Travel: The best resorts in ...The Balearic Islands

For many, the thought of Majorca, Menorca or Ibiza conjures up images of heaving beaches and high-rise hotels. But Jill Crawshaw knows the parts that most tourists don't reach

WHO WOULD want to go to the Balearic Islands - the location of the most over-crowded tourist resorts in the Mediterranean for the past 20 years? The answer is, those who really know the islands.

The Balearics certainly have their share of raucous resorts, but also offer some of the best value-for-money hideaways, family hotels, shopping and eating anywhere. They harbour fascinating towns such as Ibiza Town, Cuidadela in Menorca and the much underrated Palma, plus a rich cultural tradition for those prepared to look beyond the mass packages.

Starting with the largest, the 62 by 47-mile Majorca - where six out of 10 visitors are squeezed into just a 10th of the island - we look at a variety of resorts to suit the mood of just about every holidaymaker.

Puerto de Pollensa, Majorca

Flying boats used to land in this bay, one of the most beautiful on the island, with the rugged purple peaks of Cap Formentor providing a spectacular backdrop. British civil servants and their families were deposited here for acclimatisation before heading east to India.

Spanish families, too, have been holidaying here for years, staying in shady villas which line the splendid pine-fringed walkway at the smarter northern end of the resort, where much of the promenade is traffic-free. And what nature did not provide, man has added: gently shelving golden sands suitable for the youngest children, while older siblings will find enough shops, cafes and discos in the dusty backstreets to prevent even teenage languor.

Three miles away, the old Roman town of Pollensa, with its hilltop chapel, markets and summer festivals, is a bonus, while neighbouring Formentera is a (distinctly pricey) class act, and there are superb spring walks in the Boquer Valley for flora and fauna addicts.

The simple Hotel Miramar, on the waterfront, which once housed the migrating British families has itself been in the same local family for more than 80 years. The Travel Club of Upminster (tel: 01708 225000) offers a week half-board for pounds 374 to pounds 514, and two weeks from pounds 532 to pounds 732. A self-catering studio at the luxurious Club Illa d'Or costs from pounds 348 to pounds 468 per week, or pounds 460 to pounds 642 for two weeks.

Banyalbufar, Majorca

Refugees from the bucket-and-spade brigade would do well to head for dramatically situated Banyalbufar on the mountainous north coast, where there is no sand at all. You can bathe from rocks, but it is a fair haul up and down through terraced fields and orchards. The mountain eyrie is less self-conscious or tarted up than neighbouring Deya, where the poet Robert Graves arrived in the 1930s to live the simple life - wealthy pilgrims now stay in one of a trio of luxury hotels: Richard Branson's La Residencia, the Es Moli or the Vistamar.

You can stay more modestly at the pretty but low-key Mar i Vent run by the Vives family for three generations. The hotel specialises in local Mallorquine cuisine, and has a pool and tennis court. With Castaways (tel: 01737 812255) you will pay pounds 468 to pounds 572 for a week's b&b, pounds 645 to pounds 762 for a fortnight.

Cala d'Or, Majorca

Large package-tour firms have moved in on this chic modern resort in a big way, and its eight small sandy beaches deep in a series of rocky inlets are crowded in high season - though with families rather than lager louts.

Countless neat complexes of trim white villas and apartments do give the resort an air of Hampstead Garden Suburb-sur-Mer, but the art and craft galleries and boutiques, marina, pedestrian-friendly streets and somewhat expensive restaurants are popular with a clientele that frequently goes back for more. If you want a bit of p & q, head for the nearby uncluttered south-east corner, and if the coves at Cala Mondrago and Santanyi are full up, try the three-mile powdery Playa d'Es Trenc.

Thomson Holidays (tel: 0990 502555) offers a week at Cala d'Or villas from pounds 235 to pounds 410, two weeks from pounds 265 to pounds 515, with good child reductions.

Puerto Andraitx, Majorca

With its pocket-sized beach, Puerto Andraitx can scarcely be classified as a resort; it is more of a sophisticated fishing village cum yacht harbour cum long fish-lunch stop. Deep in a mountain-ringed bay, it also has stunning views, bags of character and is an ideal base for touring the west coast. Four miles inland, Andraitx is one of the oldest island settlements.

Even if you don't stay there, Puerto Andraitx is worth the trip; the Miramar restaurant on the waterfront serves excellent zarzuelas (fish stew) and paellas, and is packed with locals for Sunday lunch (which they eat at around 3pm). If you can't afford the prices, settle for gambas or calamares a la plancha along the quayside.

If you want to stay, you should find a room in one of the somewhat basic hotels on the waterfront or in the narrow streets of the old town behind. Best nearby beach is three miles away at Camp de Mar.

Both scheduled and charter flights fly to Mallorca, from pounds 165 from Gatwick, pounds 175 from Manchester, through Thomas Cook Direct (tel: 0870 566 6222). Car hire costs about pounds 70 for three days, pounds 120 a week.

Cala San Vicente, Majorca

Both older couples and families with young children are attracted by this tiny resort tucked away in the craggy north-west corner of the island. No doubt they feel protected from the hordes by the spectacular cliffs that surround the small sandy coves, though two block-like hotels haven't improved the resort's looks. The beach gets crowded in peak season, though things are soporific most evenings, which is exactly how its regulars like it. (For excellent sightseeing and walking, see Puerto Pollensa.)

If you are looking for something different, try the Hotel La Moraleya, though with its own art collection and classic cars it doesn't come cheap. A week's b&b (with private transfer) costs from pounds 818, a fortnight from pounds 1,319, from Castaways (tel: 01737 812255).

Menorca

With its 100 beaches and breezy climate, sedate atmosphere, cosy patchwork of stone walls and cornfields, and sugar-cube villas with Moorish arches, tiled patios, barbecues and mod cons, Menorca is the family-holiday island par excellence - at least until the children reach 15.

After several visits with children from three months upwards, I would give most of the resorts a miss; the beautiful beach and surroundings at Cala Galdana are blighted by monstrous hotel developments; there's too much "urbanisacion" around the coast near Ciudadela, and too much togetherness at the charming but cramped mock fishing village of Binibeca Vell, while sophisticated Fornells would attract me (as it does Spain's King Juan Carlos and other yachties) to its restaurants and harbour, but it has no beach. Tiny Alcaufar has a lovely sandy beach; large S'Algar has only rocks.

But you don't need to stay in a resort - there are individual villas and complexes dotted all over the island, and you're never far from the sea. Choose a holiday with a hire car included, and go off and find your own - such as Macarella, Macarellata and Mitjana in the south, and Binimbella and Pregunda in the windier north. Explore some of the 1,000 or so prehistoric monuments that make the whole of Menorca an open-air museum, and make sure that you leave enough time to visit the contrasting old and new capitals, Ciudadela and Mahon.

Meon Villas (tel: 01730 230370) offers a wide choice of private villas with pools. A villa sleeping four, two miles from the seaside village of Es Grau, and near the bird sanctuary of Albufera, costs from pounds 328 to pounds 471 a week, pounds 438 to pounds 691 for two weeks, including return flights and car hire.

Cala Vadella, Ibiza

Burdened by frequent negative publicity focusing on that Club 18-30 mecca, San Antonio, Ibiza is all too often written off as a garish wasteland of booze and sex. It isn't.

Ibiza has a magical capital, a kind of medieval Disneyland of castle and cathedral, cobbled streets, boutiques and street markets, fussy ferries and sleek yachts. And inland, within 30 minutes of your resort, you'll come across villages such as San Rafael or San Jose, Santa Gertrudis and San Miguel.

If you want to get as far as possible from the frenzy of San Antonio, first find Cala Vadella on your map - locate it by finding the highest peak on the island, Atalaya at 1,550 feet, and reach it either by boat or by the most scenic and wildest drive on the island, amid glorious cliffs and mountains. Completely bypassed by most tour operators, Cala Vadella is an exceptionally attractive peaceful cove with boathouses opening directly on to dazzling white sand lapped by crystal clear water. All accommodation is self-catering with apartments in the village and villas with superb views down to the hillside behind.

Since the village is impossible to find in brochures, go independently or choose a villa nearby. Meon Villas (tel: 01730 230370) has a range around San Jose, the main town in the area. A villa with a pool sleeping four costs from pounds 336 to pounds 523 per person per week, and from pounds 435 to pounds 776 a fortnight, including car hire.

Formentera, Ibiza

An hour's bouncy ferry or shorter hydrofoil crossing from Ibiza Town, most visitors allow only a day trip for the Balearic's least known and most laid-back island. Lack of water and an airport have prevented a takeover by the package-holiday industry, yet with Playa de Mitjorn, the Trocadero Peninsula and Cala Saona, it probably has the finest beaches in the Med.

About a fifth of the size of Ibiza, you can drive the length of it in 30 minutes. Not that there are many premier league attractions - the dusty capital, San Francisco, which straggles around a fortified eighth- century church, can boast a few restaurants, tapas bars and stalls, many run by remnants of the Sixties hippies who came here because they couldn't afford its US namesake. Outside the capital, there are some good fish restaurants at El Calo, a memorial to Jules Verne on the lighthouse above the splendid cliffs at Mole, plus lots of salt pans, huge cacti ... and that's it.

Es Pujols is the only lively resort, while Cala Saona dozes in a perfect horseshoe bay.

For the first time, Panorama Holidays (tel: 01273 427777) is offering the Hotel Cala Saona right on the beach in the bay of the same name - ideal for a family looking for a peaceful break. One week's half-board costs from pounds 299 to pounds 489, two weeks from pounds 399 to pounds 699.

Within cycling distance of the amazing dunes and sandy Trocadero spit, a self-catering apartment in La Sabina, the harbour, costs from pounds 239 to pounds 389 a week, and pounds 269 to pounds 449 a fortnight per person, based on four people sharing.

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