The Traveller's Guide To: The Balearics

These sun-blessed isles have history and culture aplenty, says Frank Partridge


Why do Majorca and its neighbours consistently top the tourist charts?

"Sun, sea, mountains, spring water, shady trees, no politics". So said the British poet and author Robert Graves, who lived on Majorca for the last 40 years of his life, when asked why he confined himself to the then-obscure village of Deià on the north coast.

These attributes (with the possible exception of "no politics" – they belong to Spain, after all) can be applied to the group of four main Balearic Islands: Majorca, Menorca, Ibiza and Formentera. Relative to their size, these isles are among the most popular tourist destinations in the world.

Had Graves lived for a few more years, he might have enlarged his list to include ease of access from northern Europe; superb beaches (not all of them swamped with sun-loungers); a culturally and artistically rich capital city; and large swathes of rolling, agricultural interior that remain surprisingly undisturbed, even during the tourist frenzy between April and October. The air traffic controllers at Palma are the most hard-pressed in the Mediterranean, but the vast majority of visitors rush straight for the beach resorts, thus neglecting some of the island's gems in the stampede.

Give me a quick tour of the main island

Because most of Majorca's 10 million annual visitors do not come primarily for its art, culture and heritage, the island is often unfairly maligned as a haven of hedonism and temple of tat. In fact, the spread of high-rise beach developments is limited largely to a 30km crescent flanking both sides of the capital, Palma, and some mega-resorts on the east coast. The north, west, south and centre of the island are both beautiful and benign.

Palma itself is an energetic and cosmopolitan city, mildly scarred by its suburban sprawl, but boasting an intriguing, mazy medieval quarter and a truly superlative cathedral that ranks with anything on the Spanish mainland.

Between Palma and the north coast lies a gnarled range of mountains, the Serra de Tramuntana, which drop suddenly to the sea and protect a string of coves and hidden beaches. One of the best, the Cala de Deià, lies below the village so beloved of Robert Graves and the numerous writers and artists who followed him there. The island comes to a triumphant end at its northern tip, the Cap de Formentor, at the end of a spectacular hairpin road from the graceful resort of Pollenca. But almost everywhere you go on the island, there is something memorable to see.

Is Menorca a smaller version of the same thing?

In many ways it is, although Menorca is more rolling and less mountainous than its sister island, and away from the concrete developments along the south-east and west coasts, its tourist presence is less overpowering. What the two islands have in common is an array of superlative beaches, interspersed with rocky coves and headlands, and green, sparsely populated central belts that are almost totally unaffected by the perennial invasion force.

The island's history is a tale of two capitals. One of the first things the British did after securing Menorca at the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 was move the capital 45km from one side of the boomerang-shaped island to the other. They preferred the strategic advantages of Mahon's magnificent natural harbour to the cluttered, labyrinthine old town of Ciutadella, which the Moors had built as their capital more than 800 years previously. In due course, Mahon would acquire some fine Georgian architecture, and its old quarter tumbles attractively down to the harbour, but Ciutadella is unquestionably the most beautiful settlement in the Balearics.

At a remove from the full glare of tourism, the town has been left to develop at its own pace. Yes, there are bustling cafés, souvenir and clothes shops competing for your euros, but a short stroll will lead you into mysterious, arched alleyways flanked by whitewashed houses that have stood there for centuries. Culturally, too, there's much of interest, including the sumptuous Salord Palace opposite the town hall on Placa des Born. It's open in summer every day except Sunday between 10am-2pm.

Is Ibiza just a party island?

No. Since most of Ibiza's club activity takes place at night, the days can be surprisingly peaceful, with plenty of room to move around and explore. The main town – officially Ciutat d'Eivissa, but universally known as Ibiza Town – has the trappings of excess. Yet its essential, medieval integrity remains intact. The walled old town dominates everything: a Unesco World Heritage site entered through a drawbridge that leads to a cobbled courtyard and the main square. From there, work your way to the top of the cliff, passing 16th century nobles' houses, more modest dwellings with a strongly Catalan feel, pausing for breath at the wide terraces built at different levels providing superb views of Ibiza and its smaller neighbour, Formentera. There's a cathedral, castle and bishop's palace, as well as an archaeological museum (open Tue-Sat 10am-2pm, 6-8pm; Sunday 10am-2pm), with finds from prehistoric to Roman times.

Elsewhere on Ibiza there are nearly 60 beaches, of which only a handful are busy; many of the prettiest bays and coves are little-used, and can be reached with a car and a little initiative. A trip through the interior can be rewarding too: a patchwork of pine trees, low hills, olive groves and white flat-roofed houses where the occupants possibly wonder why they scarcely see a tourist from one day to the next.

If you do want to party, at least two of the music-orientated venues are worth visiting for their "wow" factor. Privilege Ibiza, off the main road near San Rafael, has entered the record books as the world's biggest nightclub, capable of housing 10,000 party animals at a time. Its exotic interior features a swimming pool, over which the DJ is suspended. In San Antonio, Café del Mar has given its name to a style of chill-out music that has become Ibiza's defining soundtrack, and although the establishment itself is no thing of beauty, it's perfectly positioned for a ringside view of Ibiza's legendary sunsets.

What does a side trip to Formentera have to offer?

After the clamour of Ibiza, the tranquility of Formentera could be just the tonic – and little effort is required to get there. The fastest ferry is run by Balearia (0870 222 3312; www.balearia.ferries.org), with a round-trip fare of €29.80 (£23). Within half an hour you step ashore at Sa Savina – and enter a different world, where most of the night-time action takes place far above your head: Jules Verne's Hector Servadac: Travels and Adventures Through the Solar System was inspired, it is said, after an evening's star-gazing on Formentera.

The island's sleepy "capital", Sant Francesc, lies a short distance inland, and is consequently unaffected by tourism. There's nature in abundance (including a fair number of naturist beaches), and the quiet roads and green lanes crossing the generally flat, fertile landscape are best explored by bike or moped. There are dramatic cliffs at the eastern end, and one of the Balearics' finest beaches, Platja de Migjorn, where the white sand extends for 5km (3 miles), and there are never enough visitors to fill it.

Glass, leather and pearls

Menorca is littered with archaeological remains that continue to baffle scholars. They come in two forms: cone-shaped mounds of rock known as tayalots, and T-shaped taulas: megaliths about 4m high, often found nearby. The latter are unique to the island. They date back to the second millennium BC, but their purpose is unknown. They are not burial sites, and the theory that they might have been watch-towers holds little water, because few of them are situated on the coast. Other finds from this obscure period of pre-history, along with some fine Roman mosaics, are displayed at the Museu de Menorca, housed in the cloisters of a former monastery in the old quarter of Mahon. It opens 10am-2pm and 5-8pm daily except Mondays and Sunday afternoon.

A speciality of the largest island is hand-blown glass, and one family – the Gordiolas – have been turning out exquisitely crafted lamps, vases and bowls for nearly 300 years. Their factory (00 34 971 66 50 46; www.gordiola.com) is near the town of Algaida, 19km east of Palma, where you can visit the workshop and see the distinctive ornaments taking shape before buying them in the adjoining shops. In summer, the glassworks are open daily between 9am-8pm, and there's a museum of glassware upstairs. Other quality Majorcan products include leatherware and organic pearls and decorative dishes carved from the richly textured wood of the native olive tree.

What's new in the Balearics?

In February, easyJet began flying three times a week from East Midlands to Palma; from 30 March, these will operate daily. And Majorca's main town has plenty to offer visitors. Among the latest attractions in the Majorcan capital is the Palma Aquarium at Calle Manuela de los Herreros i Sorà 21 (00 34 971 26 4275; www.palmaaquarium.com). Set a couple of blocks back from the coast, this is a fascinating marine park in which different ecosystems and habitats from all over the world are recreated. More than 700 marine species are found in the various tanks, which include the Big Blue, the deepest aquarium in Europe. Palma Aquarium opens 10am-6pm daily, and admission is €18.50 (£14.20).

In complete contrast to the marine life of the aquarium is the newly expanded Diocesan Museum in the Palacio Episcopal at Calle Calders 2 (00 34 971 73 0657). After six years of renovation work it is finally reopening, and its exhibits will trace the history of ecclesiastical art on the island from the 15th century. The museum opens 10am-2pm daily, and admission is €3 (£2.30).

Anyone who thought there were more than enough hotels in Mallorca is mistaken: four new ones will be opening in early spring, and in June, a new five-star Hilton (pictured left), the Sa Torre (00 34 871 96 37 00; www.hilton.co.uk/mallorca) will open at Cami de Sa Torre 8, 7 in Llucmayor, a very convenient spot overlooking the coast to the east of Palma, only 15 minutes' drive from the airport. The facilities will be luxurious: the spa facilities include a Turkish bath and an ice bath, and there are two swimming pools, with a separate pool area for children. Rooms are available from €481.50 (£370), excluding breakfast.

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