Once it was all wet T-shirt contests in the Benny Hill pub, but now the punters' favourite island is polishing up its image. Tony Kelly on a Balearic renaissance
MICHAEL DOUGLAS is producing Malmsey sherry on an estate that once belonged to an Austrian archduke. A hotel from a Robert Graves story has reopened after 50 years. And in Magaluf they're offering Tai Chi on the beach. Something strange is happening in Mallorca - that's posh for Majorca. Don't tell everyone, but it's finally safe to visit again.

For years it was like belching or picking your nose - everybody did it (well, 1.5 million of us every year, anyway) but they didn't admit it in polite company. Majorca, with an English "j", was inextricably linked with a certain kind of tourism; charter flights and crowded beaches, sun and sand and drunken sex. Islington Man would rather have voted Tory than take a holiday there. But now, dare I say it, Mallorca - the authentic version with that all-important double "l" - has become trendy.

Take a stroll along Palma's waterfront at midnight and you could be in Barcelona or Biarritz. Teenagers bop to the latest sounds at Pacha's while the yachting set gather in the Club de Mar across the road. The bright young things hang out at the Cappuccino Grand Cafe while next door, in the latest addition to Palma's nightlife scene, an Irish fiddler has Spanish executives reeling at Hogan's pub (specialities are draught Guinness and hot port). Students sit on the street around an old guitar, or head for Made in Brasil for caipirinhas and serious smooching.

Tapas bars are turning out platefuls of pa amb oli (bread smeared with tomato and olive oil), while in Abaco, a restored 17th-century palace, people sip fruit cocktails by candlelight to the sound of classical music and the cooing of caged birds. This is all a far cry from a wet T-shirt contest at the Benny Hill pub. It all began, like so much else, with Richard Branson. When he opened La Residencia hotel in a country finca in 1984, the word was out and Mallorca was moving upmarket. Film stars and royalty began flocking there for retreats and where Branson leads the rest of us soon follow. Now it seems that every large house in Mallorca is being turned into a luxury hotel to cater for the new trend in sun, sea, painting and walking holidays.

Mallorca has seen beyond the limitations of package tourism. Tired of attracting lager louts through its cheap-and-cheerful image, and television crews who flocked to Magaluf to make lazy documentaries about teenagers throwing up on the beach, Mallorca is making strenuous efforts to reform. Ugly high-rise hotels have been blown up and replaced by tree-lined promenades; whole areas of coastline have been saved from development and grants awarded for restoring traditional architecture.

There is a conscious attempt to attract a different kind of tourist, well-off and cultured. Mallorca is being seen as a test-case. In April, Calvia (home of the most notorious resorts) will host an international conference on sustainable tourist development. The island that led the way into mass tourism is now leading the way out.

But still the lager louts come, attracted by pounds 99 deals and pubs with names like Dirty Dick's, with satellite television and a free baseball cap with every two pints of sangria. Swathes of coastline have been turned into mini-Blackpools (or mini-Germanys), where the menus, the newspapers, the voices on the beach all provide a reassuring reminder of home. (Where else can you get both the sun and the Sun each morning?)

Bizarrely, the tourist resorts provide entertainment for the locals. "It's great living here," one Mallorcan told me "we can go out for an English meal, a German meal. whatever we like." He managed to make six pints of Double Diamond and a plate of beans on toast sound like a cultural experience. Tourists have been visiting Mallorca since 1838, when Chopin and his lover George Sand spent the winter in a Carthusian monastery, hoping to restore Chopin's failing health and continue their affair away from the Paris gossip columns. (Chopin survived but the relationship did not, and Sand wrote a spiteful book comparing the islanders with monkeys).

As late as 1911 a friend told the British writer Mary Stuart Bell, author of The Fortunate Isles: "You won't enjoy the Balearic islands. There are no tourists. Not a soul understands a word of English and there's nothing whatever to do. If you take my advice you won't go."

"So we went," she adds, and millions have followed in her wake. The first charter flight landed in 1950; ten years later, Palma airport opened and Mallorca received 400,000 tourists. By 1966 it was a million, by 1978 three million and in 1995 it topped six million for the first time. The new airport terminal, due to open this spring, will be able to handle 27 million passengers a year.

But at what cost? During the Franco era, nobody cared as tourists meant cash, and the quicker they came the better. The simple philosophy, phenomenally successful, was pile `em-high-and-sell-'em-cheap and never mind the impact. When Franco died, democracy returned and with it a measure of autonomy. Since 1983 Palma has been the capital of the Balearic Islands region. Democracy has brought a new regional awareness, a flourishing of the arts and a revival of the Catalan language and also a concern for the environment and culture of this still beautiful Mediterranean island. The new approach to tourism can be directly traced to political change.

Walking around Palma today you get the strong feeling of a new, emerging society, finally confident and at ease with itself. The clearest public symbol of this is the language. Banned under Franco, Catalan is back with a vengeance, as the official language of government and the unofficial language of the streets. "Benvinguts a Mallorca" (welcome to Mallorca) says a large sign at the airport; street names are being replaced one by one and where the authorities are slow to act, students do the job with spray-paint instead. The difference between plaza and placa has become an issue of cultural identity.

But a language is not the only thing that Palma shares with Barcelona. Both have a Rambla, lined with flower stalls; both have a lively cafe society and a thriving modern arts scene. The Arab streets of old Palma are full of hidden workshops and studios, and the main public galleries are found in spectacular settings - the vaults of the city walls, the 15th-century maritime exchange, restored palaces and art nouveau hotels.

The city's modernist masterpiece, the 1902 Gran Hotel, is now an arts centre with a bookshop, a trendy cafe and a collection of gypsy paintings by the Mallorcan artist Anglada-Camarasa. When I was last there in December they also had Rodin's `'The Kiss'' on display.

The artistic hero is Jon Mir, the Catalan painter who moved to Mallorca to exploit the island's natural light. His house and studio near Palma have been turned into a gallery of his work; his murals and sculptures adorn Palma's public spaces, much as Gaud's do in Barcelona. But modern art does not stop with Mir. Traditional crafts such as ceramics and cloth- making are being revived by a new generation of artists.

Towns such as Portol and Santa Maria have become modern-day artists' colonies, attracting local and foreign artists alike. Palma has fringe theatre and a spring opera season; there are classical music festivals around the island in summer, with sunset concerts in sculpture gardens and in the grounds of Palma's castle.

Palma is where I would go for a winter or spring break as it has excellent restaurants, pedestrian shopping streets, a mild climate and a Gothic cathedral whose setting by the sea rivals any in the world. But for a longer trip, and if you don't want to spend all week on the beach, hire a car or bike and explore the rest of the island. The north coast is stunning; pine-covered mountains lean into a turquoise sea, and on a walk in the hills you smell wild rosemary and hear the tinkling of sheep-bells. It is beautiful, but don't believe anyone who tells you it is "the real, undiscovered Mallorca". It isn't. It has certainly been discovered, only by people who prefer sherry to San Miguel.

My favourite part of Mallorca really is almost unknown and I am strongly tempted to keep it to myself. On the central plain, small villages nestle between patchwork fields, neatly divided by dry-stone walls. Windmills rise above the red soil in the one part of the island where agriculture is still as important as tourism. In February the plain is carpeted with a fresh "snowfall", as almond blossom falls to the ground. Everywhere you go there are tiny villages, rarely mentioned in the guidebooks, whose green-shuttered, ochre-coloured houses turn gold in the afternoon sun. The population is old and in decline and the young people have all gone to the coast for work. Fewer than 30,000 people live in an area of 250 square miles. But for me this is where the heart of Mallorca lies, as much as in the beach resorts and the chic bars of Palma. Go and discover it for yourself - you won't have to be ashamed to admit it any more.


Getting there

British Midland (0345 554554) and Iberia (0171-830 0011) have direct flights from Heathrow to Palma. Return flights with Iberia are pounds 124 until 21 March; with British Midland, pounds 154 until 17 February. There are numerous charter flights available from regional airports; high street travel agents have access to flight-only deals. The main source of cheap flights is Thomson (0990 502599).


If money is no object, stay at La Residencia in Deia (00 34 71 639011) or Palacio Ca Sa Galesa, a beautifully restored palace in Palma (00 34 71 715400); expect to pay at least pounds 100 per night. S'Hotel d'es Puig in Deia (00 34 71 639409) is the hotel mentioned by Robert Graves; double rooms, pounds 65. Most hotels in Mallorca are pre- booked by package-holiday operators - try smaller companies such as Alternative Mallorca (0113 278 6862) and Magic of Spain (0181-748 7575), which also has self-catering villas.

Walking holidays

Headwater (01606 48699) has a good eight-day guided walking holiday, staying on the north coast at Port de Soller. Prices from pounds 487 in March including flights and accommodation.

Car hire

The major firms have offices at the airport and cars can be booked in advance. Try Europcar (0345 222525) and Hertz (0345 555888). Local firms offer competitive prices, but beware the small print and make sure the price includes full insurance and VAT. Two good local firms are Serra (00 34 71 269411) and Hasso (00 34 71 261005). Expect to pay about pounds 100 a week out of season for a small car such as an Opel Corsa or Seat Ibiza.

Restaurants in Palma

For tapas, try La Boveda, Carrer Boteria 3 (714863); for seafood, Caballito de Mar, Passeig Sagrera 5 (721074); for vegetarian food, Bon Lloc, Carrer Sant Feliu 7 (718617), which has a four-course set lunch for under pounds 6; for paella, S'Arrosseria, Passeig Maritim 13 (737447), with large portions of rice dishes in a dozen different styles.

Bars and clubs in Palma

Abaco, Carrer Sant Joan 1 (715911) from 9pm daily; Cappuccino Grand Cafe, Passeig Maritim 1 (282162), lunch to late; Club de Mar, Moll Pelaires (403611), lunch to late; Hogans, Carrer Monsenyor Palmer 2 (289664), 12noon- 3am; Made in Brasil, Passeig Maritim (454569), late; Pacha's, Passeig Maritim 42 (737788), 10pm-5am.


Mallorca and Menorca: The Rough Guide (Penguin,pounds 8.99) is comprehensive and up-to-date; Mallorca and lbiza (Insight Guides, pounds 12.99) is good for photographs and cultural background; Landscapes of Mallorca by Valerie Crespi-Green (Sunflower Books, pounds 8.99) is a useful walking guide.