past. During the Napoleonic Wars, the Spanish shipped 9,000 French prisoners of war there. To preserve the delicate eco-system, visitors are restricted to two paths and a stay of about four hours at a time. Between March and October there are daily round-trips from Colònia de Sant Jordi, costing €30 (£25) per head, with lunch extra. Seats must be pre-booked, through Excursions a Cabrera (00 34 971 649 034).

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